The sparkling stories of Amelia Bingham were first published in Artemis Magazine in the 1980s. The adventures of Amelia Bingham and the Hon. Hypatia (“Pash”) Chevender throw light on the social side of the life of a certain very influential all-girl group at Oxford in the 1970s and early ’80s. An amusing side-note is that Miss Falconer’s collaborator was known only as “the Silver Vixen” and that name was consciously picked up decades later by Annalinde Matichei for the The Flight of the Silver Vixen. We reproduce from the book Miss Marianne Martindale’s introduction as well as the following sonnet.
Sonnet to Amelia Bingham
Is’t possible to love a girl of paper
Invented by another girl for fun ?
Adore her for her latest artful caper,
And yet to know that it was never done ?
Is’t possible my heart should be o’ertaken
By one who never wore a coat of flesh ?
Why, yes ! Why should my faith in you be shaken
If you were never caught in matter’s mesh ?
For are you not old Uncle Remus’ rabbit,
Or Hermes, Loki, Reynard, what you will ?
You never wore a more delightful habit,
Yet under it, that ancient heart beats still.
Thy praises, now and ever will I sing ’em,
Thou great Platonic Form, Amelia Bingham.
By Miss Jane Anstruther
(Winner of Artemis Magazine’s 1985 Amelia Bingham Sonnet Competition)
News Travels Fast in the Jungle
(Introduction to Enter Amelia Bingham, by Miss Marianne Martindale)
If it were possible for a girl to be a father, I should like to claim the fatherhood of Amelia Bingham. I did not give birth to Amelia. I am not constitutionally capable of giving birth to Amelia. But I brought about the conditions under which Miss Falconer gave birth to Amelia. I realise that this is a monstrously egotistical way to begin an introduction, and not at all how the game is supposed to be played, but there you are. You are perfectly at liberty to skip it. Everyone else has.
It happened one halcyon Hilary Term at Lady Margaret Hall. Well, it wasn’t exactly at L.M.H., because the young ladies of that institution are not so much given to theft as at certain others one might mention. But, as you may or may not know, when one is in residence at one Oxford college, one has occasion, in the course of both one’s studies and one’s social life, to visit many other such colleges great and not so great.
At one of these places, which I shall decline to name, there was a notice-board. Not unusual in itself, of course, but on this particular notice-board there regularly appeared a particular kind of note. The exact wording varied, but it was always along the following lines :
“Will the person who stole my wallet on the fourth of April kindly return it. The money you may gladly keep, but the wallet itself, while of little value to you, was given to me by my great Aunt Jemima on her death-bed and is of great sentimental importance.”
It would surprise you to learn how many variants on this theme were to be found on this particular notice-board. The sentimental attachment of the men of this college to their wallets was phenomenal. Or perhaps they kept their blue-chip bonds sewn into the lining.
It is not my way, nor is it Miss Falconer’s way, to laugh at the misfortunes of others ; but studying this notice-board week after week, and watching the appearance of each new arrival, we found that there are limits to human endurance.
One day a fancy took me, and I got out pen and paper, which had been gathering dust since my last essay, and wrote the following note. Little did I guess (as they say) the momentous consequences which it was to have :
“Will the rotter who stole my wallet on the fifteenth of April please contact me. The pictures of my late Aunt Felicity you may gladly keep. The money I am sure I cannot persuade you to part with. The Morocco wallet itself, which is a treasured gift from an old and dear friend of the family, is yours. But the I.O.U.s, which constitute my only proof of substantial gambling debts owed to me by my trusted friends, are of no value to you and of great sentimental importance to myself, and I should be more than grateful for their return. P.D.Q.”
This note I duly pinned to the notice-board. It attracted considerable attention, not least from Geneviève. The next day, when passing the notice-board, I saw that another note had appeared below mine. It read as follows :
“Dear P.D.Q., You naïvely suggest that the I.O.U.s which I found in your wallet were of no value to me. Well, news travels fast in the jungle, and by now you will doubtless have heard that I have sold the I.O.U. s to your debtors for a substantial sum amounting to half their face value.
“However, unless news travels a great deal faster than I anticipate, you will not yet be aware that the papers which I sold to your debtors were in fact careful copies. The original I.O.U.s I have still in my possession and will be more than willing to return them to you, as you ask, in consideration of a small reward.
“Might I suggest half their face value ?
“Looking forward to your reply, I remain,
And this was the first Amelia Bingham story. It was Geneviève’s work, of course, although she did not admit it until some time later. Not only did it directly give rise to the other stories, as you shall hear, but it contained in itself all the hallmarks of the later stories : the brevity and economy, the wicked charm, the cool irony, the humour and the neat double-twist. A.B., by the way, is said to have stood on that occasion for “A Bounder ”.
This little “ correspondence ” attained a small notoriety. A few people even believed it was genuine, and among our circle, “ news travels fast in the jungle ” became a catch-phrase applied to any particularly wicked or ingenious piece of skulduggery.
It was a few years later—as it tends to be—when the baby came of age. Unlike most of the stories you read these days, most of the Amelia Bingham stories were written with no intention of ever being published. It came about in this way :
Geneviève and I were both members of a small ladies ’ club. It was not an elaborate affair such as the Guides. We arranged informal meetings and generally opened the proceedings with some form of entertainment. Sooner or later everyone with a reasonably outgoing temperament was asked if she might entertain the company at the next evening. When Geneviève found herself in this unenviable position she was quite at a loss as to what she should do.
I do not wish to leave the reader with the impression that Miss Falconer is lacking in accomplishments. Her rendering of Pasadena is exquisite. Her Burlington Bertie routine is one of the most consummate uses of the cane and white gloves that I have ever seen. But, of course, if you ask any well brought up young lady to perform an entertainment, there is nothing more certain than that her first thought will be “ Pasadena ”, unless it be that her second thought will be “ Burlington Bertie ”.
Geneviève wished to do something entirely different, but she could not think what.
“Why not tell a story ?” I suggested.
“About what ? ” asked Geneviève. And then it hit me.
“About a swindle,” I said. “ Like ‘ News Travels Fast in the Jungle ’.”
This obviously hit the spot with a resounding ping. Geneviève said no more, but on the next evening those assembled were privileged to be present at the world première—or perhaps I should say the début—of Amelia Bingham.
As the origin of Amelia Bingham I understand that this will seem disappointingly tame to some people. I realise that there are many rumours abroad : that Amelia Bingham is a real person, albeit by another name; that the incidents in the stories are drawn from life ; even that Miss Falconer derives her vast fortune from the very swindles described in this book.
About the latter, of course, I can say nothing. Well, just a little perhaps, since you are so pressing. All I know is that when I once asked Geneviève about the practicality of the schemes employed by Amelia Bingham she told me that the stories are intended to read like a musical comedy. The schemes as described are at best dangerously insecure. If one were to describe all the ploys and subterfuges which would be required in order to pull off such schemes in safety, the stories would have become unduly technical and much less amusing to read. But, she assured me, each story contains the germ of an idea which, properly elaborated, could be successfully employed. I am no expert, of course, but it all sounded very professional to me.
The stories (to return to my theme) were first published in Artemis magazine. It all happened in much the same haphazard way as before. The editrix was looking for material to fill up the second issue, and somebody suggested approaching Geneviève for one of the Amelia Bingham stories. Geneviève collaborated with her then very young protégée, the Silver Vixen, to turn her raconteuserie into literary form. And, before you ask, the Silver Vixen was much too young in those days to have been the Pash of the stories. Amelia was one of the magazine’s great successes, and she soon expanded her enthusiastic cult following, already strong among our own circle, to a much wider audience. People took her very much to heart. There was even a cocktail named after her. It is a preposterous cocktail, and is the one consumed by Shelmerdine Bingham in the last story of this book.
The five short stories in this book represent all but one of those published in Artemis. They do not represent all those read aloud at the Club, because some came a bit near to the knuckle concerning real people and events and were not considered suitable for publication. Others have simply never been prepared for the presses.
The two longer stories have never appeared in print before, nor have they been read aloud except to a small gathering at St. Bride’s School, where the references to that institution went down very well ! Bingham purists (and there really are some Bingham purists) may feel them to be a departure from the economical, gem-like style of the very short pieces, but the style is still very crisp and concise much of the time, and I for one am glad of the longer and deeper look into the character and private lives of Amelia and Pash. I am sure most of their admirers will feel the same way.
I do not think that there is much in the stories that requires explanation for an American audience. Except perhaps that selling Tower Bridge is pretty much the British equivalent of selling Brooklyn Bridge. The British equivalent used to be selling London Bridge, until London Bridge really was sold. And to an American, too.
I dare say the British authorities thought themselves pretty clever at the time. But by now they will probably be aware that the chap actually came and carted the thing off to America.
News travels fast in the jungle.
Miss Marianne Martindale
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