The Great Sermon Handicap
"The Great Sermon Handicap" is a short story by P. G. Wodehouse. It was first published in the June 1922 edition of Strand Magazine. Its first book publication was in The Inimitable Jeeves in 1923. Its plot continues into "The Purity of the Turf" but the two may be read as independent stories.
Departure from London
- "Just as you say, sir. There is a letter on the tray, sir."
- "By Jove, Jeeves, that was practically poetry."
Bertie opens the letter and reads it with confusion. It comes from his cousin Eustace, who offers to let Bertie in on an opportunity to make some money. Eustace and his twin brother Claude, Bertie's cousins, are part of a reading party studying the classics with Rev. Francis Heppenstall and staying at Twing Hall, the seat of Lord Wickhammersley, a good friend of Bertie's late father. Bingo Little is also present at Twing, though Eustace's letter does not reveal why, nor does it reveal how the twins propose to make the money. Jeeves observes that the letter continues on the back, and Bertie reverses it to discover the header:
- SERMON HANDICAP
- RUNNERS AND BETTING
- PROBABLE STARTERS.
followed by a list of vicars, along with the towns to which they belong, as well as a series of handicaps in minutes, and odds on each at the bottom.
Neither Bertie nor Jeeves can comprehend the list, but Bertie resolves nevertheless to go to Twing, which they do by the five-ten at Paddington the following day.
Arrival at Twing Hall
Bertie arrives just in time for dinner and takes his seat next to Lord Wickhammersley's daughter Cynthia, his friend since childhood, and with whom he was once in love. She acquaints him with the various guests at the table, including several clergymen and finally Bingo Little. She suspects that Bingo is slightly soft in the head, having noticed him looking at her strangely on several occasions. When she demonstrates the gaze, Bertie realises and informs her that Bingo is simply in love with her, much to her astonishment.
Later, upon greeting Bertie, a sullen Bingo divulges that he has had to take a tutoring job at Twing since his uncle cut off his allowance following "that Goodwood binge" (the events of which are documented in "Comrade Bingo"). He had been sad because Charlotte Corday Rowbotham had left him for Comrade Butt; however, he now loves Cynthia, as Bertie guessed, and departs to write poetry for her.
The Sermon Handicap
The next morning, Bingo awakens Bertie by reading some of the poem he wrote. Just as Bertie induces him to stop and has his morning tea, his cousins Claude and Eustace burst in to tell him about their plan. Their reading-party of nine people includes one Rupert Steggles, "rather a worm", but who nevertheless devised a scheme to entertain the group throughout their otherwise boring stay in Twing: a Great Sermon Handicap. Steggles is to make a book, set handicaps and odds, and take bets on the verbosity and consistency of each of the many nearby preachers. On Sunday the 23rd, each is to be clocked, the winner being the one who preaches the longest sermon. The back of the letter, Eustace explains, was a list of handicaps and current odds, as prepared by Steggles.
The twins offer to let Jeeves participate, but he declines; Bertie, meanwhile, upon considering the odds and handicaps, observes that the competition is "a sitter" for Heppenstall, who has been given an eight-minute handicap, though Bertie knows his sermons are famously long. Claude explains that on the day he and Steggles visited the Twing church to assign handicaps, Heppenstall dropped several pages of his sermon, leaving Steggles the impression that he averaged about twenty minutes, where, in reality, thirty to thirty-five is his true form.
Bertie likes the idea, and agrees to consider entering a bet, while Bingo expresses certainty that he will soon be married to Cynthia. The next morning, Bertie instructs Eustace to put a tenner on Heppenstall, which he does at seven to one, and just in time, as Steggles observes him give a 36-minute sermon that Sunday and shortens the odds to fifteen to eight.
On Tuesday afternoon, Claude and Eustace hurry to apprise Bertie of a "dark horse" competitor: G. Hayward of Lower Bingley, who surprised them with a twenty-six minute address at a village wedding, which is presumably much shorter than he would be accustomed to give on a Sunday. They want to hedge on him, but instead, Bertie proposes that they ensure Heppenstall's victory by encouraging him to preach his sermon on brotherly love, which runs forty-five to fifty minutes. Claude and Eustace like the idea, and Bertie proposes it to Heppenstall, affecting true interest in the topic and insisting that he not cut any parts out. Heppenstall is thrilled at Bertie's interest and gladly accedes to the request.
Eustace telephones Bertie on Saturday morning with the catastrophic news that Heppenstall is ill with hay-fever and will be scratched from the competition; furthermore, Steggles has heard about G. Hayward's potential, and his odds are considerably shortened. As Rev. Joseph Tucker, a middle-to-long-winded speaker, seems to be their last chance, they make no further bets.
Competition and aftermath
On the morning of the competition, Bertie goes to watch G. Hayward's sermon at Lower Bingley; Hayward preaches for thirty-five minutes and fourteen seconds, and Bertie returns to Twing for lunch. Bingo reports that, with all the times in but Gandle-by-the-Hill, G. Hayward is presumed the winner, and Jeeves will no doubt lose the tenner he bet on Bates, the vicar at Gandle. Bertie, having thought Jeeves was not interested, is surprised to hear he decided to participate after all.
Jeeves arrives presently with a note from Heppenstall which Bertie had left too early that morning to receive. In the note, Heppenstall requests that Bertie attend church at Gandle-by-the-Hill, where he has requested that Bates preach the sermon on Brotherly Love, lest Bertie be disappointed. Also, Bates is under scrutiny for the headmastership of a private school and must impress the school's trustees with a long and thoughtful sermon.
When Bates's time arrives, it turns out that he has indeed won, as has Jeeves. Bingo angrily accuses Jeeves of having had inside information, which he readily admits, being a friend of Heppenstall's butler, to whom the note was dictated; also, Bingo thinks that preaching another man's sermon ought not to be permitted. Jeeves defends Bates, saying that the headmastership was very important to him and his fiancée, Cynthia Wickhammersley.
The story concludes as Bingo turns a light green and exits embarrassedly to take a walk. Its events continue into "The Purity of the Turf".
The story has been translated into 57 languages and all of them published in a 6-volume set by J.H. Heineman, New York, in 1989.
- v.1. In English, phonetic English transcription, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian, Catalan, Rhaetoromansch
- v.2. In English, Chaucerian English, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Frisian, German, Mittelhochdeutsch, Plattdeutsch, Luxemburgian, Yiddish (Latin alphabet), Swiss German, phonetic English transcription
- v.3. In English, Swedish, Danish, Nynorsk, Norwegian, Faroese, Old Norse, Icelandic, phonetic English transcription
- v.4. In English, Esperanto, Pidgin English, French Creole, Papiamento, Finnish, Hungarian, Basque, Romany, Welsh, Breton, Irish, Gaelic, phonetic English transcription
- v.5. In English, Sanskrit, Armenian, Arabic, Maltese, Ancient Hebrew, Modern Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, Somali, Coptic, phonetic English transcription
- v.6. In English, Czech, Polish, Russian, Belorussian (White Russian), Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian (Latinica) (Servo-Croatian), Slovene ('Slovenian'), Slovak ('Slovakian'), phonetic English transcription
- McIlvaine, E., Sherby, L.S. and Heineman, J.H. (1990) P.G. Wodehouse: A comprehensive bibliography and checklist. New York: James H. Heineman, p. 64. ISBN 087008125X
- Overview of The Inimitable Jeeves and the stories contained in it