Film and Book Comparison
As I’ve mentioned many times, the 2008 film Dean Spanley is one of my very favorites. A big part of this is that it is mostly the story of a father and son. I tend to be an easy mark for such stories. Indeed, I tend to like any stories about men who interact in a genuine way instead of the stereotyped “punching each other on the shoulder” way. Thus, when I first approached Lord Dunsany’s novella My Talks with Dean Spanley, I was disappointed. There is no father and son. And the male relationships are more the kinds of stereotypes that I dislike.
Don’t take this to mean that My Talks with Dean Spanley is bad. In its way, it’s just as good as the film. But it is direct. And the whole story is told through a haze of alcohol intoxication. This makes for a very amusing read. The book is about a dean in the Church of England who seems to have memories of being a dog in a past life. In the film, this is also true; but it acts mostly in the service of bringing the narrator and his father together.
My Talks With Dean Spanley Summary
The novella is written in the first person. It starts, “Were I to tell how I came to know that Dean Spanley had a secret, I should have to start this tale at a point many weeks earlier.” This departs completely from the film, where the dean’s secret comes about by chance, well into the narrative. In the book, the narrator tells us that he is a scientist and that he wants to publish a study of reincarnation for his western comrades so that they can better understand it. He does this using the well-known scientific tool of getting his subject drunk.
This does work. When drunk enough, Dean Spanley speaks forthrightly about his life as a dog. And based upon the technology that he remembers, the narrator is even able to roughly date this past life. But very quickly, the dean becomes disinclined to drink enough when dining with the narrator. Luckily, the narrator befriends a man named Wrather, who is quite the drinker and is fond of giving advice from his father, “Never trust a teetotaler or a man that wears elastic-sided boots.” The narrator feels that if Wrather joins their dinners, he can get the dean to the proper level of intoxication.
This too works. But Wrather eventually screws up by offending the dean and bringing him back to reality. So then the dean must be convinced to dine again with Wrather under the pretense that he needs to be around other men who know how to drink responsibly. Eventually even this fails. Finally, a grand dinner is given with the Maharajah of Haikwar. It is a stunning success. Dean Spanley reveals all, including the details of the secret dog religious belief that once man teaches dog the secret of fire, man and dog will be equals. There’s just one problem.
None of the narrator, Wrather, nor the Maharajah can remember what the dean said. They were all too drunk! And the dean is soon after promoted to bishop and so will have little to do with the likes of the narrator and Wrather.
In the film, the biggest obstacles are getting the Tokay. This is not an issue at all in the book. Instead, it is all about getting Dean Spanley past his reticence to get really drunk. As a result, there’s the wonderful catch-22 denouement. It also serves to make the narrator and Wrather end up as close friends, unlike in the movie where it is implied that the dean and Wrather may go on their own adventure together (as they did in their past lives).
Lord Dunsany’s satire takes aim at any number of life’s foibles. He makes fun of everyone: clergy and scientists; drunks and teetotaler; dogs and cats. This last bit is particularly interesting, given that Dunsany was president of a local RSPCA. But he is savage to dogs, although in a way that is indicative of one who has spent a lot of time with them. Dogs are disgusting, and this is presented in much detail.
There is also a remarkable moment in the novella at the end of Chapter 8. Dean Spanley mentions coming upon another dog that had been trapped in a tunnel it had dug. The narrator asks, “And what did you do for him?” The dean replies, “He was nobody I knew.” In the middle of such an amusing story, this moment is shocking. But it isn’t just the reader. Wrather is livid. He says, “If one thinks one’s a dog, one should think one is a decent kind of a dog.” No Lassie was our dean.
The Book Stands Alone
Most people who read My Talks with Dean Spanley after seeing the movie are disappointed. That’s understandable. Normally books are far more detailed than movies. In this case, screenwriter Alan Sharp built a mansion out of Lord Dunsany’s cottage. But that cottage is a fine one. And I guarantee, you will laugh much more in it than in Sharp’s glorious mansion.
Just How Expensive Is the Tokay in Dean Spanley
A big part of the film Dean Spanley is the difficulty that Henslowe Fisk has in acquiring Tokay — and just how expensive it is. When he finds his first bottle, he asks how much it is, and Wrather says to him, as though doing a favor, “Five guineas for you.” Fisk is shocked, “Five guineas?! That’s a bit bloody steep!” Wrather cheekily responds, “These little things were sent to try us, as the man said of the Pygmy judge.”
But Fisk, having no choice pays the five guineas. Now, as an American, I don’t know much about British currency. So I had no idea what they were talking about. What is a guinea? Is it like a pound? And just how much does five guineas represent.
How Much Would I Pay?
The more I thought about it, the more I approached the problem internally. How much money would make me react that way? I figured it couldn’t be as little as a couple hundred dollars. That’s a lot of money for a bottle of wine. But he’s got to understand that this isn’t going to be cheap. He’s only talking to Wrather because literally no one else has it for sale at any cost. So if I were in his situation, I would gladly pay several hundred bucks.
On the other hand, if it were $10,000, it would be a deal-breaker. At that price, I would simply go to the Dean and tell him I had heard from my source and that he wasn’t able to get me the Tokay. Given that the Dean was only going because of the Tokay, I’m sure he would respond with something like, “It is all for the best because I just found out I need to have dinner that night with the Bishop.” And that would be that.
As a result, I figured it had to be in the range of $1,000. Maybe it was just a bit less, or twice as much, but it had to be in that range. That is the amount of money I would pay to both do something I really wanted to and to save face. Given that Fisk and I are both roughly as rich as each other (at least until his father dies), I figure this would apply to Fisk as well as it does to me.
What Is a Guinea?
British currency — like most of its units of measure — is a mess. As All About Romance has noted, “The monetary system of Great Britain can be very confusing to the average American reader, especially since the system until fairly recently, was not a decimal one.” For an example, I wrote an article called Numeracy in Shakespeare in Love. I noted there that there were 240 Pennies in a Pound. Who but the British would come up with a system like that?
Well, a Guinea is worth one Pound and one Shilling. There were 20 Shillings in a Pound, so a Guinea is worth 1.05 Pounds. In other words, it really is a useless unit of measure. But there you have it. I’m only throwing it in for completeness, but for most purposes, a Guinea’s as good as a pound.
The Guinea Over Time
Concertina has a great webpage to help us answer this question, Calculate Modern Values of Historic Concertina Prices. It allows you to enter a year from 1830 through 2000 with an amount in Pounds, Shillings, and Pence. Then it spits back its year 2000 value in Pounds and decimal Pence.
Before we can use the calculator, however, we have to date the film. The book was published in 1936. But that doesn’t help us all that much. For one thing, the movie and book are quite different. And the Second Boer War plays a major role in the movie. It ended in 1902. Given that Jeremy Northam (who played Fisk) was only 47 at the time of the film, he would have been 13 at the end of the war and so his younger brother would not have been in it.
Overall, the feel of the film is that it exists in that time between the Boer War and World War I. For one thing, cars are brand new. The one in the film has a single headlight, and looks more typical of cars around 1910. This is certainly not the 1930s. But since the younger brother’s death seems to be something in the distant past, I will place it right before World War I: 1914.
5 Guineas in 1914
Assuming this, the calculator finds 5 1914 Guineas to be worth £1,385.11. That’s in the year 2000. According to Macro Trends, the exchange rate at that time was 1.65. In the year 2008 (when the film was made), the exchange rate was 1.98. So we can set the value to £1,662.13.
That gives us rather a larger number in dollars: $3,291.02. But it’s important to note that the exchange rate jumps around quite a lot. The rate is 1.31 right now, which brings the number to $1,814.49.
Although my gut feeling seems to have been a bit on the low side — about half what the Tokay actually cost, it was definitely in the ball park. It shows how well you can do with these kinds of calculations. And I, at least, think it’s pretty fun to play around with this kind of thing.
If you haven’t seen Dean Spanley, you really owe it to yourself to see it. It is filmmaking at its finest. It isn’t psychotronic at all. It’s just a good film, made for adults. If your parents are still alive, it’s a nice one to share with them.