October 04, 2003

A Gentleman of Leisure, by P.G. Wodehouse

Published late in 1910, this is one of Wodehouse' earliest novels. Prior to this he had published seven books of school stories, to which I'll add an eighth, Psmith in the City, as it involves two characters from his school stories, a children's novel, a book of newspaper columns, a book about journalism, an Ukridge novel, and one other novel about which I know nothing. As such, it's in a transitional position between his school stories and his first Blandings novel, Something Fresh, published in 1915. By 1915, Wodehouse had gotten his comedic style down pat. There's little difference in tone or skill between Something Fresh and its 1929 sequel, Summer Lightning.

But A Gentleman of Leisure is something else again.

The plot leaves nothing to be desired; it's pure Wodehouse, with all the elements we've come to know and love. It's got thwarted lovers, upperclass twits, imposters, jewel thieves, private detectives, a country house, curmudgeonly aunts and uncles, and all the usual trappings.

What it doesn't have is the easy, effortless tone of Wodehouse's later work. Bertie, Jeeves, the Earl of Blandings, and all the rest seem to inhabit a timeless world of their own. This book, on the other hand, seems too firmly grounded in the real world. The characters are too real, and their reality demands that we take them seriously, despite all of the ludicrous events going on around them.

The results are often painful. One doesn't mind if Bertie Wooster is caught stealing a silver cow creamer; it's just the sort of thing that would happen to him, and we know he'll get out of it somehow. Bertie's world operates according to its own absurd rules--for example, if any woman of any age decides that she wants to marry Bertie, then Bertie is bound to go through with it unless she changes her mind. It doesn't matter whether he wants to marry her or not, or whether she's entirely mistaken about the nature of his regard for her. He's not allowed to tell her directly that he doesn't want to marry her; although the phrase seldom arises, this is the reduction to absurdity of the whole "breach of promise" thing so common in Victorian novels. Instead, he must work behind the scenes, with the help of Jeeves and his friends, to persuade her that she'd really rather marry someone else. And, as one of the other rules is that Bertie must remain a bachelor, he naturally and inevitably succeeds. We know this; the dramatic tension is all about how he'll get out of it this time, not whether he will or not.

But in this book, it's different. It seems mostly to follow the rules of the real world. Consider Lord Dreever, a young, improvident Lordling kept on a short leash by his wealthy capitalistic uncle. In a normal Wodehouse novel, we'd feel sorry for him, and applaud his attempts to squeeze a little money out of the old man. In Dreever's case, I tended to agree with the uncle. Dreever's an idiot and a wastrel who'd clearly run through any amount of money provided to him in a matter of months. He's not a scoundrel, there's no harm in him, but there's not much good either.

The love interest is young Molly McEachern. Molly's father wants his daughter to marry a title; Dreever's uncle wants his nephew to marry money. To these two old men it seems a match made in heaven. But it would clearly be a catastrophe for sweet young Molly to marry Lord Dreever. And because of Wodehouse' tone and the way the detail grounds it in the real world, it matters. And consequently, comic situations that I find hilarious in his latter books are positively painful in this one.

So.

As a Wodehouse fan and would-be novelist, I found it fascinating--a wonderful example of how not to build a comic soufflé. As a reader, though, I wasn't as pleased.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 4, 2003 11:41 AM

Steven said:

I thought it one of the better ones, for exactly the reason you didnt like it. The people matter more.

I thought the horrible thing at the end was that Deever was going to get into the the diplomatic corps. (This was 1911) Because what those chaps do dosn't really matter that much.

Deever is not right for her, and she is not right for him, and the heavies really are a pair of crooks.

Will Duquette said:

See, that's the problem. The book is really neither one thing nor another, neither comic novel of manners nor serious mainstream novel. If it's a comic novel, the characters are too realistic; if it's a serious mainstream novel, the plot is far too screwball. It's deeply conflicted.

As for the diplomatic corps, well, yes. Unfortunately, I suspect that that's another one of the realistic bits.

Phil said:

I'm reading the first Jeeves book to my wife every now and then, so I've become a Wodehouse fan too. Thanks for the review. I'll try to remember it should I find A G. of L. in a used book store sometime.

Deb said:

Dont miss the Blandings stories!!

Will Duquette said:

Phil, you might want to look for the collection "The Most of P.G. Wodehouse". It's a nice mix of stories from his different series, along with one short novel--and it includes my favorite Wodehouse story of all time, "Uncle Fred Flits By". Bliss!

Phil said:

Thanks for the recommendations from both of you. I'll try to remember them. The president of my college, Bryan College in Dayton, TN, told me he hoped to collect all of Wodehouse's books, all 90+ of them, if they are still to be had. Since that time, I've wanted to find some of them too. I have three small ones now, each on Jeeves.

steven said:

Wodehouse tried a couple of social comment novels. They are as ignored as the ten commandments.

The really spooky one is "the commng of Bill." I think it came out in the mid thirties, but I could be way off. You have to look really hard to find it. It is way out of print, and given the subject matter, it is unlikely it ever will be published again.

The code of the Woosters is remarkable for pegging the facist mentality: The manipulivness and the moral sickness are totally true. Wodehouse had Spode (Hitler) pegged to a T, even to his taste in women. I don't think he was doing commentary with that. He just looked at the character and was consistant with what was normal for that character.

the other "Social comment" novel was "Psmith Journalist." the social comment stuff is a lead balloon, but he is handling his style in high gear.

Will Duquette said:

I've only read Psmith, Journalist once, but I recall enjoying it. I agree, though, it was a bit different than the others.

Overlook/Everyman is publishing a complete, uniform edition of all of Wodehouse's books, so I imagine that The Coming of Bill will be included.

Bob Buckee said:

I have just finished "The Gold Bat" for the third or maybe more time. Can someone direct me to a comment and list of all the Maestro's School stories.

Thanks, Bob Buckee

P.S. As Bertie Wooster says I find it difficult to push this onto the second page without dragging in old Ted.

Will Duquette said:

I don't have such a list--but Google revealed the following site:

http://pgwodehousebooks.com/pgbibliopage.htm

You can probably find what you're looking for here--at least, it gives the titles with date of publication, and I believe his school stories were mostly written fairly early in his career.

Good luck!

Clif Flynt said:

I recently picked up "The Coming of Bill" in the project Gutenberg
edition. (I'm finding that after a few novels to get used to it, I actually
prefer reading on the PDA to paper.)

My initial problem with "The Coming of Bill" is that I was really expecting
a Blanding's Castle, Jeeves, Mulliner type story, not something
purporting to be serious.

Book one was OK. Not as funny as I'd hoped, but amusing characters
doing fairly interesting stuff.

In book two, with the return of our hero (from Columbia), I'm finding
the story a lot darker, and too many amazing coincidences where someone
chooses the exact wrong time to confront another character to ill
effect.

I'll accept authors who play the coincidence game in a humor novel.
I've already suspended all disbelief just to conceive of Bertie managing
to find his way out of bed. I don't accept authors who need to exert
their godlike powers to force their characters to behave out of
their previously defined character to advance the plot.

If Wodehouse's other serious social comment books are like this,
that would explain why he's not well regarded as a serious writer.
A good serious social comment novel has to drive the characters
to do good or bad despite their natures and despite their striving to
do otherwise.

Will Duquette said:

Interestingly, Amazon shows that a new paperback edition of The Coming of Bill has just been published this month.