May 28, 2004

A Damsel in Distress, by P.G. Wodehouse

Last October I reviewed an early Wodehouse novel called A Gentleman of Leisure, which was first published in 1910. It was interesting but flawed--Wodehouse couldn't seem to decide whether he was writing a serious novel with comedic overtones, or a farce. The plot was delightfully absurd, but the characters were too real, as were the consequences if their schemes came to naught. By 1915's Something Fresh, the first Blandings novel, he'd worked out the breezy style that makes his farces so enjoyable.

All of which means that I was completely unprepared for the present work, A Damsel in Distress. It was first published in 1919, after he'd got the bugs out, and so I was expecting a typical Wodehouse farce. And to my great and exceeding surprise, it's not a farce at all. Instead, it's a genuine comedy of manners. The characters are finely drawn and realistic, and the plot is no more far-fetched than any romantic comedy.

The difference between this book and Wodehouse's other novels is only highlighted by its resemblance to Blandings. Like Lord Emsworth in the early Blandings novels, Lord Marshmoreton only wants to be left alone to putter in his garden. Like Lord Emsworth, he is afflicted by an efficient secretary, a young woman named Alice Faraday, and an old battleaxe of a sister, Lady Caroline. His son Percy is a conceited snob of the first water, but his daughter Maud (the Damsel of the title) is a peach. She wants to marry an American fellow she met on vacation in Wales, but Lady Caroline and her brother Percy will have none of it, and confine her to quarters in the stately family home.

It all seems straightforward enough, and tolerably Blandings-like; and yet, Belpher Castle isn't simply Blandings Castle with the serial numbers filed off. Rather, it's the real thing, the model from which Blandings Castle was drawn. Blandings, Bertie, Jeeves, the Drones Club, all of them inhabit a dream of England in which the World Wars never came, in which a good silk top hat and a properly tied tie were the key to society, and in which nothing bad ever really happens to upper class twits. In this dream of England, most of the stories are indeed love stories; you have to hang the plot on something, after all. But here we have a tale of the real England, where consequences are real and where the hero really might not get the girl.

The tone is light, to be sure, and I frequently stopped to laugh out loud, but the undertone is deeply serious--and honestly, is there is anything more serious, at root, than a solid romantic comedy? It's funny precisely because the consequences are so serious.

Anyway, I enjoyed this as much as anything I've read in a great while. It warmed my heart and lifted my spirits, and I could wish that he'd written more books in the same vein.

Apropos of nothing, and at the risk of lowering the tone of this review, Jane insisted that I quote one paragraph from the later part of the book:

There was, so the historians of the Middle West tell us, a man of Chicago named Young, who once, when his nerves were unstrung, put his mother (unseen) in the chopping-machine, and canned her and labelled her "Tongue."

The Wodehouse wit is here in full flower. Go thou, and read.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 28, 2004 09:46 PM