29 December 2010

An Early Effort by Wodehouse

This month I read P. G. Wodehouse’s The Intrusion of Jimmy (1910) for the first time. I may have read it earlier under its alternate title, A Gentleman of Leisure. If I’d forgotten, that’s not because it’s a typical Wodehouse farce but because it dates from before he found his basic formula, and he didn’t have enough material to make a memorable novel.

I’m rather fond of Wodehouse’s work from the 1910s, before he decided to focus on English country manors and city clubs, with an occasional intrusion from the working classes.

There’s the wild but toothless satire of invasion literature in The Swoop (1910). The semi-serious picture of a couple expecting their first child in The White Hope/Their Mutual Child/The Coming of Bill (1915). And my favorites, which follow characters from Wodehouse’s public school stories into the working world: Psmith in the City (1910), and Psmith Journalist (1915).

Psmith appears one more time in Leave It to Psmith (1923), which brings him to Blandings Castle, introduced in Something New/Something Fresh (1915). And those books were so successful that Wodehouse rarely tried something so fresh again.

The Intrusion of Jimmy/A Gentleman of Leisure is clearly a transitional novel. It starts in the world of New York theater and journalism that Wodehouse was then trying to enter, with a dollop of crime and corruption.

The setting then moves to an English manor house with the cast of characters that would soon be familiar: a spineless and penniless young lord, an overbearing moneybags uncle, a stern aunt, a pretty girl. Also a rope of diamonds and amateur theatricals.

Unfortunately, Wodehouse didn’t really develop those elements of the story as he later would, perhaps because he hadn’t yet realized he would have to distinguish the characters in this book from others quite like them. It wasn’t enough to have a stern aunt—one must do something with her.

The book has only one girl, and only two boys, one in love and the other not. The one in love is also the title character, admirable, and rich, so there’s no suspense in the love story. The narration keeps telling us how much that boy is in love with the one girl, but we don’t see that happen. There’s a lovely moment at the end where it becomes clear that she’s fallen in love back—we know that because she actually believes the plot that’s unfolded so far.

I kept waiting for one of the story’s bigger crooks to get some sort of comeuppance, but no. Some secrets are revealed, but there’s not enough follow-up. In a short time Wodehouse would learn to do so much more with similar ingredients.

The small number of rooms where action takes place made me wonder if Wodehouse had adapted this novel from a stage play, but things worked the other way round. A Gentleman of Leisure was Wodehouse’s first book adapted for the stage. Douglas Fairbanks played the lead on Broadway, and then John Barrymore in Chicago. There were even two silent movies made from this novel. (Trying to imagine silent Wodehouse is the biggest challenge I’ve had all month.)

That made A Gentleman of Leisure a big success for Wodehouse, which is probably why he went on to explore more manor houses, to better effect.

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