'Yes,' she said. 'I never knew it could be so exciting. Do you get your milk from contented cows?'
'They've never complained to me yet,' said Bill.
from Doctor Sally by P. G. Wodehouse
Doctor Sally (1932) is one of Wodehouse's shorter novels. It's certainly the shortest of his novels I've read so far in "A Wodehouse a Week." At 120 pages of fairly good-sized type, it's practically a novella. In fact, I might almost call it a noveleenie. How short is it? I read it in less than a hour.
Which doesn't make it any less entertaining, just compact. It's a smaller cast of characters (five main characters and a couple servants with only a handful of lines), a faster plot and a less-complicated but still Wodehousean chain of events: Bill Bannister, privileged heir of a country manor house estate, falls head over heels in love with smart, competent Dr. Sally Smith, keen golfer and expert medical practitioner. Too bad Sally's not interested in Bill because she seems him as a rich slacker who has never done an honest day's work in his life. Not to mention the fact that Bill's engaged to the widow Mrs. Lottie Higginbotham, ex-wife of Bill's best friend, the genial Lord "Squiffy" Tidmouth, an enthusiastically oblivious peer in the vein of Bertie Wooster. Bill of course breaks off the engagement with Lottie to pursue Sally, to dire results. In other reviews I've mentioned how casually gleeful a romantic breakup in a Wodehouse book can be: informed of a fiancé falling in love with another, most women will cheerfully exclaim "Right ho!" and happily return the ring. Not so Lottie:
Lottie's eyes flashed.Whoa, Lottie honey...switch to decaf! Frustrated and angry, she works herself up into a swooning state, which of course means a doctor must be called in. Ten points if you can guess the name of the doctor. (Hint: it rhymes with 'dally.')
'Let me tell you you're mistaken if you think you can get rid of me so easily!'
'Lottie,' said Bill, 'please!'
'Lottie, please!' said Lord Tidmouth.
'Lottie, please! Lottie, please! Lottie, please!' cried the injured woman in the tones which had intimidated a hundred theatrical dressing-rooms and which when heard during the course of their brief married life by the late Mr Higginbotham had always been enough to send that pusillanimous cotton magnate shooting off to his club for refuge.
She ran to the tea-table and snatched up a cup.
She hurled the cup down with a crash.
'Did you ring, sir?'
It was a bellboy who spoke. He had appeared in the doorway with a smooth promptness which spoke well for the efficiency of the service at the Superba. This was due partly to long training and partly to the fact that for some moments back he had been standing with his ear glued to the keyhole.
'And there!' cried Lottie, demolishing a second cup.
This one produced Marie.
'Did you call, moddom?'
"And there!" said Lottie. 'And there! And there!' Another cup, a slop-basin, and the teapot joins the ruins on the floor.
The dramatic and theatrical outburstand the limited cast of characters and fact that it takes place in only two scenesmakes even more sense when you realize the origin of Doctor Sally: it's adapted from Wodehouse's own 1927 West End play Good Morning, Bill (in turn apparently inspired or influenced by a play by Hungarian playwright, screenwriter, and intelligence agent (!) Ladislas Fodor). Good Morning, Bill is basically a stripped-down Wodehouse plot for the stage: the same love stories, confusions, entanglement and coincidences as his grander-scale novels, but produced on a budget. In my review a few weeks back of The Small Bachelor, also adapted from one of his plays, I made a joke that Wodehouse was the father of the modern novelization, making him the forerunner of Alan Dean Foster. Far from being a commercial marketing tie-in as most modern novelizations are, Wodehouse's intents are more artistic: both Methuen (who published the script of the play) and Wodehouse liked the story so much he agreed to turn it into a novel which they published in '32 (the publication of which inspired a theatrical revival of Good Morning, Bill in '34). The text of the play is available in a paperback (still published by Methuen when I bought it) of Wodehouse's plays, and I read the script this week as well. As opposed to The Small Bachelor which was greatly expanded from its original play, Doctor Sally features only a few small changes (a golfing scene is added that couldn't have been dramatized on stage for obvious reasons) and some character names are changed. But in many cases the characters' dialogue is repeated almost verbatim from play to book. I've also made mention in the past of how sparkling Wodehouse's dialogue is and even his later novels show off his incisive ear for lyrical dialogue. His obvious skill in staging entrances and exits is evident as well here, with characters zipping in and out of doors at a speedy rate, especially in the second act. The play's even been produced relatively recently: here's a review (and another) of a 2003 New York City production. How could I have missed that? I'm kickin' myself. There also appears to have been a 1939 movie version that I've never seen or even heard of.
Its origins as a play doesn't mean that Wodehouse doesn't enliven the crack dialogue with his usual delightful descriptions and off-hand commentary:
Sir Hugo sighed, as Napoleon might have sighed if someone had met him after the battle of Waterloo and asked, 'Well, how did it all come out?'or
The pained look on Lord Tidmouth's face deepened. Of course, he supposed, it didn't really matter, seeing that they were alone, but he did wish Bill could conduct a chat with an old crony without converting it into something that suggested an executive session of the 'Black Hand' or a conference between apaches in some underground den in Montmartre.I'm especially fond of Sally Smith, who, despite her traditional Wodehouse-heroine name, is a bit of an anomaly among his females. Like the best of them, she's smart, pretty, witty, and a great golfer, but she has an air of amused disdain for the lovesick Bill, and unlike many Wodehouse women who fall in love with their ultimate husband at first sight, she keeps him firmly at arm's length through most of the book since she considers him a lazy grasshopper to her industrious ant. The scales eventually fall from her eyes when she realizes that though he is the heir to a vast estate, he also works like a dog: farm estates require much management and work, and there's a lovely funny sweet scene just at the end when she watches him balance books and write letters with a growing rapturous glow in her baby blues. Until then, she's proudly self-reliant and confident:
'...You needn't waste you pity on me, Mr Bannister. I'm fit as a fiddle, thank heaven, and enjoy every minute of my life. I have a good practice and quite enough money. I go to theaters and concerts. I play games. I spend my vacations traveling. I love my work. I love my recreations. I love life.'Yes, it's true: Sally is this close to breaking out into a chorus of Destiny's Child's "Independent Woman."
'And why shouldn't I? I earn every bit of pleasure that I get. I like nice clothes, nice shoes, nice stockingsbecause I buy them myself. I'm like the village blacksmithI owe not any man. I wonder if you've the remotest idea how happy it can make a woman just to be a worker and alivewith good nerves, good circulation, and good muscles. Feel my arm. Like iron.'
I've only got one edition of Doctor Sally in my Wodehouse collection: a Penguin paperback (Ionicus illustration showing the arrival of Doctor Sally, smashed teacups on the floor, and a ga-ga in love Bill Bannister). I'm glad I bought this when I did, because it would be harder to pick it up now. You may notice that there's no Amazon.com buying box on the right side of this final paragraph as you usually get with each "Wodehouse a Week" review. That's because the book's out of print on both sides of the Atlantic. To be accurate, it was never published by itself in the US, but did appear under the title "The Medicine Girl" as part of the collection The Crime Wave at Blandings, which itself is out of print. (Even I don't got one of those!) For both of these, the only editions available on Amazon are insanely priced used copies. Sooner or later Overlook Press will reissue it in hardcover over here, but in the meantime if you're hankering for a powerful dose of the medicine only Doc Sally can bring you, there are inexpensive used editions available at Britain's Amazon.co.uk; if you're ordering from the US or elsewhere make certain the Marketplace sellers lists "international shipping available." If you want to read the play Good Morning, Bill, you may have more luck looking for a copy of Wodehouse's Four Plays collection. Me? I'm getting together all my stuffed animal pals and putting on a production of Good Morning, Bill! We're having it in my uncle's barn, and Marshall is making costumes, and we'll be selling tickets to help save the farm from being repossessed by Mister LeSinestre, the town banker! Please come and see it. I am playing the role of Bill, Snuckles is playing Squiffy, and the role of Doctor Sally will be played by Miss Jane Wiedlin. Also, Hi-C Fruit Punch will be served! Be there or be square!