1922: You and I were doing the jitterbug on the wing of Lindy's plane with Zelda Fitzgerald knee-deep in a vat full of bathtub gin, but P. G. Wodehouse was writing, writing, writing. And he had a good head start on it, too: I flipped to the copyright page and double-checked: yes, The Girl on the Boat was published in 1922. Off the top of your head you almost want to say "Yeah, that's one of Wodehouse's early novels." But keep in mind: by this point he had been a published author for twenty years. Yah boo! Take that, Miss J. K. Rowling-come-later!
Okay then, let's call The Girl on the Boat (American title: Three Men and a Maid) one of Wodehouse's earlier novels. Wodehouse had been publishing his school stories twenty years ago; his romances started more or less ten years before. He's sharper, tighter, and funnier than he was in Love Among the Chickens and The Man Upstairs, but he's not quite at the height of his skills and career. Jeeves had only been "born" a few years ago; Blandings had premiered seven years ago but still had its glory ahead of it. In short, this is far from unpolished Wodehouse, but it's still a Wodehouse in formation: a fairly standard (for him) love story: Brit boy (Sam Marlowe) meets American girl (Wilhelmina "Billie" Bennett), but girl is engaged to his own cousin. And, in the course of the novel, becomes engaged to two other men as well. Here in the modern twenty-first century that's Page 6 fodder, but back in the roaring twenties it's charming as heck, as is the scene where Sam first meets (and is enamored of) Billie. As usual, there's music in the air and love on the wing, and a clever little twist to keep it all from being too saccharine:
Nature abhors a vacuum. Samuel Marlowe was a susceptible young man, and for many a long month his heart had been lying empty, all swept and garnished, with "Welcome" on the mat. This girl seemed to rush in and fill it. She was not the prettiest girl he had ever seen. She was the third prettiest. He had an orderly mind, one capable of classifying and docketing girls. But there was a subtle something about her, a sort of how-shall-one-put-it, which he had never encountered before. He swallowed convulsively. His well-developed chest swelled beneath its covering of blue flannel and invisible stripe. At last, he told himself, he was in love, really in love, and at first sight, too, which made it all the more impressive. He doubted whether in the whole course of history anything like this had ever happened before to anybody. Oh, to clasp this girl to him andLet's be fair to Billie (and Wodehouse); his heroine isn't a werewolf (although what a Wodehouse book that woulda made, huh?)she's actually carrying a nippy little dog by the disgustingly cute name of Pinky-Boodles. Such a sugary cloying name is usually the province of cutsey-wootsy Madeline Bassett from the Bertie and Jeeves stories, but silly dog names aside, Billie is lovely and loving and worthy of being loved. Sam pursues her through the remainder of the novel, from on board a ship making a trans-Atlantic crossing, back to the British country estate where she's staying, and he's not above being a little cutesy-wootsy himself when he daydreams about her:
But she had bitten him in the arm. That was hardly the right spirit. That, he felt, constituted an obstacle.
Her friends called her Billie. He did not blame them. It was a delightful name and suited her to perfection. He practised it a few times. "Billie ... Billie ... Billie...." It certainly ran pleasantly off the tongue. "Billie Bennett." Very musical, "Billie Marlowe." Still better. "We noticed among those present the charming and popular Mrs. 'Billie' Marlowe."Of course, a P. G. Wodehouse novel wouldn't be worth its colorful dust jacket if impediments to the course of true love didn't rear their ugly if convenient heads about a third of the way through the book. It's more convenient to just say Billie's ticked off at Sam rather than try to explain itsee, he was doing a blackface comedy routine for a talent show on board the ship, except his cousin, who was to accompany him on the piano, ducked out, leaving Sam alone and corked-up on stage and looking pretty darn foolish...look, it doesn't matter! What matters is they spend the next third of the book sniping at each other with a little more venom than Wodehouse usually gives his temporarily feuding couples. The sequence below is especially reminiscent of, say, the fussin' and a-fightin' Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing:
'What makes you call England a savage country?' demanded Sam, a staunch patriot, deeply stung.Oooooh, PWNED! Ouch, that's cold. (And I do believe that's the first time on the internet that the word pwned has been used in a review of a P. G. Wodehouse novel.) Well, like Beatrice and Benedick, but without all the tennis ball jokes, you know this will have a happy ending, even if it takes a thwarted attempt by Sam to steal Pinky-Boodles which leads him to hide within a suit of armor whose helmet gets stuck on his head.
'What would you call a country where you can't get ice, central heating, corn-on-the-cob, or bathrooms? My father and Mr Mortimer have taken a house down on the coast and there's just one niggly little bathroom in the place.'
'Is that your only reason for condemning England?'
'Oh no, it has other drawbacks.'
'Well, Englishmen, for instance. Young Englishmen, in particular. English young men are awful! Idle, rude, conceited, and ridiculous.'
Marlowe refused hock with a bitter intensity which almost startled the old retainer, who had just offered it to him, into dropping the decanter.
'How many English young men have you met?'
Billie met his eye squarely and steadily. 'Well, now that I come to think of it, not many. In fact, very few. As a matter of fact, only...'
'Well, very few,' said Billie. 'Yes," she said meditatively, 'I supposed I really have been rather unjust. I should not have condemned a class simply because...I mean, I suppose there are young Englishmen who are not rude and ridiculous?'
'I suppose there are American girls who have hearts.'
'I'll believe that when I meet one.'
Billie is all very pretty and pleasant, but by far a more unique and entertaining female lead is Jane Hubbard, big game hunter. Yes, you read that right: Jane Hubbard, big game hunter: rootin'-tootin' take-no-prisoners modern girl who stalks, hunts to ground, and captures furry animals with the skill of Frank Buck or Ross Allen. Here's one of Wodehouse's wonderful descriptions of this she-gal warrior woman:
Jane Hubbard was a splendid specimen of bronzed, strapping womanhood. Her whole appearance spoke of the open air and the great wide spaces and all that sort of thing. She as a thoroughly wholesome, manly girl, about the same age as Billie, with a strong chin and an eye that had looked leopards squarely in the face and caused them to withdraw abashed into the undergrowth, or wherever it is that leopards withdraw when abashed. One could not picture Jane Hubbard flirting lightly at garden parties, but one could picture her very readily arguing with a mutinous native bearer, or with a firm touch putting sweetness and light into the soul of a refractory mule. Boadicea in her girlhood must have been rather like Jane Hubbard.In the world of Wodehouse, just like in the music videos of Miss Paula Abdul, opposites attract, and Sam's milquetoast cousin Eustace Hignett immediately falls in love with Jane. Too bad he's engaged to Billie, but that's half the fun of a Wodehouse book, isn't itthe elaborate square dance of courting that always changes partners halfway through the book? Eustace is so smitten he waxes moonily:
Eustace Hignett finished undressing and got into bed. With a soft smile on his face he switched off the light. There was a long silence, broken only by the distant purring of engines. At about twelve-thirty a voice came from the lower berth.For my money there isn't enough Jane Hubbard in the book, even though she gets her chance to shine in the climatic final chapters where burglars are believed to be prowling the country estate and Jane shoots her elephant gun through the manor house's doors. I will pause a moment before repeating the sheer awesomeosity of that sentence: Jane shoots her elephant gun through the manor house's doors. be still, my little fluffy heart. Sadly, Jane does not appear in any other future Wodehouse books, even though I bet he could have made an entire series of her firing her elephant gun wildly around Barribault's restaurant or Blandings Castle or the Drones Club.
"What is it now?"
"There is a sweet womanly strength about her, Sam. She was telling me she once killed a panther with a hat-pin."
Sam groaned and tossed on his mattress.
Silence fell again.
"At least I think it was a panther," said Eustace Hignett, at a quarter past one. "Either a panther or a puma."
That climatic scene: funny and frenzied, yes, but I read it and said to myself, Wodehouse isn't quite at his prime yet. He would later move the frequent "nighttime alarums and excursions" scenes to the middle of the book rather than the end, using the close of what would be the third act (if this were a Shakespeare play) to whip up a frenzy and spin couples together and apart, setting them up in what only looks like a confused and willy-nilly (but is actually planned to the finest detail) fashion for the latter third of the book. There's nothing wrong with the structure of the book, of course, but I'd bet pounds to peanuts that an older Wodehouse would have moved the nighttime scene of confusion and elephant guns to the middle of the book.
But that's a minor quibble. This isn't one of Wodehouse's finest romances, but it's got a lot of fun in it, and it's interesting to see some of the tricks and clever details Wodehouse would later refine even more precisely in this between-the-wars novel, like a very Jeeves-ish butler who's unfazed by his master's declarations that he's dying (he's actually just got a silver of lobster-shell stuck in his tongue), and who hatches an elaborate plot for Sam to recapture the heart of Billie. And how you not love this lovely and lyrical meta-aware opening for Chapter 4?:
It was the fourth morning of the voyage. Of course, when this story is done in the movies they won't be satisfied with a bald statement like that; they will have a Spoken Title or a Cut-Back Sub-Caption or whatever they call the thing in the low dens where motion-picture scenario-lizards do their dark work, which will run:And...irony of ironies, they did do this story in the movies, starring Norman "Big in Albania" Wisdom as Sam, Millicent Martin as Billie and perennial Wodehouse actor Richard Briers as Eustace. In the spirit of learning a lot more about Wodehouse and his works in the course of the Wodehouse a Week project, I never knew such a movie existed, and now my driving goal is to find a copy. (It's available as a UK Region 2 DVD, which means I'd better step up my plan of getting a region-free DVD player pretty soon!) I'll let you know what it's like if and when I get a chance to watch it.
AND SO, CALM AND GOLDEN, THE DAYS WENT
BY, EACH FRAUGHT WITH HOPE AND YOUTH
AND SWEETNESS, LINKING TWO YOUNG
HEARTS IN SILKEN FETTERS FORGED BY THE
and the males in the audience will shift their chewing gum to the other cheek and take a firmer grip of their companions' hands and the man at the piano will play 'Everybody wants a key to my cellar' or something equally appropriate, very soulfully and slowly, with a wistful eye on the half-smoked cigarette which he has parked on the lowest octave and intends finishing as soon as the picture is over. But I prefer the plain frank statement that it was the fourth day of the voyage. That is my story and I mean to stick to it.
In the meantime, reading it is just dandy. I read The Girl on the Boat in my Vintage UK paperback edition, the only edition I have of this novel. That edition's out of print (sob) but you're in luck because only last week Overlook Press reissued Girl in its lovely uniform Collectors' Wodehouse edition. How new is it? Even I don't have this edition yet, showing Queen o' My Heart Jane Hubbard fearlessly removing a shard of lobster shell from the tongue of Billie's father. Be careful eating your lobster while reading your copy: big game hunter Jane's busy scratching me behind the ears while she tells me about running with the bulls in Pamplona, so she can't come to your rescue if you cut your tongue.