Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #28: Uneasy Money

Ah, yes, at last. Thanks for being patient. Here it is:

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One thing I've discovered as I've been working my way through A Wodehouse a Week is that Wodehouse's generally excellent book titles are often somewhat generic. You can often scratch your head trying to remember which title belongs to which book before you pick up the volume, flip over to the back or flap, and exclaim "Ah ha!" Sure, there's a few whose titles instantly betray their contents, but for every Do Butlers Burgle Banks? about a bank-burgling butler, there's three or four Summer Lightnings or Very Good, Jeeves, and even if you are clued in that Pigs Have Wings is about the Empress of Blandings, it might take you a moment's thought or a flip through the book to remember that this is the one where there are imposters at Blandings Castle and then someone tries to steal the Empress, upsetting Clarence. Take Uneasy Money (1917), for instance. It's easy enough to confuse this title alone with Money for Nothing or Big Money or Money in the Bank, all of which must be choice monthly selections of the Uncle Scrooge McDuck Book Club. Well, here's a handy hint that you can use to remember what Uneasy Money is about and how to tell it apart from the other Wodehouse books—namely, Uneasy Money is the only Wodehouse book that features a dead monkey.


A monkey is surprising enough in a Wodehouse comedy-romance; a dead monkey doubly so. There's very little death at all in the canon—you might get an aged relative or benefactor shuffling off the mortal coil before the book begins, leaving millions to a hapless but go-to-it young man, but that's about it.

Actually, that's exactly how Uneasy Money begins, with little or no sign at first that this will be Wodehouse's sole simian-slaying saga. William (call him Bill), Lord Dawlish, man about London town, is happy enough with his club and his friends and his golf game and his four hundred pound a year salary (not all Lords are rich; some quite the contrary, Wodehouse points out). His fiancé Claire, however, is not. She wants Bill to get up and make something of himself—more to the point, to make more money, as she won't marry him if she doesn't. Bill hits upon the idea of traveling to New York to make his fortune, and, advised by a friend to travel incognito under the nom d' emploi Bill Chalmers (no one will hire a Lord for a job, he's advised), he's about to board a steamer when he discovers that he's been left five million dollars by the late eccentric millionaire Ira Nutcombe. Why? Because Bill once helped Nutcombe with his golf swing.

Money in the bank (wait, that would make a great Wodehouse title!) for Bill, of course, and problem solved on page 28 of the novel. Bill, of course, being a better man than that (and Wodehouse, of course, being a better writer than that) has more to the story. Distraught that Nutcombe's own family was cut out of the will to give him the inheritance, Bill continues his trip to New York to find the niece and nephew of the dead millionaire and offer them half the inheritance. Why? It's the sporting thing to do.

Wodehouse's usual coincidences are at work here: through a series of mishaps and machinations, Claire is also on her way to New York, and becomes disenchanted with Bill when she spies him dancing (unbeknownst to her, against his will) with a woman at a dance club that Nutcombe's nephew "Nutty" drags him to:
Bill should not have danced. He was an estimable young man, honest, amiable, with high ideals. He had played an excellent game of football at the university; his golf handicap was plus two; and he was no mean performer with the gloves. But we all of us have our limitations, and Bill had his. He was not a good dancer. He was energetic, but he required more elbow room than the ordinary dancing floor provides. As a dancer, in fact, he closely resembled a Newfoundland puppy trying to run across a field.
Hold your quibbling over that wild coincidence. As he always does, Wodehouse is a master of pacing and genial misdirection and makes the acts of characters from three thousand miles away running into each other in the same nightclub a perfectly normal and reasonable thing. All the better, of course, for Bill and Claire to wind up staying at separate houses just down the road from each other in Long Island: Claire with an old friend, Bill with Nutty and his sister, the lovely Elizabeth, who don't realize he's the hated Lord Dawlish who supposedly has stolen all their inheritance money away.

Even though she doesn't realize he's Dawlish, Elizabeth takes a quick disliking to Bill merely as a guest of the dipsomaniacal Nutty, and she attempts to frighten him off by making him help her with her beehives, taking every chance to trick him into being stung:
Elizabeth was feeling annoyed with her bees. They resolutely declined to sting this young man. Bees flew past him, bees flew into him, bees settled upon his coat, bees paused questioningly in front of him, as who should say, 'What have we here?' but not a single bee molested him. Yet when Nutty, poor darling, went within a dozen yards of the hives he never failed to suffer for it. In her heart Elizabeth knew perfectly well that this was because Nutty, when in the presence of the bees, lost his head completely and behaved like an exaggerated version of Lady Wetherby's Dream of Psyche, whereas Bill maintained an easy calm; but at the moment she put the phenomenon down to that inexplicable cussedness which does so much to exasperate the human race, and it fed her annoyance with her unbidden guest.
Her clever trick is neatly undone at the end of the scene when Bill reveals in good humor that he raised bees himself when younger and knows how to handle them without being stung. This is, as they say, the proverbial ice-breaker:
And then her mood changed in a flash. Nature has decreed that there are certain things in life which shall act as hoops of steel, grappling the souls of the elect together. Golf is one of these; a mutual love of horseflesh another; but the greatest of all is bees. Between two beekeepers there can be no strife. Not even a tepid hostility can mar their perfect communion.

The petty enmities which life raises to be barriers between man and man and between man and woman vanish once it is revealed to them that they are linked by this great bond. Envy, malice, hatred, and all uncharitableness disappear, and they look into each other's eyes and say 'My brother!'

The effect of Bill's words on Elizabeth was revolutionary. They crashed through her dislike, scattering it like an explosive shell. She had resented this golden young man's presence at the farm. She had thought him in the way. She had objected to his becoming aware that she did such prosaic tasks as cooking and washing-up. But now her whole attitude toward him was changed. She reflected that he was there. He could stay there as long as he liked, the longer the better.
I love that scene; it's romantic and cinematic (There's another even lovelier one at the end; I'll get to that in a bit, after the dead monkey). Uneasy Money would make a wonderful motion picture. Well, what do you know: there was a movie version of the book—a silent film in 1918 (apparently featuring ZaSu Pitts as Claire's friend, as far as I can find out). Hey look, it was screened in Manhattan sometime in the not-too-distant past. And I missed it! I must read my Time Out New York more carefully.

I wonder if they put the dead monkey in the picture. Ah yes, the dead monkey. Let me put him in context, shall I? (An uncontexted monkey, dead or alive, is always a bother.) Claire's staying with her old friend Polly Davis (Lady Wetherby), a showgirl married a British Earl. Pity it's Algie, Lord Wetherby, the only Earl in England poorer than Bill himself. But don't weep for our married couple: Polly makes big money (hey, that would make a great Wodehouse title, too) with her exotic (i.e., barefoot) dancing at a New York nightclub and restaurant (the same one at which Claire and Bill bumped into each other) and are able to support a Long Island country home lifestyle. Lady Wetherby's press agent, the gung-ho publicist with the wonderful American name of Roscoe Sherriff, has convinced Polly to populate her home with exotic animals to make her gossip-worthy, including a snake named Clarence and a monkey (ah ha!) named Eustace, against Algie's objections. Eustace is high-spirited and has taken refuge in the kitchen, tossing eggs at the cook and butler:
Lady Wetherby led the way to the kitchen. She was wroth with Eustace. This was just the sort of thing out of which Algie would be able to make unlimited capital. It weakened her position with Algie. There was only one thing to do—she must hush it up.

Her first glance, however, at the actual theatre of war gave her the impression that matters had advanced beyond the hushing-up stage. A yellow desolation brooded over the kitchen. It was not so much a kitchen as an omelette. There were eggs everywhere, from floor to ceiling. She crunched her way in on a carpet of oozing shells.
To explain in detail what happens after would require many more paragraphs that wouldn't do the tragic and yet comic events justice. Suffice it to say that Eustace escapes, at the same time Claire's new fianceé millionaire he-man Dudley Pickering, sets off with his gun in search of a mysterious prowler about the estate (Bill mooning over Claire). Mishaps happen, events occur, triggers are accidentally pulled, and...
'Good Lord!'

The match went out.

'What is it? What has happened?'

Bill was fumbling for another match.

'There's something on the floor. It looks like—I thought for a minute—' The small flame shot out of the gloom, flickered, then burned with a steady glow. Bill stooped, bending over something on the ground. The match burned down.

Bill's voice came out of the darkness:

'I say, you were right about that noise. It was a shot. The poor little chap's down there on the floor with a hole in him the size of my fist.'
Please remove your hat and let's have a moment of silence for Eustace the monkey, shot dead on page 127—the only monkey murder in the P. G. Wodehouse canon.






Thank you.

Still, you can't help but giggle a bit and feel ashamed of yourself for doing so when Bill and Elizabeth, taking the ex-monkey away to bring his body back to Lady Wetherby, suddenly discover their feelings for each other and embrace and kiss.
'Bill, are you really fond of me?'

'Fond of you!'

She gave a sigh. 'You're so splendid!'

Bill was staggered. These were strange words. He had never thought much of himself. He had always looked on himself as rather a chump--well-meaning, perhaps, but an awful ass. It seemed incredible that any one--and Elizabeth of all people--could look on him as splendid.

And yet the very fact that she had said it gave it a plausible sort of sound. It shook his convictions. Splendid! Was he? By Jove, perhaps he was, what? Rum idea, but it grew on a chap. Filled with a novel feeling of exaltation, he kissed Elizabeth eleven times in rapid succession....

...A sense of something incongruous jarred upon Bill. Something seemed to be interfering with the supreme romance of that golden moment. It baffled him at first. Then he realized that he was still holding Eustace by the tail.
Try doing that in the movies, Hugh Grant.

I've quoted liberally from the text of Uneasy Money because for an early-ish work of Wodehouse, it really is one of his more romantic novels; certainly the most romantic of the books that I've read so far. There's a tearful parting of Elizabeth and Bill just about when you think the book is ready to end; so sad I had to set the novel down for a few minutes and sniffle into my hanky. She loves him but refuses to marry him because he's offered her the inheritance; she's afraid she might be in love with him because he's the solution to her money troubles, and so sends him away. Minutes later (as is wont to happen in Wodehouse books), when news arrives that Elizabeth is the true heir after all, there's a last-minute chase to the Long Island Rail Road train station to catch up with Bill before he choo-choos out of her life forever. All is forgiven; both are in love, and Bill has no trouble at all with his wife being the rich one in the family—money for nothing (hey!) was never at his comfort level. And as the two snuggle in their train seats on the way to a Manhattan justice of the peace, the book ends with this wonderfully sweet and romantic concluding paragraph:
'...Bill, listen. Come closer and tell me all sorts of nice things about myself till we get to Jamaica, and then I'll tell you what I think of you. We've just passed Islip, so you've plenty of time.'
Awwwwwwww. As a frequent rider of the LIRR myself, that's the nicest thing that has ever happened on those trains. And that includes the time I found a dime under the seats.

Oh, any by the way, just to reassure you: no monkeys were harmed in the making of this Wodehouse a Week post:


I'm rather charmed at how so many different editions of Uneasy Money have completely different scenes depicted on their covers. The old jacketed edition in the banner heading of this post depicts Bill and Elizabeth in that lyrical final scene on the train. My trusty Penguin 1980s paperback reprint portrays, painted by Wodehouse favorite Ionicus, a scene that doesn't actually happen in the book itself and is only referred to in flashback: the golf game where Bill impressed Lord Nutcombe so much he was left the five million. The Everyman/Overlook hardcover reprint had Bill and Elizabeth at the beehive (you can pick this edition up by clicking the Amazon link to the right), and I recently won on eBay a lovely older Penguin edition with a cartoon drawing of Eustace the monkey raising heck and tossing eggs in the country house kitchen. So I thank all the publishers and designers of all these editions for their excellent sense of book design and for resisting the impulse to put a dead monkey on the cover. That sort of thing belongs on an Irvine Welsh novel, not P. G. Wodehouse.

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6 comments:

Phillip said...

Worth the wait, Bully! I had not realized until I googled the phrase, "Lady Wetherby's Dream of Psyche" that I could find Woodehouse books on Project Gutenberg! Don't know if I'd have the patience to read something so long on a computer, but it's nice to know.

Phillip said...

Also, wouldn't "Lady Wetherby's Dream of Psyche" make a good band name?

SallyP said...

This does sound lovely. I must admit that I concur with your belief that Hugh Grant could NEVER kiss a girl while holding a dead monkey by the tail.

However, Hugh Laurie could.

wheelmaker said...

this is a dumb comment, but I will leave it anyway. I saw the pic of the monkey & books on flickr before seeing this post, and I thought the book was called Uneasy Monkey.

Bully said...

Don't feel bad, Miss W.: I did caption the photo 'Uneasy Monkey'! (My attempt at a silly pun.)

suedenim said...

My compliments to the young monkey thespian who does such a wonderful job of impersonating the becorpsed Eustace!

Take a bow, young stuffed simian!