Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #32: The Luck of the Bodkins

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Stuffed Mickey Mouse with screw-top headMuch as I'd wish otherwise, there aren't many Wodehouse books whose plots spiral around a stuffed animal. Oh sure, I can see it now: Bully at Blandings. What Ho, Bully! The Inimitable Bully. Eggs, Bully and Crumpets. But sadly, I'm not in any of 'em. But there is a Wodehouse that stars...well, if not stars, then certainly would be the poorer for the absence of...a stuffed animal: a plush Mickey Mouse that serves the vital purpose of being the essential Silver Cow Creamer (S.C.C.) in The Luck of the Bodkins (1935).

I've spoken of The Luck of the Bodkins in brief previously, so I'm chuffed as Clarabelle Cow to be picking it up this week—it's one of my favorite Wodehouses (Wodehice?), and I've mentioned it so frequently you might think I've already reviewed it. Au contraire, ma petite fromage! You might be thinking of the other Monty Bodkin novels: Heavy Weather (which precedes the events of Luck) or Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin which immediately follows it, even though it was written almost forty years later. So stop complaining at Miss Rowling because she took two or three years between volumes of her The Amazing Bespectacled Boy Wizard Does Fabulous Things with a Wand and His Two Tag-Along Mates series: Wodehouse made us wait nearly four decades for the trilogy capper.

Despite—or, if Wodehouse was going in for a touch of the old irony, because of—the title, Monty Bodkin is not having an easy time of it. When we left him in Heavy Weather, he was being forced to hold down a job for a period of one year before J. G. Butterwick, protective father of Monty's fiancée Gertrude. It's not that Monty needs money—he's simply rolling in the stuff—but that old J. G. won't allow Gertrude to slip on the wedding band to a man with no earning capability. Easy enough for Monty to solve: he's bought himself a position as a nominal employee in a detective agency, simply paying to be employed for a year to fulfill the contract. And as he steps aboard the R.M.S. Atlantic for the trans...uh...Atlantic crossing, all seems right with the world, with Gertrude Butterwick, and with a future so bright, Monty will have to wear a tinted monocle.

Of course, there's storms on the horizon. Not literally (although Wodehouse fits in a swift but rather nifty description of exactly how you feel during rough weather on the high seas), but storms in the form of titian-tressed Hollywood starlet Lotus Blossom (whadda name!), her fiancé Ambrose Tennyson (Gertrude Butterwick's cousin), Ambrose's brother Reggie Tennyson, who's in love with Mabel Spence, who is the sister-in-law of Ivor Llewellyn. Yes, that Ivor Llewellyn: Hollywood movie mogul, and frequent guest star in Wodehouse's world whenever a portly producer of pictures (moving) is called for. Circle the whole cast of characters around like wagons under siege now, because Llewellyn's startled and suspicious of "professional detective" Monty. Why? What would make a powerful man of commerce and producer like Llewellyn (who, as an aside, really needs his own Wikipedia entry, since the number one Google result in searching for his name turns up my own blog) quake in his five hundred dollar spats? Why, the shadow of his off-stage but powerfully-presenced wife Grayce, who has ordered Llewellyn to smuggle a valuable $50,000 pearl necklace into New York without paying the duty. Llewellyn's sure Monty's spying on him and will toss his posterior in the pokey the moment he sets foot on American soil. So Llewellyn will do anything, anything to have the problem of how to get the necklace into America safely...

Most of The Luck of the Bodkins except for the opening chapters and closing chapters is set on board the Atlantic, and while it may not be as brilliant a shipboard comedy as that paragon of passenger sail A Night at the Opera, Wodehouse gets a great deal of guffaws and giggles out of the conventions of transatlantic passage. Monty is unceremoniously shuffled from room to room throughout the voyage to put distance between himself and the alluring, flirty Lotus Blossom (or to do the same for Reggie), and there's much fun to be had over a shipboard concert, but the star of the Atlantic (and the Sensational New Character Find of 1935) is Albert Peasemarch, the loquacious ship's porter, who firmly wedges himself into the affairs of every character in a cheerful and meddling way, as when he advises an inattentive and daydreaming Monty on affairs of the heart:
'The fact of the matter is, sir, women haven't got the heads men have got. I believe it's something to do with the bone structure.'

'True," said Monty. He adjusted his tie and looked at it critically in the mirror. A little sigh escaped him. It was not a bad tie. He would go further, it was a jolly good tie. But it was not the tie with the pink roses on the dove-grey background.

'Take my old mother,' proceeded Albert Peasemarch, with that touch of affectionate reproach which comes to a thoughtful man when he contemplates the shortcomings of the opposite sex. 'Always losing and forgetting things, she is. She could never keep her spectacles by her for two minutes on end. Many a rare hunt I've had for them when I was a young chap. She's have lost those spectacles if she'd been alone on an iceberg.'


'My mother, sir.'

'On an iceberg?'

'Yes, sir.'

'When was your mother ever on an iceberg?'

Albert Peasemarch perceived that his remarks had not secured his overlord's undivided attention.
In fact, so boisterously bombastic is Peasemarch that the front dust jacket of one of my editions of The Luck of the Bodkins proudly declares "Introducing Albert Peasemarch—steamship steward extraordinary, who will take his rightful place beside Jeeves, Psmith, Mr. Mulliner and the other Wodehouse immortals." Well, not exactly. But he does dramatically liven up this book, and like Jeeves himself, provides the twist ending that brings a happy conclusion to the loving couples, every man and girl jack and jacqueline of them, and even necklace-relieved Ivor Llewellyn is whistling a happy tune by the final page.

Which is not to say that there aren't, like waves upon the stormy sea, many ups and downs on the voyage. There's—just off the top of my head—the flirty message written in brilliant red lipstick by Lotus Blossom on the wall of Monty's stateroom bath. The tattoo on Monty's chest proclaiming his love for "Sue" rears its inked head again after complicating matters in Heavy Weather. Monty convincing Gertrude that Reggie is a dastardly liar to help him reconcile with her after a spat, only to have that same argument blow up in his face later in the novel when Reggie tries to argue to Gertrude that Monty is on the level and not making woo-eyes at Lotus Blossom. Don't forget Lotus's charming pet, Wilfred the toothy alligator, stowed away in a basket on board (luckily escaping the fatal fate of Eustace the monkey in Uneasy Money).

And oh, that plush Mickey Mouse? Why, he gets the most attention of them all. Bought as a gift for Gertrude by Monty, this charming stuffed toy is actually hollow with a screw-off head so you can put chocolates in him. While I heartily approve of the concept and especially the practice of putting chocolates into your nearest stuffed animal, the idea of screwing off my head to do so caused me to wince and cry out when I first read it in the book. But the plush mouse is passed back and forth from Gertrude to Monty (whenever she is angry with him she furiously returns it). Lotus literally takes the Mickey, holding it for ransom to get Monty to convince Ivor Llewellyn to give Ambrose back his job, Llewellyn having backed out of a contract when he discovered Ambrose Tennyson was not the Tennyson. And hey, wouldn't a stuffed animal with a hollow compartment in it be a dandy place to hide a pearl necklace you might need to smuggle through customs? Could be! Um, only in theory, of course. Please do not use me to defraud the United States Customs authority the next time we are on a transatlantic trip together.

The Luck of the Bodkins holds a special place in my heart not merely for putting a plush brethren front and center in the action but also for being, I think, one of Wodehouse's most delightful comedies of error: complicated character connections made crystal clear by Wodehouse' precise and lyrical writing, and an plot that id an elaborate balancing-act: add a pebble to either side and the whole shebang teeters precariously, but never to the point of total knock-it-down disaster. Wodehouse is the master of tossing just the right pebble to watch the action rock back and forth, and even though by the end we've got our sea legs and are rocking right along with him, he as usual always has a few final twists to give the last chapter a breathless breakneck speed.

And of course, his writing. There are so many little Post-It™ tabs sticking out of my reading copy of The Luck of the Bodkins that I easily could have made this entire column just excerpts from the novel which made me giggle with glee. Here're a few of my favorite bits:
The steward's face suddenly cleared. He looked like a man who has been poring over a clue in a crossword puzzle, at a loss to divine what 'large Australian bird' can possibly be, and in an unexpected flash has had it come to him. Just as such a man will quiver in every limb and cry 'Emu!', just as Archimedes on a well-known occasion quivered in every limb and cried 'Eureka!'—so now did Albert Peasemarch quiver in every limb and cry 'Coo!'

'Coo, sir!' cried Albert Peasemarch.
A sudden illumination came to Gertrude.

'Why, how silly of me. You're sailing too, aren't you?'

'Well, would I be up at a ghastly hour like this, if I wasn't?'

'Of course, yes. The family are sending you off to Canada, to work in an office. I remember hearing father talking about it.'

'He,' said Reggie coldly, 'was the spearhead of the movement.'

'Well, it's about time. Work is what you want.'

'Work is not what I want. I hate the thought of it.'
Here's Ivor Llewellyn reading an alarming letter from his shrew of a wife, Grayce:
Mr Llewellyn took the bulky envelope from her and opened it. As he perused its contents by the light of the library window, his lower jaw drifted slowly from its moorings, so that by the time he had finished his second chin had become wedged into the one beneath it.
And Monty getting the last word in edgewise over Albert Peasemarch:
'I am, of course, aware,' proceeded Albert Peasemarch, with a dignified humility which became him well, 'that it is not my place to offer criticism or censure, but if I may take the liberty of saying so, I have become respectfully attached to you in the course of the voyage, sir, and I have your best interests at heart. And I say—Is this wise? If you insist upon me taking this letter to Miss Blossom, I will, of course, do so, being always willing to oblige, but I say again—Is this wise?'

'Peasemarch,' said Monty, 'you're an ass.'
And, of course:
Wodehouse with pipeNovelists of the virile school ought to be prohibited by law from having themselves photographed with pipes in their mouths. It is not fair on those of the public who suddenly catch sight of them. It makes them look so strong and stern that the observer cannot but sustain a nasty shock.
With all the lovey-doveyness and happy endings going on that reunite Monty and Gertrude, however, it's interesting to remember that in the eventual sequel, Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin, Monty eventually does find his one True Love—and it ain't Gertrude. So, to quote another brilliant bard who knew a thing or too about affairs of the heart, Monty and Gertrude's storm-tossed romance in The Luck of the Bodkins is, eventually, much ado about nothing. But what an ado!

You too can coo an ado by heading over to, zon dot com and clicking yourself up your very own copy of The Luck of the Bodkins in the link to the right. Me, I've already got several copies of this seafaring classic, including the Everyman Wodehouse hardcover reissue, two versions of a war-era US hardcover reprint by Triangle Press (with one that's delightfully dustjacketed with that blurb heralding Albert Peasemarch as the new comic superstar), and two versions of a Penguin mass market-sized paperback, both of which feature illustrations of that rodent royale, the stuffed Mickey Mouse, on their covers:
Fake Mickey Mice

...neither of which looks, really, anything at all like the real Mickster of 1935—say, in his classic cartoon "The Band Concert"...

But hey, I'm not complaining. I know how litigious Disney is, and the last thing I want them to do is to sue Mister Wodehouse, his publishers, and, because I'm cheerfully working my way through a Wodehouse a Week, me. I'd much rather stay at home and stuff the hollow spot in my tummy with chocolates.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


Novice said...

Bully, thank you so much for your wonderful reviews of Wodehice.

Also, my 2 year old studied the cartoon with the serious expression of a young scholar translating Flaubert from the original French.

Matthew E said...

Monty and Gertrude's storm-tossed romance in The Luck of the Bodkins is, eventually, much ado about nothing.

Of course, the same is true of an even more storm-tossed romance, that of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett.

SallyP said...

Ah, for the days of trans-Atlantic cruises. It was such a civilized way to travel.

It's awfully hard to have hi-jinks on an airplane.

Monty Ashley said...

I think my copy is a Triangle Press one, but it's green, not blue. And I don't have one of those cool dustcovers.

matt said...

Thank you, Bully, for your Wodehouse a Week reviews. I had always meant to read Wodehouse, but it took your blog to nudge me to action. I am hooked for life.