"I was reading your last book the other day."
"Yes?" I said, gratified. "How did you like it?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, laddie, I didn't get beyond the third page, because the scurvy knave at the bookstall said he wasn't running a free library, and in one way and another there was a certain amount of unpleasantness. Still, it seemed bright and interesting up to page three."from Love Among the Chickens
A Month of Firsts continues this week with Love Among the Chickens, which is the first literary appearance of Wodehouse's Stanley Featherstone Ukridge. It is also, by a curious coincidence, Ukridge's chronologically final appearance. Gasp! Consternation! Uproar! How is that so, Bully? you demand, grabbing me by the fuzzy little neck and shaking me vigorously. We're not fools! We happen to know that there are later stories about Ukridge! Are you lying to us? Are you? Are you? Well, s-s-s-stop s-s-s-shaking me and I'll tell you!
Love Among the Chickens was originally published in 1906 (1909 in the US), but Wodehouse later re-wrote and re-published it in 1921. (I'm reading the 1921 version). Even that stretch of 15 years doesn't account for my original statement, however. While this is Ukridge's only novel, he appears in nineteen short stories, all of which are published after (both versions of) Love Among the Chickens, but which take place chronologically before Love. Clear yet? Ah yes, but how can I tell? Ukridge is married in this one, and single in the stories. He gets married to the delightful Millie at the of 1924's Ukridge. And he's married in Love Among the Chickens. So Ukridge's literary debut is also his chronological ride into the sunset. Meta, huh?
Whatever the timeline, this is mild but entertaining fun. Ever quick with a get-rich-fast scheme, Ukridge cons his writer friend Jeremy Garnet into helping him and Millie to start-up a chicken farm in the Dorset countryside, a surefire way of making money, if Ukridge actually knew anything about chicken-farming:
"The incubator has not done all that it should have done," I said. "Ukridge looks after it, and I fancy his methods are not the right methods. I don't know if I have got the figures absolutely correct, but Ukridge reasons on these lines. He says you are supposed to keep the temperature up to a hundred and five degrees. I think he said a hundred and five. Then the eggs are supposed to hatch out in a week or so. He argues that you may just as well keep the temperature at seventy-two, and wait a fortnight for your chickens. I am certain there's a fallacy in the system somewhere, because we never seem to get as far as the chickens. But Ukridge says his theory is mathematically sound, and he sticks to it."Jeremy's more interested in a chick than a chicken: the lovely Phyllis Derrick. It was love at first sight when he spied Phyllis and her irritable Irish father Professor Derrick on the train down to Dorset, especially since Phyllis was reading The Manoeuvres of Arthur, one of Jeremy's novels. Complications set in (don't they always?) when Ukridge riles up the Professor at a dinner party (much like Basil Fawlty was warned not to talk about the war, Ukridge cheerfully and unconsciously commits the sin of discussing the Irish)Jeremy is banned from Phyllis's sight, and the resourceful writer must resort to bribing a servant to tip over the Professor's boat in order to save him and win his respectthe sort of plot Bertie Wooster might come up with later on in the Wodehouse canon, with about the same backfiring results. It takes a golf tournament to smooth over the ruffled feathers, but here come Ukridge's creditors, storming down the country lane and demanding payment...
Love Among the Chickens isn't one of Wodehouse's finest novels, even judged against his earlier work, even in this rewritten form. Jeremy Garnet is no James Corcoran (Ukridge's later Boswell), and even Ukridge is not fully developedthe later rogue outshines this early prototype with blinding clarity. It's a very gentle romance plot with only a couple ups and downs, punctuated by lightly humorous recountings of trying to raise poultry but winding up eating most of them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Wodehouse's prose is clever and tight but not as sparkling as his later works, and he sometimes falls prey to a mawkish sentimentality which wouldn't be out of place in a motion picture of the time but which seems clichéd and caricatured compared to his later romances:
The sun was setting as I left to return to the farm, with Aunt Elizabeth stored neatly in a basket in my hand. The air was deliciously cool, and full of that strange quiet which follows soothingly on the skirts of a broiling midsummer afternoon. Far away, seeming to come from another world, a sheep-bell tinkled, deepening the silence. Alone in a sky of the palest blue there gleamed a small, bright star.In keeping with A Month of Firsts, and perhaps for the very first time in the Wodehouse a Week project, this is the first time I have read Love Among the Chickens. I have only one copy of the book, a nice Herbert Jenkins uniform hardcover reprint from 1963. It may have sat in the bookstore for quite some time, as the initial used book price penciled inside the front cover is "12/6" (twelve shillings and sixpence). It was given to me by my friends Mary and Jay following their trip to London a few years ago. It's a lovely gift and I treasure it greatly, but I'm not certain I'll read it again any time soon. You might say "P. G. Wodehouse: he does chicken right," but on the other hand, while savory, this isn't exactly finger-lickin' good.
I addressed this star.
"She was certainly very nice to me. Very nice indeed." The star said nothing.
"On the other hand, I take it that, having had a decent up-bringing, she would have been equally polite to any other man whom she had happened to meet at her father's house. Moreover, I don't fee altogether easy in my mind about that naval chap. I fear the worst."
The star winked.
"He calls her Phyllis," I said.
"Charawk!" chuckled Aunt Elizabeth from her basket, in that beastly cynical, satirical way which has made her so disliked by all right-thinking people.
If, in your desire for fine chicken literature you feel a strong yearning to pick up a copy of Love Among the Chickens, why, you're in luck, cluck! Simply cluck...er, click on the Amazon sales box to the right to pick up your own copy. You might want to hunt around, thoughI'm sure there are less expensive used copies on the marketplace. After all, if you're digging into your nest egg, you'll want to save some scratch. Look closely and you may be able to find a copy for a buck-buck-buck!
A Wodehouse a Week Index.