Monday, March 10, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #45: The Swoop

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The Swoop, or How Clarence Saved England (1909) is one of Wodehouse's short works: while a usual Wodehouse takes me a back-and-forth subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan to read, The Swoop occupied a quick bus trip from Bryant Park to Union Square. (As I like to say, not so much a novella, more a novelleenee.) It's a bit of an oddity in the Canon—not quite a children's book, certainly not a romance, and, a few jabs at Sir Roderick Spode's politics aside, quite possibly the closest thing to a political satire Wodehouse has ever published. It's uniquely British of course: invading armies are met with disinterest and ennui by the people of England until a patriotic young Boy Scout and his company drive them off. So uniquely British, in fact, that it took until 1979 for The Swoop to be published in America, although a revised and abridged version featuring an invasion of America was published in Vanity Fair in the US in 1915. (I wonder how this book was viewed in retrospect during the time Wodehouse was seen as a traitor by many while he was a German P.O.W. and did lightly humorous broadcasts for the Reich.)

The Swoop's hero is fourteen year old Boy Scout Clarence Chugwater, the sole voice of patriotism in his family. How solo? So solo that he's the only one who even notices or cares about a foreign invasion:
He entered the dining-room with the speed of a highly-trained Marathon winner, just in time once more to prevent Mr Chugwater lowering his record.

'The Germans!' shouted Clarence. 'We are invaded!'

This time Mr Chugwater was really annoyed.

'If I have told you once about your detestable habit of shouting in the house, Clarence, I have told you a hundred times. If you cannot be a Boy Scout quietly, you must stop being one altogether. I had got up to six that time.'

'But, father—'

'Silence! You will go to bed this minute; and I shall consider the question whether you are to have any supper. It will depend largely on your behaviour between now and then. Go!'
Literature is full of kids seeing danger where adults don't (heck, the Harry Potter series makes it living off it), but Wodehouse's point is less than children are aware of it than that England's casual social mores don't allow them to be in an uproar. It's intended as a comic rather than an alarming point, however: The newspapers bury the invasion news under the cricket news, locals are more alarmed at the destruction of their golf greens under the heels of the marching armies, the populace views the Albert Hall as more picturesque in bombed ruins than in one piece, and plans are made to charge the armies small admission fees to enter historical sites. When the German generals arrive at the Chugwater house, Clarence's family treats them not much differently than if the vicar had popped by for a spot of tea. Long before Messrs. Hilter and Bimmler arrived at an English boarding house, the German invaders are met with remarkable calm and indifference:
'I say,' exclaimed Horace, who sat nearest the window, 'there are two rummy-looking chaps coming to the front door, wearing a sort of fancy dress!'

'It must be the Germans,' said Reggie. 'The paper says they landed here this afternoon. I expect—'

A thunderous knock rang through the house. The family looked at one another. Voices were heard in the hall, and next moment the door opened and the servant announced 'Mr Prinsotto and Mr Aydycong.'

'Or, rather,' said the first of the two newcomers, a tall, bearded, soldierly man, in perfect English, 'Prince Otto of Saxe-Pfennig and Captain the Graf von Poppenheim, his aide-de-camp.'

'Just so—just so!' said Mr Chugwater, affably. 'Sit down, won't you?'

The visitors seated themselves. There was an awkward silence.

'Warm day!' said Mr Chugwater.

'Very!' said the Prince, a little constrainedly.

'Perhaps a cup of tea? Have you come far?'

'Well—er—pretty far. That is to say, a certain distance. In fact, from Germany.'

'I spent my summer holiday last year at Dresden. Capital place!'

'Just so. The fact is, Mr—er—'

'Chugwater. By the way—my wife, Mrs. Chugwater.'

The prince bowed. So did his aide-de-camp.

'The fact is, Mr Jugwater,' resumed the prince, 'we are not here on a holiday.'

'Quite so, quite so. Business before pleasure.'

The prince pulled at his moustache. So did his aide-de-camp, who seemed to be a man of but little initiative and conversational resource.

'We are invaders.'

'Not at all, not at all,' protested Mr Chugwater.
In fact, several armies have landed in Britain: Germans, Russians, Swiss, Arabs (led by the infamous and historical 'Mad Mullah'). The Chinese invade Wales, Monaco lands in Scotland. There's Turks, Moroccans, and (fictionally and more than a bit politically incorrect by modern standards) 'dark-skinned warriors from the distant isle of Bollygolla.' Wodehouse gets in a full short chapter of potshots at the British press relating how various commentators and columnists react to the invasions, and, in what would be a frightening and terrifying account in anyone else's hands, deftly describes the bombing of London in a single chapter, which I present to you in its entirety:
Chapter 6

Thus was London bombarded. Fortunately it was August, and there was nobody in town.

Otherwise there might have been loss of life.
It's only ten years since The War of the Worlds, and more important, Wodehouse is writing this in a golden age of invasion literature. Of this genre, our good pal Wikipedia tells us:
Invasion literature (or the invasion novel) was a historical literary genre most notable between 1871 and the First World War (1914)....1914 the genre had amassed a corpus of over 400 books, many best-sellers, and a world-wide audience. The genre was influential in Britain in shaping politics, national policies and popular perceptions in the years leading up to the First World War, and remains a part of popular culture to this day. he's poking fun not only at British culture of the time but popular British literature. He brings in elements of his school stories from slightly earlier in his then-new writing career: deft and daring young Boy Scouts who repel the invaders in a manner that makes Kevin McAllister look like a thug: Clarence Chugwater arranges for the opposing generals to star in West End theaters and sets up a rivalry over which show is the most popular. It's all done with a light touch that's forgivable in its silliness, but you'd be mistaken if you read this and didn't recognize it as Wodehouse: there's little here that's reminiscent of his other work. It's today read mostly as an oddity or by completists who are reading the entire Wodehouse canon in a set period of time for some reason or other, but I can certainly tell you it's a pleasant way to spend a brisk bus trip down Fifth Avenue on a bright March day.

Wodehouse aficionado that I am, you may be shocked and stunned to learn I never owned a copy of The Swoop. Until, that is, a few weeks ago. On looking at my Wodehouse list and checking it twice, I remembered that there's still a very small hoof-ful of Plum's books, mostly early ones, that I don't actually own. Amazon to the rescue: The Swoop is back in print in at least a couple public domain editions. Mine (printed by Bibliobazaar) features the odd design choice of a peacock on the cover. There are no peacocks in this book. You can order the slightly-apter-covered Arc Manor edition by clicking on the Amazon link to the upper right. Arc Manor publishes an extensive line of mostly-early (probably out of copyright) Wodehouse with, if I might be blunt, quite primitive cartoon covers, but you've got to applaud their service of keeping some of this rare stuff in print; I would have traded my eye teeth for it when I was but a tiny stuffed calf. If a little bull had eye teeth. In any case, swoop on down and invade your bookstore and demand they stock or order these for you. Not only will you at last read the tale of Clarence, Boy of Destiny, but you'll also learn what you must do when the Swiss invade our borders, flipping open their handy multi-pronged knives and threatening to take away our clocks and chocolate.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


SallyP said...

"Thus was London bombarded. Fortunately, it was August and there was nobody in town".

If that isn't the most perfect quotation that I have ever read, then I don't know what is.

Monty Ashley said...

I like that the early books are coming out of copyright, which means it's now worth tiny publishers' time to print cheap copies for me to buy. I do wish they'd put a little more effort into the covers, though.

CLM said...

How many works are left that you have never read?

Bully said...

Well, C, I'm a wee bit behind on doing my reviews (altho' I've kept up on reading the books), but once I've caught up I'm about halfway done—about 50-52 more books to read!