Then again, it would have been fun to spend the week staring at Keira Knightley. Oh bother. Instead I paid attention to the 1970 novel by P. G. Wodehouse:
I do like the work of Ionicus, the cartoonist-illustrator of many Penguin Wodehouse editions, but I gotta tell ya, this is one of my least favorite of his book covers. While most of the cast is lined up merrily on the cover (from L-R: Crispin Scrope, owner of the costly and crumbling ruin of Mellingham Hall; Chippendale the (fake) butler, sent by Scrope's creditor to keep an eye on him; boisterous and friendly shoplifter Bernadette "Barney" Clayborne; local Police Constable Simms; cartoonist Jerry West; air hostess and Jerry's love interest Jane Hunnicut; and Willoughby Scrope, Crispin's flush younger brother), I don't feel the portrayals adequately capture the energy of Bernie or Jane, although the smarmy menace of Chippendale isn't badly shown in his rat-like cartoon face. But is it just me, or is the part of Jerry West played in this production by Jimmy Olsen?
Sharp buttons eyes like mine, however, will spot one significant thing wrong with the cover: Barney's dressed in gold and Jane in pink. Where, oh where, therefore, is the titular (tee hee!) Girl in Blue? Why, spy closer, Wodehouse-wonderers, and see this novel's Silver Cow Creamer, the source and cause of all the consternation and uproar at pastoral Mellingham Hall:
Meet the Girl in Blue, everyone: a miniature painting by Thomas Gainsborough (n.b.: not a fictional character), purchased by Willoughby Scrope because the subject is his and Crispin's great-great grandmother. When the painting is accidentally mislaid (a well-meaning friend tucks it in a desk drawer to avoid it being stolen), Willoughby suspects Bernadette "Barney" Clayborne, and with good reason: she's recently been convicted of being a cheerful shoplifter. Barney's a guest at the family estate, and Willoughby instructs his timid brother Crispin to recover the miniature from Barney's grasps, by hook or by crook.
Where do our usual lovebird couple come in, you ask? Enter cartoonist Jimmy Ol...er, I mean Jerry, who falls deeply in love with Jane two paras into chapter twonever mind that he doesn't know her name:
...Jerry, gazing at the girl in the far end of the row in which he sat, became more convinced than ever that the odd illusion of having been struck on the frontal bone by an atom bomb, experienced by him on his initial glimpse of her, had been to due to love at first sight. It happens that way sometimes. A's love for B, of for the matter of that, C's love for D, often requiring long months before it comes to the boil, can occasionally start functioning with the sudden abruptness of one of those explosions in a London street which slay six. There seems to be no fixed rule....and even never minder that there's another complication which initially failed to occur to Jerry:
He saw her now in the office of a registrar licenced to perform marriages, for he was sure that a girl like that would not want one of those ghastly choral weddings with bishops and assistant clergy horsing up all over the place. They would get it all fixed up in a couple of minutes, and later on they would sit together in their cozy little nest like two love birds on a perch. In the long winter evenings that would be, of course. In the summer they would be playing golf or enjoying a refreshing swim.Alas poor Jerry? Heck no. Lucky Jerry to be a character in a Wodehouse romance, as his engagement to social-climbing shrewish Vera Upshaw is casually broken (by her) with little or no consequence, freeing Jerry up to woo Jane. Ain't love grand? In such a way I someday hope to woo Miss Keira Knightley.
It was as his mind's eye was probing even more deeply into their domestic life that there came to him the realization that there was an obstacle, and a rather serious one, in the way of the bliss he was contemplating. He had suddenly remembered, what for the moment had slipped his mind, that he was engaged to be married to someone else.
Interspersed among all that woo-pitchin' is the hunt for the miniature, which (we know) Barney is innocent of stealing, but the rest of the cast plots to search and ransack her room, with the usual comedies of error that result in fake butler Chippendale forcing Jerry to hide in a cupboard, where, of course, he is found out almost immediately. At one point, Crispin, being a man of obvious literary taste, suggests a plot straight out of Conan Doyle:
'...You are familiar with the exploits of Sherlock Holmes?'That is, of course, because Crispin is, unlike the cerulean miniature, is well in the red:
'Know them by heart, but which of them would be any use to us? Would it be the Adventure of the Five Orange Pips? Are you planning to intimidate Mrs. Clayborne by sending her five orange pips, with a message telling her to put the miniature on the sun dial?'
'That had not occurred to me.'
'It might work. It would depend, of course, on whether she's allergic to orange pips. Many people aren't.'
'My plan is based not so much on a story as on something Holmes said in one of the stories. He said, if you recall, that when a house is on fire, everyone's impulse is to carry out from the flames the thing most precious to them; in Mrs. Clayborne's case, I think we may assume, the miniature. That seems to me a correct statement of human psychology.'
Jerry, having no mustache to finger, fingered his chin.
'Let's get this straight. For the moment I'm a little fogged. Are you proposing to set fire to Mellingham Hall?'
Crispin could not repress a wistful sigh. The picture of a heavily insured Mellingham Hall in flames was a very attractive one.
And indeed there was a certain resemblance between Crispin and such a cadaver, for the passage of time had done nothing to diminish the horror of the task before him. He was also experiencing pains of remorse for the past. 'Oh, what a tangled web we weave,' he was saying to himself, 'when we touch a brother for two hundred and three pounds six and fourpence and then go and lose a hundred of it on a horse that comes in second.'Never fear, dear Reader: everyone has a happy ending: finances gained, loves blossomed, miniatures restored. It's a clever book: like an episode of Columbo, the fun is not in finding out whodunit but in seeing how the mystery is unraveled. While Jerry and Jill are pleasant but somewhat nondescript hero and heroine, Chippendale, the butler who calls his master "cocky" and "chum" steals much of the show, and is even the center of attention in the novel's closing moments. In 1970 Wodehouse's career was winding down, and while The Girl in Blue isn't one of his top books, it has a pleasant spiraling plot and amicable characters, and the brief mention of a twin miniature of a Girl in Green suggests maybe we might have seen a sequel and a return to Mellingham Hall someday. Alas, it was never to be, but we can dream, can't we? We can dream...
I've got two editions of The Girl in Blue in my collection: one the Penguin paperback with Ionicus illustration discussed above, the other a US Simon & Schuster hardcover book club edition with a rather cheerful Osbert Lancaster cartoon (he also did the cover illustration for my edition of Bachelors Anonymous). You...yes, you! can pinch yourself a miniature copy of the original by clicking on the Amazon.com link to the above right and stealthily pocketing The Girl in Blue for your very own. It's got a nice colorful cover on it, doesn't it? Ah yes. But really, in the end, it can't beat the book cover that is seen in the romantic day-dreams of a little stuffed bull:
A Wodehouse a Week Index.