Derek drew at his cigar, and watched the smoke as it curled to the ceiling.
'It's about Jill.'
Freddie signified his interest by wriggling still further sideways.
'Freddie, she's so damned impulsive!'
Freddie nearly rolled out of his chair. This, he took it, was what writing-chappies called a coincidence.
'Rummy you should say that,' he ejaculated. 'I was telling her exactly the same thing myself only this evening.'
from Jill the Reckless by P. G. Wodehouse
This week's Wodehouse is Jill the Reckless (1921, titled The Little Warrior in the USA). How reckless is Jill Mariner? Well, she ticks off her snobbish fiancé Derek by having dinner with an old chum from her childhood in Chapter Four, and by Chapter Five she's pinched by the Metropolitan Police for assault. She's got a perfectly good reason, of courseJill's pleasant and smart and not at all the Frank Castle type: she was thrashing an animal abuser who was trying to attack an escape parrot. But by far the most reckless thing young Jill does is lose her family fortune. Rather, it's her charming rogue of an Uncle Chris (a sort of proto-Uncle Fred in the Wodehouse canon) who loses it all on the stock market. For this she's shunned by her fiancé and his family, and like all good heroines off to make their way in life, she escapes to New York to take a job as a chorus girl on the Broadway stage. Reckless? Mmm, by the standards of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, Our Miss Mariner is practically Mother Cabrini.
Thus begins one of Wodehouse's early comedy-romances, and it's a wonderful little fluffy piece of adventure, one of my favorite of his between-the-war non-series books. Jill is one of Wodehouse's favorite names for a heroine (remind me to someday do that pie-chart showing how often he re-used female names for protagonists) and his affection for her is clear and adoring, passing her brightness and cheer onto us. She's no Pollyannashe's clearly inherited the family cleverness that gets her con-man uncle into so much troubleher can-do spirit and cheerful demeanor keep her from being a pushover, as solemn Long Island relatives try continuously to take advantage of her good will until Jill has had all she can take:
Mrs Mariner frowned.There's other great characters: Freddie Rooke is a helpful and sometimes bumbling member of the Drone Club; he follows Jill to New York to persuade her to return to Derek but winds up staying for a life on the stage when he falls in love with a chorus girl. There's Wally Mason, tall, gallant and handsome playwright, who we all know is the man Jill should be with (but she's not sure of it herself until the end of the book). While Wally serves several plot points to introduce Jill to her new world, Wodehouse smartly resists the temptation to make Wally a deus ex manhattana to solve all her problemsinstead, Jill's smarts and kindness get her ahead and solve the puzzles, no matter how complicated they are. Her Uncle ChrisMajor Christopher Selbyis a charming rogue, conning his way into crashing at Wally's lush midtown apartment behind Wally's back. Then there's a bevy of chorus girls: Babe, The Duchess, Nelly and the Cherub, who are about to become Jill's friends and confidantes and for whom Jill learns she can lay down the law to authority on behalf of. I like almost everyone in this novel, and if Wodehouse probably could have used a little bit of judicious editing (it clocks in at 300+ pages, about a third longer than the vast majority of Wodehouse novels), Jill flies by thanks to its energetic and amusing cast of characters.
"I was going to suggest," she said frostily, "that you shovelled the snow away from the front steps!"
"Splendid!" said Jill. "Oh, but I forgot. I want to go to the village first."
"There will be plenty of time to do it when you get back."
"All right. I'll do it when I get back."
It was a quarter of an hour's walk to the village. Jill stopped at the post-office.
"Could you tell me," she asked, "when the next train is to New York?"
"There's one at ten-ten," said the woman, behind the window. "You'll have to hurry."
"I'll hurry!" said Jill.
Add to that cast of characters the twin cities of the novel's setting, my two favorite big-ass cities in the world, London and New York. Wodehouse as a comic writer isn't best known for lyrical and picturesque descriptions of his cities, but his affection for both metropolises is generally crystal clear, and in Jill he foregoes much of the usual humor and off-handed jokes when he describes London and New York, giving us almost Dickensian paragraphs like
There are streets in London into which the sun seems never to penetrate. Some of these are in fashionable quarters, and it is to be supposed that their inhabitants find an address which looks well on note-paper a sufficient compensation for the gloom that goes with it. The majority, however, are in the mean neighborhoods of the great railway termini, and appear to offer no compensation whatever. They are lean, furtive streets, gray as the January sky with a sort of arrested decay. They smell of cabbage and are much prowled over by vagrom cats. At night they are empty and dark, and a stillness broods on them, broken only by the cracked tingle of an occasional piano playing one of the easier hymns, a form of music to which the dwellers in the dingy houses are greatly addicted. By day they achieve a certain animation through the intermittent appearance of women in aprons, who shake rugs out of the front doors or, emerging from areas, go down to the public-house on the corner with jugs to fetch the supper-beer. In almost every ground-floor window there is a card announcing that furnished lodgings may be had within. You will find these streets by the score if you leave the main thoroughfares and take a short cut on your way to Euston, to Paddington, or to Waterloo. But the dingiest and deadliest and most depressing lie round about Victoria. And Daubeny Street, Pimlico, is one of the worst of them all.Those of you who know this li'l stuffed bull know that one of my favorite times of day in England's capital is being able to wander through London by night, so this description of wandering down the Thames Embankment after dusk especially touched me. His words still ring true; it's barely changed in almost ninety years:
She glanced down the Embankment. Close by, to the left, Waterloo Bridge loomed up, dark and massive against the steel-gray sky, A tram-car, full of home-bound travellers, clattered past over rails that shone with the peculiarly frostbitten gleam that seems to herald snow. Across the river, everything was dark and mysterious, except for an occasional lamp-post and the dim illumination of the wharves. It was a depressing prospect, and the thought crossed her mind that to the derelicts whose nightly resting-place was a seat on the Embankment the view must seem even bleaker than it did to herself. She gave a little shiver. Somehow this sudden severance from the old days had brought with it a forlornness. She seemed to be standing alone in a changed world.Things are apt to get brighter and sunnier in New York, both thematically and literally, when Jill once again meets Wally there, with room for another wonderful panorama landscape view of a great city:
"Cold?" said Wally Mason.
They moved westwards. Cleopatra's Needle shot up beside them, a pointing finger. Down on the silent river below, coffin-like row-boats lay moored to the wall. Through a break in the trees the clock over the Houses of Parliament shone for an instant as if suspended in the sky, then vanished as the trees closed in. A distant barge in the direction of Battersea wailed and was still. It had a mournful and foreboding sound. Jill shivered again.
Wally disappeared again, and a few moments later Jill heard the faint splashing of water. She walked to the parapet and looked down. On the windows of the nearer buildings the sun cast glittering beams, but further away a faint, translucent mist hid the city. There was Spring humidity in the air. In the street she had found it oppressive: but on the breezy summit of this steel-and-granite cliff the air was cool and exhilarating. Peace stole into Jill's heart as she watched the boats dropping slowly down the East River, which gleamed like dull steel through the haze. She had come to Journey's End, and she was happy. Trouble and heart-ache seemed as distant as those hurrying black ants down on the streets. She felt far away from the world on an enduring mountain of rest. She gave a little sigh of contentment, and turned to go in as Wally called.A good two-thirds of the novel takes place in Manhattan, and that's "good" not only as "the better part of" but also "agreeable": New York City energizes and enlivens our heroine and brings out the best in her. I see her point. It's a tough city to live inthe mild-mannered need not apply, and being a small stuffed bull on the MTA subway is often an invitation to have a boot step on you. But it's a grand and glorious place, and Jill's (and Wodehouse's) affection for it is nicely drawn. Much of the action takes place in Bryant Hall, a (possibly fictional) music hall theater on 42nd Street, my midtown stomping grounds. Right across Fifth Avenue from the New York Public Library is Wally Mason's midtown apartment, so deviously appropriated by Uncle Chris, so out at lunchtime on a bright day I stepped around the corner and tried to scout out 9 East 41st Street, where Wally lived on the 22nd floor. Wally's building is almost certainly gone: there's no building at that address or near it of that height, and the buildings are all much young than 1921. But here, showing the scaffolding that tells you New York is always a place of change and transformation, is where once upon a time Uncle Chris threw dinner parties behind Wally's back and from whose balcony Jill gazed out across the East River. You see, there's a little bit of Wodehouse wherever your hoofs take you.
Jill has much in her to be admired: her faithfulness to friends, her cleverness in a scrape, kindness to animals, resourceful nature, and gung-ho spirit are all signs of the finest of her fair sex. But there's another way she proves to be one of my favorite Wodehouse heroines. Like another famous New Yorker, she's quite fond of a delicacy that might aptly be named the food of the gods:
'Whatever are you doing in New York?' asked the girl. 'I never knew you meant to come over.'You can't go wrong with a heroine who enjoys wheatcakes.
'It was a little sudden. Still, here I am. And I'm starving. What are those things you're eating?'
'Oh, yes. I remember Uncle Chris talking about them on the boat. I'll have some.'
I had wheatcakes for breakfast this morning and delicious they were too, a proper accompaniment to reading this Wodehouse booktwo of my favorite delights at the same table. Be careful you don't get syrup on your book and you two can enjoy the sweet, buttery richness of Jill the Reckless at your very own table, just by clicking on the Amazon.com link above. It's part of this delicious and nutritious breakfast! Of course, if you prefer Special K or waffles or yogurt, I can't stop ya. But it seems like I hardly know you when you do that.
A Wodehouse a Week Index.