Monday, May 07, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #2: Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin

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Last week I covered one of Wodehouse's earlier books, the 1923 The Inimitable Jeeves—but definitely not his earliest; he started publishing books in—gulp!:—1902. Now let's skip merrily towards the other end of his production to the charming and lyrical 1972 novel Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin, Wodehouse's third-to-last finished novel before his death in 1975. But just 'coz it's a latter-day Wodehouse doesn't mean it's not prime: his brain and his trusty old typewriter were sharp and entertaining right to the end. (As a matter of fact, he outlasted his favorite brand of typewriter: when his trusty old Monarch gave up the ghost he reluctantly moved to a Royal for the rest of his output.) I'd even go so far as to say one of my favorite Wodehouse books is his final completed one, the Jeeves novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, published in the US under the title The Cat-Nappers. (Whoa, isn't that a wee bit confusing especially for fans and collectors? More on the dual-titles of Wodehouse's books a bit later.)

In fact, aside from a few hells, a spare damn or two, and a reference to Playboy magazine, there's very little that dates Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin as a product of the post-Beatles age. Hapless heroes still fall in love and struggle to get permission to marry, cheerful heroines buck up their men with encouragement and a sisterly (for now) kiss, pudgy magnates still cower in fear from their shrewish wives and there's plenty of characters posing as valets in order to steal the titular pearls. And if there's any doubt whether the date of publication reads from the age of the flapper or the year of the miniskirt, consider this: 1972's (1973 in the US) Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin is a sequel to The Luck of the Bodkins and takes place less than a year after that first novel...which was published in 1935. Golly! That makes waiting between J. D. Salinger novels a bit of a lark, doesn't it? To be fair, Wodehouse was producing a book a year for many of those intervening decades, but he revisits Monty Bodkin in media res and drops us right back into the thick of things with a brief and humorous resumé by the Greek Chorus of Wodehouse books: Chapter Two consists of a wonderfully witty synopsis of the events of the first book, as recounted in the smoking room of the Drones Club by the usual PGW clever trick of identifying characters by their drinks ("The Screwdriver moaned faintly and passed a piece of ice over his forehead. The Whisky Sour continued."). Within the space of a few swift pages you're immediately up to speed on Mister Bodkin's adventures and setbacks, whether you've never read the novel or read it forty years ago. (Remember this when I eventually review The Luck of the Bodkins: it involves a plush Mickey Mouse doll used to smuggle pearls through customs.) Wodehouse's clever and tight writing is wonderfully displayed in this "The Story So Far"-style chapter: it's definitely a recap but one with such light humor and whimsy that even if you've just finished reading the first book you don't mind it a bit. But then, as he might say himself (but with considerably more polished prose), it's off to the races as Young Monty is tipped immediately into his newest adventure.

A Wodehouse a Week #2: Pearls, Girls, and Monty BodkinThe beautiful thing about Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin is not its originality or uniqueness, oh no no no. The plot is basically the same sort of formula Wodehouse used for many of his books, especially the non-Jeeves and non-Blandings love stories. Cheerful Monty is engaged to marry Gertrude Butterwick, but Gertrude's father won't allow her to marry such a gad-about town unless he proves he can hold down a job for one year. Mr. Butterwick disqualifies Monty's argument that he has already worked in Hollywood for twelve months under the tutelage of Superba-Llewellyn movie mogul Ivor Llewellyn on the basis that he (Monty) tricked him (Llewellyn) into hiring him in return for figuring out a way to smuggle his (Llewellyn's) wife's pearls in Mickey (Mouse's) plush The Luck of the Bodkins. Monty's relatively sure that if he fast-talks his way into another job for a year with Llewellyn all will be forgiven, but that, as they say in the movie business, is where the fun starts. Monty winds up at an English country estate (not a massive surprise there; most Wodehouse books zip along to country estates the way you and I zip along to the comic book shop) working as Llewellyn's the same time Sandy, his pretty and spunky secretary from Hollywood, winds up working for Mrs. Grayce the same time a married pair of con artists are posing as guests of the house in order to steal the famous Llewellyn the same time that a dishonest private investigator hired by Mr. Butterwick to keep an eye on Monty plots to steal the pearls himself. Add in a strict diet enforced by the fifth Mrs. Llewellyn and you have the entire cast of characters sneaking about after dark upstairs and downstairs in a manor house, poking about for pearls and raiding the fridge for creamy frothy desserts. But despite the early seventies period Wodehouse is writing in, don't even think that characters are wandering in and out of each other's bedrooms for romantic or sexual reasons...while the gears of his universe often turn on love, sex is invisible and like politics, never mentioned by the politest of people. (The only vague sign of the existence of sex in the Wodehouse world is the occasional baby popping up with a sticky rattle.)

Cream pies are stolen, jewels are hijacked, guns are brandished, and of course everything works out happily ever after. Monty discovers he'd much rather be in love with the admirable Sandy than the critical Gertrude, henpecked Ivor Llewellyn gets the last word and a good meal, and the criminals get their just desserts too...if not actual jail time, then the nasty pleasure of discovering the pearls they've stolen are cheap paste fakes. Once again harmony reigns over the World of Wodehouse, but the ride is as gleeful as the conclusion, especially with writing like this:
Monty could make nothing of this. Mr. Butterwick had left his hat with the hat-check girl, but had it been on his head he would have accused him on talking through it.

'I don't get your drift,' he said.

'I will make myself clearer,' responded Mr. Butterwick. A less austere man might have said 'I will continue snowing.' 'I have decided that you and my daughter must not see each other again.'

Barribault's Hotel is solidly built, and there is no record of the ceiling of its lobby ever having fallen on a customer's head. This, however, was what for an instant Monty was convinced had occurred, and he was amazed that the Maharajahs and Texan millionaires dotted about at their little tables were taking it so calmly.
'After that I had to go to Antoine's and he kept me for ever. Shampoo and a set and a tough-up. How do you like it?'

'It might be worse.'


'But I don't see how. Why on earth did you go to a plumber like Antoine?'

'I was told he was the best man in London.'

'I've nothing against his morals, but he can't do hair.'
'But Monty will stay on in England and I'll never see him again,' said Sandy, and the tears she had been trying to hold back burst their bonds. 'Don't pat my head,' she added.

'I will pat your head,' said Mr. Llewellyn stoutly. 'If I can't pay your head when it needs patting, whose head can I pat? My heart bleeds for you, pint size.'
Awwww. That last bit gets me right here in my little stuffed satin heart.

You of course all know the concept of six degrees of separation, right? Well, in a Wodehouse book, everyone had one degree of separation. Wodehouse casually mentions an old school chum of Monty's who has go on to be a policeman, and then several chapters later, Gertrude Butterwick tells her father that one of her new suitors is a policeman. Tuppence to you if you spot that they will be one and the same character. Sixpence if you realize that when Monty, Llewellyn, and Sandy are escaping from a dance club raided by the police, the copper placing his firm hand on Monty's arm and intoning the gist of the wot's all this then is the same fella as well. Everything and everyone is interconnected in a Wodehouse novel: the competing thieves are long-time rivals with a venomous history that only adds to the hilarity; characters pop up in juxtaposition to each other so frequently that in any other writer you'd be crying foul for overusing coincidence, but as always, Wodehouse does it with such a light and winking touch that it's forgivable. I considered getting out my pencil box and drawing a Venn diagram of the character's relations to each other, but they're all so connected, with every character having some sort of association to most every other, that it would soon look like a drawing of a tangled plate of spaghetti and I'd be running out of room on the edges of the paper to draw little arrows labeled "married to" or "sneaking food to" or "pulled a gun on." Even if I used the really, really big roll of drawing paper I'm allowed to take out on very special rainy days.

I read Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin this week in an edition printed by Pennyfarthing Press, which I have to admit is a bit of a mystery publishing house to me. They are not related to this Penny-Farthing Press but were in fact a mass-market imprint of Dorset Press, itself a subsidiary of Marboro Books, an apparently defunct publishing house. I've got a handful of these Pennyfarthing Wodehouse reprints that I picked up at the Syracuse University Bookstore many many years ago...and have never seen them anywhere since. It's proof of the pudding that Wodehouse wrote so many books that even Penguin didn't publish them all. Collecting Wodehouse can be a complicated matter trying to track down various editions, especially when you consider that I have two editions of this book in my collection, and here's the second one:
A Wodehouse a Week #2: The Plot That Thickened

Have I pulled the wrong book off the shelf? Have I loaded the wrong photo onto Flickr? Did I miscode the IMG SRC tag (after all, it is a bit difficult with hooves!). No! This bright yellow hardcover with the mod seventies lettering is indeed titled The Plot That Thickened, but it is in fact the exact same book as Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin...The Plot That Thickened is merely the name Simon and Schuster, the book's American publisher, gave it when it was published here in 1973. That's apt to be a bit confusing, isn't it? It's not for the reason you think: Wodehouse's British titles didn't need to be translated to American audiences, it's just a case of US publishers feeling they could come up with a more commercial title for their market. This case is far from the only time Wodehouse's American publishers renamed his books for US consumption, and very often with puzzling and oddball "why'd they do that?" results: the UK Summer Lightning became the US Fish Preferred, Galahad at Blandings became The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood (thus piddling away a perfectly good tie-in to one of Wodehouse's most popular series), A Pelican at Blandings became the horribly-trying-to-be-hip No Nudes Is Good Nudes, and perhaps my least favorite of the American changes: the pitch-perfect sublime title Aunts Aren't Gentlemen was retitled The Cat-Nappers for the American audience. Pfui, I say, to these attempts to claim that they know better than Wodehouse, who spent a great deal of thought on his titles. (I thought this practice was pretty much over and done with, and then I remember Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, and there's a book in the Fall Norton catalogue entitled American Jennie that is titled in the UK Jennie Churchill & Her Sisters.)

The best laugh, as always, is Wodehouse's: you can buy Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin under that title in the US now in its Penguin edition. The laugh of the publishers, however, adds a hollow ring, because this fine later Wodehouse novel is criminally out of print in the US. There's plenty of used copies available through Amazon Marketplace in the link to the right, of course, or, if you're so inclined, order up a spankin' new copy from the good folk of the land of Wodehouse (that's England) at Sooner or later, of course, this book will be available in a hardcover reissue published by Overlook Press as part of their extensive Complete Wodehouse project, but if you can't wait, steal borrow a copy from your local library and prepare to chuckle.1973 novel by p g wodehouse featuring the character ivor llewellyn


Tom the Dog said...

You had me confused there for a long while. I felt sure I'd read a Monty Bodkin yarn before, but I knew I would've remembered a title as fanciful as Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin. I assumed I must've read the first Monty adventure. And yet, when you rehashed the plot, I knew it was the second I'd read, after all. Of course it turns out, I'd read it under the title The Plot That Thickened. It was darn good, by the way. Makes me want to read the first. (I have to admit, I think I prefer The Plot That Thickened as the book's title. Though I agree with you: I once read a book called The Cat-Nappers, but I kind of wish I'd read Aunts Aren't Gentleman -- which I believe was the final line of the book -- instead.)

Re: your notes on the era in which Plot/Pearls was published, I mentioned on your last Wodehouse post that I'd just finished The Advenutres of Sally, and I have to say, Wodehouse wasn't shy about dropping the occasional "damn" or "hell" even way back in the 1920s. The vulgarian!

Bully said...

I hadn't noticed that about the 'damn's or 'hell's, before, Tom! I think I've been less likely in the past to pay attention to the era the book was published in than I will be this time around. I'm sure I'll spot 'em as I go through the canon. (Not in The Gold Bat, I'm sure!)

Matthew E said...

There's even a Wodehouse book where one character calls another one a bitch!

(Appropriately, my verification word is jzzbl, which must be a mangling of 'jezebel', a much more Wodehousian choice for the same situation.)

Anonymous said...

I've always wondered about titles that are changed when they move from Britain to the USA. For example, 'Pop Idol' was retitled 'American Idol'. Was that particular change because US TV executives worried that their audience were unsure of what country they lived in?

Thomas said...

Speaking of changing titles for the oh-so-important American audience, let's not forget that 'Something Fresh' came out in the US as 'Something New', the former being a bit too, er, fresh, for American tastes. Apparently, some of the
content was changed

The most distressing example of this practice of renaming that I've come across was Random House issuing Jonathan Coe's novel 'What A Carve Up!' (a delicious double entendre) as 'The Winshaw Legacy'. Worse, we Canadians, the forgotten children of the Commonwealth, are not even able to purchase the proper British edition of this novel as Random House USA bought the rights for the Canadian market as well. Incidentally, Jonathan Coe is a recipient of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing.

Please check out my obsession with Wodehouse cover designs at