Monday, February 11, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #42: Ice in the Bedroom

A Wodehouse a Week banner

It's frigid as a penguin's icebox outside, so what better time to crack open the frosty and refreshing goodness of Ice in the Bedroom (1961), by P. G. Icehouse...I mean Wodehouse. Thing is, that ice in the title is not the type you drop in your Coca-Cola. You can't get ice in your Coke in the UK! No, that's "ice" as in "jewels"...and you know that in a Wodehouse book someone's out to steal those jewels. Rest assured, we're not going to see a Mission: Impossible-style heist, especially since the criminals are our old friends Soapy and Dolly Molloy, confidence tricksters and burglars, who we've seen before in Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin (and who appear in other Wodehouse novels I've not gotten to yet). To make the Wodehouseverse hang even tighter together, the action takes place in London suburb Valley Fields, setting of Big Money and Something Fishy, and the hero is Freddie Widgeon, Bertie Wooster's Drones club comrade. See how it all hangs together? Brilliant, that Wodehouse.

Freddie's fallen in love with Sally Foster. Hey, our second Sally of the month! (Perhaps February is Sally Month here at A Wodehouse a Week!) Sally is, of course, like all Wodehouse heroines worthy of the name Sally, bright and clever. So what, we might wonder, would she want with Freddie? Especially when she finds out he's a bit of a flirt-about-town:
'I suppose if all the girls Freddie Widgeon has been in love with were placed end to end—not that one could do it, of course—they would reach from Piccadilly Circus to Hyde Park Corner. Further than that, probably, because some of them were pretty tall.'
Wodehouse doesn't do the let's us do it, shall we?:


Ignoring the fact that Piccadilly is one way moving towards Piccadilly Circus, It's 1.6 miles from Piccadilly Circus to Hyde Park Corner. That's 8,448 feet. Assuming the average London beauty is about 5'5" (taller if she went to St Edmund's Church of England Girls' School and Sports College), that means Freddie has been pitching woo at approximately...(tapping nervously at my pocket calculator and checking my results carefully)...Golly! Fifteen hundred sixty girls! Freddie, you cad!

She works as secretary for romance writer Leila Yorke, my favorite character of the novel. Despite her output, Leila is no lyrical romantic soul (like Bingo Little's wife Rosie M. Banks); there's nothing sappy about the author of the sentimental classics Sweet Jennie Dean and Cupid, the Archer. Quite the reverse, in fact:
There was a frown on Leila Yorke's brow, as if she had temporarily suspended the thinking of lovely thoughts and had turned to others of an inferior grade.

'You look peeved," said Sally, noticing this.

'I'm feeling peeved,' said Miss Yorke. 'What was that bell I heard?'

'That was the County starting to call. A Mr Cornelius. I don't know who he is.'

'He's the house agent. Keeps rabbits.'

'Oh, does he? Well, he likes to be neighbourly, so he brought you the Sunday papers.'

'Bless him. Just what I wanted.'

'And thirty-two of your books, to be autographed.'

'Curse him. May his rabbits get myx-whatever-it-is.'

'And he wants you to give a little talk to his literary society which meets every second Tuesday.'

'Oh, hell!'

'Keep calm. I got you out of it. I told him you were thinking out a new novel.'

Leila Yorke snorted bitterly.
She curses, she's a hard drinker, she wants to write an important and bleak urban novel—Leila Yorke is the Mickey Spillane of Wodehouse. I picture her played by Elaine Stritch. Despite her hard edges, she's not instrumental in playing Cupid to Freddie and Sally, but is the subject of a love story herself as her ex-husband Joe, the snake charmer, slithers lovingly back into her life.

I'm always delight when Wodehouse gets off a jolly poke at publishing, and the caustic but charming Leila Yorke is his mouthpiece to simplify the publishing process to its bare skeleton.
'...I shut myself up in my room and wrote my first novel. It was Heather o' the Hills. Ever read it?'

'Of course.'

'Pure slush, but it was taken by Popgood and Grooly, and didn't do too badly, and they sent the sheets over to Singleton Brothers in New York, who turn out books like sausages and don't' care how bad they are, so long as they run to eighty thousand words. They chucked it into the sausage machine and twiddled the handle and darned if it wasn't one if the biggest sellers they had that season. What's known as a sleeper.'
Ladies and gentlemen, take it from me, a little stuffed bull who gets to help out at a New York publisher: that's the entire publishing business boiled to down its bare essentials.

What's this all got to do with ice, you ask? Well, the Molloys have stolen an armful of jewelry from the wife of Oofy Prosser (Freddie's rich fellow Drone). How rich is he? So rich he even has a car registered in the United States, as I discovered recently walking down the street:

But I digress. Soap and Dolly have stashed in jewels in the Valley Fields house Lelia Yorke is leasing (at the suggestion of Freddie), so the devious married criminals will stop at nothing to get into the house by hook or by...aptly...crook. Soapy poses as a fan of Leila's novels (foiled when she recognizes him as selling her some worthless silver mine stock earlier); they have dozens of cats and dogs and snakes delivered to the house in hopes of chasing her out, and Dolly impersonates a reporter to interview Leila, thwarted when she has to duck out of the house into the pouring rain to avoid discovery by the visiting Mrs. Oofy P. Dolly of course runs into Freddie's house next door, soaked to the skin, and of course the overwhelmed but gracious Freddie's going to offer Dolly a pair of his pajamas while her clothes dry, and of course he's going to offer to bandage her scraped knee, and of course Sally's going to walk in on this suggestive scene...but I never pictured it as this saucy, sexy book cover:
Ice in the Bedroom

Golly. This cheeky Pan paperback edition makes it seem like an segment from the infamous British sex farce Confessions of a Window Cleaner, which I, being a little stuffed bull, can't watch. But you can.) Somehow I don't think this is quite what P. G. Wodehouse had in mind. Maybe if he'd been N. C. 17. Wodehouse.

My copy of Ice in the Bedroom, a Coronet mass market paperback picked up during my first-ever visit to the UK, is much less suggestive and much more fanciful: a slightly gormless Freddie and a perky pretty Sally (and a couple escaped suburban rabbits) pose in front of the wardrobe on which is stashed a king's ransom in Oofyjewels. You'll need quite a bit of ready cash yourself to pick up the out of print Ice: there's no current edition available in either the US or UK, which is a pity, actually—it's one of Wodehouse's more charming later non-series comedy-romances, and the character of Leila Yorke is a fiery dynamo that spices up the whimsy. It's my favorite (so far) of the Valley Fields suburban novels, which only goes to show: Wodehouse doesn't have to limit himself to city or country to be in top form. It's as fresh today as it was in the early 1960s when it was first published. Even if some editions appear to be adverts for Knickerbox:
Ice in the Bedroom

A Wodehouse a Week Index.

No comments: