Monday, February 25, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #43: A Gentleman of Leisure

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The Intrusion of JimmyMuch like a prize-winning poodle, A Gentleman of Leisure (1910) has a rich, complicated, and compact pedigree: an early, shorter, novella-length version of the story was originally serialized in the December 1909 edition of the magazine Ainslie's under the title "The Gem Collector," and then was revised and expanded into the American novel The Intrusion of Jimmy. Then, it zipped back across the pond to the UK, where it was serialized yet again (as The Intrusion of Jimmy) in the magazine Tit-Bits (which ain't what it sounds like, trust me), and then finally mildly revised and published as a British novel in November 1910 as A Gentleman of Leisure. Four versions of the same story in less than a year? Why, that makes modern comic books look like pikers! And that's not even counting the two movie adaptations: a 1915 silent version and a 1923 talkie.

Gentleman is one of Wodehouse's early romances, predating his more complicated and twisting plots: it's got an elegant charm and a lyrical love story, but not as many tricksy circling schemes as his middle and later period. It reminded me a lot of 1917's Uneasy Money. Except, no dead monkey.

The plot? Well, rich and bored playboy Jimmy Pitt, after witnessing the shooting death of his parents, learning that criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, vows to fight back...oh wait, I got confused a little. Actually, Jimmy is doing a little bit of nocturnal skulking himself: he accepts a dare bet from his club friends to break into a house—not for any criminal deeds, but just to prove that, like in the movies, it can be done. Of course Jimmy's going to run face-first into real burglar, red-headed Bowery boy (with a Yancy Streetesque dese-and-dose dialect to match) Spike Mullins (not to be confused with The Two Ronnies scriptwriter Spike Mullins. And, of course the house he and Spike choose to break into is that of New York police captain John McEachern. guessed it...of course McEachern's daughter Molly is the same Molly that Jimmy fell in love with earlier on a transatlantic crossing. What's a gentleman of leisure to do?

From here the novel takes a proto-Blandings turn: the action moves to Dreever Castle, where Jimmy, accompanied by larcenous Spike posing as his valet, attempts to woo Molly, while private detectives circle the manor and prize jewels are lusted after by all, especially sticky-handed Spike. Wodehouse is definitely trying out some of the elements that will become vital in his later work: imposters at a castle, fake jewels, and shrewish manor matrons in the style of Lady Constance:
The point under discussion was one of etiquette, and in matters of etiquette Sir Thomas felt himself at a disadvantage.

"I tell you, my dear," he said to the window, "I am not easy in my mind."

"Nonsense," snapped Lady Julia; "absurd—ridiculous!"

Lady Julia Blunt, when conversing, resembled a Maxim gun more than anything else.
There's the usual sparkling Wodehouse metaphors...
He widened the space between his feet. He intensified his glare. He might have been posing to an illustrator of The Pilgrim's Progress for a picture of "Apollyon straddling right across the way."
...and a hero ever-ready with a light quip at even the tensest of moments:
The knight stood in the doorway, his face expressing the most lively astonishment. His bulging eyes were fixed upon the necklace in Jimmy's hand. Jimmy could see him struggling to find words to cope with so special a situation, and felt rather sorry for him. Excitement of this kind was bad for a short-necked man of Sir Thomas's type.

With kindly tact, he endeavored to help his host out.

"Good evening," he said, pleasantly.

Sir Thomas stammered. He was gradually nearing speech.

"What—what—what—" he said.

"Out with it," said Jimmy.


"I knew a man once in South Dakota who stammered," said Jimmy. "He used to chew dog-biscuit while he was speaking. It cured him, besides being nutritious."
He doesn't ignore the small touches, either. Wodehouse brings on a pair of cab drivers in a shelter simply to paint a funny and topical portrait of the social struggle of the 1910 masses:
A dispute seemed to be in progress as they entered.

"You don't wish you was in Russher," said a voice.

"Yus, I do wish I wos in Russher," retorted a shriveled mummy of a cabman, who was blowing patiently at a saucerful of coffee.

"Why do you wish you was in Russher?" asked the interlocutor, introducing a Massa Bones and Massa Johnsing touch into the dialogue.

"Because yer can wade over yer knees in bla-a-a-ad there," said the mummy.

"In wot?"

"In bla-a-ad—ruddy bla-a-ad! That's why I wish I wos in Russher."
Still, this isn't prime Wodehouse as we best know him. Wit and whimsy sometimes take a back seat to the romance, which gets a bit maudlin at time. One short chapter, "On the Lake," is practically a melodrama on its own with Jimmy and Molly in a rowboat practically Nelson Eddy- and Jeannette MacDonald-ing around the estate waters:

She looked up with wet eyes.

"Molly, dear, what is it?"

"I mustn't. It isn't right."

"I don't understand."

"I mustn't, Jimmy."

He moved cautiously forward, holding the rail, till he was at her side, and took her in his arms.

"What is it, dear? Tell me."

She clung to him without speaking.
A little of this goes a long way, and there's more than a little of this here. A few years on in Uneasy Money Wodehouse would have a better reign on the mawkish sentiment, mostly restrained to the final chapter, but there's a lot of it spread about in A Gentleman of Leisure. Best to read it in smaller doses, or at least bring your toothbrush.

Oddly, for a book that has a different US name, I don't have a single American-titled version of this book, so you won't find The Intrusion of Jimmy on this little stuffed bull's bookshelf. I do have three editions of A Gentleman of Leisure: the Everyman Wodehouse hardcover reissue (available in the US as published by Overlook), a Penguin paperback, and a lovely Herbert Jenkins UK dust-jacketless hardcover. This specific edition proudly proclaims that it's the "Ninth printing completing 95,815 copies." That's mighty precise, Mister Jenkins, and some darned good bookselling as well. You can add to the total by pickin' up your own copy by clicking on the usual link to the above right. You don't have to be as rich a playboy as Jimmy Pitt to get one, nor do you have to be as deft a burglar as Spike Mullins. But, ya know, it couldn't hurt.

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