Piccadilly Jim by P. G. Wodehouse (1917)

Review by Sylvia D:

Piccadilly Jim (1917) was a suitable choice for Christmas reading – easy to read and very light-hearted.  It does though have an extremely convoluted plot and involves several imposters and impersonations with Piccadilly Jim himself not only pretending to be someone else but then actually pretending to be himself.  As he himself felt,

‘He would have been the last person to deny that his position was a little complicated – he had to use a pencil and a sheet of paper to show himself just where he stood’ – (p 167);

the reader might feel a similar need of pencil and paper!  The book is also absolutely riddled with literary quotations, literary mis-quotations and literary allusions and it was quite a challenge to identify them all.

The story involves two hen-pecked American husbands (one living in New York whose eyesore of a house is cluttered up with putative novelists adopted by his wife, and one in London who is home-sick and missing his baseball games) married to two indomitable, opinionated sisters, Jimmy Crocker (Piccadilly Jim, so-called because of his scandalous behaviour), son of one of the husbands, red-gold haired and flashing-eyed Ann Chester, niece of the other husband, fat and spoilt 14 year old Ogden, son of one of the wives and who appeared previously in a novel entitled The Little Nugget (1913), an English Lord who isn’t who he says he is, a nephew of one of the wives who claims to have completed a formula for a brand new explosive capable of blowing up the whole of New York, a cauliflower-eared pugilist, and a boss-eyed, socialist-feminist, Schopenhauer-reading lady detective.

Needless to say Crocker falls in love with Ann but, because he had written a scathing review of a book of poetry she had published several years before, he knows she won’t have anything to do with the real Jimmy Crocker and so styles himself Algernon Bayliss.  (Bayliss was the name of his father’s butler!)

The plot hinges on a plan by Ann Chester and her uncle to kidnap the odious Ogden and send him to a dog tamer.  When the original plan fails, Crocker pretends to be himself and gets his aunt and uncle to take him in so he can carry out the kidnap and thus impress Ann.  The kidnap plot gets entangled with the scheming of Lord Wisbeach who wants to steal the explosives formula.  Nothing turns out as planned.

One of Wodehouse’s strengths lies in his characterisation; he can with very few words convey an immediately recognisable personality:

‘At the top of the steps which connects the main entrance of Drexdale House, [the London home of Jimmy Crocker’s father and step-mother,] with the sidewalk three persons were standing.  One was tall and a formidably handsome woman in the early ‘forties . . .  The second was a small, fat, blobby, bulging boy who was chewing something.  The third, lurking diffidently in the rear, was a little man of about Mr. Crocker’s own age, grey-haired and thin, with brown eyes that gazed meekly through rimless glasses’ – (p 53).

The way Wodehouse describes people can be quite inventive: Ann Chester’s

‘mouth was really the most individual thing about her.  It was a mouth that suggested adventurous possibilities.  In repose it had a look of having just finished saying something humorous, a kind of demure appreciation of itself.  When it smiled a row of white teeth flashed out; or, if the lips did not part, a dimple appeared on the right cheek, giving the whole face an air of mischievous geniality.  It was an enterprising, swash-buckling sort of mouth, the mouth of one who would lead forlorn hopes with a jest or plot whimsically lawless conspiracies against convention’ – (pp 7-8).

Wodehouse also has great fun with naming his characters, particularly whilst poking fun at the English upper classes – the wife who lives in London is trying to make her way into high society and associates with people like Lady Corstorphine and Lord Percy Whipple whilst young men on the transatlantic liner are Rollo, Dwight and Twombley!  There are some humorous scenes which made me smile rather than laugh out loud.  When the two sisters meet, for instance, they try desperately to score points off each other, the attempt to kidnap Ogden descends into total farce and Miss Trimble, the lady detective, is an inspired invention.

One does, though, get the feeling that the novel was written in rather a hurry (it first appeared in serialised form in the New York Saturday Evening Post in 1916) and there are several things that don’t quite tie up.  To the modern reader, too, it seems strange that there is no mention of the First World War which by then was of two years’ duration.  It was, though, not until 1917 that the States got involved in the fighting and even then, for most Americans, it was something which was taking place thousands of miles away.

Fun but flawed Christmas escapism.

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