Book Review by George Simmers: July was Herbert Jenkins month at the Sheffield Hallam 1900-1950 Reading Group, and so I gave myself a treat by reading a Wodehouse. Before 1918 P.G. Wodehouse had a variety of British publishers, but in 1918 Picadilly Jim was taken on by Herbert Jenkins, and Wodehouse liked the way that the firm promoted his books. He wrote to a friend
The Jenkins advertisement took my breath away. I’ve been waiting all these years for a publisher who didn’t shove my book down among the ‘and other readable stories’ in small print at the foot of the column.
In 1923 Jenkins died, and Wodehouse wrote:
Jenkins’ death was great shock to me. I was very fond of him. I always had an idea that he wouldn’t last very long. He simply worked himself to death. He was just a fragile thing with a terrific driving mind and no physique at all, one of those fellows who look transparent and seem always tired. I actually had a clause in my contract that if he should die the contract lapsed. One used to wonder how long he could possibly last. He shirked his meals and concentrated entirely on work. You can’t do it.
Apparently relations with the firm were difficult for a while, but Wodehouse established a lifelong friendship with the new managing director John Grimsdick, and stayed with the firm, very much as their star author. In the seventies they merged with Barrie and Rockliffe, to become Barrie and Jenkins; Wodehouse stayed with them to the end.
The Luck of the Bodkins is middle-period Wodehouse and he’s at the top of his farcical game. The first sentence sets the tone:
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the |Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.
This sets up the character of Monty Bodkin, always trying to do the right thing, and always finding impediments. His love for Gertrude Butterwick, a stalwart of the All-England Ladies’ Hockey Team never runs smoothly. Soon he will be on a liner heading from Europe to America with a very disparate group of characters. The plot is set in motion by the film magnate Ivor Llewellyn, whose wife insists that he should smuggle a diamond bracelet past the United States Customs for her. He is terrified by the prospect, especially when he comes to believe that Monty Bodkin is a detective who is trailing him. Other characters include the extravert film star Lottie Blossom, who keeps a pet alligator in a wicker basket and spreads chaos everywhere. Then there is Ambrose Tennyson, a ‘manly novelist’ who has been recruited by Llewellyn as a writer, under the misapprehension that he is the other Tennyson, the famous one, the one who wrote ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’.
The interaction of these and other characters produce farcical complications so numerous it’d be daft to even begin to explain them.
The transatlantic liner links two very different worlds. Hollywood is presented as a ludicrous place where money flows freely and even idiots can find remunerative employment; the British are characterised as more sophisticated, yet eager to get to California, where money seems to be there for the taking. The liner also provides an environment from which none of the characters can escape, so it is an ideal setting for farcical complications. At our group’s celebratory tenth birthday event, Faye Hammill appeared on a Zoom screen to give an excellent talk about novels set on liners. Most of these present the voyage as a rite of passage, during which the characters may undergo a spiritual sea change. Wodehouse avoids this trope; over the course of the voyage none of the characters change or develop, but just remain utterly themselves.
The plot follows its farcical logic, but what really matters is the way in which the book is written. Here is the description of Reggie Tennyson, the novelist’s brother:
The scene, in short, presented a gay and animated appearance.
In this it differed substantially from the young man with dark circles under his eyes who was propping himself up against a penny-in-the-slot machine. An undertaker, passing at that moment, would have looked at this young man sharply, scenting business. So would a buzzard. It would have seemed incredible to them that life still animated that limp frame. The Drones Club had given Reggie Tennyson a farewell party on the previous night, and the effects still lingered.
Wodehouse does not totally ignore the shipboard setting. His literary and theatrical careers kept him travelling across the Atlantic; he knew liners well, but does not treat them romantically. He clearly enjoys depicting typical scenes and typical characters, such as the passengers liable to be found on deck:
There was a long line of semi-conscious figures in chairs, swathed in rugs and looking like fish laid out on a slab, and before their dopey gaze the athletes paraded up and down, rejoicing in their virility, shouting to one another, ‘What a morning!’
Some of his observations are subtler; for example when Reggie seeks refuge in a drawing room.
It was empty, which was to the good, but it was also stuffy. It had that queer elusive aroma peculiar to drawing-rooms on ocean liners, as if it were just on the point of smelling most unpleasant, but never quite beginning.
You either relish the Wodehouse style or you don’t. The distinctive feature is its swooping between registers of language, from the high-flown to the slangy, from the Hollywood-cliched to the amazingly original, within the space of a sentence. It’s the language that makes the book’s fun buzz along happily, keeping you on the verge of laughter till an exceptionally loony farcical complication makes you audibly erupt. I should warn you, this novel is potentially an anti-social one. My wife and I often sit reading quietly together, but the other evening, I’m afraid I frequently disturbed her more serious study with my loud and frequent snorts of laughter.