Date originally posted: February 11, 2011
Source of book: Borrowed from Peter Wonderly
First, to clarify a common misunderstanding. Pelham Grenville’s family name is pronounced “WOOD-house”. The Brits are famous for adding “e”s where they are not considered necessary by those of us on this side of the pond.
Wodehouse was one of the rare breed of writers who could resist the urge to write serious material. Throughout his long life, he continued to write his way, “making a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether.” Not limited to novels, he also collaborated on musical comedy itself, writing lyrics for dozens shows. He worked with the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern. (Including “Bill” from Showboat)
Wodehouse is best known these days as the creator of Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves. If you are new to Wodehouse, these books would be an excellent place to start. The television adaptation starring Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry is also excellent.
I also recommend that all golfers locate his short stories about the sport. Wodehouse was an avid (if hopeless) devotee of the links; but, despite this, was able to see the humor inherent in the topic.
This particular book does not feature any of Wodehouse’s recurring characters, and is hard to find in the US. I borrowed my copy from Peter Wonderly, one of the short list of Wodehouse fans in my acquaintance.
Sally is a young American girl, who, at the outset of the story, inherits a modest amount of money. Her extravagant brother Fillmore does so as will, and promptly fritters his share away. Sally chooses to take a vacation in France while she decides what to do with her money. There, she meets two other major characters, “Ginger” Kemp, the hapless and incompetent young man from England, and his cousin, the dour lawyer Bruce Carmyle.
Other characters include Sally’s fiancé, Gerald, who dumps her for an actress once his play becomes successful; Gladys, who takes charge of Fillmore despite her otherwise good sense; and Mrs. Meecher, the boardinghouse proprietor.
As is typical in a Wodehouse plot, the characters manage to make a huge muddle of everything, and then have to dig their way out through misadventures, witty dialogue, and a world that makes sense only in the context of a Wodehouse plot.
Since the plot is a significant part of the fun, I will not issue spoilers in this review.
I will, however, quote a line. Gladys, speaking to Sally about Fillmore:
“When you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his forehead first, and if it rings solid, don’t hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from the husband having brains. What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him.”
This is the sort of inspired lunacy that Wodehouse did better than any other.
The adventures of Sally is perhaps a bit more serious than many of his others. You could almost see the situations happening in real life, and you can almost imagine real people acting the way the characters act. Unlike many of the stories, you actually feel as if there is something at stake for the characters. Besides their dignity, of course, which is always at stake, and only retained on rare occasions. In most Wodehouse stories, the misadventures are so outrageous and frivolous that a laugh would be in order regardless of the outcome. To that extent, this book is a comedy in the same way as Shakespeare’s later comedies. Things do turn out right in the end, but they almost don’t. While this is a bit of a departure for Wodehouse, it makes Sally one of his most sympathetic characters. She may not always have the best judgment, but she truly cares about the other characters and wants to do the right thing to assist them. She inspires empathy along with the laughs, which is more than can be said for Bertie Wooster and the inhabitants of the Drones Club.
Although I wouldn’t consider this the ideal Wodehouse book for a neophyte, it is worth seeking out and a worthy, if somewhat different, story from the master of comedy.