In addition to his series featuring casts of regulars – Wooster and Jeeves, the Blandings Castle crowd, Ukridge – P.G. Wodehouse wrote numerous “one-off” novels and short-stories in which the reader encounters non-recurring characters. The inside joke, of course, is that the author’s non-recurring characters represented well-established types, so that one might say they weren’t non-recurring at all, they simply reappeared under different names.
The Girl on the Boat (first published in 1922) is one of those increasingly rare treasures: a Wodehouse novel that I have not read before. Sam Marlowe, a young, handsome and athletic fellow who has been putting off entering his father’s law firm, has been visiting the United States and is preparing for his return to England. He is introduced to the beautiful red-head Wilhelmina - Billie – Bennett through the not atypical Wodehousian device of being bitten by her Pekingese. Billie was recently engaged to be married to Eustace Hignett – one of those sensitive poetic coves – but on the day the marriage ceremony was to take place, Eustace’s mother – Mrs. Horace Hignett - who had just found about the secret wedding plan and who was adamantly opposed to the whole idea, defeats the scheme through the simple expedient of stealing all of her son’s trousers. Another suitor for Billie’s hand is Bream Mortimer, the son of a wealthy American who wants to rent Mrs. Hignett’s English estate for the summer.
The novel is a variation on the age-old theme: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But in Wodehouse’s hands, the theme is, of course, enlivened by wildly imaginative farce and an endless stream of golden metaphors and similes. Here are a few delightful samples:
About this time there was a good deal of suffering in the United States, for nearly every boat that arrived from England was bringing a fresh swarm of British lecturers to the country. Novelists, poets, scientists, philosophers, and plain, ordinary bores; some herd instinct seemed to affect them all simultaneously. It was like one of those great race movements of the Middle Ages.As is also fairly common in Wodehouse’s novels, it is not just humans who are splendidly drawn:
Bream Mortimer was tall and thin. He had small bright eyes and a sharply curving nose. He looked much more like a parrot than most parrots do. It gave strangers a momentary shock of surprise when they saw Bream Mortimer in restaurants, eating roast beef. They had the feeling that he would have preferred sunflower seeds.
Ships’ concerts are given in aid of the Seamen’s Orphans and Widows, and, after one has been present at a few of them, one seems to feel that any right-thinking orphan or widow would rather jog along and take a chance of starvation than be the innocent cause of such things.
Between Smith and the humans who provided him with dog-biscuits and occasionally with sweet cakes there had always existed a state of misunderstanding which no words could remove. The position of the humans was quite clear; they had elected Smith to his present position on a straight watch-dog ticket. They expected him to be one of those dogs who rouse the house and save the spoons. They looked to him to pin burglars by the leg and hold on till the police arrived. Smith simply could not grasp such an attitude of mind. He regarded Windles not as a private house but as a social club, and was utterly unable to see any difference between the human beings he knew and the strangers who dropped in for a late chat after the place was locked up.This is an extraordinarily fun romp through that unique world of love-smitten young suitors, strong-willed women, grumpy millionaires, and memorable dogs that the Master created and made his own. The volume I bought is published by the Overlook Press, which is bringing out handsome new editions of Wodehouse’s works, complete with fine cover art.