At the opening of his book, P.G. Wodehouse muses on the difficulty in instantly capturing a reader’s attention: “Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”
And except for the reference to tramcars and picture palaces, it a reflection that could have been written today. Somehow, it is comforting to know that authors faced similar issues in 1919 as we do in 2014.
However, I don’t think there is excessive danger in anybody tossing P.G. Wodehouse aside in favor of the modern equivalent of a picture palace. A Damsel in Distress is very funny and the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. I laughed so hard throughout, it renewed my faith in the pleasures of reading. Sometimes, reading can get to be a chore, when I am plowing through some book I feel I ought to read and I forget that reading is supposed to be delightful and riveting.
A Damsel in Distress is Wodehouse having a bit of fun with the concept of chivalry in the dawn of the jazz age. He is also having a bit of fun at the expense of the fading aristocracy. Most of the story takes place at Belpher Castle, where Lord Marshmoreton resides with his son, daughter, sister, sister’s step-son, his secretary and many servants. Lord Marshmoreton is an avid gardener (avid doesn’t really do him justice) and desires only to be left alone. As a result, it is his sister, Lady Caroline Byng, who is running the show. It is her darling wish that Lord Marshmoreton’s daughter, Lady Maud Marsh, marry her step-son, Reginald Byng. It’s not a bad plan, except that Maud loves a man she met a year ago in Switzerland and Reggie loves the secretary and it is beginning to affect his golf swing, which worries him.
The family is trying to keep Maud away from the man by keeping her at the castle, but she sneaks up to London one day, with the help of Reggie, and unfortunately runs into her brother, Percy. In an effort to escape him, she hops into a random taxicab and encounters George Bevan, a songwriter. It is love at first sight for him. All his chivalrous nature is awakened and he even knocks Percy’s hat off his head in an effort to keep him from discovering Maud in the cab.
Maud is very grateful, but doesn’t tell him her name. However, he soon discovers it and immediately goes down to Belpher Castle and rents a cottage nearby so that he can discover a means of communicating with Maud and render her assistance, since she had mentioned that she was in need of help. And soon the fun really begins.
He is immediately taken by the household to be the man Maud fell in love with in Switzerland and the household quickly divides itself up into allies and enemies, with some permeability among the ranks, especially among the servants. For the servants, specifically Keggs the butler (who looks like a bishop and is known to be a socialist in his private life) and Albert, the young footman, are part of a servant’s sweepstake regarding who Lady Maud will wed and both are determined to do everything in their power to further the cause of their respective man. Keggs drew Reggie while Albert drew “Mr. X,” though there is some shifting of sweepstake’s tickets throughout the story.
Many of the features of a Wodehouse book are present, the overbearing aunt (Wodehouse books have more overbearing aunts than anybody I know of: for example, Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha), there are golf references and an awful lot of well-meaning, agreeable and not terribly bright men, though the male servants are smarter. It always seems to me that in Wodehouse romances there is a definitive maternal aspect, with the more competent and sensible women nurturing the men they love. This is true in at least two of the three romances that occur in A Damsel in Distress, though George Bevan does better than your usual Wodehouse male in that he is far less hapless and immature, but there is still a bit of the puppy love in him.
Ironically, it is usually women and servants who seem to make out better, in terms of brains and in getting things done. There is a definite ineffectuality of the male, British upper classes. George Bevan is doing better, but he is an American who works for his living as a songwriter, though he is also extremely wealthy. Humorously, it never occurs to the Lord Marshmoreton or his sister that George would actually be quite wealthy from his songwriting and that, outside of them, he is a celebrity.
George also reminds one a little bit of the songwriter, George Gershwin, who was just getting going in 1919. With various characters mentioning prohibition in America and the issue of temperance in England, the independent women, the defuncting of the older traditions and authority, the young people without too much to occupy them except golf and the dawning of a new form of popular music and jazz as spearheaded by composers like George Gershwin, A Damsel in Distress actually represents a very unique time in history; it’s the world about to plunge into the Jazz Age, but not quite there yet. It is also a very, very funny book.