I love P.G. Wodehouse. He’s most famous for creating Jeeves and Wooster, but my favorite of his stories are those part of his Blandings series, with Lord Emsworth, his prize pig and the parade of impostors that always seem to be trooping through his estate. However, Wodehouse also wrote a host of stand alone novels that have nothing to do with Blandings or Bertie Wooster and I have begun sampling them. If I Were You was written in 1931 and is a Wodehouseian blend of The Prince and the Pauper and “The H.M.S. Pinafore.” Two boys switched at birth must now trade places. The barber becomes an earl and the earl becomes a barber (except no one will let him give them a shave).
Anthony – Tony to his family and friends – believes he is the Earl of Droitwich and has just gotten himself engaged to the somewhat cold-blooded Violet Waddington, heiress of Waddington’s Ninety-Seven Soups. He lives with his “brother,” the Honorable (and useless) Freddie Chalk-Marshall, his aunt and uncle, Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia Bassinger, and his butler, Slingsby (who likes to play the horses and has an unfortunate habit of picking the wrong one).
But Mrs. Price (coincidentally the sister of Slingsby), Tony’s childhood nurse, likes to make lachrymose and slightly tipsy visits to cry over him, often bringing along the putative Syd Price, pugnacious socialist and barber extraordinaire…. who happens to look just like one of the ancestors hanging on the wall.
Soon the cat is out of the bag and Syd insists on his rights and settles in to learn how to be an earl while Tony must play barber for a while…while the family tries to sort everything out. Lady Lydia, Sir Herbert, Freddie and Violet are all for taking the matter to court. Tony isn’t too perturbed, though. He’s fallen in love with Syd’s American manicurist, Polly Brown, and is enjoying being near her at the barbershop.
It’s a typical Wodehouse concoction and made me laugh numerous times (no one can make me laugh quite like Wodehouse), but If I Were You turned out to be somewhat unexpectedly grating. On the one hand, Wodehouse is subverting the traditional notion that “blood will tell.” In this case, blood most certainly does not as Syd proves much more at home giving a shave than riding a horse or interacting with the nobility, while Tony has all the ease, polish and good manners of – not good breeding – but a good education. On the other hand, Wodehouse can’t help but betray a certain degree of snobbery regarding education and refined manners.
The trouble is that Syd really is done out of his inheritance by his scheming family. It’s justified by saying that he isn’t really happy as an earl, but that seems a feeble excuse. The family is appalled at the thought that this uncouth, cockney socialist could really be their relative and they deal with the situation by quite simply refusing to believe it’s true…even though it probably is (though it’s never proved quite proved). Their horror was so gratuitous and ungenerous that I couldn’t help wishing that Syd would remain the earl, just to spite them.
Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert do everything in their power to oust Syd and are joined in their endeavor by Slingsby, who can’t stand to have his former nephew lording it over him. Perhaps I felt for Syd simply because no one was on his side…not his real uncle or even his supposed uncle. He’s supposed to be universally obnoxious, but he isn’t really (after all, Polly likes him and often defends him). He just likes to assert that he’s as good as anybody else and with people like Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert trying to prove that he isn’t, one can’t help but feel for him.
Admittedly, Wodehouse is definitely aware that the British aristocracy is of limited use in the world. Tony’s somewhat humorous justification for it? “Every time…that I got a twinge of conscience at the thought that I was living off the fat of the land and doing nothing to deserve it, I used to console myself by reflecting: ‘Well, at least I’m a sportsman!’” He could have also said that at least he has “nice manners,” which Syd does not have. Though Tony does occasionally wonder of what use people like Freddie are in the world, Wodehouse backs out by having Freddie save the day in manipulating Syd into voluntarily giving up his claim to be earl (he’s instead going to be an extremely wealthy barber). I think it would have been more satisfying if everything wasn’t restored to exactly the same state at the beginning.
And when Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia pretend to teach Syd how to be a proper earl and succeed in turning him into a slightly cringing, browbeaten man, I almost hated them. Even Tony is uncomfortable, bringing up his thoughts that at all costs they must be good sportsmen. Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert are definitely not good sportsmen, but I guess we are to forgive them because they are so fond of Tony. Besides, as Lady Lydia says, “the whole British social system…rests on the principle that a man with his ancestry can’t be a vulgarian.”
And even though Wodehouse is definitely writing tongue-in-cheek, one gets the feeling not even he would not like to have a cockney socialist earl on the loose.