Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Adventures of Sally by P.G. Wodehouse

Reading hundred-year-old novels can be less distancing than you expect. Oh, sure, some writers are "older" than others. And some plots are creakier, some social set-ups more outdated, some expectations more forgotten. And maybe light fiction is less likely to be affected than the heavier, more serious stuff.

The Adventures of Sally was P.G. Wodehouse's new novel in 1922 - well, his second new novel that year, after The Girl on the Boat. (Wodehouse was incredibly prolific, with over a hundred books published in his long life.) It's somewhat transitional, fusing a mostly traditional episodic and mildly melodramatic plot with Wodehouse's looser, lighter, funnier narration - not quite all the way to the side of his funny pieces, but very close.

To put it in perspective, Wodehouse was born in 1881 and published his first school stories in 1902. By the end of that decade, he was writing comedy in short-story form, with the Psmith and Ukridge stories, and turning those into books as well. The first Jeeves and Wooster story came in 1915, and their first collection in 1919. He was writing at least a couple of serials for magazines a year - Sally appeared first in Colliers - and my assumption is that market still wanted things that were more conventional than pure Wodehouse, but he was moving them in that direction in the late Teens and through the Twenties.

Last year I read Sam the Sudden, from the same era - that was a 1925 novel, slightly goofier in its set-up but still somewhat grounded in conventional plots and aiming for conventional emotional payoffs near the ending. I think Wodehouse's non-series Twenties novels would be an interesting study - Money for Nothing came out in 1928, and was the full mature soufflĂ©, with nothing left of the serious novel in it.

I'm wasting space here comparing Sally to other books mostly because Wodehouse is hard to write about. Transitional Wodehouse is a bit easier, since I can point to the comparisons and make a vague claim that this is at about 80% of his full comic power.

But the story here will sound very conventional: Sally is a young American woman, living just a year or two before the publication date (the raging Spanish flu is a plot point). She and her older brother Fillmore were kicked out a few years back by the requisite hard-hearted uncle, keeper of their money, but she is now twenty-one and he twenty-five, meaning they came into their full inheritances and no longer need to live in a cheap boarding-house and work as a taxi dancer (her) or a waiter (him).

Sally is secretly engaged to a wannabe playwright, the production of whose first play Fillmore is loosely connected to. Also looped into the action are two Englishmen, a red-headed ne'er-do-well who becomes the main love interest very late and his cousin, a rich supercilious lawyer and representative of the serious side of the family.

Sally goes to a beach in France with her inheritance, chases the in-rehearsals play through a try-out town or two, and has a succession of moments related to one or more of those complications. Wodehouse runs them mostly out on a string here, one complication following another rather than the escalating cascade of his best major work - and also plays the plot basically seriously, though his narrative voice is supple, funny, and doesn't entirely treat it seriously. It is all episodic; this is one of the books that really shows that it was originally a serial.

But it's full of funny asides - the action is straightforward light-adventure; the narration and descriptions is the source of the comedy - and the prose is very Wodehousian. Again: transitional. Interesting both as a pretty funny Wodehouse book, and as a book in which Wodehouse was writing his way closer to being the Wodehouse we expect.

Let me close with a quote - this the kind of thing you can expect from The Adventures of Sally. If it appeals, try something from this Wodehousian era:

The world of the theatre is simply a large nursery and its inhabitants children who readily become fretful if anything goes wrong. The waiting and uncertainty, the loafing about in strange hotels in a strange city, the dreary rehearsing of lines which had been polished to the last syllable more than a week ago - these things had snapped the nerve of the Primrose Way company and demoralization had set in. It would require only a trifle to produce an explosion. (pp.96-97)

No comments:

Post a Comment