Sunday, 1 January 2012

Penguin no. 1273: Uneasy Money
by P.G. Wodehouse

Boyhood, like measles, is one of those complaints which a man should catch young and have done with, for when it comes in middle life it is apt to be serious. Dudley Pickering had escaped boyhood at a time when his contemporaries were contracting it. It is true that for a few years after leaving the cradle he had exhibited a certain immatureness, but as soon as he put on knickerbockers and began to go about a little he outgrew all that. He avoided altogether the chaotic period which usually lies between the years of ten and fourteen. At ten he was a thoughtful and sober-minded young man, at fourteen almost an old fogy.



Like many of Wodehouse's protagonists, Lord Dawlish is young, affable, kind-hearted, and well meaning, but not especially sharp. He finds himself in his early twenties in possession of a title, but not of a fortune, as the family assets have been entirely dissipated by a succession of improvident forebears. However, he has little interest in luxuries and so he is untroubled by this impecunious state: a large circle of friends and a lifestyle which affords him time to play golf are all he requires to feel contented.

Inevitably there is a difficulty.  His captivating fiancĂ© Claire has an opposing outlook on life: wealth is her sole objective, and she will not marry him until he manages to increase his income. The solution to her seems obvious, and she is frustrated by his lack of application in pursuing her goal: she wants him to exploit his popularity, his title, and his wealthy friends; she has no sympathy with the concept that concern for others should come between him and the ruthless pursuit of wealth.

Lord Dawlish is known to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances as Bill, and honesty and concern for others are his defining qualities. The timely death of the eccentric millionaire and serial drafter-of-wills Ira Nutcombe seems to solve his problem, when he leaves his entire fortune to Bill on the strength of a few weeks spent together playing golf. But how is Bill to reconcile his gain with the loss suffered by the disinherited American niece and nephew? If he can just disburse some of the money to Nutcombe's family before Claire finds out, he reasons that everyone should be happy. He sets sail for New York on the next liner with a plan to give half the inheritance away, while Claire, despairing of Bill and his obdurate decency, independently sets sail for the same destination on another ship.

The world Wodehouse creates abounds with coincidences, and the most implausible of improbabilities: the two independent travellers head for the same destination, dine at the same New York restaurant, and spend their respective sojourns at adjoining properties on Long Island. The American nephew fortuitously turns up on Bill's doorstep on his first night. It keeps the pace of the novel moving; everything can be achieved in a matter of days as anyone needed will invariably and absurdly turn up right on cue, even in the unlikeliest of locations. And this is a benevolent world, where events always turn out for the best, and in which the happy ending is as inevitable as it is foreseeable.

But then, this isn't a book to be read for its plot. It is the delightful prose, the farcical sub-plots,  and the exaggerated characters which give it its charm. There is the interminably dull but wealthy American businessman Dudley Pickering, the press agent Roscoe Sheriff, always praying for catastrophes which will ensure him a few more inches of coverage, and the bored American nephew 'Nutty Nutcombe', lurching between temperance and dissoluteness.

I started 2011 with Wodehouse's 1940 novel Quick Service, which I found difficult to enjoy. Uneasy Money is a much earlier work, initially written as a serial published in The Saturday Evening Post  in 1915, and in Strand Magazine in 1916, and then published as a novel in 1917. He was living in America at the time, and writes of what he knows, setting much of the story in Brookport, Long Island, while living there in Bellport, and having the happy couple at the end of the book plan their wedding in the Little Church Around the Corner, where he married his wife Ethel. The story is absurd, romantic, and farcical, but it is also very funny, and entertaining from the first page to the last. 

8 comments:

  1. The quote about men being boys in middle age accounts for much of Wodehouse's humor. Bertie Wooster is not middle aged, but he has an emotional age of about ten while a young man, and it's always funny watching him amble childishly along. I've not read this one, but it sounds good.

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  2. Hi Fay,

    I really enjoyed it, and I thought it was the perfect choice for this time of year. It was written around the time that Bertie made his first appearance, although it differs from the Jeeves and Wooster stories in that it has an anonymous (though reflective and very amusing) narrator. The Jeeves and Wooster stories have that extra element of Bertie's delightful and eccentric narration.

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  3. I think the earlier Wodehouses have more fizz than the later ones. I was surprised though when I started really reading his books to see how many are set in America!

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  4. My friend has just discovered Wodehouse and absolutely loves him; I'll have to tell her about Uneasy Money.

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  5. This sounds like a book I would like to read. I find it difficult to decide between his books because while I enjoy some of them (usually the ones starring Jeeves and Bertie Wooster) there are are others that aren't as entertaining and like you said about Quick Service, are difficult to enjoy.

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  6. Stephen Burridge7 January 2012 02:25

    I like these early ones, which are often more romatic and musical comedy-ish. "Uneasy Money" has long been a favourite.

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  7. Wodehouse always manages to make me laugh. Thus far I have confined myself to the Blandings novels, but I think it's time I went beyond the confines of the castle, so to speak.

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  8. Ah, good old Wodehouse, essential in everybody's diet of reading. If only his portrayed world existed in reality!

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