Friday, November 29, 2013

P. G. Wodehouse's Heroes: The Perfect Courtier's Sprezzatura in A Damsel in Distress

P. G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress is one of my favorite Wodehouse novels. In it, the disenchanted and disheartened composer (for musical comedies) George Bevan has an encounter in London with Lady Maud, who is attempting a rendezvous with a man she has fallen head over heels in love with the useless Geoffrey Raymond, much to the disapproval of her family. She happens upon her brother, and attempts to elude him by jumping into a taxi, and into the arms of George, who defends her from her attacker (her brother, the absurdly snobbish Percy Wilbraham Marsh, Lord Belpher).

Wodehouse often makes references to Shakespeare, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the quixotic nature of love, and the possibility of falling in love at first sight (as though pansy juice were sprinkled in one's eyes). There is also a kind of Tristan and Isolde energy in much of Wodehouse -- the love potion is quite strong. For me, the fact that there are mistaken identities, doubles, and absurd encounters, makes me think of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and also Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

A Damsel in Distress has the elements I enjoy -- the kind-hearted, not snobbish Earl of Marshmoreton, a very determined aunt, Lady Caroline Byng. There is a plucky heroine (Lady Maud Marsh) and a romantic, wry, enterprising, and upwardly mobile American (George Bevan), a decent, lovable but rather useless young peer (Reggie Byng), and lots of golf, in the form of George Bevan, Reggie Byng, and also Lady Maud.

Alice Faraday, a born caretaker and reformer, excessively involved and maternal, is a perfect match for Reggie Byng.

Billie Dore, a stenographer, then stage actress and star, loves roses, is American, kind-hearted, expansive, and energizing -- perfect match for Lord Marshmoreton, whom she initially mistakes for a gardener.

Lady Maud Marsh, hopeless romantic who pines away for her knight in shining armor, whom she thought she met in Wales; little did she know he would turn out to be a womanizing bounder who promised (in the guise of another person) eternal love and affection to an actress, whom he then jilted, and little did she suspect that he would become almost obese in the year he spent wandering the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on a yacht equipped with a top-flight chef. She is a perfect match for George Bevan -- composer for musical comedies, and extremely successful; his songs are played on Victrolas everywhere. Further, he is a romantic and utterly knightly.

There are other Shakespearian characters, who act as catalysts: Keggs, the butler -- wily, self-interested, petit-dictator, the perfect butler. His greed leads him to set up a kitty to gamble on who will marry whom, and the behind-the-scenes machinations advance the action of the story.

Albert, the page -- young Machiavelli, preternaturally quick, whose desire to get ahead in the world make him the perfect rascally "picaro" in the genre of the quick-witted Lazarillo de Tormes or Huck Finn. Necessary catalyst.

Lady Caroline Byng and her son, Percy Marsh, Lord Belpher, are a perfect pair - they hate any perturbations to the social order, at least as they might relate to the aristocracy.

Favorite scenes:

Traveling with Reggie, who is meeting Percy, back from Oxford, Maud flies off to London in a rush, hoping to meet Geoffrey Raymond, the man she fell in love with in Wales, who is, in theory, back in London with his uncle Wilbur. Maud is spied by Percy, so she plunges into a cab, which just happens to hold George Bevan, who rises to the occasion and defends Maud by crushing Percy's hat. Percy reciprocates by hitting George; Percy is arrested and spends the night in jail.

Obsessed with upholding the "family honour," Percy, Lord Belpher decides to follow Maud and prevent her from meeting the American (presumed to be Geoffrey) at the Platt's Cottage. He follows her, but to avoid detection, walks in an English drainage ditch, and becomes coated with mud. Quick-witted Maud leads him to a vicarage, where the curate in charge takes seriously Maud's claims that a vagrant is stalking and menacing her. He tricks Percy into coming into the vicarage, where he locks him in a closet. He engages the help of the local blacksmith to open the door (and quell any desires to punch the curate). The curate hands him a shilling and a pamphlet on the evils of drink, and tells him to go one his way.

Albert's meddling -- his attempt to be the catalyst to bring together Maud and Reggie; all the pamphlets and advice letters are employed by Reggie to good effect -- on Alice Faraday. Alice, who has never had much to say about Reggie until she thought he needed protection and nurturing, looks at him with new eyes.

Percy's 21st birthday party -- Reggie drinks for courage, but ends up thinking he's pickled his brain when he thinks he sees George as a waiter (he does, in fact); George gets a job as a waiter (thanks to Albert's quick thinking); Albert quick-wittedly ties Reggie's sheet in knots to create a climbing rope to extricate George from the balcony from which the historical legend, Leonard, had dove to protect a lady's honor.

Echoes of honor, knightly behavior, and self-delusion -- Cervantes's Don Quixote and the knights of the round table in Mort d'Arthur. One can't help but thinking of Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier. In fact, most of Wodehouse's heroes demonstrate perfect sprezzatura (innate grace, coupled with prudence, continence, magnanimity). In clumsy hands, they may seem to mock. But, they are much too kind-hearted to do so. They are perfect courtiers in a rather rough and quickly changing (confusing) world marked by shocking changes of fortune.

Thursday afternoon at the Castle: George thinks Lord Marshmoreton is a gardner, gives him a letter to deliver to Maud; Billie Dore thinks he's a gardner and shares tips for getting rid of rose aphids and thrips. There are echoes here of She Stoops to Conquer, and also Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn). The point of the action and mistakes is to strip away the mediating influence of title and social position, to look regard individuals in terms of their own character and merit. In the context of the times -- socialist and communist dialectics abounded, and there were major social order upheavals -- Wodehouse's approach was neither reactionary nor conservative. His was an approach that focused on humor in order to restore diversity and re-admit "characters" and eccentrics into a society that was pushing everyone into small, labeled boxes.

The trajectory of Lord Marshmoreton's travel toward psychological independence from his snooty sister is fun. He's a great character -- obsessed with roses and gardening; and also very alive when he meets a woman of similar interests. They are so perfect for each other, it's a delight. It's also fun to see that he judges a person based on character, not social rank, and instantly likes George Bevan.

George and Reggie on the golf course; Deeply impressing Reggie, George did not "foozle a single drive" and admirably got out of the bunker at the fifteenth hole in a masterful way.

The afternoon in the London tea-shop, Ye Cosy Nooke, where Maud and Geoffrey unite after a year of not seeing each other. Geoffrey has read the notice of Maud's engagement to George. Maud is lucky because she does not have to generate the rejection - she is horrified by Geoffrey's obesity and his obsession with food; it does not help that a process-server comes in and presents Geoffrey with notice of a lawsuit for "Breach of Promise of Marriage" -- Geoffrey has mascaraded as a "Mr. Spenser Gray" to woo an actress, Miss Yvonne Sinclair, even presenting her with a gift of a signed photograph, "To Babe from her little Pootles" --

The final scene is a lot of fun -- as George is packing to return to New York, Maud calls him from the lobby of the same hotel (the Hotel Carlton). She asks him a series of questions (how much does he weigh? how much did he weigh last year? has he ever been to Florida? what does he think of the fish called the pompano?) to assure herself he's not at all Geoffrey-like, and finally to ask him about wallpaper for his den...

It is a very engaging and satisfying way to accept a proposal of marriage ... I love Wodehouse's female characters, who are spunky and independent, while maintaining kindness and a great sense of humor.