The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive, is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents’ worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects confronted with it reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals that guard New York’s Public Library.
P.G. Wodehouse: Piccadilly Jim (1916)
So begins Piccadilly Jim, with some of my favourite Wodehouse opening lines. If you’ve never ventured beyond Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Blandings stories, Piccadilly Jim is an excellent place to start. It’s still in print and widely available from reputable bookshops and online sellers.
2018 marks 100 years since Piccadilly Jim’s UK publication, making this year a centenary of sorts for one of Wodehouse’s most loved novels. I say ‘of sorts’ because Piccadilly Jim was serialised in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916, and published in book form the following year in the US. A centennial celebration at Plumtopia is long overdue.
In a nutshell, Piccadilly Jim is the story of American rascal Jimmy Crocker. Having started out as a journalist in New York, he moves to London after his actor father marries into money. Jim’s excesses in London make good copy in the New York papers, who dub him ‘Piccadilly Jim’. The stories are an embarrassment to his new aunt-by-marriage, Nesta Ford Pett, who wants Jimmy to return to New York and work in her husband’s business. Jimmy has little interest in reforming his character, but a chance meeting with a beautiful American redhead called Ann Chester changes his mind.
To this relatively straightforward plot, we add the Wodehouse treatment. The aforementioned household in Riverside Drive also contains Mrs Pett’s odious son Ogden, a literary salon, an undercover detective and multiple imposters.
There was a strong literary virus in Mrs. Pett’s system. She not only wrote voluminously herself–the name Nesta Ford Pett is familiar to all lovers of sensational fiction–but aimed at maintaining a salon. Starting, in pursuance of this aim, with a single specimen,–her nephew, Willie Partridge, who was working on a new explosive which would eventually revolutionise war–she had gradually added to her collections, until now she gave shelter beneath her terra-cotta roof to no fewer than six young and unrecognised geniuses. Six brilliant youths, mostly novelists who had not yet started and poets who were about to begin, cluttered up Mr. Pett’s rooms on this fair June morning, while he, clutching his Sunday paper, wandered about, finding, like the dove in Genesis, no rest.
Ann Chester stands out as another sparkling Wodehouse heroine. She’s a reformed poet with enterprising ideas about kidnapping young Ogden (previously kidnapped in The Little Nugget) and sending him to a dog-hospital for fresh air and exercise. Like Wodehouse’s other infamous redhead Bobby Wickham, Ann has a fiery nature to match her hair colour.
“It’s your red hair!” said Mr. Pett at length, with the air of a man who has been solving a problem. “It’s your red hair that makes you like this, Ann. Your father has red hair, too.”
“It’s not my fault that I have red hair, uncle Peter. It’s my misfortune.”
Mr. Pett shook his head.
“Other people’s misfortune, too!” he said.
Of the wider cast, the intimidating Miss Trimble deserves mention as the International Detective Agency’s top operative, who joins the Pett household in the guise of a parlour-maid. Miss Trimble is a martial arts expert, a crack-shot with a revolver, and an outstanding creation from the first.
At this close range she more than fulfilled the promise of that distant view which Mrs. Pett had had of her from the window. Her face was not only shrewd and determined: it was menacing. She had thick eyebrows, from beneath which small, glittering eyes looked out like dangerous beasts in undergrowth: and the impressive effect of these was accentuated by the fact that, while the left eye looked straight out at its object, the right eye had a sort of roving commission and was now, while its colleague fixed Mrs. Pett with a gimlet stare, examining the ceiling.
Miss Trimble is also a socialist, whose assignment in the Pett household gives her an opportunity to sneer at vulgar excess up close.
She frowned disapprovingly at a Canaletto.
“You–ah–appear to dislike the rich,” said Mrs. Pett, as nearly in her grand manner as she could contrive.
Miss Trimble bowled over the grand manner as if it had been a small fowl and she an automobile. She rolled over it and squashed it flat.
Piccadilly Jim has been translated into multiple languages and adapted for film three times, in 1919, 1936, and 2005. The 1919 adaptation by Wodehouse’s friend Guy Bolton is reputedly the most faithful to the book.
The 2005 adaption received some poor reviews from Wodehouse fans, despite an all-star cast including Sam Rockwell as Jimmy Crocker, Frances O’Connor as Ann Chester, and Tom Wilkinson, Brenda Blethyn, Allison Janney, Austin Pendleton, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander, Geoffrey Palmer and Pam Ferris. Too much of Wodehouse’s original material is wasted for this adaptation to be a fan favourite, and the filmmakers seem to have abandoned period authenticity in their choice of costumes, sets, and soundtrack (Sia and Emilíana Torrini make brief musical cameos singing Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Tainted Love’ respectively). I don’t have a strong view about this adaptation, so I’d love to know what you think of it.
And if you are yet to discover the joys of the original, I heartily recommend popping out and picking up a copy — it’s certainly one of my favourites.
References and further reading
The serialised version of Piccadilly Jim is available online from Madame Eulalie’s inimitable website, complete with the original illustrations by May Wilson Preston.