‘I’ve a headache.’
‘I thought you would have, laddie, when I saw you getting away with the liquid last night. An X-ray photograph of your liver would show something that looked like a crumpled oak-leaf studded with hob-nails. You ought to take more exercise, dear heart. Except for sloshing that policeman, you haven’t done anything athletic for years.’
A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse was first published in the USA on 4 October 1919, having previously been serialised in the Saturday Evening Post in May-June of the same year. The first UK edition was published on 15 October 2019.
The story is set in England, featuring scenes in London and the fictional village of Belpher, based on the pretty coastal town of Emsworth, Hampshire, where Wodehouse once lived — a connection celebrated today by the local Emsworth Museum.
The bally Englishness of it all is rounded off with historic Belpher Castle and its inmates – the aristocratic Marshmoretons upstairs, and a below-stairs cast headed by Keggs the Butler. There’s little to like about the Marshmoretons, who are one of the scaliest gangs of invertebrates and inveritable snobs Wodehouse ever assembled. Even Lady Maud Marshmoreton, the Damsel in Distress of the title, is one of Wodehouse’s least likeable heroines (in my view).
These Marshmoretons need a good shake-up and Wodehouse gives it to them in the form of romantic entanglements with unsuitable Americans — Broadway composer George Bevan and chorus girl Billie Dore. The Americans inject much needed life and Broadway sparkle into the story. They steal all their scenes and render their stuffy English counterparts even more colourless.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘But’ – Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’
Perhaps this reflects Wodehouse’s own experience as an Englishman in New York. He had been living and working there for around five years when A Damsel in Distress was written, following previous visits in 1904 and 1909. It may also reflect good commercial sense. Upstairs-downstairs dramas and stories transplanting Americans into the British aristocracy may have already become clichéd by Wodehouse’s day (I’m guessing here), but even in 2019 they remain unnacountably popular. Or at least this popularity is unnacountable to me — when it comes to Downton Abbey, I’m with David Mitchell.
But I digress…
A Damsel in Distress is a popular favourite among Wodehouse readers – it has a 4 and half star rating on Goodreads and has been translated into multiple languages, including five Italian translations.
The plot has also been adapted for film and stage several times, including a silent film released in October 1919 — when the ink on Wodehouse’s Saturday Evening Post original was barely dry.
Wodehouse himself was involved in developing the script for a 1937 film musical adaptation starring Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns and Gracie Allen – with a fabulous score by George Gershwin. Brain Taves has written about this film’s fascinating history for Plum Lines (Journal of the US Wodehouse Society):
“On the advice of George Gershwin, RKO producer Pandro Berman bought the screen rights to A Damsel in Distress in November 1936. Gershwin had collaborated in the theater with Wodehouse before he wrote the novel, and Gershwin believed that the character of the music writer named George Bevan in A Damsel in Distress was based on him. Gershwin’s nine songs for the film were composed before the script was written, and he died during production of the movie.”
Brian Taves: A Damsel in Distress: Novel, to Play, to Film
Plum Lines Vol. 2 2 No.3 Autum 2001
Stage performances of A Damsel in Distress include a 1928 adaptation written by Wodehouse and Ian Hay, which ran at the New Theatre in London –with a young Joan Hickson among the cast. And in 2015, I was fortunate enough to see a wonderful adaptation by Rob Ashford at the Chichester Festival.
While A Damsel in Distress is not one of my own favourite Wodehouse novels, I give it a solid 3 stars (if I rated everything Wodehouse wrote as equally excellent, I’d have no credibility). I suspect I’m in a minority among Wodehouse fans on this one, however, and I have no wish to detract from the pleasure this work brings to others. It remains a ‘must-read’ for Wodehouse fans, particularly for Wodehouse’s Broadway insights.
And the glimmer of his genius is present, as always.
‘A cat, on its way back from lunch, paused beside him in order to use his leg as a serviette.’
‘The furniture had been constructed by somebody who would probably have done very well if he had taken up some other line of industry…’
His pause was more eloquent than his speech and nearly as eloquent as his eye.
So don’t take my word for it — if you haven’t read A Damsel in Distress, grab a copy and decide for yourself. The 1937 musical is also available on DVD — here’s a snippet to whet your whistle.
Pip pip to old man trouble
And a toodly-oo too
Madam Eulalie: Source of the original Saturday Evening Post header image (above). You’ll also find the original Saturday Evening Post text, illustrations, and annotations.
Reviews of A Damsel in Distress