A Centenary of A Damsel in Distress

damsel montage

‘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

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!’
‘I am!’
‘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…

 

1919 Damsel in Distress ITALIAN
Una Damigella In Pericolo

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.’

And

‘The furniture had been constructed by somebody who would probably have done very well if he had taken up some other line of industry…’

And

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

HP

Further reading

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

33 thoughts on “A Centenary of A Damsel in Distress

  1. George P. Smith

    What a review! And, Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, Gracie Allen, George Gershwin, RKO and Wodehouse all together. what a wonderful ensemble!
    P.S.
    very nice reference to Italian translations: appreciate!

    1. Thanks so much, George.
      5 Italian translations is impressive and I loved the dust jackets.
      Have you seen the 1937 film? If not, I am happy to report that it’s currently available on DVD.

  2. Murray Hedgcock

    I fear Sex always raises its head when I read A Damsel in Distress. First, there is less than a year between the Earl’s offspring, which suggests he was eager to return to the delights of the marital bed after his heir had been safely delivered. And later – he announces his marriage to Billie Dore days after it took place. Where had the new Countess slept after the wedding (which incidentally took place where? And how had it been kept secret?) Was it possible that the Earl, long deprived of the delights previously mentioned, had displayed self-control to the point of continuing in his lonely single bed? I feel we should be told…..

      1. Carry On movies and Are You Being Served? were regularly replayed on television during my formative years — I didn’t get the jokes then, but I was practically an infant at the time. My grandmother found them hysterically funny. I did appreciate the non-verbal comedic talents of the cast though.
        Innuendo would seem very out of place in a Wodehouse story. The same applies for slapstick. Unless Harold Stinker Pinker is among those present, there is no need for characters to bump into things, trip on banana skins, drop things, or participate in any other zany carrying on.
        When it comes to Wodehouse, I don’t think these producer-director chappies know what they’re dealing with. I’m not sure what the opposite of a golden age is, but we seem to be living in not-golden-age for comedy.

      2. Working backwards through your comedy comment, I certainly agree with you that what passes for comedy today mostly seems to me like anything but. However, I’m a little amazed that you cannot see the naughty possibilities in Wodehouse’s country house farces — all that love at first sight, running around from room to room, hiding under beds (or on wardrobes etc) have all the possibilities for slapstick and innuendo — Bertie bringing down a grandfather clock, Bertie being caught in a girl’s bedroom (you’ll have to marry the girl was Aunt Dahlia’s verdict), the Stoker girl dropping her bathers and climbing into Bertie’s bed. More and much more. Wodehouse was not averse to being a bit double in his entendre — read his song lyrics and of course his many many euphemisms for swearing. I haven’t read DinD for many years but now I guess I shall have to. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more . . .

      3. All excellent points, Noel.
        In the case of Murray’s comments re: DinD, I think he was saying (but I could be mistaken) that the particular production he went to had inserted the Innuendo themselves. I don’t recall any in the original, but that could just be my pure-minded and delicate soul (I could equally just be a bit of a thickie, but let’s go with pure-minded and delicate).

  3. Ah, Mrs Plum you’ve done it again. You should know you get a well deserved accolade in Paul Kent’s new book,, which arrived in the mail today.Speaking of sex, in Washington two years ago a young troupe of players presented an adaptation of A DinD heavily laden with innuendo. It fair shocked my innocent ears when I stopped laughing. I wonder whether they ever got it on the pro stage.

  4. Kenneth clevenger

    Another hit for six for Plumtopia! I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite quote but I do particularly enjoy the self-deprecating humor of the lyricist nifty. I always feel that is the best essence of Plum.

  5. Miss Claire

    Damsel in Distress was one of the first Wodehouse novels I read. I actually read it because I intended to watch the Fred Astaire film and compare it with the book. I never got around to watching the film though.

    Although Damsel in Distress may not be Wodehouse’s best novel, it certainly has it’s bits of brilliance which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I fully intend to read it again someday.

  6. Great post, as always! One of my favourite scenes is the meeting between the heroine and her erstwhile (supposed) lover, where scales fall from her eyes and her anti-obesity stand makes her scratch the fixture, followed by a plain phone call to GB, restoring the alliance.
    Alexander Graham Bell, had he ever come across the portion I refer to, would have heartily applauded it. (He handed in his dinner pail in 1922, so life did give him a window of 3 years to have savoured the romantic value of his invention).

    1. A nice thought, Ashok.

      Although you’ve touched on a scene that pains me, and does no great credit to Lady Maud in my view. Having spent the entire book unshakably devoted to one man, she transfers her affections (with indecent haste) because the poor chump has developed an extra chin. I mean, what’s an extra chin when you’re really in love? Especially when you’ve been swooning about, telling anyone who’ll listen what a great and enduring love yours is.
      I don’t think it reflects well on the girl.

      1. I do have an impression that Plum often enjoyed taking an indulgent swipe at obesity or dieting. You may remember the paragraph in ‘The Juice of an Orange’ where he speaks of the obsession of the f of the s with dieting, leading to wars, and then goes on to the topic of Gandhi and Civil Disobedience! You are right that it something personal.

      2. There are plenty of plus sized characters in Wodehouse and he has great fun with descriptions. But there is no malice or censure in it– a character may wear armchairs fashionably tight about the hips, but it doesn’t count against them. They can still be likeable characters and are not precluded from the world of romance because of it.
        No so in A Damsel in Distress. Maud’s brother — villain of the piece — is obese. And the lover we don’t want her to marry puts on weight. PG gets in some good gags about them, but it feels like their weight is being presented as evidence of a bad character.
        If you carry a few extra pounds, as I do, you tend to notice this because it’s very common in fiction. Plenty of writers use excess weight as a signal to readers that a character is flawed in some way (is untrustworthy, greedy, stupid, or a bully). J.K. Rowling springs to mind. If she presents the reader with a fat character, we’re usually being encouraged to dislike or suspect them.
        This is not the genial spirit we find in the world of Wodehouse. Sure, he pokes fun at weight occasionally — as he does most things — but he often demonstrates empathy for the plight of his weightier characters, and allows them scope as unique characters beyond their bulk. Some of his most beloved characters carry a few extra pounds.
        A Damsel in Distress is thankfully a rare exception.

      3. Great observation. I would urge upon you to consider doing a blog post on a matter such as this! Because of pre-occupations at my end, I am not even sure I would be able to whip anything decent for the upcoming 15th. So very sad.

      4. Sorry to hear it Ashok. Your birthday posts are lovely. Perhaps you could do a retrospective piece, with links to previous birthday articles you’ve written. Or just give yourself permission to take a break. We aren’t paid to do this and we have lives to fit in around our passion for Wodehouse. I know people are very forgiving when life keeps me from working on Plumtopia. Your readers (self included) will be here when you have time to write again.

      5. It is genuinely a pleasure to be of service. You do a terrific job.

        If you don’t have time to get a piece together for the 15th, I am writing one now and I’d be happy/honoured if you want to reblog it.

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