Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Love Among the Chickens by P. G. Wodehouse

First published in 1906, Love Among the Chickens marks the first appearance of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, the entrepreneur and con man.  Wodehouse, thinking the book contained some bad writing and was "dated," revised it in 1921.  This week I read a free e-book version of this 1921 revision, using the iBooks application on my iPhone. 

Love Among the Chickens takes place during that period of Ukridge's life when he is married to Millie, the girl with the big round eyes.  Ukridge's latest scheme is to move to the country, to a house he can rent for free, and raise chickens and sell eggs.  He knows nothing about farming or raising animals, but he does not let that discourage him.  He enlists the help of old friend and minor novelist Jeremy Garnet, who knows perhaps even less about chickens.  Garnet finds London in the summer tiresome, and thinks he might be better able to write in the country, so agrees to join Ukridge on this business enterprise.

Garnet, who is the book's first person narrator, is actually the main character of the book.  On the train to Ukridge's farm he meets a beautiful girl, and he is happy to find she lives in the same seaside town where Ukridge is setting up his quixotic enterprise.  The girl lives with her father, a short tempered Irish college professor, and disaster strikes when Ukridge, who speaks carelessly, offends the father.  To get back in the professor's good graces Garnet hatches an ill-considered scheme of his own; he bribes the man who rows the professor's boat so that he will upset the boat, providing Garnet the opportunity to rescue the professor from drowning.  At first this scheme bears fruit, and Garnet and the professor are buddies again, but then the boatman, become a laughing stock in the town, spills the beans to save his reputation.

Love Among the Chickens is a pleasant light entertainment, but lacks much of the appeal of the famous Jeeves and Wooster stories I've been reading for decades and the Ukridge stories I read earlier this month.  Compared to Wodehouse's later work, Love Among the Chickens feels long-winded and conventional.  There are descriptions of sunsets and scenery, and even sincere love scenes in which the hero declares his love and asks for his beloved's hand in marriage.  The two plots of the book (Garnet's courtship of the girl and Ukridge's doomed chicken farm) don't mesh together well, and they both get totally independent (and long) scenes in which they are anti-climactically resolved.  The love plot resolution is OK (Garnet lets the prof beat him at golf), but the chicken farm plot ends in a disappointing deus ex machina (Millie's aunt pays off Ukridge's creditors after said creditors seize and destroy the farm.)  The farm plot is resolved long after the love story is put aside, so the book ends on a low note.

The other Wodehouse work with which I am familiar is much leaner, and faintly subversive.  Every paragraph is dedicated to making you laugh or quickly advancing the plot, while the main characters act selfishly, callously, antisocially, driven by irrational passions and fears, always trying to escape their obligations.  Relationships, between men and women, between aunts and nephews, and between friends, are always difficult and exploitative.  It is true that Ukridge and Garnet in this novel act stupidly and take advantage of people, and there are funny parts, but Love Among the Chickens lacks a certain edge, the love elements seem totally sincere, and there is too much superfluous material about how lovely the ocean is.

A nice diversion and an interesting specimen of Wodehouse's early work, but the things I love about Wodehouse are only present here in embryonic form.  For Wodehouse completists only.

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