Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Ice in the Bedroom by P. G. Wodehouse

"To oblige his uncle Lord Blicester, I took him into my employment and he arrives in the morning and leaves in the evening, but apart from a certain rudimentary skill in watching the clock, probably instinctive, I would describe him as essentially a lily of the field."
My copy, veteran of innumerable readings
The doughty souls who read this here blog regularly are well aware that I recently read Edgar Pangborn's Davy, a novel which was supposed to be funny but which did not quite reach the mark.  To make sure I hadn't lost my sense of humor in some head injury my wife has tactfully neglected to mention, I next read my withdrawn library copy of P. G. Wodehouse's 1961 novel The Ice in the Bedroom.  You'll be relieved to hear it inspired quite a few smiles and laughs, proving my funny bone still functional.

I acquired the volume pictured to the left at an epic sale at the Central Branch of the Des Moines Public Library; this sale has been one of the high points of my tour of duty out here in the Middle West.  A hardcover from Simon and Schuster which says "FIRST PRINTING" on the publication page, my copy of The Ice in the Bedroom was apparently one of the Des Moines Library's star attractions for several decades, and is in quite rough shape; most pages bear one or more unidentifiable stains, many are held together with tape, and several made a break for freedom while I was reading them.  Luckily I am in the midst of packing for a move and have lots of tape of my own at hand with which to give the book a new lease on life.

The Ice in the Bedroom's 246 pages are full of intertwining plots, wacky coincidences, sharply drawn characters, and references both subtle and overt to high literature.  I sometimes find Wodehouse's plots convoluted to the point that I can't really follow them, and thus regard them as little more than a dimly-seen skeleton upon which the meat of his writing, the amusing dialogue, is hung, but I was able to master the plot of The Ice in the Bedroom without undue effort.

Unlike most of the famous Jeeves and Wooster stories, which are first person narratives, The Ice in the Bedroom is told in the omniscient third person.  Our hero is Frederick Fotheringay Widgeon, nephew of Lord Blicester and resident of the London suburb of Valley Fields, but there are like a dozen other characters, and we spend as much time with each of them as with "Freddie," and witness the workings of all of their (to varying degrees, eccentric or deranged) psyches.  Foremost among these are beautiful young blonde Dolly Molloy, shoplifter and jewel thief, and her husband, con man and brute Thomas, American crooks come to London to prey upon the English middle and upper classes; and forty-something novelist Bessie Binns, who writes under the name Leila Yorke.  Yorke is probably my favorite figure in this drama.  She has grown rich writing best-selling sentimental novels of love which almost all of The Ice in the Bedroom's characters, including Yorke herself, consider "slush" or "bilge." Yorke aspires to write something dark and serious, a grim work of literary merit:
"But can you?"
"Can I what?"
"Write an important novel?" 
"Of course I can.  All you have to do is cut out the plot and shove in plenty of misery."
Dolly Molloy with the title ice,
disguised as a maid 
Freddie is in love with Sally Foster, Yorke's assistant, but Sally is angry at him and has declared she wishes to never see him again.  To bring Sally back into a state of propinquity, Freddie convinces Yorke to rent the recently vacated house next door to him in Valley Fields, which is known as Castlewood.  He tells the novelist, quite fallaciously, that Valley Fields is a grey depressed area, where she will be able to soak up lots of atmosphere for her novel about the oppressed proletariat.  Who recently vacated the palatial estate of Castlewood?  The Molloys of Chicago--Thomas ceased renting the property while Dolly was doing a brief stint in Holloway gaol.  When Dolly gets out of gaol she reveals to Thomas that she hid some jewels she stole from Myrtle Prosser, wife of Freddie's friend Alexander Prosser, in the bedroom of Castlewood, so Thomas and Dolly devise and execute many abortive plans to sneak into Castlewood and recover the hot ice. This is no easy task, as Yorke is as handy with a shotgun as a pen and Freddie's cousin and roommate George is an officer of the law.

The other characters, like Mr. Shoesmith, Alexander's father-in-law and Freddie's boss (it is his assessment of Freddie that I chose as the epigraph to this blog post) all have their own narrative arcs which interact with Freddie's and the principal characters'; these include Sally's suspicions that Freddie is chasing Dolly, Yorke's hiring a crooked private eye to search for her estranged husband, and the fallout from Freddie blowing all his savings on shares in a valueless oil field in Arkansas, sold to him by Thomas Molloy.

All the varied plots have happy endings. In particular, the reader is relieved that Yorke, displaying the sympathy for the consumer we expect from creative types, even abandons her scheme to write a "significant" literary work and goes back to giving the people what they want:
"There rose before me the vision of all those thousands of half-witted women waiting with their tongues out for their next ration of predigested pap from my pen, and I felt it would be cruel to disappoint them.....And there was another aspect of the matter.  Inasmuch as these blighted novels of squalor have to be at least six hundred pages long, hammering one out would have been the most ghastly sweat...."
Sally discovers Freddie applying
iodine to Dolly's skinned knee 
I found The Ice in the Bedroom lots of fun; the characters and storylines are all funny, but, as usual, the real joy of Wodehouse is his writing style, turns of phrase, and all the cultural references; in this one we get a surfeit of allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, George Gissing, and the literary life.  Thanks to Wodehouse fans more learned and industrious than your humble blogger, who have compiled footnotes to The Ice in the Bedroom's allusions and quotations here, none of the cultural references need escape the reader's comprehension.

Everybody and his brother, from Jack Vance and Jonathan Ames to George Will and Christopher Hitchens, is always falling all over themselves trying to tell you how great Wodehouse is, and on this topic I am happy to be part of the crowd.  The Ice in the Bedroom is a worthwhile diversion, a charming and pleasant bit of fun I don't hesitate to recommend.  I purchased a stack of Wodehouse hardcovers at that Des Moines Public Library book sale, and don't regret spending a single one of those pennies.    

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