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A different kind of magical realism

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This post was written for The Rumpus,which publishes readers' pieces about their last favorite book - but not, apparently, mine.  Having received no response to my submission, I am publishing the piece here.  Enjoy!
My last great literary discovery wasn't a book, and I didn't read it.  It's the short story, "Romance at Droitgate Spa," by P.G. Wodehouse, published in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, and I listened to the talented Jonathan Cecil read the short story collection as an audiobook.

I'm a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse, and I particularly admire his mastery of comic plotting.  But P.G. Wodehouse is also impressive for the way he works with his limitations.  He's not particularly skilled at characterization or endowing characters with emotional depth.  Wodehouse was aware of this weakness and, although he probably could have tried to develop his capacities for rendering characters (as opposed to caricatures) on the page, he didn't.  He once described his approach to writing novels as "making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life all together."

But even characters in musical comedies need some realistic emotional presence if they are to resonate with audiences.  As hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse's work can be, his method can also result in two-dimensional, stereotyped characters that fail to grip, regardless of the humor intrinsic in the plot circumstances.  Psmith, Journalist is one painful example; but even Galahad at Blandings suffers in this way.  In the Wooster-Jeeves novels, Wodehouse decisively solved the problem by creating two characters - an airhead clubman and his brilliant gentleman's gentleman - both of whom are flatly realized, but who together function as a compelling (and comically riotous) team.

"Romance at Droitgate Spa" shows P.G. Wodehouse devising another solution to his problem.  In the story, Freddie Fitch-Fitch is in love with Annabel Purvis, but he needs his uncle, Major-General Sir Aylmer Bastable, to release his trust fund so that he can marry.  

Uncle Bastable suffers from gout and lives at Droitgate Spa.  Despite the healing waters, he is snubbed by the "elite" of the spa community, who are those afflicted with complex and intractable diseases; gout doesn't qualify.  This ostracism pains Uncle Bastable because he's a class snob and believes he should be received by the best people wherever he goes.

Given his constant distemper, Uncle Bastable is disinclined to approve of Freddie's marriage.  Poor Annabel is low-born.  At the opening of the story, she's a "conjurer's stooge"; she stands on stage in pink tights, looking enchanting and occasionally handing her employer, the Great Boloni, a bowl of goldfish.  Uncle Bastable disapproves.

To sweeten his uncle, Freddie sends Annabel to nurse Uncle Bastable.  Freddie instructs Annabel to tell Uncle Bastable that she's of "gentle birth."  Freddie is confident that Uncle Bastable will be charmed by his lovely new "nurse," and that he'll approve the marriage without discovering that his nurse used to be a "conjurer's stooge."

Freddie's plan works perfectly.  Uncle Bastable blesses the marriage, and Freddie goes to London to finalize legal documents his uncle must sign to release Freddie's trust funds.

So far, the set-up is both superficial and standard for P.G. Wodehouse: young lovers are thwarted by money and cantankerous relatives; a softly-deceptive scheme solves both problems.  Then Wodehouse dropped acid or was struck by lightning or was crammed into a barrel and sent over Niagara Falls - or some such - because, mid-plot, the story abruptly deviates from the form-book.

In London, Freddie is called into the small smoking room of his club, where a "Mr. Rackstraw" awaits him.  Entering the room, Freddie finds "a tall thin man with pointed black moustaches, who was pacing up and down, nervously taking rabbits out of his top-hat."  Mortimer Rackstraw flashes his sinister eyes, twirls his mustache and - as Freddie soon discovers - performs under the name, "The Great Boloni"; and he used to be Annabel's fiancé.  "Fiend!" Rackstraw greets Freddie, before instructing him to "take [a card], any one" from a deck, to memorize it and to return it to the pack.  Throughout their conversation - during which Rackstraw warns Freddie that he will take revenge for Freddie's theft of Annabel - Rackstraw performs magic tricks.  He makes a rabbit vanish, an egg appear from Freddie's head, and he removes a cage of lovebirds from his hat.  After his dramatic exit from the smoking room, he re-enters to bow to the left and right before leaving for good.  Freddie is left to wonder "what a man so trained in the art of having things up his sleeve might have up it now."

With Rackstraw, P.G. Wodehouse throws up his hands at the very task of characterization.  Instead, he makes a joke of the challenge.  He takes the most hackneyed villain - the guy who would tie the damsel to the railway tracks in the black-and-white-films - and reveals his distress and anxiety with behavior that, of course, no one would ever manifest.  In the process, however, Wodehouse achieves an unexpected victory: Rackstraw's unconscious default to sleights-of-hand in times of stress is so amusing and delightful, that it endears him to the audience; I empathized with him.  (Jonathan Cecil, I should add, excels in his performance of Rackstraw.)         

Suddenly, I was more deeply engaged in the story, at which point, Wodehouse produced another surprise from his hat.  Annabel summons Freddie to Droitgate with a frantic telegram and, upon arriving, Freddie learns that Annabel has locked Rackstraw in the cellar, the door of which - from the pounding sounds - Rackstraw is well on his way to banging off its hinges.  Annabel is trying to prevent Rackstraw from meeting Uncle Bastable - who is in the Pump Room, listening to the band - because Rackstraw wants to introduce Annabel's Uncle Joe to Freddie's Uncle Bastable.  Uncle Joe, she explains, is not Uncle Bastable's "sort," and if Uncle Bastable meets him, their scheme will be ruined: Uncle Bastable will know that Annabel comes from humble origins, and he will refuse to bless their marriage.

Freddie dashes to the Pump Room, hoping to attain Uncle Bastable's signature on the necessary legal documents before Rackstraw frees himself.  But Uncle Bastable is a music lover, and he makes Freddie sit through the band's renditions of "Poet and Peasant" and an encore, the overture to "Raymond," by which time Rackstraw has arrived.  Rackstraw (who is mechanically juggling in one hand two billiard balls and a bouquet of roses) immediately denounces Annabel, exposing her claim to be the daughter of a "colonel" with the information that her father was a colonel in the Salvation Army, before which he was "a Silver Ring bookie known to all the heads as Rat-faced Rupert, the Ber-mondsey twister."  Then Rackstraw produces his ace: Uncle Joe, a "ghastly outsider" in these "refined" surroundings: a man wearing a morning coat, a red waistcoat and brown shoes, who greets Uncle Bastable as "old cock."

Just when Rackstraw's revenge appears to be unstoppable, Uncle Joe shows that Rackstraw isn't the only man with a trick up his sleeve.  "Uncle Joe" turns out to be Joe Boffin, a famed patient whose been written up in The Lancet.  He's spent most of his life in hospitals, beginning as a child with congenital pyloric hypertrophy of the stomach, progressing into adulthood with thrombosis of the heart and vesicular emphysema of the lungs.  His temperature has twice been up to 107.5 (when he had hyperpyrexia).

Uncle Bastable is rapturous with admiration.  Joe Boffin is his hero.  Uncle Bastable aspires to have ailments on Joe Boffin's scale, so that he can be catapulted to Droitgate Spa aristocracy.

The Droitgate Spa snobs then wander over, themselves equally enamored of Joe Boffin, who brushes away their apologies for interrupting with the assurance that he's "always glad to meet the fans."  Upon hearing that Joe Boffin's niece, Annabel, is going to marry Bastable's nephew, Freddie, the Droitgate Spa snobs are stunned at the honor.  They invite Bastable to join their exclusive group "the twelve jolly stretcher cases" and wonder if Bastable would join them that evening.  Boffin, they presume, wouldn't condescend to fraternize with their little assembly, but Boffin counters, "There's nothing stuck-up about me," adding, "We can't all be Joe Boffins, that's the way I look at it."

The chief Droitgate Spa snob, Lord Rumbelow, sighs, "The true democratic spirit." 

Joe Boffin then admits that he was best man at a friend's wedding recently, and the only thing wrong with him was "emotional dermatitis."  (Jonathan Cecil's delivery of this line made me laugh out loud.)

"Emotional dermatitis" might well summarize P.G. Wodehouse's view of the work of conjuring realistic emotional lives for his characters.  But with Joe Boffin, as with Mortimer Rackstraw, Wodehouse achieves great effect by giving up and making a joke of the whole endeavor.  With Boffin, Wodehouse takes the basest proletariat and makes him the catalyst for stunning upward mobility (both of himself and of Bastable) by inventing a social standard that - like Rackstraw's anxiety-induced magic - doesn't appear in the real world.  The transposition of snobbery from matters like education and wealth to an equal-opportunity arena like disease is, in Wodehouse's hands, so quixotic and charming that the audience is seduced.  By the time that Rackstraw takes "the flags of all nations from Annabel's back hair and, with a despairing gesture, [strides] from the room," I was convinced that I'd heard Wodehouse's supreme story.

Wodehouse's oeuvre is so enormous (more than ninety books) that I can't say for certain that he never used the techniques on display in "Romance at Droitgate Spa" again, but the delightful Mortimer Rackstraw and Joe Boffin do not seem to have had encore performances in Wodehouse's work, which is a shame.  As much as I adore the Jeeves-Wodehouse series, "Romance at Droitgate Spa" tantalizes with the possibility that Wodehouse could have reached other comic pinnacles had he elaborated on his "Droitgate Spa" insights.  I won't say it's a loss on par with Aristotle's discourse on comedy, but - in my book - it's close.

(Trailer for this cute amateur production of "Romance at Droitgate Spa" from YouTube)

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