At the next meeting of The Den(ver) of the Secret Nine—at 12:30 pm Sunday, July 9 at Pints Pub in Denver—we’ll discuss P.G. Wodehouse’s 1922 novel The Adventures of Sally. As an aid to discussion, here’s a synopsis of the story and some observations about the story.
Sally and Fillmore Nicholas were orphaned at an early age and raised by an uncle who was also trustee of their fortune. A falling out after Fillmore was expelled from Harvard meant they both left their uncle’s home and had to survive on their own until they came into their inheritances. They lived in a New York boarding house where Sally’s good nature was evident to all. Fillmore survived as an assistant stage manager and Sally as a taxi dancer at a dance palace.
Now comparatively wealthy after receiving his inheritance at age 25, Fillmore invests his money in a play written by Sally’s fiancée, Gerald Foster. Sally is more cautious with her money when she inherits at age 21, but does decide to spend some of it on a vacation in France, including that favorite fictional Wodehouse beach resort Roville-sur-Mer. There she meets Lancelot “Ginger” Kemp and his cousin Bruce Carmyle.
Ginger is the black sheep of “the family,” having recently been let go as secretary to one Scrymgeour, an up-and-coming member of parliament. This Scrymgeour made the mistake of “disciplining” his dog with a walking stick, which Ginger promptly broke into pieces, accompanied with the tongue lashing. The family, which would like to see Ginger become someone in politics or business, wants Ginger to apologize to Scrymgeour.
Ginger explains all this in a meet cute when he and Sally are trapped in an elevator. Sally is incensed that Ginger kowtows to the family and several times tells him “Death to the family!” This inspires Ginger so much that he falls in love with Sally, asks her to marry him and later defies the family (aided by winnings at the roulette table).
Sally equally impresses Bruce Carmyle, Ginger’s cousin. A hardheaded self-important man, he’s taken by Sally’s looks and demeanor, but put off by her defense of Ginger. After Sally returns to New York, Carmyle pursues her to America. Sally is both repelled and tolerant of Carmyle, and Carmyle is alternately enamored and disdainful of Sally, so he has little success in plighting his troth. Sally brother’s Fillmore, however, is impressed with Carmyle as a man of importance.
Speaking of Fillmore, he wants a bigger stake in Gerald Foster’s (Sally’s fiancée’s) play and asks Sally to help him buy out the current backer, whose insistence on casting a temperamental star is threatening to derail the show. Fillmore doesn’t have enough from his own inheritance for the takeover thanks to ill-considered stock market trades.
She agrees to lend Fillmore the money and also learns that Fillmore is engaged to Gladys Winch, a woman Sally approves of for she thinks Gladys is just the sort of level-headed wife Fillmore needs.
In the mean time Ginger has also come to New York and is staying at the same boarding house as Sally (he having obtained her address before they were parted in France). Unfortunately his roulette winnings had disappeared after another spin of the wheel and he is destitute. Sally convinces Fillmore, now an aspiring theater impresario, to hire Ginger as his right-hand man.
Unfortunately for Sally, Gerald’s play is successful—unfortunate because Gerald marries the actress who replaced the temperamental star, and unfortunate for Fillmore who lets the success of the play go to his head. He takes his profits, despite the protestation of his now wife Gladys, and sinks it into a revue that fails. He loses all his money and everything Sally invested.
Sally is unaware of Fillmore’s financial collapse, however, because she’s fled to England, ostensibly to help out a former boarding house resident who’s returned to England. In truth, she doesn’t want to deal with Gerald’s betrayal. While in England, she is invited to visit the home of Uncle Donald, the head of “the family” of Ginger and Carmyle. What she doesn’t know is that the visit is really Carmyle’s plan to endear Sally to “the family,” and then to propose to her.
I’ll stop the synopsis here so as not to spoil the ending of the story.
. I will point out that others have noted/criticized that in many ways Sally is a reprise of Wodehouse’s earlier Jill the Reckless, but it’s pointless to lift that veil.
Normally I think of P.G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen existing in differing worlds. They both wrote books that are comedies of manners, but Wodehouse is mostly known as a comic writer whose plots were driven by romance, status and money, while on the surface Austen is a romance writer whose plots are actually driven by pretty clear-eyed considerations of status and money.
Both authors are geniuses at dialog and observational humor, but their styles are distinctly different … or so I always thought. Before joining The Secret Nine, I was familiar with about 20 percent of Wodehouse’s novels and like most people, tended to stick with the Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings stories and read only a few of his very early stories. I was familiar with the mature author, confident of his style and métier and quite happy to fall back on tropes, especially since he’d invented many of the tropes of romantic comedies that are still in use today.
The Adventures of Sally, however, makes me appreciate Wodehouse as a romance writer who could create a heroine worthy of Austen. Wodehouse’s female characters have always been enjoyable and complex, but Sally Nicholas is something special. She shares a common trait of many Wodehouse heroines in being small and trim and pretty, but she’s also independent, caring, forceful, playful and more than a little self-assured. She has a strong tendency to cajole, lecture and interfere on behalf of others. Some might call her motherly but I think she’s more of a headmistress with a distinct hint of moral arbiter. Unlike Wodehouse’s other female characters who want to improve the male (think Florence Cray), however, I think the author has a fondness for Sally.
Like many of Austen’s heroines, Sally suffered from poverty, in her case because she stood up for her brother, but unlike an Austen heroine she lived in a time when a woman of her class and quality could work—even as a taxi dancer—and still remain an honorable woman. I hope Elizabeth Bennet—had her father died and herself, her mother and sisters been ejected from Longbourn by Mr. Collins—would have had the gumption to work as a taxi dancer at some assembly—if that profession had existed during the Regency.
When Fillmore loses Sally’s money, she has to return to the dance palace, causing the owner of that palace some distress:
“Everybody liked her,” said Mr. Abrahams. “The nicest girl I ever hired, and I don’t hire none but nice girls, because the Garden’s a nice place, and I like to run it nice. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for any of your tough joints where you get nothing but low-lifes and scare away all the real folks. Everybody liked Sally Nicholas. Always pleasant and always smiling, and never anything but the lady. It was a treat to have her around.”
Eventually, though, her misadventures—her fiancée marrying another, Fillmore’s poor financial decisions, Ginger’s inability to keep a job (through no fault of his own) and the pain of rejecting Carmyle’s proposal and the scorn of “the family”—weigh her down. Surprised by Carmyle who has tracked her to the dance palace (to the displeasure of Uncle Donald), her resolve falters. He proves a masterful dancer, a pleasant relief from the clumsy men who step on her toes, and when he again proposes, she accepts.
It’s cleverly done because we never hear Carmyle proposal’s, all we read is Sally’s despair:
She felt his arm tighten about her, the muscles quivering. She caught sight of his face. His dark eyes suddenly blazed into hers and she stumbled with an odd feeling of helplessness; realizing with a shock that brought her with a jerk out of the half-dream into which she had been lulled that this dance had not postponed the moment of decision, as she had looked to it to do. In a hot whisper, the words swept away on the flood of the music which had suddenly become raucous and blaring once more, he was repeating what he had said under the trees at Monk’s Crofton on that far-off morning in the English springtime. Dizzily she knew that she was resenting the unfairness of the attack at such a moment, but her mind seemed numbed.
The music stopped abruptly. Insistent clapping started it again, but Sally moved away to her table, and he followed her like a shadow. Neither spoke. Bruce Carmyle had said his say, and Sally was sitting staring before her, trying to think. She was tired, tired. Her eyes were burning. She tried to force herself to face the situation squarely. Was it worth struggling? Was anything in the world worth a struggle? She only knew that she was tired, desperately tired, tired to the very depths of her soul.
The proposal is as much a blur to Sally as it is to us.
I cannot help but think of Jane Austen when Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to her. She was nearly 27—an old maid in 1802—and she accepted his proposal, no doubt worried about her future and the future of her mother and sister should her father die, which he did in 1805. A marriage with Bigg-Wither would have ensured she have a home. But she returned the proposal the next day. I can imagine Austen being similarly tired and wondering what was the use of struggling.
Of course Sally is far more affected by Gerald Foster’s betrayal than any Austen heroine. Elizabeth Bennet takes in stride the revelation that George Wickham is a cad and Emma Woodhouse has no grudge when she realizes she’s not in love with Frank Churchill, nor does he love her. There is a parallel with Emma and Sally, however. Both are unaware until it becomes blindingly obvious who they should marry. Emma is oblivious to the fact she must marry George Knightley until she thinks she has lost him. Sally is unaware that she must marry Ginger, even though Gladys gave her a clue when she advised:
“Chumps always make the best husbands. When you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his forehead first, and if it rings solid, don’t hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from the husband having brains. What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him.”
Ginger is obviously the chump for Sally. He deserves Sally because he recognized her worth from the beginning, in the first minutes of their meeting in fact. Sally should have recognized the advice she gave her brother when he told her of his love for Glady: “… she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
I also love this story in that it’s tone is completely different from most Wodehouse novels. He uses none of his tropes in this book—no stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, no larks on the wing, no statues of the Infant Samuel. There are no Pat and Mike routines where it takes three pages just to get past some silly misunderstanding. Instead this is a breezy novel with very modern sounding dialog. I especially love Sally’s teasing of her brother, especially when he’s considering buying a fur coat:
“I wish you wouldn’t keep on harping on that damned coat. And, anyway, why shouldn’t I have a fur coat?”
“Fill…! How can you be so brutal as to suggest that I ever said you shouldn’t? Why, I’m one of the strongest supporters of the fur coat. With big cuffs. And you must roll up Fifth Avenue in your car, and I’ll point and say ‘That’s my brother!’ ‘Your brother? No!’ ‘He is, really.’ ‘You’re joking. Why, that’s the great Fillmore Nicholas.’ ‘I know. But he really is my brother. And I was with him when he bought that coat.’”
“Do leave off about the coat!”
“‘And it isn’t only the coat,’ I shall say. ‘It’s what’s underneath. Tucked away inside that mass of fur, dodging about behind that dollar cigar, is one to whom we point with pride… ‘”
Another item of note: I’ve never read a book that treated the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919 with such humor. The flu, which came to America with soldiers returning from World War I, killed three to five percent of the world’s population, but in this story it serves principally to inconvenience Fillmore and Gerald Foster when the theaters are closed. Even the elderly Mr. Faucitt, a fellow inmate of Sally at the boarding house, seems to thrive after contracting the disease:
“Oh no, not that.” Mrs. Meecher [the landlady] sighed, for she had been a little disappointed in the old gentleman, who started out as such a promising invalid, only to fall away into the dullness of robust health once more. “He’s well enough. I never seen anybody better. You’d think,” said Mrs. Meecher, bearing up with difficulty under her grievance, “you’d think this here new Spanish influenza was a sort of a tonic or somep’n, the way he looks now. Of course,” she added, trying to find justification for a respected lodger, “he’s had good news. His brother’s dead.”
Then again the flu had a higher mortality rate among the young—like Fillmore and Sally.
There are some problems with Sally that others have observed. It too closely resembles the style of Plum’s earlier Jill the Reckless, but I’ve never objected to Wodehouse borrowing from himself. And perhaps the pacing is a little off towards the end, with a convenient conclusion to Sally’s unwanted engagement to Carmyle, but again I look kindly on that sort of thing. After all, I just saw Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe where the heroine is saved from death by someone suggesting that instead of saying “every fairy shall die who marries a mortal” to “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” After all it’s just one extra word.
Again, why quibble when it comes to Wodehouse.