I recently took a well-thumbed copy of Wodehouse’s French Leave on holiday to Paris, a city famed for its literary connections. P.G. Wodehouse was briefly a resident, and opens the second chapter of French Leave (1956) there:
As the clocks of Paris were striking eleven on a morning three weeks after the Bensonburg expeditionary force had set out for Europe, a tall, willowy, elegant figure dressed in the extreme of fashion, turned the corner of the Rue Belleau and entered the Rue Vanaye. It was Nicholas Jules St Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne, affectionately known to his friends, of whom he had many in all walks of life, as Old Nick.
This ‘Bensonburg expeditionary force’ are three Trent sisters, chicken-farmers from Long Island USA. Having received a modest lump sum, they decide to take a well-earned jaunt to the French resort towns of St. Rocque and Roville. Our heroine is Terry (short for Teresa), who falls in love with Old Nick’s son Jeff. Wodehouse is in top form, expertly employing all the usual comic devices to bring our lovers together. As we expect from Wodehouse, the marriage quest involves overcoming a lack of money and parental objections, as well as painful misunderstandings, and other romantic entanglements.
French Leave also deviates from the classic Wodehouse novel. It is set in France, with a French and American cast. The French flavour includes a summer festival, a corruptible Commissaire of Police, and even a risqué bedroom scene. Terry Trent is the central character, and although she is not Wodehouse’s only female lead, we are more accustomed to following the hero. It is clear that in French Leave, Wodehouse is trying something a little different – and he does it superbly.
French Leave was not universally well-received back in 1956, and it seems modern readers (judging by ‘Good Reads’ reviews) are similarly inclined to prefer it when Wodehouse sticks to his established formula and characters. This seems a shame, because there is much to enjoy in Wodehouse’s stand-alone novels. One of the delights of French Leave is the Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne. Old Nick steals the show with a terrific personality, reminiscent of Ukridge.
Old Nick quivered at the magic word. Americans were always rich. God bless America, he had often felt, unconsciously plagiarizing the poet Berlin.
‘She has a suite on the first floor.’
Old Nick quivered again. He knew what those suites on the first floor of the Hotel Splendide cost.
‘Looks a nice girl,’ said Jeff carelessly. ‘I’ve seen her about the place. I’ve wished occasionally that there was some way of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Some way?’ Old Nicks voice trembled. ‘There are a hundred ways of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Such as —?’
‘Save her from drowning.’
‘She’d be much more likely to save me. She’s a wonderful swimmer. I’ve—er—happened to see her once or twice. But she goes out too far, much too far,’ said Jeff earnestly. ‘It’s dangerous. Suppose she got a cramp? It makes me anxious. Any other suggestions as to what I could save her from? Fire? Runaway horse? Assassins?’
‘Don’t treat this thing with levity,’ said Old Nick severely. He was still thinking of that suite on the first floor. ‘I don’t like to feel that a son of mine is lacking in enterprise. Get into a conversation with her—casually, as it were.’
My favourite passage in French Leave provides an excellent example of Wodehouse demonstrating (again) a depth of understanding he is rarely credited with. Here is Old Nick, explaining a prolonged absence from work to his employer:
‘What happens? I wake. I rise. I shave. I bathe. I breakfast. I take my hat and cane. I say to myself ‘And now for the bureau.’ I go out into the street, and at once I am in a world of sunshine and laughter and happiness, a world in which it seems ridiculous to be shut up in a stuffy office with the senile Soupe and the homicidal Letondu. And all of a sudden. . . how it happens I couldn’t tell you . . . I find myself in a chair on the boulevard, a cigarette between my lips, coffee and a cognac in front of me. It’s a most mysterious state of affairs.’
‘A state of affairs which cannot—’
‘But I am strong,’ proceeded Nick. ‘I take out my watch and lay it on the table. ‘When the hands point to eleven,’ I say to myself, ‘Ho for the bureau.’ And when they point to eleven, I say ‘Ho for the bureau when they point to half past.’ And when they point to half past—’
‘You wait til noon and then go off to lunch?’
Old Nick, unaccustomed to office life, finds the prospects of a fine day cooped up at work unendurable. Instead of enduring, as we workers do, he bucks. We can only dream of following his example. My own life is ebbing away inside a tiny, windowless office — designed by the sort of people who feel that a combination of concrete and asbestos makes the perfect work environment — and not a day passes when I don’t feel it. Old Nick’s defiance brings us both pleasure and a reminder of our pain.
Nor is this a one-off. Wodehouse (who was once a bank employee) releases many captive workers in his stories, and there is a depth to this recurring theme that his critics (and even some fans) overlook, especially if they are readers who lead easy lives. There’s nothing wrong with an easy life, but for those less fortunate, Wodehouse gets to heart of our plight — it’s no surprise to us that George Orwell was a Wodehouse fan.
Similar sentiments are expressed by the chicken-farming Trent sisters :
‘Here we are, young, ardent idealistic, yearning for life and love and laughter, and what do we get? Eggs.’
Like the Trent girls, my trip to Paris was a fleeting escape that drained the family coffers, but was worth every penny.
While strolling in the Latin Quarter, I spotted a man who might have been the Marquis himself, long haired in the style of Louis the Somethingth, wearing flamboyant purple trousers and a pair of preposterous gentleman’s heels. His face was furnished with a dashing moustache. I don’t wish to give the impression that all of France was got up in this sort of fancy dress, but I was delighted to encounter such a character in 21st century Paris. I do hope he was bunking off work!