Tag Archives: Emsworth Museum

A Centenary of A Damsel in Distress

damsel montage

‘I’ve a headache.’
‘I thought you would have, laddie, when I saw you getting away with the liquid last night. An X-ray photograph of your liver would show something that looked like a crumpled oak-leaf studded with hob-nails. You ought to take more exercise, dear heart. Except for sloshing that policeman, you haven’t done anything athletic for years.’

A Damsel in Distress

A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse was first published in the USA on 4 October 1919, having previously been serialised in the Saturday Evening Post in May-June of the same year. The first UK edition was published on 15 October 2019.

The story is set in England, featuring scenes in London and the fictional village of Belpher, based on the pretty coastal town of Emsworth, Hampshire, where Wodehouse once lived — a connection celebrated today by the local Emsworth Museum.

The bally Englishness of it all is rounded off with historic Belpher Castle and its inmates – the aristocratic Marshmoretons upstairs, and a below-stairs cast headed by Keggs the Butler. There’s little to like about the Marshmoretons, who are one of the scaliest gangs of invertebrates and inveritable snobs Wodehouse ever assembled. Even Lady Maud Marshmoreton, the Damsel in Distress of the title, is one of Wodehouse’s least likeable heroines (in my view).

These Marshmoretons need a good shake-up and Wodehouse gives it to them in the form of romantic entanglements with unsuitable Americans — Broadway composer George Bevan and chorus girl Billie Dore. The Americans inject much needed life and Broadway sparkle into the story. They steal all their scenes and render their stuffy English counterparts even more colourless.

‘You aren’t George Bevan!’


‘I am!’

‘But’ – Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’

Perhaps this reflects Wodehouse’s own experience as an Englishman in New York. He had been living and working there for around five years when A Damsel in Distress was written, following previous visits in 1904 and 1909. It may also reflect good commercial sense. Upstairs-downstairs dramas and stories transplanting Americans into the British aristocracy may have already become clichéd by Wodehouse’s day (I’m guessing here), but even in 2019 they remain unaccountably popular. Or at least this popularity is unaccountable to me — when it comes to Downton Abbey, I’m with David Mitchell.

But I digress…

1919 Damsel in Distress ITALIAN
Una Damigella In Pericolo

A Damsel in Distress is a popular favourite among Wodehouse readers – it has a 4 and half star rating on Goodreads and has been translated into multiple languages, including five Italian translations.

The plot has also been adapted for film and stage several times, including a silent film released in October 1919 — when the ink on Wodehouse’s Saturday Evening Post original was barely dry.

Wodehouse himself was involved in developing the script for a 1937 film musical adaptation starring Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns and Gracie Allen – with a fabulous score by George Gershwin. Brain Taves has written about this film’s fascinating history for Plum Lines (Journal of the US Wodehouse Society):

“On the advice of George Ger­shwin, RKO producer Pandro Ber­man bought the screen rights to A Damsel in Distress in November 1936. Gershwin had collaborated in the theater with Wodehouse before he wrote the novel, and Gershwin believed that the character of the music writer named George Bevan in A Damsel in Distress was based on him. Gershwin’s nine songs for the film were composed before the script was written, and he died during production of the movie.”

Brian Taves: A Damsel in Distress: Novel, to Play, to Film
Plum Lines Vol. 2 2 No.3 Autumn 2001

Stage performances of A Damsel in Distress include a 1928 adaptation written by Wodehouse and Ian Hay, which ran at the New Theatre in London –with a young Joan Hickson among the cast. And in 2015, I was fortunate enough to see a wonderful adaptation by Rob Ashford at the Chichester Festival.

While A Damsel in Distress is not one of my own favourite Wodehouse novels, I give it a solid 3 stars (if I rated everything Wodehouse wrote as equally excellent, I’d have no credibility). I suspect I’m in a minority among Wodehouse fans on this one, however, and I have no wish to detract from the pleasure this work brings to others. It remains a ‘must-read’ for Wodehouse fans, particularly for Wodehouse’s Broadway insights.

And the glimmer of his genius is present, as always.

‘A cat, on its way back from lunch, paused beside him in order to use his leg as a serviette.’

And

‘The furniture had been constructed by somebody who would probably have done very well if he had taken up some other line of industry…’

And

His pause was more eloquent than his speech and nearly as eloquent as his eye.

So don’t take my word for it — if you haven’t read A Damsel in Distress, grab a copy and decide for yourself. The 1937 musical is also available on DVD — here’s a snippet to whet your whistle.

Pip pip to old man trouble
And a toodly-oo too

HP

Further reading

Madam Eulalie: Source of the original Saturday Evening Post header image (above). You’ll also find the original Saturday Evening Post text, illustrations, and annotations.

Reviews of A Damsel in Distress

A visit to P G Wodehouse’s Emsworth

emsworth streetscapeThis summer I visited the Hampshire town of Emsworth, where P.G Wodehouse once lived. He first arrived at the invitation of Herbert Westbrook, who was teaching at Emsworth House School. Westbrook is described in Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse, A Life in Letters’ as “handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke.” He is forever associated in my mind with the character Ukridge and, for some reason, the novel I most associate with Emsworth is Love Among the Chickens (1906).

Wodehouse lived for a time at Emsworth House School, run by Baldwin King-Hall and his sister Ella. The school is mentioned in Mike (1909) and provided the setting for The Little Nugget (1913). Sadly the building no longer exists.

Wodehouse dedicated the Indiscretions of Archie (1921) to Baldwin King-Hall:

Dedication to

      B.W. KING-HALL

                                              My Dear Buddy

        We have been friends for eighteen years. A considerable

proportion of my books were written under your hospitable

roof.  And I have never dedicated one to you. What will

 be the verdict of Posterity on this? The fact is, I have 

become rather superstitious about dedications. No sooner

do you label a book with the legend :

TO

MY BEST FRIEND

X

Then X cuts you in Piccadilly,  or you bring a lawsuit

against him. There is a fatality about it.  However I can’t

imagine anyone quarrelling with you, and I am getting more

attractive all the time, so let’s take a chance.

 

Yours ever

P.G. Wodehouse

Ella King Hall married Westbrook and there is some suggestion that he may have been Wodehouse’s rival for her affection. She later became Wodehouse’s literary agent in the UK. 

‘Threepwood’

Wodehouse moved from his lodgings at the school and rented a house nearby called Threepwood’, which he later bought. The blue plaque is faintly visible from the road. The names Threepwood and Emsworth should be familiar to Wodehouse fans –indeed the signs around town are almost a Blandings Who’s Who.

Wodehouse also had family in Emsworth, in the shape of his Uncle Walter and Aunt. They lived for a time in Havant Road and presumably ensured that young Plum lived up to familial expectations. This may well have extended to churchgoing. Which of Plum’s many ecclesiastical stories, I wonder, were inspired by his time on the pews here?

Wodehouse's Uncle Walter's house
Uncle Walter’s house

St James Church, Emsworth
St James Church, Emsworth

Wodehouse was a keen sportsman in his youth, and maintained an exercise regime throughout his life that included his famous ‘Daily Dozen’ exercises, and regular walking. So I particularly enjoyed strolling the coastal path at the end of Beach Road and into the town, knowing Plum had ambled this way before me.

Emsworth walk
Coastal Path, Emsworth

My tour of Emsworth was guided by notes graciously supplied by N.T.P Murphy, who mentions that George Bevan from A Damsel in Distress stays at the Crown Hotel. A Damsel in Distress is set in the fictional fishing and oyster town of Belpher, which is clearly based on Emsworth. I was unable to get a decent photograph of the Crown’s exterior, but I did spend several very pleasant hours at the bar.

Emsworth boats

Emsworth harbour

I shall certainly return to Emsworth to visit the highly recommended Emsworth Museum, which was closed on the day of my visit. The town also celebrates its association with Wodehouse, hosting a P.G Wodehouse Festival that should attract Plumtopians for years to come.

Emsworth by the water

More details about Wodehouse’s life and associations with Emsworth can be found in Christine Hewitt’s lovely article for the P G Wodehouse Society (UK) . There is also a Wodehouse page at Emsworth Online.

HP