I have just read PGW’s royal romance, The Prince and Betty. When I first wrote about romantic novelists in Wodehouse World, I knew that the book existed but I had never read it. Now that I have, the story itself and, indeed, the history of its publication is a jigsaw puzzle.
However, I’ve also learned something about how it fitted into PGW’s life and other writing. And it has made me think again about Wodehouse’s place in romantic fiction. And, indeed, of romantic fiction in his own life. So I thought I would share.
PGW’s Royal Romance – before the beginning
Wodehouse made his reputation initially with school stories. By 1909, however, he wanted to leave that behind and “butt into the big league,” as he told fellow free-lancer L H Bradshaw.
In New York, on leave of absence from his UK employer, The Globe, he found a literary agent who sold the two short stories PGW had brought with him for US$500. He was earning less that 10 guineas a pop from magazines in the UK.
When it came to a novel, he looked to sell it on both sides of the Atlantic, first into magazine serialisation and then to a publisher.
Love Among the Chickens, his first wholly adult novel, was already in the pipeline and was launched on 11 May that year. The New York Times liked it, calling it “the slightest, airiest sort of take, cleverly told” and his American writing mates nicknamed him Chickens.
PGW Writing in New York
So, instead of going home, PGW stayed in New York, bought a second hand typewriter, and started to write all day—reviews, occasional pieces commissioned by American magazines and stories. In Psmith, Journalist, he carried the beloved character from his school stories into the grown up world of New York writers that PGW himself was now inhabiting.
Later in the year, he was working on three stories. One, about an Englishman in America, was based on an idea suggested to him by one of the editors he knew. This morphed into a short story, a full length novel and a play on both sides of the Atlantic. The play and the UK book were called A Gentleman of Leisure.
Another was The Prince and Betty.
PGW’s Royal Romance plan
PGW’s brief to himself was clear: the new novels had to be grown up, have substance and appeal to Americans. By January 1911, back in the UK, The Prince and Betty had reached the top of his To Finish List. He wrote to Bradshaw, by now a friend, that the new book “is going to be a corker – good love interest – rapid action from the first chapter – length about 100,000 words.”
Ah, yes. I’ve been there.
Not quite what happened. It never is.
In the end there are two separate versions. The American one incorporates some chapters from Psmith, Journalist, in which Betty Silver is American and leaves the European island kingdom and goes to New York where she works on a magazine called Pleasant Moments with “Rupert Smith”. In the British one she’s English and goes first to Paris, and thence to a stately pile in the UK where she is the guest of nice, newly-wealthy Americans, and pursued by a fortune hunting aristocrat. Effectively he had to rewrite for the English market because Psmith, Journalist had already been serialised here.
I suspect that this decision to use existing material was his first and biggest stumbling block. It would have spoilt the natural flow. of the story. As a result, the plot lurches and the tone never settles.
PGW Royal Romance Plot
Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with the plot elements. The hero, John Maude, is the unacknowledged heir to the throne of Mervo. Initially he has no idea his father was a Prince. Betty Silver is a rich girl, who is tired of being wooed for her money. Her entrepreneurial stepfather, Benjamin Scobell is a millionaire with expectations of inheriting even more. At the start of the book his new project is a Casino in the sleepy Republic of Mervo but it is losing money. What is needed, Scobell decides, is royalty, like they have in Monaco, to get the place into the papers. With that in mind he tracks down the heir and takes him onto the payroll.
The guy and his schemes are Classic Wodehouse. Here he is talking to his sister and travelling companion:
“I’m hiring him to be Prince of Mervo, and his first job will be to marry Betty. I’d like to see him kick!” He began to pace the room. “By Heck, it’s going to make the place boom to beat the band. It’ll be the biggest kind of advertisement. Restoration of Royalty at Mervo. That’ll make them take notice by iself. Then, Biff! Right on top of that, Royal Romance—Prince weds English Girl—Love at First Sight—Picturesque Wedding! Gee. We’ll wipe Monte Carlo clean off the map. We’ll have ’em licked to a splinter. We— It’s the greatest scheme on earth.”
“I have no doubt you are right, Bennie,” said Miss Scobell, “but—” her voice became dreamy again— “it’s not very romantic.”
“Oh, shucks!” said the schemer impatiently. “Here, where’s a cable form?”
Betty has met John before when he didn’t know he was a prince and (why on earth, for Heaven’s sake?) decided that he is her ideal man. John encounters her again in Mervo, not knowing that her stepfather is the chap who is bank rolling him, and falls hard. He asks her to meet him the next day but by then Stepdad has let the cat out of the bag. Betty thinks she has been manipulated and feels Betrayed. In the British version she stands him up and heads for Paris. John pursues her.
And that’s pretty much it. They both hurtle off into sub-plots and misunderstandings after that.
PGW Royal Romance – romantic problem
So is anything romantic about this story? Rather more than the various versions of the plot gives room for, I think, especially at the beginning. The first scenes, common to both versions, show the heroine’s predicament, and it’s in believable contemporary language, unlike many of the romantic novels of his time.
Betty asks her friend Elsa what it’s like “knowing there’s someone who is fonder of you than anything?” Elsa waxes lyrical, concluding,”And it’s like coming home on a winter evening and seeing the windows lit up and knowing you’ve reached home.”
By this time, Betty is clenching her hands and breathing quickly. She smiles painfully, admitting that she is jealous of her friend’s happiness with her Marvin. “Well there are plenty who would like to be your Marvin,” says Elsa practically.
Betty’s face grew cold. “There’s plenty who’d like to be Benjamin Scobell’s son-in-law,” she said.
By the end of the novel, she concludes that Elsa’s description is right, as she “pressed more closely into his arms. They were strong arms, restful to lean against at the journey’s end.”
PGW Royal Romance – a hero’s romantic expectations
And then there’s John, who’s a bit of shadowy character, really. Strong, handsome, a bit aimless. But we know one thing about him: he’s a neglected orphan. His father, the unreliable prince, disappeared. His mother died early. He has been brought up by an uncle who hated his father and effectively hates him. Real, chilling hatred – Dickens-level hatred. There’s a villain right there in Chapter One. And then he disappears. AAAARGH.
But that makes John’s own reflections on his romantic hopes really painful. At least I think so.
John, in his time, had thought and read a good deal about love. Ever since he had grown up, he had wanted to fall in love. He had imagined love as a perpetual exhilaration, something that flooded life with a golden glow as if by the pressing of a button or the pulling of a switch, and automatically removed from it everything mean and hard and uncomfortable; a something that made a man feel grand and godlike, looking down (benevolently of course) on his fellow men as from some lofty mountain.
That it should make him feel a worm-like humility had not entered his calculations. He was beginning to see something of the possibilities of love. His tentative excursions in the unknown emotions, while at college, had never really deceived him; even at the time a sort of second self had looked on and sneered at the poor imitation.
This was different. This had nothing to do with moonlight and soft music. It was raw and hard. It hurt. It was a thing sharp and jagged, tearing at the roots of his soul.
I should think by the end of all the versions (don’t forget the serials!), PGW must have been thoroughly fed up with the thing and glad to see the back of it. I would have.
And I think it probably showed him that writing about passion was a can of worms that no right-minded chap should tangle with. Once you’ve walked down Piccadilly without your trousers (PGW’s phrase!) there is no decent way back to normal discourse and a life of reason and self-respect.
But he still sees that the urge to mate is a terrific motivation. So from then on, he writes about lovers a lot but lovers doing stuff, like pinching pigs and making enough money to set up home together. Lovers who have come to a place of trust and friendship set out on a joint enterprise.
So he concentrates on the practical pickles they get themselves into along the way to “coming home on a winter evening and seeing the windows lit up and knowing you’ve reached home.”
And it’s lovely.