French Leave

By P.G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse’s writing career spans the greater part of the twentieth century (and a few years of the nineteenth, but those are only of interest to the real afficionados, like me, who also like books about English boys’ boarding schools). Like the twentieth century, his career can thus be divided in pre-WW-I, interbellum and post-WW-II. His first phase, acted out before he went to the United States to get rich with the serialisation of Piccadilly Jim (if I remember correctly) and with the production of books and lyrics for many well-received musicals, was one where he produced more serious stuff. Stories and novels that were sometimes not even very funny, just moving, like The man with two left feet, or Psmith
Journalist
, which is very funny, but which is also a strongly-worded j’accuse addressed at the corrupt elite of pre-WW-I New York. The interbellum is his golden period: wonderful books, wonderful language, wonderful humour — a beaker overflowing with happiness. After the second world war, his work began to show signs of becoming over-formulaic, and, despite his protestations that he would always write of Edwardian England, he allowed the deplorable spirit of the fifties to enter the world he depicted in his books. (Where he didn’t his books became so detached from the world, that they might as well have been filled with helium instead of ink.) French Leave is a post-WW-II book. But a very refreshing one.

  • Author: P.G. Wodehouse
  • Title: French Leave
  • Pages: 206
  • Published: 1974 (1956)
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • ISBN: 0-14-012451-9

Right, now I’ve almost said everything I thought I had to say in the introduction (did you reach the end? Thought not.), I’m at a loss to continue. French Leave is, as Wodehouse noted in his ninety-second year when he penned down the introduction, was his hope for inclusion in the list of hundred-best-books-titled-French-Leave, and was written when Wodehouse was living in the United States, his income-tax problems apparently resolved and his relationship with Great Britain soured because of those radio talks of his during the second world war. French Leave, I hasten to say, is not one of the more formulaic post-WW-II novels.

Even so, without wanting to give anything away from the plot, I must say that I felt the Master had lost some of his touch. I mean — there are three sisters, all three beautiful, all three young. And only one gets married! At least, in the book. Sister number two shuffles off to marry a boring lawyer-type person, a weak solution if I ever saw one, and we never learn whether she succeeds, and sister number one never marries on account of being a prig. Well, I feel Wodehouse could have unprigged her with a flick of his little finger, hitching her up to the Marquis.

I hadn’t mentioned the Marquis, had I? Nicolas Jules St. Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerir-Moberanne is one of the most interesting rogues in Wodehouse’s works. If I tell you that he starts out as a clerk in the third Bureau of the Ministry des Dons Legs and ends up as a Head Waiter in a New York hotel, with a dose of handbag-pinching in between, you might become interested enough to want to read the book for yourself. Do so, I cordially advise you. Search it out and curl up with it.

Oh, and sister number three? She marries the Marquis’ son. After some very interesting complications. (Even though one of the complications looks a lot like one of the complications in Pigs Have Wings, to be spoken of in this place very shortly.) I should make a catalogue of Wodehouse complications. Might come in useful if I start on my society drama set in Andal.