When I go into a bookstore, there are certain names I automatically check for, starting with Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell. P.G. Wodehouse is also on that list, and it was a pleasant surprise the other day to find a title I didn't recognize. The blurb on the back sold me with the first line:
If I Were You is Wodehouse's comic variation on a favorite theme of Victorian melodrama - the changeling. Did old Nannie Price really substitute her own child for the infant son of the late Lord and Lady Droitwich while they were away in India? If so, Tony Droitwich is the heir, not to rolling acres and a stately pile, but to a barber's shop in London's West End. With Socialist Syd Price determined to prove himself the new earl, and Tony's haughty relations determined that he shall not, the stage is set for an amusing battle, waged by a familiar Wodehousian cast of fat butlers, tough aunts, lively American girls and drawling dandies.I should point out that there is actually only one of each from the above list (butler, aunt, girl and dandy). The cast also includes Tony's uncle and former guardian, Sir Herbert, married to his aunt Lydia (the Prices usually call him Sir Rerbert, which made me giggle every time, and sometimes picture Kermit the Frog). There is also Tony's new fiancée Violet Waddington, heiress to a soup fortune. She is one of those pillish young women you meet in Wodehouse, usually engaged to some hapless male, who you know are destined to grow up into termagant aunts. Tony, on the other hand, is a gentleman and a good guy. I figured he was going to get the happy ending he deserved, though I wasn't sure exactly how.
In a light-hearted way, this book is about Nature vs. Nurture. Syd may be the heir to a hundred earls (or he may not be), but hairdressing is in his blood too. Tony's aunt and uncle want to deny him the title in favor of Tony, who may or may not be the rightful heir, but who fits their idea of an earl much better than the Cockney Syd. Yet they don't seem as concerned about Tony himself as they do about having a proper Earl of Droitwich in place.
The reference in the backcover blurb to the stage being set for the cast is very appropriate. The story could easily be adapted for the stage, and I wondered if in fact it had started as a script. The cast is small, with a couple of walk-on roles. The action is divided into three scenes, two of which take place in the drawing room at Langley End, Lord Droitwich's estate in Worcestershire, book-ending one set in Syd Price's barber shop near Hyde Park. Langley End is described in glowing terms, nestled like Blandings Castle in its gardens and terraces, but unusually for Wodehouse (at least in the books I've read), the action is confined to the drawing-room, and to Syd's shop. The characters move constantly in and out of the rooms, like actors exiting stage left and right.
This book was published in 1931, and for the first part of that year, Wodehouse was in Hollywood under contract as a screenwriter for MGM. Maybe that explains why it reads rather like a script at times. But however it was written, this is a fun book, and I really enjoyed it.