“Jill the Reckless” at 100

According to Wikipedia, today (8 October 2020) is the 100th anniversary of the book publication in the United States of P.G. Wodehouse’s novel The Little Warrior, subsequently published in the UK as Jill the Reckless. As the Wikipedia entry quotes the definitive Wodehouse bibliography in support of its claim, I assume it is correct.

I’m going to refer to the book as Jill the Reckless, because that’s the title I have always known it by, and I also think it a much better, and less patronising, title than The Little Warrior (which is the description repeatedly used to describe Jill Mariner throughout the text because of her refusal to admit defeat in life).

My edition of Jill the Reckless (Vintage, 1993)

It isn’t a “classic” Wodehouse title – I doubt if it is anyone’s absolute favourite – but it’s a lovely book in its own right, romantic, funny, and a little deeper than usual, emotionally speaking. It is quite unlike the later Wodehouse novels; it feels more meant.

I think I’ve written about it before. If I mistake not, I contributed an article about it to one of the Wodehouse societies in the mid-1990s, my first incursion into print (if you set aside the fact that the editor, disliking my style, recast every sentence so as to the give the impression of something hastily translated from the Serbo-Croat). But I can’t remember what I wrote, and don’t intend to try and find out.

Jill is first seen by us as the fiancée of the handsome-but-conventional Sir Derek Underhill, an ambitious young politician with an Aunt-Agatha-like mother. Jill makes a bad impression on the mother, leading to further mishaps including Jill’s arrest for brawling in the street (protecting an escaped parrot from the attacks of two blokes), and thence to Sir Derek’s decision to break the engagement. She goes over to America and joins the chorus of a new “musical fantasy” called The Rose of America, written in imitation of Gilbert and Sullivan. It is this which dominates the rest of the book.

Jill meets Mr Pilkington, librettist of The Rose of America: illustration by C.W. Jefferys for the serialisation of The Little Warrior in Maclean’s (1 August 1920)

Wodehouse knew the Broadway stage, having been the lyricist for many hit shows including a series with Jerome Kern, and he has a lot of fun at the expense of dilettante writers trying to revive comic opera in a culture entirely unsuited to it. (Wodehouse loved Gilbert and Sullivan, but he recognised that the Jazz Era was not the time to think of imitating them.)

Of course, there must a hero, and in this case he is a large, untidy writer, much given to Swedish exercises, called Wally Mason: “He reminded her of one of those large, loose, shaggy dogs that break things in drawing-rooms but make admirable companions for the open road” – an obvious idealised version of Wodehouse himself. (Wodehouse heroes are usually called things like Bill or Sam or Mike; it takes time to adjust to one called Wally.)

Interestingly, the thing that keeps Jill and Wally apart through most of the novel is not the usual farcical misunderstanding (mistaking a business lunch with an actress for a romantic assignation, etc.), nor even his or her mistaken belief of being in love with someone else, but something subtler. Jill knows she does not love Sir Derek Underhill any more, but nevertheless he’s still in her heart, cluttering it up:

“Suppose you had a room, and it was full – of things. Furniture. And there wasn’t any space left. You – you couldn’t put anything else in till you had taken all that out, could you? It might not be worth anything, but it would still be there, taking up all the room…. My heart’s full, Wally dear. I know it’s just lumber that’s choking it up, but it’s difficult to get it out.” It is only in the last few pages that the old bore is finally removed from the lumber-room.

Jill and Wally: another illustration by C.W. Jefferys for The Little Warrior, from Maclean’s (15 September 1920)

So we have romance, and a backstage story of Broadway (Wally Mason is the play doctor who manages to fix The Rose of America and turn it into a hit); then there is Freddie Rooke, an excellent early-Wodehouse knut, more kind than clever, and even half a chapter written from the perspective of Bill the Parrot.

Jill reminds Freddie Rooke of an episode he would rather forget: Maclean’s (1 May 1920)

The book is slow to start: if Wodehouse had written it even five years later, he would have taken greater care to keep the reader’s interest high during the slightly under-powered Act 1. But once it is properly going, it is irresistible. Perhaps it is Jill the Reckless herself who “makes” the book, with her fearlessness and her occasional berserk moods. Having been recently reading a little bit about Wodehouse’s wife Ethel, I wonder if she was at least partly a model for the character….

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