Not George Washington is a novel P.G. Wodehouse co-wrote before his more famous Jeeves and Wooster stories, but I can still hear the voice of Hugh Laurie playing James Orlebar Cloyster (and can imagine Stephen Fry as Briggs, if he could suffer a part so small). The novel is billed as an autobiography, which makes it seem odd that a) the novel is co-written by Wodehouse’s friend, Herbert Westbrook, b) the novel is narrated by four different characters, and a) that the main character of Cloyster is a cad and a bounder. Since the whole book skewers the literary field of London circa 1904, I suppose the “autobiographical” part is not to be trusted, though the introduction assures us that much of Wodehouse’s early experience as a writer is on display here. The curt narrative of the long-suffering girlfriend Margaret leads the novel and only serves to endear her to the reader and make Cloyster look all the more caddish later when he’s prepared to dump her.
The real highlights of the novel — and all the fun — come during Cloyster’s narrative, with the satirizing of cash-strapped Bohemia, Cloyster using his early rejection slips for wallpaper, and the assemblage of quirky characters he meets during his bachelor days, including the ever-napping Julian Eversleigh and John Hatton, the rollerskating reverend. Eventually, Cloyster becomes almost ridiculously successful as a writer (it would be unbelievable if Wodehouse himself had not become so successful), but his world falls apart when he decides to hold onto it longer without telling Margaret he’s well-off enough to marry her now. His deceptions, both of friends and self, soon lead to conspiracies (orchestrated by the other narrators) against him that, while not as funny as the earlier part of the novel, are certainly well-deserved. And yet all ends well. Well, except maybe for Margaret. Her prize at the end hardly seems to justify the three painful years she spent loyally pining away for her bounder of a boyfriend. To the modern audience, her treatment probably seems rather sexist. Also uncomfortable is the then-more-acceptable romance between cousins (Julian and Eva) and the …I’m not sure what to make of the scene in the men’s club – the Barrel — Cloyster attends. It reads to my modern sensibilities to be the start of a gay orgy, but the English audience of 1907 may have read it more innocently than that. Still, quibbles aside, it was a fun, easy read that left me thinking about my own literary ambitions afterward.