Love Among the Chickens is my first foray into the work of Wodehouse; and as a fairly early work, it’s one of Wodehouse’s first forays into Wodehouse as well. A deliciously written farcical novel, it brings together the seemingly dissimilar worlds of writing and chicken farming—which prove to have a lot more in common than one might first imagine, and make for a rather delightful spot of Venn diagramming.
Our narrator is middling novelist Jeremy Garnet, a fellow who’s largely along for the ride as his zany, onomastically dense friend Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge–a would-be entrepreneur of the type who would, today, be mashing together a bunch of vaguely tech-related words and heading off to Silicon Valley to prise hundreds of millions of start-up dollars out of the hands of a bunch of strangers–decides that a chicken farm is a perfectly infallible business.
After all, those debates about chickens and eggs and their circularly reduplicative tendencies must have some basis.
(If you’re after a brief insight into the character of Ukridge, this little snippet might help: “He…made use of [the appellation “Old Horse”] while interviewing the parents of new pupils, and the latter had gone away, as a result, with a feeling that this must be either the easy manner of Genius or due to alcohol, and hoping for the best…” I have an investment banker cousin to whom this description could just as easily apply, but that’s by the by…)
Needless to say, everything goes terribly, remarkably, wrong, with Ukridge opting for some rather inspired but inadvisable business practices regarding the incubation of chickens and lines of credit, and all manner of silliness ensues. This is interwoven with Garnet’s own narrative of personal discovery, and the two plot lines mirror each other in an intriguing (and highly amusing) way.
Garnet, though writing of Ukridge’s merry megalomania, is himself as terribly (and unjustifiably!) guilty of extreme hubris. Upon meeting the young Phyllis, who happens to be reading the latest of his novels, he muses: “That a girl should look as pretty as that and at the same time have the rare intelligence to read Me…well, it seemed an almost superhuman combination of the excellencies.”
The expectation that the world should want whatever it is that Garnet has to offer is not so far from Ukridge’s own expectations, and Wodehouse has a wink-nudge moment with this momentarily, where he allows Phyllis to critique Garnet’s work:
“Molly McEachern gave it to me when I left the Abbey,” says Phyllis of Garnet’s book. “She keeps a shelf of books for her guests when they are going away. Books that she considers rubbish, and doesn’t want, you know…”
(To which Garnet, like any self-respecting author, professes to “hate Miss McEarchern without further evidence.”)
Interestingly, the fledgling relationship between Phyllis and Garnet seems to have copped some flack over the years: Garnet attends to his interest in Phyllis through various bizarre methods, many of which are flat-out stalkerish–hiding in hedges; faux-drowning the poor girl’s father, you know, minor things like that. But I think there’s some deliberate tongue-in-cheek recursion going on here. After all, when we meet Phyllis, she muses:
“I wonder who Jeremy Garnet is…I’ve never heard of him before. I imagine him rather an old young man, probably with an eyeglass and conceited. And I should think he didn’t know many girls. At least if he thinks Pamela an ordinary sort of girl. She’s a cr-r-eature…”
Given this, it only makes sense that not only is Phyllis a “creature” herself, but that Garnet is absurdly rambunctious in his wooing of her.
This sort of art-meets-life-meets-art chicken-and-egg thing is rife throughout the book, much of which is actually a meditation on writing itself, and it’s hard not to have a chuckle at the juxtaposition of what is often seen as a scholarly, high-brow pursuit with the uproarious shenanigans of the unapologetically insouciant Ukridge and his harem of chickens (with the standout feathered lass being “the disagreeable, sardonic-looking bird which Ukridge, on the strength of an alleged similarity of profile to his wife’s nearest relative, had christened Aunt Elizabeth. A Bolshevist hen, always at the bottom of any disturbance in the fowl-run, a bird which ate its head off daily at our expense and bit the hands which fed it by resolutely declining to lay a single egg…”).
Not to mention the deep irony evident in statements such as the following, from Garnet:
“It would be interesting to know to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs. If life is flowing smoothly, are the novels they write in that period of content coloured with optimism? And if things are running cross-wise, do they work of the resultant gloom on their faithful public?…If Maxim Gorky were invited to lunch by Trotsky, to meet Lenin, would he sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Stephen Leacock? Probably the eminent have the power of detaching their writing self from their living, work-a-day self; but, for my own part, the frame of mind in which I now found myself had a disastrous effect on what my novel was to be. I had designed it as a light comedy effort…but now great slabs of gloom began to work themselves into the scheme of it…”
Apparently light comedy is indeed in the eye of the beholder…
And then there’s this one, which is witty enough in its own right, but which is given added resonance when we think of Ukridge’s endlessly trotted out (pardon the pun) “Old Horse” and his myriad upper-class colloquialisms:
“I may mention here that I do not propose to inflict dialect upon the reader. If he has borne with my narrative thus far, I look on him as a friend and feel that he deserves consideration. I may not have brought out the fact with sufficient emphasis in the foregoing pages, but nevertheless I protest that I have a conscience…”
But apropos of nothing, perhaps what delighted me most of all about the book was this little metaphysical reference, which was fiercely apt given my recent reading of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which looks at the same idea, only drawing the opposite conclusion:
“Look at the thing from the standpoint of the philosopher, old horse,” urged Ukridge, splashing after him. “The fact that the rescue was arranged oughtn’t to matter. I mean to say, you didn’t know it at the time, so, relatively, it was not, and you were genuinely saved from a watery grave and all that sort of thing.”
Oh, Ukridge. If we’re to get philosophical, you’ve really opted for lightness over weight, haven’t you?
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Other books by PG Wodehouse: