As I’ve been working my way through Wodehouse’s works in published order, it’s mostly been a slog of school stories, which involve a great deal of cricket and footer and slang. But in 1906 Wodehouse published his first not-school-story. Love Among the Chickens instead has many of the hallmarks of his later works – a character who does rather outrageous things but always seems to come out right, secondary characters who are quite hilarious, and, of course, true love that must go through many trials before being realized.
I’ve also been working my way through a collection of Wodehouse’s letters (A Life in Letters compiled/edited by Sophie Ratcliffe – I actually finally finished this book yesterday, so review coming soon), and now I find myself wondering how interesting it would be to go back and read each section as I finish the books for that time period. In his letters, Wodehouse says that the whole bit of this book about the chicken farm is true to life, as told to him by one of his closest friends, William Townsend. The character of Ukridge was further fleshed out by another man Wodehouse had roomed with in the past.
In a letter to his stepdaughter, written about fifteen years after the initial publication, Wodehouse writes about the reissuing of Love Among the Chickens in paperback:
Love Among the Chickens is out in the cheap edition. I’ll send you a copy. Townend told me it was on sale at the Charing Cross bookstall, so I rolled round and found they had sold out. Thence to Piccadilly Circus bookstall. Sold out again. Pretty good in the first two days. Both men offered to sell me ‘other Wodehouse books’, but I smiled gently on them and legged it.
As an aside, reading Wodehouse’s letters has only increased my love for this fellow!
The humor in Chickens is much more pronounced than it is in some of his earlier works, although it didn’t have me laughing out loud as I do with his later stories. Still, lines like –
Coming towards me at her best pace was a small hen. I recognised her immediately. It was the disagreeable, sardonic-looking bird which Ukridge, on the strength of an allegedly similar profile to his wife’s nearest relation, 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.
The phrase “a Bolshevist hen” has really stuck with me, especially as my own personal hens have been quite the slackers lately. (Is there a Bolshevist among them, stirring up a revolution?!)
Wodehouse’s ability to avoid swearing yet still imply it is at its artistic best as well –
He poured scorn upon his hearers, and they quailed. He flung invective at them, and they wilted. Strange oaths, learned among strange men on cattle-ships or gleaned on the waterfronts of Buenos Ayres and San Francisco, slid into the stream of his speech. It was hard, he said in part … that a gentleman … could not run up to London for five minutes on business without having his private grounds turned upside down by a gang of cattle-ship adjectived San Francisco substantives who behaved as if the whole of the Buenos Ayres phrased place belonged to them.
On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Chickens. Somehow, I had never read an Ukridge book before, and his character, with his habit of coming up with ridiculous schemes and then railroading everyone into following them – was really an entertaining one to read. While I would still put Chickens as a 3/5 (on the Wodehouse scale, of course, which is really its own thing, as a 3/5 Wodehouse is still superior to many 4/5 for other authors), I do recommend it and intend to add this one to my permanent Wodehouse collection.