A Damsel in Distress is a souffle of misunderstandings, comedy & romance in the best Wodehouse style. Lady Maud, daughter of Lord Marshmoreton, has fallen in love with a young man while on holiday in Wales. Unfortunately Geoffrey Raymond is penniless &, even worse, American. Lord Marshmoreton is a kindly soul who wants his daughter to be happy so he’s not absolutely against the match. All he wants is to be left alone with his roses. His sister, Lady Caroline Byng, is another matter entirely. She planned that her stepson, Reggie, would marry Maud. Reggie, meanwhile, is in love with Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary, Alice Faraday, but is too shy to declare his love.
Maud is forbidden to leave home (Belpher Castle) & is virtually under house arrest. However, with Reggie’s help, she does escape for a day to visit Geoffrey in London. Her brother, Percy, follows her &, eager to escape him, Maud jumps into a cab on Piccadilly & begs George Bevan to hide her. George is an American composer with a musical running in Shaftesbury Avenue. He falls in love with Maud at first sight & a mad chase through London ensues with Percy ending up hatless & in jail after punching a policeman.
The complications are endless. George tracks Maud down to Belpher Castle where everyone thinks he’s Maud’s American, Geoffrey. Everyone from Keggs the butler to Albert the pageboy tell George that Maud loves him & George, though baffled, is happy enough to believe it. His efforts to get to know Maud involve him in even more drama as he tries to avoid Percy & help Reggie in his quest to marry Alice. Meanwhile the staff at the Castle run a sweepstake on who Maud will marry & George disguises himself as a waiter at Percy’s coming of age party to get close to Maud, which leads to him hiding on a balcony while another man proposes to her.
This is a charming book with some very funny scenes & Wodehouse’s usual light touch with dialogue & description. One of my favourite scenes takes place in a tea shop. Wodehouses’s description of the shop brought Barbara Pym irresistibly to mind although Wodehouse is more satirical about distressed gentlewomen than Pym. I could see Wilf Bason in his smock fitting in quite easily.
Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will suggest to those who know their London, is a tea-shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed – which she seems to do on the slightest provocation – she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea-shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden Tree, or Ye Snug Harbour, according to personal taste. There, dressed in Tyrolese, Japanese, Norwegian, or some other exotic costume, she and her associates administer refreshments of an afternoon with a proud languor calculated to knock the nonsense out of the cheeriest customer.
As A Damsel in Distress was first published in 1919, this isn’t altogether kind. There were so many distressed gentlewomen after WWI trying to make a living, but it is funny. Thank goodness I still have dozens of Wodehouses to read. I usually listen to Wodehouse on audio & they can be very soothing on the drive home from work.