P.G. Wodehouse,
Love Among the Chickens
(George Newnes, 1906; Nabu Press, 2010)

In writing Love Among the Chickens, P.G. Wodehouse penned one of the most delightfully comical romances ever set on a poultry farm.

No, really. This novel, first published in England in 1906, is a work of genius, filled to the brim with some of the most wonderful characters ever devised and a series of events that will keep readers in pleasant spirits from beginning to end.

Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a person of questionable logic and abilities but an unflagging good humor, has persuaded boyhood chum Jeremy Garnet, a moderately successful author, to join him on a Dorset farm, where Ukridge proposes to raise chickens and make pots of money in the process. Garnet is lured by the prospect of a quiet writing holiday and accepts the invitation, only to fall in love en route with Phyllis Derrick, who joins them on the train and is traveling with her father to a nearby estate.

First, let me assure you that neither Ukridge nor Garnet has the first clue about raising chickens. As Garnet at one point explains, in reference to the lack of fresh chicks on the premises:

"The incubator has not done all that it should have done," I said. "Ukridge looks after it, and I fancy his methods are not the right methods. I don't know if I have got the figures absolutely correct, but Ukridge reasons on these lines. He says you are supposed to keep the temperature up to a hundred and five degrees. I think he said a hundred and five. Then the eggs are supposed to hatch out in a week or so. He argues that you may just as well keep the temperature at seventy-two, and wait a fortnight for your chickens. I am certain there's a fallacy in the system somewhere, because we never seem to get as far as the chickens. But Ukridge says his theory is mathematically sound, and he sticks to it."

And, of course, being a chicken farm, there is ample opportunity for absurdity, as when Aunt Elizabeth, a prize chicken, makes a break for freedom and Garnet gives chase:

I continued to pound along doggedly. I was grimly resolute. I had caught Aunt Elizabeth's eye as she passed me, and the contempt in it had cut me to the quick. This bird despised me. I am not a violent or a quick-tempered man, but I have my self-respect. I will not be sneered at by hens. All the abstract desire for Fame which had filled my mind five minutes before was concentrated now on the task of capturing this supercilious bird.

If that's not enough, there's the romance as well. The path, as you no doubt assume, runs less than smoothly as Garnet runs afoul of the ill-tempered would-be father-in-law. Machinations abound, including an undeserved soaking at sea and a viciously schemed round of golf. There are also some entertaining bits involving creditors, who unjustly expect to be paid for Ukridge's purchases.

Fans of Ukridge, who features in a fair number of Wodehouse's short stories, might complain that this novel isn't really about Ukridge. He's a supporting character to Garnet and appears less than true Ukridge devotees might prefer. Stuff and nonsense, I say. Garnet is a strong narrator, and Ukridge serves his purpose hovering in Garnet's orbit -- and causing the situations that dog Garnet's heels throughout the tale.

I would not hesitate to recommend Love Among the Chickens to anyone who enjoys a good humorous romp in the English countryside. Wodehouse's use of the language is exquisite, as always, and the story here is a true gem.

book review by
Tom Knapp

26 February 2011

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