It is fitting that a book entitled, Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse, begins with a eulogy written by the deceased. Nell’s farewell to PG Wodehouse, that premier comedic author of the 20th century and her “companion and savior,” and to her dear friends and family is only the beginning. The rest of her story is as heartening to us as PG Wodehouse was to her. Shortly before she dies, she quotes Emily Dickinson, “my friends are my ‘estate.’” I count myself among Nell’s inheritors.
Saying goodbye is a theme in Nell’s life. First she loses her husband, then the babysitter for her only son, Hillyard, then a series of friends, her lover, and finally her own Hilly. Independence is Nell’s hallmark characteristic, which her mother gives her no choice but to acquire, kicking her out of the house at 18. The homestead’s small acreage, she tells Nell, can’t support any more adult bodies. She gets a teaching degree she is almost barred from using in Harvester, Minnesota after her husband dies. Harvester needs a third grade teacher and the Lundeens convince the town a widow has a right to support herself with this work she’s trained to do. The Lundeen family becomes a lifeline for Nell, sticking with her as friends and financial backers even as the school board continues to threaten Nell’s dismissal. In turn, Nell stands by a younger relative who lives with her and Hilly and becomes, with Nell, endeared to the Lundeens, especially Cora. Nell discovers a Wodehouse edition Cora leaves on a book shelf at the Water and Power Company. Cora also introduces Nell to the love of her life, lawyer-cum-Representative John Flynn. John becomes a second father to Hilly, who foregoes college for the army at the brink of WWI. He comes back from war shell shocked, unable to take care of himself. John dies suddenly, right before he and Nell are slated to marry. Then the Lundeens both pass and Nell plays their hospitality forward by befriending two younger women who move into town. They both eventually leave, as do their daughters, but not before Nell becomes like a second mother to both girls. Particularly in older age, Nell reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, and other of his smart, take-charge female characters. She takes the bull by the horns, mourning when those closest to her die, but using the opportunity to find others who are lonely, too, and establish community.
Wodehouse does not play a major role in the plots surrounding Nell, rather, he is inspiration running through the narrative, keeping Nell laughing, dreaming and able to love. Counter Wodehouse with another thread woven into the drama, a mysterious sender who never reveals himself to Nell. At the end, he writes a last note, “Goodbye.” Somehow, she finds she misses him, although his words have tormented Nell throughout her adulthood. “Her life seemed almost as intricately woven as one of Mr. Wodehouse’s novels but, she admitted, without the to-ing and fro-ing, mistaken identities, and cordons of nemeses lined up three deep to bar the road to perfect bliss.” Nell’s life in Harvester may seem quaint at first glance, but she has her own nemeses, like bigotry again women who read and appreciate the arts and discrimination against her personal decisions, even from her own Aunt Martha. She stands up for her son, who left town a hero and returns an outcast, and for a gay man run out of town after a play he puts on, regardless of how well it was received. She does not wish any honor, nor a more cosmopolitan existence. She makes her world large through reading books and immersing herself in life with friends.
I don’t think the author’s intention is to make a bold statement with this read. She makes a subtle statement, however, through Nell’s example, about the nature of salvation. Nell is careful as she steps in to aid her friends never to intrude or overstep bounds. She values what she has learned from making her own way and does not want to take that chance away from anyone. Rather, Faith Sullivan gives us what Wodehouse gives Nell: relief, escape. Art saves by lifting us out of what is into what could be, as it does for Nell, for Hilly with his harmonica, as painting does for Larry Lundeen, stories do for Agatha and plays do for Shelly. Wodehouse’s salvation may not be intervention in the usual sense, but it is palpable. “And slowly, in the most irresistible way, the breath went out of her as she felt his weight, as so often before, rousing her and carrying her away.” She, too, is ever available to those who come to her, and, most often, the first thing she offers is one of his books. I think I’ll go and check one out myself, perhaps Love Among the Chickens, the first of his Nell finds.