Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Celebrity by Winston Churchill

Much ado about nothing
Long before Winston Churchill (1874-1965) became famous as the prime minister of the United Kingdom, another Winston Churchill (1871-1947) had already achieved fame and fortune in America as a successful author of fiction. From the late 1890s to the end of World War I, the American Churchill wrote a string of bestsellers, several of which were also adapted into Broadway plays and films. That streak began in 1897 with The Celebrity, his first novel to be published in book form.

The title character of this comedic novel is a pretentious author whose novels are popular but of questionable literary merit. The book is narrated by John Crocker, an attorney and old friend of the Celebrity. Crocker and the other characters refer to the novelist only as the Celebrity; his real name is never mentioned. This gimmick might be amusing the first three times you’ve read it, but it soon grows tiresome and awkward. Luckily, the Celebrity adopts an alias for most of the book, which provides relief from this contrivance and makes the narration and dialogue less cumbersome.

The story takes place in the Great Lakes region of the Midwest, where Crocker works in an unnamed city. Crocker spends his summers at a fictional lakeside resort named Asquith. There he is surprised to run into his old friend the Celebrity, who has likewise decided to vacation at Asquith. To lessen the burden of his fame, the Celebrity has decided to travel incognito. He calls himself Charles Wrexell Allen, a name he has stolen from a man in Boston who looks enough like the Celebrity to be his doppelganger. Another new arrival in Asquith is Farquhar Fenelon Cooke, a wealthy man from Philadelphia who is buying up timber lands in the area. Cooke is kind of like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. He’s too loud and unrefined and parties too hard for stuffy old Asquith, so he decides to build his own resort nearby, named Mohair. Meanwhile, of course, there are two attractive young women in Asquith for Crocker and the Celebrity to court, but who will end up with whom remains uncertain until the end of the book.

Not at all surprisingly, the Celebrity’s assumed name leads to a case of mistaken identity, and his extrication from this sticky situation occupies the bulk of the book. It also leads to a lot of tedious and unproductive bickering among the members of the cast. Though the 1890s were too early for photo identification, it is very hard to believe that the Celebrity would not have some documentary evidence of his identity, or that the problem could not have been resolved by some much simpler means than the farce Churchill creates from this ridiculous premise. Suspension of disbelief is fine if the farce is funny, but this story is just tiresome. Your great-grandfather might have found this novel hilarious, but today’s readers are likely to find it mildly amusing at best.

Churchill also pokes fun at the restrictive conventions of being a “gentleman,” like the one that requires a gentleman to marry any woman to whom he shows even the slightest nonphysical affection. Churchill doesn’t really have the guts to subvert such ideas, however, so any satire contained herein is very weak and tepid. Though he may make fun of stuffy social mores, he buys into them all the same. Following The Celebrity, Churchill achieved greater success with serious historical novels, so maybe comedy just isn’t his strong suit.
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