Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
Jess Oakroyd, a stolid Yorkshireman who is burdened with a nagging wife and sarcastic son, finally decides to pack a small basket of clothes and set off to travel about England. His adventures begin when he gets a ride in a large van loaded with stolen goods. The driver of the van and the driver’s helper leave Jess at an inn in a small hamlet after having robbed him while he was asleep. Rudely awakened by the innkeeper, Jess has no money to buy his breakfast. Setting off afoot, he comes upon another van, in which a man is attempting to repair a battered peddler’s stall. In return for his help, the peddler, who sells fancy balloons, gives Jess breakfast and a ride.
Jess stays with him for three days and then sets out walking again. Within the hour, he comes upon a stalled car and helps the driver, Miss Trant, start the motor. Miss Trant, who has recently inherited several hundred pounds from her father, is thirty-five years old. Since all of her previous adventures were limited to those in historical novels, she decides to travel across England. While Jess works on the car, it begins to rain, so they head for a tearoom nearby. There they meet Inigo Jollifant and his odd-looking companion, who is carrying a banjo. Just like Jess and Miss Trant, Inigo began his adventures on the previous Monday evening.
Inigo was unhappy as an instructor at a boys’ school because of the headmaster’s petty tyranny. He was dismissed after he became drunk and played the piano in celebration of his twenty-sixth birthday. Inigo, too drunk to do the prudent thing and wait for morning, packed a knapsack and immediately set out on his travels. In the railroad station of a small town, he met his banjo-carrying companion, Morton Mitcham, a professional entertainer.
In the tearoom, the shrewish proprietress berates a group of customers who are unable to pay their bill. The banjo player recognizes them as members of a theatrical troupe who are stranded, as they explain, after their manager absconded with their funds and a young woman. On impulse, Miss Trant decides to take over the stranded company. That night, they make plans for taking the show back on the road, and they decide on the name The Good Companions. The troupe is made up of an elderly comedian, a young and pretty musical comedy singer named Susie Dean, Morton Mitcham, a dancer named Jerry Jerningham, a girl singer, and an older couple who sing duets. Miss Trant becomes the manager, Inigo the accompanist, and Jess, at Miss Trant’s insistence, the handyman.
The troupe’s first appearance is in the little town where Miss Trant had found them. The show is not a success, but their second engagement, at a seaside hotel, meets with obvious favor. The most appreciated actors are Jerry and Susie, for whose acts Inigo writes catchy tunes. For several weeks, the company’s routine is one of rehearsals and performances, with train rides between the two- or three-night engagements in each town.
As the weeks pass, Inigo falls in love with Susie; she laughs at him and says that she cannot fall in love and marry until she becomes a star and plays in London. Miss Trant is enjoying herself thoroughly. All of her life had been spent in the sleepy village of Hitherton in southern England, where her father had settled upon his retirement from the army. She considers her theater associates far more interesting than the small sedate group of her father’s village friends.
When The Good Companions play in an almost deserted mill town in the Midlands, where the mills have been shut down for some months and the townspeople have little money or interest in a traveling vaudeville troupe, the troupe becomes dispirited and almost breaks up. It is Jess who persuades the others to stick with Miss Trant, since she will lose the money she had invested in them if they do not carry on with their engagements. The fortunes of the troupe gradually take a turn for the better. Inigo composes new tunes for the acts that meet with great success, but his love affair does not fare as well. Susie cannot understand why he does not take his music as seriously as he does his writing for literary periodicals. She feels sure that he is making a mistake in trying to be a second-rate essayist when he could be a first-rate songwriter.
The Good Companions finally have a long engagement in a series of prosperous manufacturing towns. They draw large audiences and Miss Trant finally begins to see a return on her investment. The troupe becomes daring and engages a large hall for a stand of several nights. Inigo has in the meantime gone to London, where a famous producer listens to his new songs. Inigo, determined to help Susie become a star, refuses to sell his songs unless the producer agrees to hear Susie perform.
The first night in the large auditorium is disastrous. The operator of the local motion picture houses hires toughs, who start a riot and set fire to the hall during the performance. In the mêlée, the producer from London is punched in the nose, whereupon he refuses to hear any more about either Inigo’s music or Susie. Miss Trant, too, is injured during the riot.
The future looks dark indeed, when an elderly woman takes a fancy to Jerry, marries him, and puts her money and influence at his disposal. As a result an even more important producer than the first one gives Susie her chance at musical comedy in London and buys Inigo’s music.
The troupe disbands, but at Jerry’s request, the other performers find excellent places with the same producer. In the hospital, Miss Trant meets a doctor with whom she has been in love for many years; they intend to marry as soon as she is well. With the help of his old friend the balloon peddler, Jess does some detective work in connection with the riot and discovers the identity of the men who hired the thugs. They are made responsible for the disturbance and have to take over Miss Trant’s debts for the damages.
After solving the mystery of the riot, Jess goes back to his home in Yorkshire because he receives a telegram from his son, telling him that Mrs. Oakroyd is seriously ill. When she dies shortly after, Jess prepares to continue traveling, having discovered that even a man as old and settled as he can become addicted to adventuring away from home. He decides to visit his married daughter in Canada.