The desert island pickings of a quadragenarian

Henry glanced hastily at the mirror. Yes, he did look rather old. He must have overdone some of the lines on his forehead. He looked something between a youngish centenarian and a nonagenarian who had seen a good deal of trouble.

The Man with Two Left Feet (1917)

I feel much like Henry did, as I glance in the mirror to inspect the remains of my former self on the eve of what I’ll just call a ‘significant’ birthday.  But I shall resist the urge to impersonate the great Russian novelists, and reflect instead upon some of my favourite Wodehouse moments. I have selected five favourite novels to share, representing one for each completed decade, and one for the future. I do hope you will indulge me.

1953 Mike and Psmith (second story from the original Mike)My first choice is a school story, originally published in The Captain, and then in book format under aliases including Mike, The Lost Lambs, Enter Psmith, and Mike and Psmith. Despite my disinclination for the genre, I’ve read it over 20 times and it never fails to grip. It also introduces my favourite Wodehouse hero –  a specimen so close to my ideal man it’s as though I’d drawn up the specifications myself.  His comrades call him Psmith. The P is silent, as in Pshrimp.

A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.

“Hullo,” he said. He spoke in a tired voice.

Mike and Psmith (1908)

Leave it to Psmith

If forced at knifepoint to select my favourite Wodehouse work, I would chose  Leave it to Psmith. Most critics would agree that, in 1923, Wodehouse’s greatest writing was still ahead of him, but Leave it to Psmith holds a special place in my heart for delivering Psmith (in his last appearance) to Blandings Castle – under an alias of course – to match wits with The Efficient Baxter.

“I don’t like poets as a rule. But this fellow’s so different from the other poets I’ve met. Different altogether. And,” said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, “I strongly object to Baxter throwing flower-pots at him. I won’t have Baxter throwing flower-pots at my guests,” he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.

Leave it to Psmith (1923)

The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse

It is impossible to overlook the priceless characters and concatenations of Jeeves and Wooster, but making a choice is very difficult. The Inimitable Jeeves well deserves its place as a classic, and I recommend it as an excellent starting place for anyone looking to discover Wodehouse. With much difficulty, I have opted for The Mating Season, which sees Bertie impersonating Gussie Fink-Nottle at Deverill Hall, home of Esmond Haddock and his five aunts.

On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter but the courage which one brings to them, I pulled myself together.

The Mating Season (1940)

Every line of the Mating Season is a perfect slice of Wodehouse, every scene as fresh and snappy as the first time read. I have attempted several times to read aloud the chapter describing the village concert, but it always reduces me to an inaudible hysteria. The concert begins with the Rev. Sidney Pirbright, Uncle to Corky and Catsmeat, who is described as “(a) tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…” Every act that follows is sheer delight.

Unlike her sister Muriel, who had resembled a Criterion barmaid of the old school, Poppy Kegley-Bassington was long and dark and supple, with a sinuous figure suggestive of a snake with hips; one of those girls who do rhythmic dances at the drop of a hat and can be dissuaded from doing them only with a meat-axe.

The Mating Season

And there are few things in this life that please me as much as the Pat and Mike knockabout cross-talk act of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. As well as the book, I can thoroughly recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil, a consummate professional who reads without hysterics.

The Girl on the Boat by P.G. WodehouseI have not touched on the delights of Ukridge, Mulliner, or the Oldest Member here. They are not forgotten, but I am compelled to select The Girl on the Boat as my fourth choice. It opens with the strong-willed theosophist Mrs Horace Hignett, who pinches her son’s trousers to prevent his elopement with Wilhelmina Bennett. And a good thing too, for it frees young Eustace to be wooed by the admirable Jane Hubbard (a special Wodehouse heroine).

…Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa…

“And what happened then?” Asked Eustace, breathlessly.

He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient began to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle pump.

“Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!” said Jane Hubbard.

“You know, you’re wonderful!” cried Eustace. “Simply wonderful!”

Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm.  He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.

“Why, if an alligator got into my tent,” said Eustace, “I simply wouldn’t know what to do! I should be nonplussed.”

“Oh, it’s just a knack,” said Jane, carelessly. “You soon pick it up.”

“Nail-scissors!”

“It ruined them unfortunately. They were never any use again. For the rest of the trip I had to manicure myself with a hunting spear.”

The Girl on The Boat (1921)

Although the romance of Eustace and Jane is not the central affair of The Girl on the Boat, they are one of my favourite Wodehouse couples, marvelously portrayed by Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in a 1962 film adaptation. The film is worth watching, despite some inexcusable departures from the original – much funnier – plot.

FinallyHeavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse, to Blandings. I love every word of the saga, so choosing a favourite is impossible. I’ve picked Heavy Weather because the 1995 television adaptation is my favourite Wodehouse adaptation (Richard Briers again, this time as Galahad, accompanied by Peter O’Toole as Lord Emsworth). Heavy Weather closes with the Empress of Blandings in her sty, in a state of simple contentment that epitomises the Plumtopian ideal – a relaxed mental state that I would do well to emulate.

Empress of Blandings stirred in her sleep and opened an eye. She thought she had heard the rustle of a cabbage-leaf, and she was always ready for cabbage-leaves, no matter how advanced the hour. Something came bowling across the straw, driven by the night breeze.

It was not a cabbage-leaf, only a sheet of paper with writing on it, but she ate it with no sense of disappointment. She was a philosopher and could take things as they came. Tomorrow was another day, and there would be cabbage-leaves in the morning.

Heavy Weather (1933)

In selecting just five works, I am committing the unpardonable sin of overlooking 90 or so others. It has been said, by a very wise bird in Facebook’s Wodehouse community, that choosing one’s favourite Wodehouse is like choosing between your children. But let me assure you that, like the male codfish, I love them all.

HP

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16 thoughts on “The desert island pickings of a quadragenarian

    1. My dear Cathy, you’re a pippin! I find it hard to know what to say when presenting Plum – because my words really are superfluous. He’s the top! And your comment is the 100th comment on my Blog, so many many thanks from me.

  1. bill

    Nice words, Honoria! Although we may disagree on a few sniggling points and preferences, we both are “sound on Plum” I feel. Keep it up!

    1. Oh Bill!. I could never disagree with you – a fellow Plum lover called Bill. I will simply have to change my opinions to match yours. Of course if I ever had to limit myself to 5 books in real life, I would take 5 Wodehouse omnibuses. Or is it omnibi?

  2. Pingback: Joyeux anniversaire à moi | Plumtopia: The world of P.G. Wodehouse

  3. Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    Often, on Facebook, some fans raise a question as to who the most lovable character is; or, which is the best work of P G Wodehouse. Futile, I say. Pointless, I state. Because when it comes to making any comparisons in Plumsville, the mind boggles. Each character has a couple of traits we can readily identify with. Each narrative has a situation which we can relate to. We just need to roam around in Plumsville’s valleys lit with sunny humour and the rivulets of gentle mirth murmuring past us.
    Here is one of the several exceptional posts from Plumtopia which demonstrates (if that is the word I want) this simple fact of life.
    Enjoy.
    Pip pip!

  4. I love this post Honoria!

    It’s always interesting to hear about other people’s favourite Wodehouse books – and their reasons for choosing them.

    My favourite Jeeves book is also The Mating Season – definitely the funniest, in my opinion – and the village concert scene is just superb! My mum was actually telling me (she lives in rural Wales) about a village concert she went to last year which sounded almost as dreadful as the one described in TMS – I was thrilled to hear that such scenes do sometimes occur in real life too!!

    1. I would love to have been there Ellie.

      Occasionally life bizarrely takes a Wodehousean turn. There was a story in the paper recently about a young peer who was caught driving drunk without a licence, with his face blacked-up with boot polish. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed to be pushing the bounds of credibility when Bertie Wooster did it, but one makes allowances in fictional comedy. In real life though? I was shocked.

      Unlike the poor chumps in Wodehouse’s world, who would cop a fine or 14 days without the option, served under a false name, the young Lord escaped either penalty. I hope, at the very least, he had to face a rabid Aunt when he got home.

  5. Pingback: P.G. Wodehouse reading list: the school stories – Plumtopia

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