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.
My first selection is a school story, published in magazine (The Captain) and book format under various aliases including Mike, The Lost Lambs and Enter Psmith. My copy is entitled Mike and Psmith and despite my disinclination for the genre, I’ve read it over 20 times and it never fails to grip. It also introduces my favourite of all Wodehouse heroes – 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)
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)
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.
I have not touched upon the delights of Ukridge, Mulliner or the Oldest Member, but they are not forgotten; The Clicking of Cuthbert is surely one of the finest short stories in our language. But I am compelled to select, as my fourth choice, The Girl on the Boat. It opens with the strong-willed theosophist author 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 (my favourite of all Wodehouse heroines).
…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.”
“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, theirs is perhaps my favourite of all Wodehouse couplings. They were marvelously portrayed by Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in a 1962 film adaptation in which they were (as in the book) far more interesting than the leading lovers. The film itself is worth watching, despite some inexcusable departures from the original – much funnier – plot.
To close, we return to my spiritual fictional home of Blandings Castle. I love every word of the Blandings saga and choosing a favourite is impossible, but I offer Heavy Weather for inclusion here because the 1995 television adaptation is my favourite Wodehouse adaptation (with Richard Briers again, this time as Galahad). I shall entertain no criticisms of Peter O’Toole’s performance of Lord Emsworth.
As Heavy Weather closes, we share with the Empress in a state of simple, wholesome contentment that epitomises the Plumtopian ideal – and kind of relaxed mental state I would do well to emulate on the eve of my ‘significant’ birthday.
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.