People often come to Plumtopia for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular.
There’s is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse — if you ask a dozen Wodehouse fans, you’ll get at least a dozen different answers. Picking up the first book you come across can be as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.
But if you’re looking for more practical advice, this guide is the first in a series of pieces to help you discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings Castle, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.
We begin with these reading suggestions for getting started.
Getting started with P.G. Wodehouse
Jeeves and Wooster: Start your adventure with Wodehouse’s best known duo in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). It’ a collection of short stories –many of them classics– from the start of the saga. If you prefer to start with a novel, try Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor). For a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list see the next piece in this series.
Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea.
The Inimitable Jeeves
Blandings Castle is arguably literature’s finest Utopia. As Evelyn Waugh put it: ‘the gardens of Blandings Castle are the original gardens of Eden from which we are all exiled.’ Dip your toe into Paradise with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New), or the classic short story collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935).
“Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”
‘The Custody of the Pumpkin’ in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere
Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp) is a favourite character among Wodehouse lovers. Start with his first appearance in the brilliant school stories, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you prefer an adult novel, his final appearance in Leave it to Psmith (1923) is wonderful, and won’t spoil your enjoyment of the earlier stories.
Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”
Mike and Psmith
Ukridge is the character that Wodehouse readers love to hate. He’s a blighter and a scoundrel to be sure, but his adventures are comedy gold. Start with the short story collection Ukridge (1924) or the novel Love Among the Chickens (revised in 1921).
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge
Uncle Fred: Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred is a dapper old gent with a twinkle in his eye, and a penchant for adventure. He’s a chap who can adopt an alias at the drop of a hat, and frequently does so. His first appearance in the short story, Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), is widely regarded as one of Wodehouse’s best (from the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). He went on to star roles in novels like Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939).
I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means, but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.
‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ in Young Men in Spats
Short Stories: Wodehouse was a master of the short story format, and would be classed alongside greats like Chekhov if he hadn’t been a humourist. The Mulliner stories are outstanding. Start anywhere you like, but Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927) is the first. The Oldest Member golf stories are also terrific –try The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required to enjoy them.
Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.
The Clicking of Cuthbert
The novels: Plot spoilers are less of a problem with Wodehouse’s ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some are connected by recurring characters. There are plenty of novels to choose from, but if you’re chronologically inclined, some good examples from his early period include Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) and The Small Bachelor (1927).
The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you.
The chronological challenge
Many of Wodehouse’s stories first appeared in magazines such as The Strand (UK) and The Saturday Evening Post (US), but weren’t always published in book form in the same order, or even under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of publication you will encounter ‘spoilers’, particularly in the Blandings series. Wodehouse also rewrote some of his early stories, so the beginning isn’t always the best place to start. It’s also helpful to know that Wodehouse’s books were often published under different titles in the UK and US.
In putting this series together, I’ve referred to many excellent online resources for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefited from invaluable advice from Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.
Where to buy Wodehouse
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse (or know which books to start with), but they should be able to order books for you. If your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.
Most books are currently in print and available for purchase online (links are included in this series), along with second hand editions. Don’t be alarmed by the price of first and collectable editions. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse relatively cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks. And most titles are now available as Ebooks.
More in this series: