People often come to Plumtopia looking for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular. It’s a good question.
The short answer, is that there is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse –and if you ask the question in one of the many online Wodehouse forums, you’ll get at least a dozen answers. Picking up the first book you come across is often as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.
But the short answer isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for practical advice. This post, and the short series to follow, offers a guide to readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.
A suggested reading list for getting started is provided below, followed by some general guidance for new readers.
Reading suggestions for getting started
Jeeves and Wooster: Start with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) short stories or the novel Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor). See my second piece in this series for a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list.
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: Avoid plot spoilers by starting with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New). Or get acquainted with the (later) classic Blandings short stories in Blandings Castle (1935).
‘I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?’
Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervour. Mr Simmonds, eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children.
Psmith: Start with the brilliant school story, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you’re not a fan of the genre, try Leave it to Psmith (1923), the last Psmith novel. Reading it first shouldn’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)
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: Start with Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), a short story from the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save it for later.
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: Start the Mulliner stories with Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927); and the Oldest Member golf stories with 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 the ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some of them are connected by recurring characters. Try Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) or The Small Bachelor (1927) to start.
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.
Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse, but they should be able to order them for you –and if your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.
Links to books currently in print and available for purchase online have been included in the text. Out of print books are frequently available second-hand at reasonable prices. Don’t be alarmed by the price of expensive first and collectable editions you see advertised, which are aimed at collectors. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks and don’t mind which editions you buy. Most titles are also available as Ebooks, including those which are out of print.
Understanding 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 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. And it’s 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 that exist for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefitted from the invaluable advice of Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.
The next piece in the series provides a reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories.
This is one prize giving ceremony that cannot be undertaken on orange juice alone.
The Cheapest White on the List sat alone at a corner table, solemnly pawing an Anglers’ Rest bar menu.
‘What’s the matter with him? asked The Dubonnet Queen of Ealing Common.
‘The price of Pinot Grigio has gone up’ said a Totally Roasted, discreetly. ‘He’s had to switch to a Chardonnay from South Eastern Australia.”
‘But Australian wine is supposed to be quite good,’ replied The Dubonnet Queen.
‘Not this one,’ said The Cheapest White on the List.
‘I’ve got a nephew in Australia,’ said a Whiskey Mac. ‘Moved to Perth last year. Loves it apparently.’
‘Who hasn’t got a nephew in Australia? That’s what I’d like to know,’ said an Oatmeal Stout.
The Cheapest White on the List nodded. ‘That’s right! Why, if I threw this drink out of the window, I’m practically guaranteed to hit at least three people with nephews in Australia– probably more.’
‘I wish you would,’ said a Diet Shasta Orange and 150 Proof Grain Alcohol, who happened to work in personal injury claims.
‘I’ll bet Mr. Mulliner has nephews all over Australia,’ said the said the Whiskey Mac.
‘And nieces,’ said a Sparkling Water.
The assembled drinkers looked expectantly at Mr Mulliner. He beamed at them in reply.
‘Well, as it happens….’
After a gruelling process of tasting and deliberation, it is my pleasure to announce the winners of the Highballs for Breakfast competition.
The coveted First Place prize is awarded to The Cheapest White On The List. The drink itself is both affordable and palatable, and an appropriate choice for the humble bar parlour of the Anglers’ Rest. His original name is also suggestive of a genuine Character who, either by inclination or impecuniousness, could do with a bit of cheering up. A copy of Highballs for Breakfast should do the trick.
Second Place has been awarded to another great character, the Dubonnet Queen of Ealing Common. This is a name that announces itself! It suggests a woman who has acquired her stature through charm of manner, and a cast-iron liver – surely a winning combination. I feel Wodehouse would have made something of her. The excellent people of Penguin Random House have made a second copy of Highballs for Breakfast available, so the Dubonnet Queen will also receive a copy.
A third copy of Highballs for Breakfast courtesy of Penguin Random House, and a book voucher worth £10 courtesy of self and cat, have also been awarded to Stefan Nilsson for his winning entry (The Code of the Woosters) in the 2016 Reading Challenge .
Prize winners please refer to the Postscript note to claim your prize.
Thanks to everyone who entered, and apologies if you missed out on a prize. I’d be pleased to console you over a pint, and slap you heartily on the back, if you’re ever passing through Somerset.
Finally, and with a heavy heart, it is my sad duty to inform you that my regular partner in judging –the cat, Monty Bodkin — passed away during the running of this competition (rest assured that he had not indulged in any of the tasting). So before my post-judging liver-cleansing commences, I’d like to raise a glass once more.
PRIZE WINNERS: I will attempt to contact you via your linked contact details to arrange delivery of your prize. Alternatively, you can email me directly at email@example.com with your postal address. Cheers!
Highballs for Breakfast is a new compilation of P.G. Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of liquor, drinking, Dutch Courage and mornings after, compiled and edited by Richard T. Kelly. It’s a well-researched collection that delves widely into the Wodehouse canon, unearthing plenty of treasures on the subject.
‘…Have you ever tasted a mint-julep, Beach?’
‘Not to my recollection, sir.’
‘Oh, you’d remember all right if you had. Insidious things. They creep up on you like a baby sister and slide their little hands into yours and the next thing you know the judge is telling you to pay the clerk of the court fifty dollars…’
Summer Lightning (1929)
The classic scenes you’d expect to find are here, including Gussie Fink Nottle’s presentation of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School in Right Ho, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster’s ‘a-hunting-we-will-go’ with the port decanter in The Mating Season. But if you’re unfamiliar with Wodehouse’s world beyond the Jeeves stories, this book should also whet your appetite to discover hidden gems like Cocktail Time, Doctor Sally, Uncle Dynamite, Ukridge, and the Mulliner stories.
‘Suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another, what in your view would best meet the case?’
The gentlemanly bar-tender pondered for some moments.
‘Well,’ he replied at length, ‘I advance it, you understand, as a purely personal opinion, and I shall not be in the least offended if you decide not to act upon it; but my suggestion – for what it is worth – is that you try a Dynamite Dew Drop.’
One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.
‘Much better give him a Dreamland Special.’
A second man, in a sweater and a cloth cap, had yet another theory.
‘You can’t beat an Undertaker’s Joy.’
‘The Story of William’ in Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927)
Few good books are without controversy; Wodehouse has always attracted his share and Highballs for Breakfast is no exception. The hot topic of discussion among the troops on this occasion is the assessment of Wodehouse’s non-drinkers as ‘puritans and bores’. Richard T Kelly introduces this chapter, noting:
Given the affection Wodehouse reserves for cheery serial tipplers, you can well imagine the rough treatment he dishes out to characters who make a terrific show of never touching a drop. A degree of moderation, at times, is commendable, perhaps – but someone who abstains entirely simply cannot be serious.
Richard T. Kelly in Highballs for Breakfast
The teetotallers in our ranks object. Wodehouse certainly created some memorably foul examples of the puritanical temperance advocate. Having lived through prohibition, he would have had a decent supply of real-life examples to work from, adding them to his diverse cast of ridiculous extremists. But Wodehouse’s most degenerate drinkers are not always such affectionate portraits.
Richard T Kelly offers Mervyn Potter’s fiancé as an example of the puritanical type; she insists that Mervyn give up drink and threatens to cancel the fixture if he fails. Anyone reading Barmy in Wonderland (as discussed previously at Plumtopia) can see that she has a point. Mervyn is habitually plastered — he gets truculent, creates disturbances and burns down hotels. Wodehouse gets full comedy value from these scenes, but it’s clear that Mervyn Potter is a menace who gives Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps hell. The reader’s sympathies are with Barmy and Potter’s fiancé, on this occasion.
Another character who overdoes his snifters is Reggie Swithin’s Cousin ‘Eggy’ in Laughing Gas. Wodehouse gets good comedic mileage from Eggy, who thinks he is having alcohol induced hallucinations and is persuaded to give up drinking by a temperance group called the Temple of the New Dawn. The female responsible for saving Eggy is a girl called Mabel, and, while undeniably one of the puritans, she is not without her charms. There is no suggestion that Mabel is a bore, or that Eggy is anything but better off when he decides to marry her.
Gussie Fink-Nottle, Wodehouse’s most famous abstainer, may have restricted himself to orange juice, but I don’t recall him ever forcing the subject on his friends. Between a puritanical temperance advocate and a quiet, unassuming teetotaller there is a wide and substantial difference —neither Wodehouse nor Richard T Kelly is really ‘having a go’ at the latter.
A little controversy is good for us –it keeps the mental faculties sharp — but the inclination to analyse or search for deeper meaning in Wodehouse quickly reaches a point where it makes us (well, me usually) look ridiculous. It causes pure minded jaws to clench. ‘Leave Plum alone!’ they cry. ‘He is to be enjoyed, not dissected.’ Spades and soufflés are mentioned. Richard T Kelly, quite rightly, does not take things too far. He applies an informed, but light touch to the material and lets Wodehouse’s magic do the rest.
I drink high-balls for breakfast. I am saved.
My Battle with Drink (1915)
I would like to thank Penguin Random House for providing my copy of Highballs for Breakfast. If the producers of fine wine and porter ales would do likewise, Plumtopia would be a far, far brighter place.
Win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast
To win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House, visit the competition page and and reply by comment before 15 December 2016.
There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’
Barmy in Wonderland (1952)
I’m excited to offer Plumtopia readers the chance to win a copy of the new PG Wodehouse release, Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House. To enter, simply reply by comment to this post telling us what drink would you be known by at the Anglers’ Rest.
Mr Mulliner, one of PG Wodehouse’s beloved narrators, recounted around forty stories from the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest, where inmates are referred to by their drink, rather than by name.
From the moment the Draught Stout entered the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest, it had been obvious that he was not his usual cheery self. His face was drawn and twisted, and he sat with bowed head in a distant corner by the window, contributing nothing to the conversation which, with Mr Mulliner as its centre, was in progress around the fire. From time to time he heaved a hollow sigh.
A sympathetic Lemonade and Angostura, putting down his glass, went across and laid a kindly hand on the sufferer’s shoulder.
‘What is it old man?’ He asked. ‘Lost a friend?’
‘Worse,’ said the Draught Stout. ‘A mystery novel. Got half way through it on the journey down here, and left it in the train.’
Strychnine in the Soup (1932)
This is a wonderful device, because a person’s choice of drink can be revealing. A Tankard Of Stout, suggests a solid, hearty soul, who can be relied upon for conversation. An Absinthe On The Rocks suggests a character on the precipice –of making an ass of themselves at the very least. And what might we make of the aforementioned Lemonade and Angostura? Wodehouse may not have gone in for deep character analysis, but even his most lightly drawn character can provide food (or in this case drink) for thought.
My own preference, for any psychologists taking notes, depends on the occasion and the establishment. If pressed, my extensive personal research in the hostelries of Great Britain leads me to nominate a Pint of Porter as my moniker.
What drink would you be known by at the Anglers’ Rest?
Reply by comment to this piece by 15 December 2016 for a chance to win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, kindly provided by publishers Penguin Random House. The lucky winner will be chosen by the usual Plumtopia panel (self and cat) after a thoroughish tasting process at Plumtopia HQ.
N.T.P. Murphy, A Wodehouse Handbook
On the 15th of October, 1881, P.G. Wodehouse was born in Guildford , England.
Coincidentally, 1881 was also the year in which Dr. John Watson first met Sherlock Holmes. Their meeting was recounted by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887).
Some years later, the young Wodehouse became an avid reader of these stories, and his early work is littered with Holmesian references. In The Adventure of the Split Infinitive , a 1902 short story published in ‘Public School Magazine’, Wodehouse sends Mr. Burdock Rose and his companion Dr. Wotsing to investigate a murder at St. Asterisk’s school.
“Anyone suspected?” I asked.
“I was coming to that. One of the Form, Vanderpoop by name, under whose desk the corpse was discovered, has already been arrested.”
“Did he make any statement?”
“Well, he hit the policeman under the jaw, if that could be called making a statement. He is now in the local police-station awaiting trial. Popular opinion is, I should say, strongly against him.”
“That I should think is in itself almost enough to clear him. Popular opinion is always wrong.”
Wodehouse’s wonderful school duo Psmith and Jackson bear some similarity to Holmes and Watson. Psmith is uniquely brilliantly, while his friend Mike Jackson is loyal and dependable. Psmith sees himself as a Holmsian figure and consciously uses Holmes-speak in conversation. It was Wodehouse’s Psmith, not Conan-Doyle’s Holmes, who first used the words ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ — in Psmith Journalist (1910).
“Sherlock Holmes was right,” said Psmith regretfully. “You may remember that he advised Doctor Watson never to take the first cab, or the second. He should have gone further, and urged him not to take cabs at all. Walking is far healthier.”
Psmith Journalist (1910).
The language of Holmes and Watson was one that Wodehouse readers knew – then and now. Many Wodehouse enthusiasts today are fans of Conan Doyle, and much research has been done to find the Holmesian references in Wodehouse’s writing. An excellent list, compiled by John Dawson, is available from the Madam Eulalie website.
Another well researched piece by fellow blogger Shreevatsa reveals that Wodehouse wrote an introduction to a 1970s edition of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.
When I was starting out as a writer—this would be about the time Caxton invented the printing press—Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.
Wodehouse and Conan Dolyle also became friends. They shared a mutual love of cricket and played together for the Authors Cricket Club .
Wodehouse retained a love of detective stories throughout his life, and this was reflected in his work. He enjoyed entangling characters in a spot of light crime, and created numerous detectives to catch them at it –like Miss Trimble and Mr Sturgis (Piccadilly Jim), Percy Frobisher Pilbeam (Heavy Weather), and Maudie Stubbs née Beach (Pigs Have Wings). He even tried his hand at straight detective fiction, in The Education of Detective Oakes (Pearson’s Magazine, 1914), later republished as The Harmonica Mystery, and Death at the Excelsior.
Perhaps, if he had applied himself seriously, P.G. Wodehouse might have become a great crime writer. Happily for us, he didn’t — readers of detective fiction are spoiled for choice, but great humour writers are lamentably rare. The result was a happy one for his characters too. As a creator of comedy romances, Wodehouse’s detectives were permitted time off from the study of little known Asiatic poisons to relax at the Senior Bloodstain, and even to fall in love.
A hardboiled crime writer could never permit such diversions, as we learn from Wodehouse’s fictional crime writer, James Rodman, in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’.
He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not descend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.
While the great Sherlock Holmes remained a bachelor, Wodehouse’s Adrian Mulliner, detective with the firm Widgery and Boon, won the heart of Millicent Shipton-Bellinger after he distinguished himself in the Adventure of the Missing Sealyham (‘The Smile That Wins).
All her life she had been accustomed to brainless juveniles who eked out their meagre eyesight with monocles and, as far as conversation was concerned, were a spent force after they had asked her if she had seen the Academy or did she think she would prefer a glass of lemonade. The effect on her of a dark, keen-eyed man like Adrian Mulliner, who spoke well and easily of footprints, psychology and the underworld, must have been stupendous.
‘The Smile That Wins’ (Mulliner Nights)
No less stupendous, it seems, was Wodehouse’s life-long love for the genre. I can imagine him, even as a nonagenarian, clawing at the birthday gift-wrapping with indecent haste to get at the latest crime thriller inside.
Happy Birthday Plum!
Yesterday I received the Doctor’s diagnosis of an ailment that has been troubling me for some time. I have dyspepsia!
I don’t suppose a doctor ever received such a joyous response to this news as mine did. I practically whooped around the surgery. For now, I can read my favourite poem, by Lancelot Mulliner in ‘Came the Dawn’, with the added poignancy of personal suffering.
DARKLING (A Threnody)
By L. BASSINGTON MULLINER
(Copyright in all languages, including the Scandinavian)
Like a corpse’s withered hands,
Waving against the blacker sky:
Bitter like the tang of half-remembered sins;
Bats wheeling mournfully through the air,
And on the ground
And nameless creeping things;
And all around
I am a bat that wheels through the air of Fate;
I am a worm that wriggles in a swamp of Disillusionment ;
I am a despairing toad;
I have got dyspepsia.
from: Came the Dawn (Meet Mr Mulliner )
The physician stopped short of prescribing Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo, but I suppose one can’t have everything.
It is not unreasonable to assume that, when the assorted dignitaries of Bath bunged off their application for UNESCO World Heritage listing, the fact that P.G. Wodehouse lived here as a boy was pretty high up on their list of reasons. No doubt it weighed heavily with the judges. And yet, in all the historical and literary guides to Bath I find no mention of Wodehouse. Walking tours do not pass his former residence. No miniature of his likeness can be viewed in the Jane Austen or Holbourne Museums. How can this be?
I suspect the answer lies in the rather embarrassing truth (one not so universally acknowledged) that of all the places in which P.G. Wodehouse resided, Bath appears to be the only one in which he did not write. He wrote as a school boy. He wrote in London, and in Emsworth (Hampshire). He wrote in New York and Long Island, in Hollywood and in France. He even continued writing while imprisoned in a succession of German prison camps in 1940-41. When he died in 1975, there was an ‘unfinished manuscript beside his chair’. But in Bath, Somerset, where this prolific life-long writer lived for three years, he produced nothing at all.
By his own admission:
From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)
Over Seventy (1956)
It was in Bath, Somerset, that P.G. Wodehouse spent these loafing years.
P.G Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881 while his mother was visiting England from Hong Kong. Wodehouse’s father was in the colonial Civil Service, and the infant Plum returned to Hong Kong with his mother. In 1883, young Wodehouse returned to England to live with his brothers Peveril and Armine at number 17 Sion Hill, Bath. There the Wodehouse boys lived under the care of Nanny Roper, surrounded by maternal relations (the Deane family) who lived next door and elsewhere in Sion Hill.
Modern day Sion Hill is part of the Cotswold Way public walking trail from Bath to Chipping Camden. It abuts the Bath Approach Golf Course and Victoria Park , with stunning views over the city. Bath’s iconic Lansdown and Royal Crescents are an easy downhill walk away.
The same cannot be said going up the hill, which I foolishly attempted on a bicycle in the rain. It was a mad scheme, particularly when a number 700 omnibus would have sufficed. But as I huffed and puffed and cursed my way up the hill, I reflected that my chosen method of conveyance added a dash of Wodehouse spirit to the occasion, invoking poor Bertie Wooster’s distraught eighteen-mile round trip from Brinkley Court to Kingham in Right Ho, Jeeves.
Arriving at Sion Hill in a dishevelled state of the kind guaranteed to raise even the most broad-minded Bath eyebrows, I abandoned my scheme of knocking on doors with an introductory ‘What Ho!’ Instead, I snapped a few souvenir photographs and soaked up the genteel atmosphere of young Wodehouse’s formative surroundings.
Following Sion Hill as it loops around past local allotments and the Golf Course, the city of Bath appears deceptively distant, an impressionist canvas of blurred green and sun-flecked stone. Here on the hill the soundscape is idyllic too, dominated by the rustle of the trees, not the bustle of town. Jane Austen, who famously disliked Bath, might have preferred it from this distance.
There is a sense of well-heeled serenity here that makes it easy to imagine the young Wodehouse boys at play, over a century ago. The possibilities for exploration are just the sort a growing lad requires before returning home for tea with Nanny Roper.
Some have suggested Miss Roper may have been the model for Wodehouse’s fictional nanny, Nurse Wilks in Portrait of a Disciplinarian. One can readily imagine Miss Roper having good cause to thunder at her charges to ‘WIPE YOUR BOOTS!’
As Mr Mulliner’s nephew Frederick reflected:
The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.
Portrait of a Disciplinarian (in Meet Mr Mulliner) 1927
Frederick Mulliner’s Nurse Wilks is not quite a spent force.
The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round he perceived a different person altogether from the mild and kindly hostess of a moment back. It was plain that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
‘Theideaofyourbringingyournastydirtybootsintomynicecleanhousewithoutwipingthem!’ said Nurse Wilks
Almost 90 years later, P.G. Wodehouse introduced the television adaptation of Portrait of a Disciplinarian as part of the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse series, with Daphne Heard playing Nurse Wilks to perfection.
I left Sion Hill with a contented feeling that Wodehouse’s formative years were spent in such an appealing place, and that these loafing years were not perhaps, so entirely misspent as Wodehouse would have us believe.
The young Plum left Bath in 1886 to attend the Chalet School, in Croydon, Surrey. His literary career began shortly thereafter when, at the age of five, he composed his first poem.
My journey to Sion Hill ended, as these jaunts so often do, with a nourishing beaker at a local pub, where I was chuffed to observe that a table for two had been reserved in the name of Murphy — it provided a fitting moment to toast Norman Murphy who had kindly provided me with the Bath addresses.
He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not decend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.
From ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’
This firm opinion belongs to mystery writer James Rodman, a cousin of Mr Mulliner. But then he inherits Honeysuckle Cottage from his Aunt, the romance novelist Leila J. Pinckney , and her house begins to exert a sinister romantic influence over him.
First, he inserts an unwelcome female into the novel he is writing: ‘…the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faerie.’
James stared at the paper dumbly. He was utterly perplexed. He had not had the slightest intention of writing anything like this. To begin with, it was a rule with him, and one which he never broke, to allow no girls to appear in his stories. Sinister landladies, yes, and naturally any amount of adventuresses with foreign accents, but never under any pretext what may be broadly described as girls. A detective story, he maintained, should have no heroine. Heroines only held up the action and tried to flirt with the hero when he should have been busy looking for clues, and then went and let the villain kidnap them by some childishly simple trick.
It’s important (as always) not to attribute the views of the character to his creator — P. G. Wodehouse allowed plenty of girls in his stories, often as the central character.
The situation at Honeysuckle Cottage deteriorates further when a girl arrives:
She was an extraordinarily pretty girl. Very sweet and fragile she looked as she stood there under the honeysuckle with the breeze ruffling a tendril of golden hair that strayed from beneath her coquettish little hat. Her eyes were very big and very blue, her rose-tinted face becmingly flushed. All wasted on James though. He disliked all girls, and particularly the sweet, droopy type.
This sickly-sweet specimen of femininity is struck by a passing car and must be nursed back to health at Honeysuckle Cottage.
In some of his stories (Bachelors Anonymous being a notable example) Wodehouse often shows avowed bachelors the error of their ways — converting them to the kind of fellows who slap other fellows’ backs and urge them to marry. James Rodman is made of stern stuff, but he is sorely tested.
Now that the girl was well enough to leave her bed, she spent her time sitting in a chair on the sun-sprinkled porch, and James had to read to her — and poetry, at that; and not the jolly, wholesome sort of poetry the boys are turning out nowadays, either — good, honest stuff about sin and decaying corpses — but the old-fashioned kind with rhymes in it, dealing almost exclusively with love.
Tempted though I am to tell you what happens, this story’s too good to spoil for those of you who might not have read it. All I will say is that it makes excellent Valentine’s reading for anyone who shares James Rodman’s distaste for romantic slush.
One of the curses of being female is the assumption, made by almost everyone, that we are inherently wired to enjoy romance novels (and what passes for romantic comedy at the movies). Weak female characters, in need of a decent meal and a shot of gumption abound. Heroines are painfully self conscious or smugly self-reliant, always beautiful, with a tendency to take themselves far too seriously.
Happily, Wodehouse offers us a third way — where the romance can coexist with intelligence and humour.
P.G Wodehouse had double citizenship, British and American. He became Sir Pelham Wodehouse at the age of ninety-three, receiving a knighthood in the 1975 New Year’s Honours list. A month and a half later he died, of a heart attack, in a hospital on Long Island, near his home in Remsenburg. He was sitting in a chair, with a three-quarters-finished new Blandings novel in typescript and autograph notes around him. He had gone into hospital for tests to establish a cause, and indicate a cure, for a troublesome skin rash. He had been working right to the end.
Richard Usborne in Wodehouse at Work to the End (1976)
Some forty years later, P.G. Wodehouse is remembered and revered by readers around the world. The anniversary of his death each Valentine’s Day always seems a fitting occasion to celebrate the life and work of an author who gave us so much to love.
2015 also marks one hundred years since the publication of the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh (published in the US as Something New). It’s a firm favourite of mine. I also wonder if Wodehouse’s writer-hero Ashe Marson is semi-autobiographical, for apart from being a writer, Ashe’s daily routine includes a series of fitness exercises (much like Plum’s own ‘daily dozen’).
The Larsen Exercises, invented by a certain Lieutenant Larsen, of the Swedish Army, have almost every sort of merit. They make a man strong, supple, and slender. But they are not dignified. Indeed, to one seeing them suddenly and without warning for the first time, they are markedly humorous. The only reason why King Henry, of England, whose son sank with the White Ship, never smiled again, was because Lieutenant Larsen had not then invented his admirable exercises.
So complacent, so insolently unselfconscious had Ashe become in the course of three months, owing to his success in inducing the populace to look on anything he did with the indulgent eye of understanding, that it simply did not occur to him, when he abruptly twisted his body into the shape of a corkscrew, in accordance with the directions in the lieutenant’s book for the consummation of Exercise One, that he was doing anything funny.
At the start of Something Fresh Ashe is observed, mid-contortion, by an attractive onlooker called Joan Valentine. Joan is one of my favourite Wodehouse heroines — a gossip column writer with a varied career history including shop work, typewriting, the stage, working as a governess and lady’s maid (anyone who tells you Wodehouse only wrote about upper class twits is talking through their hat). In the course of the novel, she makes a fine attempt at scarab stealing. Although she was much admired by the Hon Freddie Threepwood, it’s Ashe who wins her heart in the end.
‘…What are you doing?’
Ashe paused for a moment to reply.
‘I am kissing you,’ he said.
‘But you mustn’t. There’s a scullery-maid or something looking out of the kitchen window. She will see us.’
Ashe drew her to him.’Scullery-maids have few pleasures,’ he said. ‘Theirs is a dull life. Let her see us.’
Being one of the world’s workers myself, I find this consideration for the scullery-maid commendable.
This steamy-stuff is as close as Wodehouse gets to sex in his writing, which some commentators seem to feel requires explanation. I don’t. The kiss is a time-honoured way for authors, playwrights and filmmakers to mark the happy conclusion of a romantic plot. One doesn’t need to be prudish to see that dabbling in the erotic would have alienated part of his audience, without adding anything of value to his work. It is also mistaken to assume that the absence of sex makes Wodehouse’s work sexless.
Take this example from ‘Rodney Fails to Qualify’, a golfing story contained in The Heart of a Goof :
“Have you ever read The Love that Scorches, by Luella Periton Phipps? ” she asked.
I said I had not.
“I got it out of the library yesterday,” said Jane, dreamily, “and finished it at three this morning in bed. It is a very, very beautiful book. It is all about the desert and people riding on camels and a wonderful Arab chief with stern, yet tender eyes, and a girl called Angela, and oases and dates and mirages, and all like that. There is a chapter where the Arab chief seizes the girl and clasps her in his arms and she feels his hot breath searing her face and he flings her on his horse and they ride off and all around was sand and night, and the mysterious stars. And somehow — oh, I don’t know ”
She gazed yearningly at the chandelier.
“I wish mother would take me to Algiers next winter,” she murmured, absently. “It would do her rheumatism so much good.”
In this example, Wodehouse expertly handles both sex and humour with a light touch, in keeping with his established style and the reserved Englishness of his characters. But it is certainly not sexless.
Happy Valentine’s reading everyone!
I asked my eight year old daughter to share her favourite Wodehouse romance and, after much umming and ahhhhing, she chose ‘The Truth About George’. In this short story (from Meet Mr. Mulliner) Mr Mulliner recounts the ordeal of his nephew George Mulliner, who must overcome his stammer in order to declare his love for Susan Blake.
Many Wodehouse couples are brought together through a common interest — it might be golf, Tennyson’s poems, or a shared love of mystery novels, for ‘there is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature’ (‘Strychnine in the Soup’). In the case of avid cruciverbalists George Mulliner and Susan Blake, it is a love of crossword puzzles.
…George was always looking in at the vicarage to ask her if she knew a word of seven letters meaning ‘appertaining to the profession of plumbing’, and Susan was just as constant a caller at George’s cosy little cottage, being frequently stumped, as girls will be, by words of eight letters signifying ‘largely used in the manufacture of poppet-valves’. The consequence was that one evening, just after she had helped him out of a tight place with the word disestablishmentarianism, the boy suddenly awoke to the truth and realised that she was all the world to him — or, as he put it to himself from force of habit, precious, beloved, darling, much-loved, highly esteemed or valued.
In an effort to cure his stammer, George consults a specialist —‘…a kindly man with moth-eaten whiskers and an eye like a meditative cod-fish’ — who advises him to speak to three complete strangers a day. I won’t spoil the fun by recounting George Mulliner’s disastrous pursuit of this advice. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you have a treat in store (the text is available free online from Internet Archive).
Instead, I will skip straight to the part where George asks:
“Will you be my wife, married woman, matron, spouse, help-meet, consort, partner or better half ?”
To which Susan replies:
“Oh, George!” said Susan. “Yes, yea, ay, aye ! Decidedly, unquestionably, indubitably, incontrovertibly, and past all dispute!”
The reader is left with the happy impression of a well-suited couple looking forward to a congenial married life with barely a cross word between them.
For more on the theme of Wodehouse and crosswords, see Alan Connor’s excellent piece — Top 10 crosswords in fiction, no 9: PG Wodehouse’s The Truth About George — for The Guardian’s Crossword Blog. I also understand (courtesy of The Wodehouse Society mailing list) that Connor’s recent book “The Crossword Century” also includes a chapter on this subject.
Connor’s blog piece features an image of John Alderton, who played George Mulliner in the BBC Wodehouse Playhouse television series. It is a fine adaptation, recorded shortly before Wodehouse’s death, and includes an introduction from the author himself. You can watch it via You Tube.