Recently, over the morning eggs and b., I stumbled across a thoughtful piece by Alessandro Giuliani called Wodehouse Game. I was prompted to reply, but when my comments hit the 1200-word mark – and diverged substantially from the original piece, I felt the decent thing to do was post it here, rather than infest someone else’s blog with my rambling.
The premise of Alessandro Giuliani’s piece is that men are repelled by women who are smarter or physically more dominant than them. P.G. Wodehouse’s Florence Craye is provided as an example:
The root of the trouble was that she was one of those intellectual girls, steeped to the gills in serious purpose, who are unable to see a male soul without wanting to get behind it and shove.
Florence Craye is a well-chosen example that illustrates Alessandro Giuliani’s point. She is one of many characters from the world of fiction (male and female) who illustrate the adage that beauty is only skin deep. The premise gives Wodehouse some good plots involving Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones. They are the kind of chumps we can believe would idolise a woman’s exterior and find themselves entangled, without first taking due care to investigate her character.
But there are also examples from Wodehouse’s world that exemplify the opposite view – that men can and do fall in love with women who are their intellectual and physical equals, or betters.
Wodehouse created a diverse range of female characters in over 90+ published works, of whom Florence Craye is just one example. His heroines are frequently intelligent, without repulsing the men around them. Joan Valentine (Something Fresh) and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith) spring to mind as two of my favourite examples, but there are many Wodehouse heroines, sympathetically written without censure from the author for being clever or dominant characters.
In The Girl On The Boat, feeble young Eustace Hignett falls in love with the stronger and more capable Jane Hubbard, an African explorer. Their mutual adoration and romance is delightfully drawn by Wodehouse. Jane’s strength and cool headedness is exactly what Eustace needs, and Wodehouse presents them as a perfect and natural fit for each other – there is no suggestion that Eustace has been trapped, or has any cause to resents his union with a dominant female.
…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. Ever since he had become ill, it had been the large-hearted girl’s kindly practice to soothe him to rest with some such narrative from her energetic past.
‘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 begins 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.’
Most of the criticisms I read about Wodehouse’s portrayal of women are put forward by people who haven’t read much Wodehouse beyond the Jeeves stories. These stories are written in the wonderful, half-witted narrative voice of Bertie Wooster — a unique comedic creation who cannot seriously be considered a mouthpiece for his creator’s personal views. Nor are his relationships with women the only type of male-female relationships in Wodehouse’s fictional world.
I’ve read Wodehouse’s published works several times over and I find him a great egalitarian. His cast of characters includes heroes, heroines, blighters and stinkers –of all shapes and sizes, age and genders. The behaviour and opinions of his characters can be used to exemplify a wide range of contradictory world views. Provided we don’t take it too seriously, this ‘Wodehouse Game’ can be fun and instructive to play.
John Lagrue’s timely review of P.G. Wodehouse’s Money in the Bank (1942) touches on another great Wodehouse romance –that of Anne Benedick and Jeff Miller.
John also proposes Anne Benedick as Wodehouse’s finest heroine. It’s a proposal worth taking seriously from a Wodehouse lover of John’s calibre. I certainly recall Anne being a good egg, but I’ve never ranked her among my own favourites. Have I missed something? It has been a while since I’ve read Money in the Bank, but it’s one of Wodehouse’s hidden gem and I look forward to re-reading and pondering John’s suggestion.
As I said in my post last year announcing this project of reading a book a week for a year, some of the books involved would be ones I’d read before. Money In the Bank by PG Wodehouse is such a volume. Wodehouse is probably best known for the Jeeves and Wooster stories and the […]
Sally stopped and drew a deep breath. Ginger Kemp did not reply for a moment. He seemed greatly impressed.
“When you talk quick,” he said at length, in a serious meditative voice, “your nose sort of goes all squiggly. Ripping, it looks!”
Sally uttered an indignant cry.
“Do you mean to say you haven’t been listening to a word I’ve been saying,” she demanded.
“Oh, rather! Oh, by Jove, yes.”
“Well, what did I say?”
“You… er… And your eyes sort of shine, too.”
“Never mind my eyes. What did I say?”
“You told me,” said Ginger, on reflection, “to get a job.”
“Well, yes. I put it much better than that, but that’s what it amounted to, I suppose…”
The Adventures of Sally (1921; US Title Mostly Sally)
Today’s post concludes Jon Brierley’s look at The Adventures of Sally –you can catch up from the beginning here. I am incredibly grateful to Jon for taking on this commission for Plumtopia and doing such a sterling job of it. Here’s hoping that bookstores are soon filled with his novels, and we can smugly tell our friends we ‘discovered’ him first. Please do take a peep at his blog (he is also looking for beta-readers if you can spare some of your time for the cause).
The Adventures of Sally
A Romance (continued…)
Nobody ever accused P. G. Wodehouse of being a feminist*, but it strikes me that Sally Nicholas is quite a liberated and modern (for 1921) young woman – no doormat, she. Single, footloose and unchaperoned, she engages freely and on equal terms with all the menfolk she encounters, giving every bit as good as she gets and always (except for when kicked into the slough of despond by the shenanigans of Foster and Fillmore) standing up for herself and on her own two feet, taking no guff from anybody. Wodehouse has been accused of writing in an Edwardian timewarp, but Sally (and the whole book generally) is very clearly a woman of the 1920s, revelling in the newly won post-war freedom for women to work, travel and express themselves independently. Carmyle disapproves of this, but Carmyle is, as Ginger so rightly observes, a blighter.
One wonders if, perhaps, Sally owes something to Wodehouse’s wife of sixty-one years, Ethel. Ethel is described as ‘gregarious, decisive and well organised’, which is Sally to the letter. Furthermore, Ethel is said to have taken the ‘shy and impractical’ Plum and arranged his life for him, which again is a thing Sally does (or tries to do) with everyone she meets.
If Sally was, at least in part, a portrait of Ethel, one hopes Mrs. Wodehouse took it as the great compliment it undoubtedly was. Sally is an engaging and sympathetic heroine, fun to be with and admirable in every respect. If the book is a little more serious than most Wodehouse novels, and correspondingly less funny than the bulk of his output, perhaps, just perhaps, it was because the protagonist was a little closer to Wodehouse than usual – and as we have seen, the story incorporated a number of elements from Wodehouse’s real life. Plum himself, of course, was very far from being a chump, so there isn’t much of him in Ginger, I don’t think, but nevertheless the personal connections between the story and the author, while speculative, are, I feel, attractive. Seen in this light, what seems a fairly insubstantial work at first glance becomes more interesting, and perhaps worthy of a higher rank in the Wodehouse canon.
Of course, I could be wrong. But I’d like to think I’m not.
*Postscript from Honoria Plum
Readers may be surprised to learn Wodehouse has been accused of being a feminist. ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’ was the title of Elin Woodger Murphy’s memorably convincing talk at the 2015 Seattle convention of The Wodehouse Society (US). Elin in turn, took her title from an excellent 2005 article by Marilee Scott. And I have argued in support of Wodehouse’s feminist credentials myself (try Wodehouse’s women: in the eye of the beholder).
The Adventures of Sally
A Romance (continued…)
All caught up? Spiffing. Let us consider our principals. Here comes Sally now – if we take up an unobtrusive position behind a newspaper we shall be able to observe her closely. Sally Nicholas is a young, cheerful, intelligent, attractive and sparky all-American girl of twenty-one, and feeling especially cheerful just now as she has just had a substantial inheritance. She will be able to wave farewell to the rather down at heel environs of Mrs. Meecher’s boarding house and get her own apartment, and with even more relief wave farewell to her dispiriting job as a taxi dancer at the Flower Garden dance hall.
Ah, I see a hand up. You doubtless wish to know what a taxi dancer is. No, it is not someone who dances in or on cabs, but a person employed by a dance hall to act as a partner to patrons of the hall who have neglected to bring a partner of their own. Mr. Wodehouse is at pains to tell us how nice an establishment the Flower Garden is, but I am sorry to have to relate that in real life such dance halls were usually covers for speakeasies – this being the reason why the patrons often didn’t take a partner, as they were principally there to neck the booze rather than dance. Furthermore, young ladies who acted as taxi dancers were often, um, well, let’s just say they didn’t make all their money from dancing.
But no such taint attaches itself to Sally; she is entirely clean and wholesome, and if she has a fault it is that she is too gallant. Sally is a naturally kind person, disposed to be friendly and helpful to everyone, and now that she has the wherewithal she is keen to spread a little happiness as she goes by. She is by no means an ingénue, however; she is capable and level-headed, and adept at managing the lives of those around her, when she gets the chance.
Alas, the ones best placed to benefit from her largesse and her management are the two men currently in her life, and neither of them really deserve it. Firstly, there is her older brother Fillmore; that’s him, lurking about over there, the portly chap with a rather self-satisfied expression. Fillmore is not an idiot, but he will get carried away. He can take a perfectly sound idea and build so many castles in the air on it that the thing collapses under its own weight. As, indeed, does Fillmore himself; when in funds, his food consumption increases prodigiously, and he is apt to wax not only fat but pompous. Sally encourages him to take up with the simple, but good-hearted, bit-part actress Gladys Winch, in the hopes she will provide a steadying influence on him. As she points out;
“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
The other man in Sally’s life is her fiancé, Gerald Foster, a playwright. Observe him carefully; he’s very good-looking, isn’t he? And I trust we all know that a handsome chap in a Wodehouse novel will, almost certainly, turn out to be a frightful rotter. Perspicacious Plumtopians will have also universally acknowledged the truth that whoever a Wodehouse protagonist is initially engaged to is hardly ever the spouse they end up with.
Which brings us to the two other men who will complicate Sally’s life during the course of this book. They are both English (as, indeed, is Gerald Foster) … our Sally seems to be irresistibly attractive to Englishmen. One wonders if Wodehouse was thinking of the fashion, prevalent in his youth, of hard-up members of the aristocracy making a bee-line for the nearest American heiress. The first son of Albion to consider goes by the name of Bruce Carmyle.
Mr. Carmyle (one could never call him Bruce) is stiff, and forever standing upon his dignity. Almost the first time we see him he is being haughty, not to say rude, with the waiter on a train. This is always a sign of somebody far too self-important for their own good, a fact Sally at once recognises. In consequence, despite being disposed to be friendly to one and all, she does not much like Mr. Carmyle. Alas, much to Sally’s chagrin, he likes her, and is prepared to go to some lengths to show it. It’s never quite clear why he feels like this, apart from Sally being exceedingly pretty; one feels that a stuffed shirt like Mr. Carmyle would want somebody altogether more meek and submissive as a love-interest.
Our third and final runner in the Sally Stakes is a cousin of the above, a red-head, and (of course) a chump. Lancelot Kemp doesn’t really follow the usual Wodehouse naming conventions; he really ought to be called Bill, or Jim, but he makes up for his dubious forename by being rather unimaginatively known as Ginger. He is of a type well-known to Wodehouse readers; athletic, kind-hearted, tongue-tied and not overly blessed with grey matter. His conversation is punctuated by interjections such as ‘I say,’ and ‘You know,’ and I’m not at all certain he doesn’t let fly a ‘What Ho!’ or two.
In life so far, Ginger has not been a success, and the Family (including Mr. Carmyle) despair of him. He had to forgo going up to Oxford due to a shortfall in the family finances, and every position the Family have found for him he has made a muff of, usually by speaking his mind to entirely the wrong person.
Ginger does have some talents, though – we first see him breaking up a dog-fight, very efficiently. This counts as a sort of Chekhov’s Pug, as it is as a dog breeder and trainer that he finally manages to shine. And, yes, it is Ginger who eventually wins Sally’s hand. But whilst he realises at once that Sally is his True Soul-mate, it takes Sally the whole book to come to the same conclusion. There wouldn’t be much of a story if she had been quicker off the mark, of course, but besides the exigencies of Plot and Narrative Convention it is interesting to examine the reasons why she eventually sees Ginger as her true life’s partner.
When Sally and Ginger first meet in Roville-sur-Mer, Ginger gets ‘friend-zoned’ (to use the modern parlance). Sally sees him not as a possible romantic interest but as a project, although her attempts to find him a steady job are no more successful than those of his Family. What eventually gets him out of the friend-zone and into Sally’s arms is the contrast between his behaviour toward Sally, and that of Messrs. Foster and Carmyle. Ginger is loyal, and faithful, willingly humps furniture around her new flat, and lends a sympathetic ear to her woes, but above all he is not pushy. He does not force his attentions on Sally (although he does pinch a photograph of her to moon over in private).
Carmyle, by contrast, is pushy, assertive, and inclined to treat Sally as his by divine right. He does not help Sally, or listen kindly to her troubles, and he certainly doesn’t lower himself to humping furniture about. Gerald Foster, meanwhile, is disloyal. He deserts Sally and marries actress Elsa Doland, and what is even more caddish, doesn’t even tell Sally – she finds out at second hand, after the fact. It is Ginger who conveys the news, and his tactful behaviour after discovering he has dropped a bombshell (he had no idea Sally was engaged to Gerald) earns him several Brownie points.
Ginger’s gentlemanly mien is further highlighted by the antics of brother Fillmore, who (despite the steadying hand of Gladys Winch) manages to lose all Sally’s money pursuing wild theatrical dreams. What little she has left she uses to fund Ginger (who does not know she has lost her fortune) in his dog breeding scheme. Dashed twice against the rocks of fate by unreliable men, Sally returns despondently to her old job in the dance hall, where she is sought out by the importunate and over-assertive Carmyle. Sally is at such a low ebb by this point that she dully accepts his proposal of marriage, believing it to be the only option left open to her.
But no sooner has she done so than Ginger suddenly hoves into view again. His kennels have proved to be a success, and, on finding out that Sally has used the last of her money to set him up, and now having the means to support her himself (always an important point for any male romantic lead in Wodehouse) he declares his love. The scales finally fall from Sally’s eyes (this is the habitual fate of scales in the last reel of a Wodehouse novel … he must have used up several snakes’ worth). But she believes it to be too late – she has already promised herself to Carmyle.
All seems lost, but then Gerald Foster, having been off-stage for most of the story, re-appears. The bounder had, it seems, only married Elsa Doland to further his play-writing career, and she had only married him to enhance her acting career. When neither career prospers, the shaky marriage breaks up. Foster now surfaces back at his flat, across the hall from Sally’s, full of self-pity and bootleg whisky.
I digress here to wax a little about one of the lesser perils of being a writer, even an amateur writer like your humble scribe. It does spoil your reading rather. One can’t just lie back and enjoy a good yarn; your inner editor is forever twitching aside the curtain that conceals the author, and poking at the machinery behind the scenes. This matter of Foster’s flat is just such a bit of business that makes the editor-writer long to reach into the book and correct things. The in-story (or Watsonian) reason given for Foster having a flat so conveniently close to Sally’s is that Elsa Doland, being a great friend of Sally, wanted to be as close to her as possible. This is a weak attempt to paper over an otherwise astonishing co-incidence, and isn’t convincing at all. Elsa Doland spends hardly any on-screen time with Sally, and is never actually seen at said flat. The real (or Doylist) reason, of course, is so that Wodehouse could get Foster on the spot for the penultimate scene in the book. It would be interesting to know if the weaksauce Watsonian excuse was actually present in the original serial episode in Collier’s, or whether it was a retcon when the story was worked up into a novel.
But as I said, I digress. We now return to our scheduled deconstruction.
Foster, drunk and maudlin, takes to smashing up his flat. Sally, despite feeling nothing but contempt for him, is habitually helpful to those in need and decides to clear up the mess. While she does this, she packs him off to her own flat, as she cannot stand the sight of him. Befuddled by drink, Foster goes to sleep there, and this sets up the final denouement. The following morning, Carmyle turns up at his fiancée’s flat, encounters a newly awoken Foster there, and jumps to the wrong conclusion. He had only discovered that Sally was working as a dancer (after proposing to her) the night before, and the idea that Sally might not be respectable enough for the Family has been eating away at him. The pompous ass. The compromising presence of Gerald Foster confirms these suspicions, and relieved to have an out, he promptly takes it.
Sally, suddenly freed, at once gets on the phone to Ginger. Ginger doesn’t care what his Family thinks, or whether Sally is ‘respectable’ or not. Ginger may be a chump, but in Wodehouse, chumps often come out on top.
Cut to final scene, a year later, somewhere out in the boondocks of Long Island. Sally and Ginger are ensconced in (presumably) wedded bliss, running an increasingly successful dog breeding and training business. Ginger is still a chump, but it doesn’t matter, because:
Sally got up and ruffled his red hair.
A Wodehouse hero can get no greater compliment from a girl than to have his hair ruffled.
Up next: Jon Brierley’s third and final instalment on The Adventures of Sally.
Every February Plumtopia celebrates the romances, great and small, in the work of P.G. Wodehouse, to mark the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day, 1975. Guest contributions are warmly welcomed, and this year I’m thrilled to share a series by guest author Jon Brierley on the 1921 Wodehouse novel, The Adventures of Sally.
Jon is sound on Wodehouse and has written wonderfully in the Wodehouse style at his blog, Sloopjonb: Writing Wibble (try his Jeeves’ Christmas Carol). Jon is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel and would love feedback from beta readers. Please do visit his blog to find out more.
The Adventures of Sally
“Chumps always make the best husbands. If you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his forehead first and, if it rings solid, don’t hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from the husbands having brains. What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him.”
– Gladys Winch, in The Adventures of Sally
Most readers of Wodehouse know him as a farceur, a humourist, a deliverer of reliably funny froth; they will revel in Jeeves and Wooster, quote delightedly from the Blandings saga, and may even run to snippets of Psmith. The true devotee of Wodehouse, however, knows that he had a lengthy career in other literary genres before he settled on his final winning formula. He began his novel-writing life penning school stories, entirely conventional if superior examples of the breed (until the radical intervention of Psmith), but also branched out into comedic (but not farcical) romances, apparently on the grounds that these sold better. The Adventures of Sally (American title: Mostly Sally) is one of these, first serialised in Collier’s magazine in 1921, and it is to the romantic adventures of the titular Sally Nicholas that we will now turn our attention.
The plot and settings of Sally brought together several strands of Wodehouse’s life; he was still heavily involved in the theatre, and like Sally herself was almost commuting across the Atlantic in pursuit of his various interests. In his early days in America Wodehouse had lived in many seedy boarding houses not unlike Mrs. Meecher’s, and, like Ginger, had played Rugby football and been unable to go up to Oxford due to a family financial crisis. The story itself is something of a re-tread of an only slightly earlier novel, Jill the Reckless, featuring the common elements of a theatrical background, trans-Atlantic hopping and the losing and gaining of both fortunes and fiancés. One wonders whether this repetition is due to pressure of time; maybe Collier’s needed something quick to cover a gap, and Wodehouse was unable to fashion something entirely new.
Whatever the reasons, and whisper it quietly, it has to be said that Sally is not one of Plum’s best. The pacing is all off; half-way through Sally decamps to England, and recounts her adventures there in a series of letters to Ginger back in America. Whilst these are amusing, they slow the story down, especially when she visits a Rugby international game at Twickenham, an episode that must have mystified American readers. Elsewhere several important events take place off-stage, and are inadequately reported, giving the impression of a story struggling to find the right gear, and proceeding in a series of jerks. And at the end, the denouement develops with almost indecent haste, as if Wodehouse had been told the serial was ending next week, and he had to tie up all the loose ends too quickly.
Having said which, a book that is not Wodehouse’s best is still better than most people’s best, so don’t let me put you off reading it. If you haven’t read it yet (and I might mention it is free on the Gutenberg Press) you had better go and do so now, as what follows contains a lot of what the young people today call ‘spoilers’. I’ll wait…
Jon Brierley’s piece will continue through February. While you’re waiting for part two, why not add The Adventures of Sally to your Wodehouse collection ?
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 your adventure with Wodehouse’s best known characters in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). It’s not a novel, but a fine collection of short stories –many of them classics– from the very start of the saga. If you prefer to start with a novel, try 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: Blandings Castle is arguably literature’s finest Utopia. Or 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: Rupert or Ronald Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp) is a favourite 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 outing 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: He’s the character Wodehouse readers love to hate — 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 — a man who can adopt an alias at the drop of a hat, and frequently does. Start with his first appearance in the short story, Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), in the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save this treat for later if you can.
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.
Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse (or know where to start, unless you’re lucky), 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.
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. 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. 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 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.
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.
Here we are, young, ardent idealistic, yearning for life and love and laughter, and what do we get? Eggs.’
French Leave (1956)
Earlier this year, you may recall, I proposed a mini reading challenge . The challenge is to include a book by P.G. Wodehouse in your reading, under one of the categories listed in any other 2016 Reading Challenge.
French Leave is another possible inclusion as ‘a book set in Europe’. My review and reflections on ‘French Leave’ is reblogged below.
How to take part in the 2016 Wodehouse reading challenge
- Look at one of the 2016 Reading Challenge lists (try the popular POPSUGAR challenge ).
- Choose a Wodehouse book to fit one of the categories.
- Read it if you haven’t already.
- Reply to the challenge page explaining which book you selected, under which Reading Challenge category.
You don’t have to be actively participating in any other reading challenge to enter.
I recently took a well-thumbed copy of Wodehouse’s French Leave on holiday to Paris, a city famed for its literary connections. P.G. Wodehouse was briefly a resident, and opens the second chapter of French Leave (1956) there:
As the clocks of Paris were striking eleven on a morning three weeks after the Bensonburg expeditionary force had set out for Europe, a tall, willowy, elegant figure dressed in the extreme of fashion, turned the corner of the Rue Belleau and entered the Rue Vanaye. It was Nicholas Jules St Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne, affectionately known to his friends, of whom he had many in all walks of life, as Old Nick.
This ‘Bensonburg expeditionary force’ are three Trent sisters, chicken-farmers from Long Island USA. Having received a modest lump sum, they decide to take a well-earned jaunt to the French resort towns of St. Rocque and Roville. Our…
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‘Haven’t you ever heard of Sister Lora Luella Stott?’
‘No. Who is she?’
‘She is the woman who is leading California out of the swamp of alcohol.’
‘Good God!’ I could tell by Eggy’s voice that he was interested. ‘Is there a swamp of alcohol in these parts? What an amazing country America is. Talk about every modern convenience. Do you mean you can simply go there and lap?’
Laughing Gas (1936)
We live in troubled times. That Evelyn Waugh chappie knew a thing or two when he said of Wodehouse: ‘He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.’ I would be failing in my duties as a modern commentator if I didn’t observe that the captivity is looking every bit as irksome as Waugh predicted, and getting irksomer all the time. Or as the aforementioned Eggy says, on page 90 of the Everyman edition:
‘I never needed a snifter more in my life.’
Lapping at the swamp of alcohol is one solution. Reading Wodehouse is another. This week I opted for a dose of Laughing Gas, courtesy of my excellent local library. If you cast your mind back to January, you may recall my 2016 Wodehouse Reading Challenge . A book from the library’ is one of the categories in the POPSUGAR Reading challenge.
Set in Hollywood, where the Wodehouses lived in 1930-31 and 1936-37, Laughing Gas follows the adventures of Reggie Swithin, who has unexpectedly become the third Earl of Havershot after the supply of eligible uncles and cousins has given out. As newly appointed head of the family, Reggie is shoved off to Hollywood to rescue Cousin ‘Eggy’ Egremont from drink fuelled debauchery and an inadvisable engagement.
Laughing Gas is a rare Wodehouse dalliance with the science-fiction genre (‘The Amazing Hat Mystery’ from Young Men in Spats also touches upon the Fourth Dimension). Poor Reggie awakes from an emergency dental procedure dressed in knickerbockers and golden ringlets. He has switched bodies with a precocious child film star called Joey Cooley, also under the influence of laughing gas in room the next door.
A bit breath-taking, the whole affair, you will agree. Of course, I had read stories where much the same sort of thing had happened, but I had never supposed that a chap had got to budget for such an eventuality as a possible feature of the programme in real life. I know they say you ought to be prepared for anything, but, I mean, dash it!
I am in complete sympathy with poor Reggie. Added to the indignity that a grown man quite rightly feels on finding himself transformed against his will back to an age which he has long outgrown, Reggie must adjust to a meagre diet of Perfecto prunes and take naps in the afternoon, tucked in by his former fiancé Ann Bannister. He also suffers the consequences of wrongs committed previously by Joey Cooley, who is now happily running amok in Reggie’s body. Out of cash, and out of favour with his authoritarian hostess Miss Brinkmeyer, and the neighbourhood lads, Reggie’s prospects for the future look grim.
Happily, Wodehouse always contrives a way out of the mire for his characters, and he doesn’t let Reggie Havershot down in his hour of need. Reggie’s ordeal as Joey Cooley is eventually undone, to the satisfaction of all parties. Restored to his mature self, Reggie is rewarded with an opportunity to renew his addresses to Ann Bannister. At first he hesitates, on account of his gorilla-like appearance, but cousin Eggy and young Joey (who has evidently spent too long in movie circles) rally around with advice and encouragement.
‘What does a fellow’s face matter anyway?’ said Joey Cooley.
‘Looks don’t mean a thing. Didn’t Frankenstein get married?’
‘Did he?’ said Eggy. ‘I don’t know. I never met him. Harrow man, I expect.’
‘It’s the strong passionate stuff that counts,’ said the Cooley child. ‘All you got to do is get tough. Walk straight up to her and grab her by the wrist and glare into her eyes and make your chest heave.’
‘And, of course, snarl,’ said Eggy. ‘Though when you say “snarl” you mean, I take it, not just make a noise like a Pekingese surprised while eating cake….’
While real-world events may not be so easily undone as Reggie’s troubles, we still have Wodehouse.
Take part in the 2016 Wodehouse Reading Challenge
Read a book by P.G. Wodehouse in 2016 and reply to the original challenge page explaining which reading challenge and category you it could be included under. You don’t have to be actively participating in any other reading challenge to enter.
N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.
‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’
Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.
The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.
The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.
There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.
(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)
Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.
There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.
We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.
My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.
Best wishes to you all for 2016!