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.
‘Archibald’s Benefit’ (1909) is a delightful short story, included in The Man Upstairs (1914). It relates the trials of Archibald Mealing, a keen but inept golfer, and his romance with Margaret Milsom. I say inept. Wodehouse says:
Archibald, mark you, whose golf was a kind of blend of hockey, Swedish drill, and buck-and-wing dancing.
For a sense of Archibald’s golfing style, this excellent instructional video from Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz (of Duke University) helps to demonstrate how a dash of buck-and-wing might have impaired Archibald’s success off the tee.
His golf may be rotten, but Archie is in good spirits, having recently become engaged to Margaret Milsom, a soulful looking girl with big blue eyes.
But in Wodehouse’s world, as in life, few romances are a simple matter of ‘A’ meets ‘B’. There is also ‘C’ to be considered, not mention ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’. These extras may come in the shape of interfering relations (Margaret Milsom has a couple of these) or misguided friends (in this case, Archie’s pal McCay). Our hero ‘A’ may also have to impersonate hens, perform tricks with a bit of string, or suffer some other frightful ordeal before he and ‘B’ can finally dance their wedding glide.
The complications for Archie and Margaret are well above par. In addition to a cast of interfering extras, Archie has also feigned an interest in poetry to impress the soulful looking Margaret, and finds the deception torturous to maintain.
Every evening he read painfully a portion of the classics. He plodded through the poetry sections of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Margaret’s devotion to the various bards was so enthusiastic, and her reading so wide, that there were times when Archibald wondered if he could endure the strain.
Once again, Wodehouse is true to life. How many of us have feigned interest in things beyond our expertise in the budding stages of a romance? Over the years I’ve been a temporary enthusiast of heavy-metal music, beer coasters, comic books, and beard-care. But I have my limits, as the chap who expected me to watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead and like it discovered. Like Archibald Mealing, I too have suffered.
Archie’s sentimental friend McCay (who ‘knew Ella Wheeler Wilcox by heart, and could take Browning without anaesthetics’) is also concerned that when Margaret comes to see Archie play in a local golf tournament, her girlish enthusiasm will be dashed. He fears the ordeal will test their romance, so McCay colludes with the other club-members to ensure Archie wins his games.
McCay is unaware that Archie has hidden his passion for golf from Margaret — she is such a soulful girl that he fears her disapproval. And as Archie has no expectation of winning the tournament, he has confidently arranged to meet her elsewhere on the afternoon of the final. When the appointed hour arrives, however, he is at the fifteenth tee with a real chance of winning.
Archie’s devotion for Margaret is tested:
If Margaret broke off the engagement—well, it might be that Time would heal the wound, and that after many years he would find some other girl for whom he might come to care in a wrecked, broken sort of way. But a chance like this could never come again. What is Love compared with holing out before your opponent?
Sentimental readers may be scandalised, but Wodehouse the realist does not shirk from difficult truths. Like the case of Freddie Widgeon in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, who attempts to woo April Carroway with Tennyson and fails, we may even feel that Archie has had a lucky escape. After all, no fair-minded girl would begrudge her lover playing golf.
When Archie attempts a reconciliation with Margaret, he is forced to confess that he has been playing golf. But, rather than chastise him for indulging in frivolous pass-times, Margaret confesses to suppressing her own fondness for golf.
Archibald took a step forward. His voice was tense and trembling.
‘Margaret,’ he said, ‘this is no time for misunderstandings. We must be open with one another. Our happiness is at stake. Tell me honestly, do you like poetry really?’
Margaret hesitated, then answered bravely:
‘No, Archibald,’ she said, ‘it is as you suspect. I am not worthy of you. I do not like poetry. Ah, you shudder! You turn away! Your face grows hard and scornful!’
‘I don’t!’ yelled Archibald. ‘It doesn’t! It doesn’t do anything of the sort! You’ve made me another man!’
She stared, wild-eyed, astonished.
‘What! Do you mean that you, too—’
Wodehouse reveals another difficult romantic truth; when love grips, there is illusion on both sides. ‘A’ is too enraptured with ‘B’ to suspect. And ‘B’ would hotly resent any suggestion that ‘A’ is less than he appears. But if a relationship is to last, we must eventually tear off the false whiskers and take our chances.
Wodehouse lovers who, unlike poor Archie, can take Browning without anaesthetic, might enjoy the Wodehouse poetry associations in Pippa’s Song.
I haven’t reblogged a review here for a while, as they tend to get a bit ‘samey’, but this is a splendid review of The Heart of a Goof, with lots of juicy extracts to enjoy.
Review by Jane V:
The Heart of a Goof consists of nine stories related by the Oldest Member of a golf club. He sits aside from the action puffing a cigar and observing the joys and the sorrows, the triumphs and the defeats in matters of golf and the heart enjoyed and suffered by the club’s members. He is a raconteur of the Ancient Mariner type. The Oldest Member’s victims are pressed into listening to a long and involved tale from which they can’t escape. Whatever the plight of the trapped one is, the OM can find a tale to fit his situation. The details of the stories the old man recounts could not possibly be known by him but using him as a mouthpiece is a neat way for Wodehouse to hold the collection together and not to speak with his own, authorial voice.
I enjoyed these stories very…
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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!
P. G. Wodehouse gave us many romances that linger long in our affections. Each February at Plumtopia is dedicated revisiting the Great Wodehouse Romances to mark the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day, 1975.
Cuthbert Banks and Adeline Smethurst
One of the delights of a Wodehouse romance, is the inventiveness with which he steers his heroes and heroines toward their first meeting. Some of these introductions happen ‘off-stage,’ especially in the Wooster narratives, but elsewhere we are privileged witnesses to some truly memorable meetings. Among his fruitiest is the moment when golfer Cuthbert Banks interrupts Raymond Parsloe Devine’s lecture to the Wood Hills Literary and Debating Society, in order to play his ball – with a niblick – from on top of the table.
‘I have dwelt upon this incident, because it was the means of introducing Cuthbert Banks to Mrs Smethurst’s niece, Adeline. As Cuthbert, for it was he who had so nearly reduced the muster-roll of rising novelists by one, hopped down from the table after his stroke, he was suddenly aware that a beautiful girl was looking at him intently. As a matter of fact, everyone in the room was looking at him intently, none more so than Raymond Parsloe Devine, but none of the others were beautiful girls. Long as the members of Wood Hills Literary Society were on brain, they were short on looks, and, to Cuthbert’s excited eye, Adeline Smethurst stood out like a jewel in a pile of coke.’
Cuthbert quickly falls in love with Adeline, but she is a serious-minded girl who expects her future mate to achieve something worth while in life. The rising novelist Raymond Parsloe Devine is a clear favourite over Cuthbert, whose only achievements are on the golf course. Cuthbert’s efforts to prove himself worthy involve joining the aforementioned literary society, bringing together the worlds of golf and ‘serious’ literature.
‘After attending eleven debates and fourteen lectures on vers libre Poetry, the Seventeenth-Century Essayists, the Neo-Scandinavian Movement in Portuguese Literature, and other subjects of a similar nature, he grew so enfeebled that, on the rare occasions when he had time for a visit to the links, he had to take a full iron for his mashie shots.’
The great treat, in the Clicking of Cuthbert, is not so much our satisfaction when Cuthbert finally clicks, but the manner of his clicking. More specifically, we have the pleasure of meeting one of the great Russian novelists, Vladimir Brusiloff.
‘Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.’
Every precious word written about Brusiloff is worth quoting. He is a splendidly drawn character who puts the pretentious aspiring novelist Raymond Parsloe Devine in his place.
‘No novelists any good except me. Sovietski — yah! Nastikoff — bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P G Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me.’
With Devine unmasked, Adeline ceases to be under his spell and finally turns her attentions to Cuthbert (I won’t give away all of the details). Adeline is not Plum’s most endearing heroine. She may be beautiful, but her initial objections to marrying Cuthbert are rather cold-blooded, and she lacks the pep and ginger of Plum’s more beloved female characters. But Adeline does redeem herself by taking up golf with enthusiasm.
‘Adeline is married to Cuthbert, and it was only his earnest pleading which prevented her from having their eldest son christened Abe Mitchell Ribbed-Faced Mashie Banks.’
The Clicking of Cuthbert must be regarded as one of the great Wodehouse romances. The worthy hero stays true to his love, persevering in the face of stiff opposition, and conquering against the odds in the most spectacular fashion. Romance aside, it is a perfectly crafted short story, packed with the sort of writing that makes it impossible to read aloud without laughing.
If you’ve never read the Clicking of Cuthbert, or want to refresh your memory, you can read the full story (with annotations) at the excellent Madam Eulalie website.
My thanks to Zanyzigzag for permission to reblog another fruity little piece of Plum appreciation while I’m in transit. Much appreciated – and another great read. The Clicking of Cuthbert is close to being the perfect short story.
Seeing as I haven’t written a blog for AGES – not since June, if memory serves – I thought I would post this review I’ve just written for the PGW Society of the Sporting Stories before Bedtime event I went to see last Friday. I will be writing more blogposts again soon, but have rather lost the thread due to being bogged down with dissertation-writing – deadline is in two weeks! *gulp*
Anyway, here it is. I have also included a link to a pdf file of The Clicking of Cuthbert, which Stephen Fry read at the event, so those of you who don’t know the story already can read it now.
Last Friday, rather late in the evening, I tooled off to the Criterion Theatre at Piccadilly Circus to see Sporting Stories before Bedtime, a show that was part of the two-week Playing the Games season put on by the theatre…
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