The qualities which in later years rendered Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw so conspicuous a figure in connection with the now celebrated affair of the European, African, and Asiatic Pork Pie and Ham Sandwich Supply Company frauds, were sufficiently in evidence during his school career to make his masters prophesy gloomily concerning his future. The boy was in every detail the father of the man. There was the same genial unscrupulousness, upon which the judge commented so bitterly during the trial, the same readiness to seize an opportunity and make the most of it, the same brilliance of tactics.
‘Bradshaw’s Little Story’ (Tales of St. Austins)
In my last piece, I mentioned our Wodehouse experts. One place to enjoy the output of these beefy-brained birds is the wonderful website Madam Eulalie’s Rare Plums. The site is dedicated to Plum’s early work, and includes material you won’t find elsewhere. And if you’ve ever wondered what ‘bilge’ means, or the origin of ‘the blushful Hippocrene’, the annotations section will tell you this –and much more.
A recent addition to their collection is the school story, ‘A Shocking Affair’, first published in Tales of St. Austin’s (1903). If you want to read the published works of Wodehouse in chronological order, Tales of St. Austin’s is a great place to start. It’s a collection of school stories, originally published in The Captain and Public School Magazine between 1900-1903 (except ‘A Shocking Affair’, which made its print debut in Tales of St. Austin’s).
If you’ve never read Wodehouse’s writing in this genre, I recommend taking a peep at ‘A Shocking Affair’ for a taste of what to expect. Its central character is that same disreputable antagonist from ‘Bradshaw’s Little Story.’
The Bradshaw who appears in the following tale is the same youth who figures as the hero –or villain, label him as you like – of the preceding equally veracious narrative. I mention this because I should not care for you to go away with the idea that a waistcoat marked with the name of Bradshaw must of necessity cover a scheming heart. It may, however, be noticed that a good many members of the Bradshaw family posses a keen and rather sinister sense of the humorous, inherited doubtless from their great ancestor, the dry wag who wrote that monument of quiet drollery, Bradshaw’s Railway Guide.
A Shocking Affair
Two things about these stories strike me (metaphorically, thank goodness). The first is how good they are (which you can hopefully tell from the quality of the excerpts). Wodehouse often looked askance at his early writing, but there’s no cause for us to do the same. They’re excellent!
In the middle block, at the top of the building, far from the haunts of men, is the Science Museum, containing –so I have heard, I have never been near the place myself—two stuffed rats, a case of mouldering butterflies, and other objects of acute interest. The room has a staircase all to itself, and this was the reason why, directly I heard shouts proceeding from that staircase, I deduced that they came from the Museum. I am like Sherlock Holmes, I don’t mind explaining my methods
A Shocking Affair
The second point, is how early Wodehouse began writing about schemers, rotters and bounders — something he continued to do to the very end. Young Bradshaw with the screwy moral compass might well be considered ‘in every detail the father of the man’ to later characters like Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, Rupert Steggles, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and the Duke of Dunstable. I thoroughly recommend Tales of St. Austin’s, along with Wodehouse’s other works in this genre.
Once you’ve read all the published Wodehouse you can get your hands on, don’t forget to dip into the rare and early works available at Madam Eulalie’s Rare Plums, where Wodehouse experts share the fruits of their labour for our benefit — I cannot say enough good things about them.
Happy reading, all.
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.
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!
‘What’s up with you today?’ he asked.
He could hardly have chosen a worse formula. The question has on most people precisely the same effect as that which the query, ‘Do you know where you lost it?’ has on one who is engaged in looking for mislaid property.
‘Nothing,’ said Reade. Probably at the same moment hundreds of other people were making the same reply, in the same tone of voice, to the same question.
I started reading The Pothunters yesterday. It’s a habit of mine, every so often, to set about re-reading the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse in order of publication, starting with The Pothunters (1902) — his first published novel. Invariably I get distracted from my purpose, somewhere between A Prefect’s Uncle and Love Among the Chickens. Sometimes, it’s the distractions of life. ‘Life!’ as Douglas Adams’ paranoid android Marvin says — ‘Don’t talk to me about life.’
More often it is Wodehouse who distracts me. I pick up The Mating Season or Pigs Have Wings, or possibly Mulliner Nights, in search of a quotation and end up reading the whole thing. Life goes on, time passes, until one day I begin with The Pothunters all over again. Fortunately, it’s a dashed enjoyable book.
I picked it up yesterday in an odd sort of mood. Life has been a bit of strain lately and I’ve been identifying with the aforementioned Marvin more than ever.
‘The first ten million years were the worst,’ said Marvin, ‘and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million years I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.’
Douglas Adams (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
So I turned to Wodehouse, as I often do, as a soothing balm in troubled times.The therapeutic power of great comic writing has long been undervalued by self-appointed literary elites, who look down their noses at ‘light’ fiction, and sneer at those who read for pleasure. Even sensible reviewers and book bloggers often struggle when it comes to reviewing Wodehouse, and other comic writing. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Wodehouse novels ‘reviewed’ with a few sentences along the lines of — ‘I enjoyed it, but as a light comic novel, there isn’t much I can say about it.’ Others stick like glue to Stephen Fry’s view that ‘you don’t analyse such sunlit perfection.’
Is it any wonder that I have these odd moods? There is plenty to be gained from analysing Wodehouse. Why does his writing make us happy? What is is about his world and characters that appeal to us? Are there lessons we can take from his writing to make the world a better place? What can emerging writers learn from Wodehouse — so that his legacy extends to include future generations of writers who bring sunshine into our souls?
It’s all part of the Plumtopian vision — to inhabit a world where the healing balm of Wodehouse is liberally applied.
She melted quite perceptibly. She did not cease to look like a basilisk, but she began to look like a basilisk who has had a good lunch.
The Girl on the Boat
Reginald, mark you, whose normal batting style was a sort of cross between hop-scotch, diabolo, and a man with gout in one leg trying to dance the Salomé Dance.
Reginald’s Record Knock
‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in 1909. When I encountered the story in Murray Hedgcock’s excellent collection Wodehouse at the Wicket (1997), it instantly struck a chord. You see, my first love, long before I discovered P.G. Wodehouse, was cricket. When I was young, my parents would drop me at the Adelaide Oval (they having no interest in the game) where I would spend the day watching cricket and keeping score in a little notebook. My greatest wish was to play professional cricket, but tragically, like Reginald Humby, I was an indifferent cricketer:
‘When a boy at school he once made nine not out in a house match, but after that he went all to pieces. His adult cricket career was on the one-match one-ball principle. Whether it was that Reginald hit too soon at them or did not hit soon enough, whether it was that his bat deviated from the dotted line which joined the two points A and B in the illustrated plate of the man making the forward stroke in the ‘Hints on Cricket’ book, or whether it was that each ball swerved both ways at once and broke a yard and a quarter, I do not know. Reginald rather favoured the last theory.’
Unlike Reginald, who we shall return to anon, my story is a painful one. As a young girl in 1970s Australia, finding an opportunity to play cricket was challenge enough. I joined the school team of course, but was never allowed to bat or bowl in the nets at practice. My duties were restricted to fetching wayward balls. My name was usually omitted when the weekly team notice was posted, although occasionally I was named 12th and my parents would drop me at some far-flung suburban ground to spend a day watching others play.
I was named in the first eleven once, when an outbreak of cholera or dengue fever gave the coach no other choice. He put me at the bottom of the batting order and sent me to field in the car park, where I could not adequately return the ball. To my lasting shame, I also dropped a catch. Wodehouse knew this feeling, which he described in the poem ‘Missed’:
Oh ne’er, if I live to a million,
Shall I feel such a terrible pang.
From the seats in the far-off pavilion
A loud yell of ecstasy rang.
By the handful my hair (which is auburn)
I tore with a wrench from my thatch,
And my heart was seared deep with a raw burn
At the thought that I’d foozled that catch.
Missed (1903) (Full text at www.madameulalie.org)
Batting last, I made four not out in the last two desperate overs of our innings, but my poor showing in the field reinforced the coach’s prejudices and I was never picked again.
As a young woman, no longer dependent on the benevolence of adults, I worked hard to learn the game with the assistance of talented cricketing friends. When no friend was to hand, I spent hours alone in the local nets, bowling at an empty wicket. I played indoor cricket several times a week, wrote match reports for a newsletter, and enjoyed every opportunity for a social game. As a bowler, I developed a knack for ousting over-confident batsmen. Their faces would light up like a child’s at Christmas when I came on to bowl, for in addition to being a girl, I was also short, pudgy and wobble-breasted. The decent players would pretend not to have noticed, but more ordinary batsmen looked on me as their big chance – like Wodehouse’s Reginald when he discovers Blagdon is bowling.
The sight sent a thrill through Reginald. He had seen Blagdon bowl at the nets, but he had never dared to hope that he might bat against him in a match. Exigencies of space forbid a detailed description of Blagdon’s bowling. Suffice to say that it was a shade inferior as bowling to Reginald’s batting as batting.
And later, when Reginald faces Westaway:
Scarcely had Reginald recovered from the pleasurable shock of finding Blagdon bowling at one end when he was amazed to find that Westaway was bowling at the other. Critics had often wrangled warmly as to the comparative merits of Blagdon and Westaway as bowlers; some thought that Blagdon had it, others that Westaway was the more putrid of the two; a third party called it a dead heat.
The prospect of my bowling evoked similar joy in opposing batsmen. Even before my first ball, hitherto unpromising players would be seen scoping-out gaps in the field and practicing hook shots in the air. By the time I waddled up to release my ball (which I insisted was medium pace, however slow the act of delivery appeared) the batsman would have invariably run out of patience and danced up the pitch to meet the anticipated long-hop or full toss he had mentally prepared to score off. I was wise to this and never pitched short. The over-confident amateur would find himself stranded a long way from home with no time to make alternative plans for unexpected deliveries. Every wicket claimed felt like a great triumph.
In describing Reginald Humby’s emotions on the occasion of his unexpected century, Wodehouse shows us the depth of human feeling he was capable of bunging into his art.
The ordinary batsman, whose average always pans out at the end of the season between the twenties and the thirties, does not understand the whirl of mixed sensations which the really incompetent cricketer experiences on the rare occasions when he does notch a few. As ball follows ball, and he does not get out, a wild exhilaration surges through him, followed by a sort of awe as if he were doing something wrong, even irreligious. Then all these yeasty emotions subside, and are blended into one glorious sensation of grandeur and majesty, as of a giant among pygmies.
Buoyed by minor successes with the ball, I decided to join a cricket club, where I was permitted to carry the drinks and keep score for F Grade (or perhaps it was Q grade). It was a starting point, and the players welcomed me, a 19 year old girl with limited cricketing experience, more warmly than I expected. A little too warmly in fact. It became quickly and painfully clear that they did not take my interest in playing cricket seriously — I was considered something of a groupie, ‘hanging around’ the team presumably in order to bed them.
The team in question were arguably the most unattractive assortment of male specimens ever gathered together on a field; lecherous gout-ridden has-beens, beer swilling could-have-beens, and arrogant thought-they-weres. The only player whose personality would not make his own grandmother wince was the wicket-keeper, who was permanently stoned. Their collective lack of hygiene and inability to keep whites white (members opting instead for a shade of fungal yellow to match their teeth) would have repelled even the staunchest admirer. The idea that I would set my heart on bedding a team of cricketers is insulting; that I would then proceed to select this bunch of degenerates, is astonishing. And yet, this deluded idea they undoubtedly had.
Encountered on the field, they would have given Wodehouse’s Psmith, always sensitive to vulgarity, a shock from which he might not have recovered. As he confessed to Mike:
The last time I played in a village cricket team match I was caught at point by a man in braces. It would have been madness to risk another such shock to my system. My nerves are so exquisitely balanced that a thing of that sort takes years off my life.
Mike and Psmith (1909)
If our team had contained a man in braces, it would have raised the tone considerably and helped draw the eye away from the fungal yellows.
It has now been over twenty years since I played the game and reading Wodehouse on cricket is the closest I get to capturing the enthusiasm I once held for it. Every so often I grow wistful and think about returning to the game, but if the chaps couldn’t accommodate me in my prime, they’re unlikely to indulge me in flabby middle-age. Women do play cricket these days – and good luck to them – but women’s cricket is highly competitive, for skilled and serious athletes. There is no tradition of laid-back social cricket, where women of advanced years and limited ability can combine their love for the game with a long lunch break and a few pints — like Reginald Humby’s club, The Hearty Lunchers.
They belong to the school of thought which holds that the beauty of cricket is that, above all other games, it offers such magnificent opportunities for a long drink and a smoke in the shade. The Hearty Lunchers do not take their cricket in that spirit of deadly and business-like earnest which so many people consider is spoiling the game.
A Hearty Luncher who has been given out caught at the wicket does not explain on arriving at the pavilion that he was nowhere near the ball, and that the umpire has had a personal grudge against him since boyhood. No, he sinks into a deck chair, removes his pads, and remarks that if anyone was thinking of buying him a stone ginger with the merest dash of gin in it, now is his time.
The Hearty Lunchers don’t mind that Reginald can’t bat, they make room for him anyway, giving ‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ a special place in my heart.
In a wonderful twist, Reginald’s betrothed Margaret Melville is also revealed as a cricket lover who plays in ladies matches. Wodehouse depicts her enthusiasm for the game as genuine, perfectly natural – even admirable. Nothing sordid or unseemly is suggested when we learn Margaret regularly attends the Chigley Heath matches, with a crowd ‘…mainly composed of small boys and octogenarians…’ The fact that Margaret plays in ladies matches also suggests the presence of other lady cricketers — some 17 years before England had a Women’s Cricket Association. Once again it’s worth observing that Wodehouse’s ‘treatment’ of women betters not only his contemporaries, but often our own.
While writing this piece has brought back some painful memories, Wodehouse provides balm for such wounds. Returning to the poem ‘Missed’:
Ah, the bowler’s low, querulous mutter
Points loud, unforgettable scoff!
Oh, give me my driver and putter!
Henceforward my game shall be golf.
If I’m asked to play cricket hereafter,
I am wholly determined to scratch.
Life’s void of all pleasure and laughter;
I bungled the easiest catch.
The world of cricket may have lost me, but perhaps it’s not too late to try my hand at golf.
I confess I have a soft spot for the romantic Bingo Little. When we first meet him in The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie warns us about his habit of falling in love.
Ever since I have known him – and we were at school together – he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time; and at Oxford his romantic nature was a byword.
The first of Bingo’s romances to be chronicled by Bertram Wooster involves a Mabel, a waitress in a tea-and-bun shop. Described by Bertie as ‘rather a pretty girl’, Mabel attracts the attention of both Bingo and Jeeves. At the end of the proceedings, she and Jeeves have ‘an understanding’.
We know very little about Mabel, except that she has dubious taste in gents neck wear, having given Bingo a crimson satin tie covered in horseshoes. This may explain why we hear no more about her as the potential Mrs Jeeves. But Mabel must have been more than a pretty face to have attracted Jeeves to the point of ‘an understanding’. What is her story, I wonder?
If you’ll permit me to speculate, I imagine Mabel as a country girl in former service at a large house, who has come to London in search of something better – work, romance, adventure? The dashing young Bingo appears to have impressed her, but Jeeves orchestrates an end to his rival’s hopes. How did her affair with Jeeves end? Did Jeeves later revise his opinion of Mabel as an suitable partner (as he seems to have done with her predecessor)? It is difficult to imagine him wedded to a woman with dubious taste in menswear. Jeeves could certainly have contrived circumstances so that Mabel would cancel the fixture, but it would hardly be to his credit to do so twice. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it is Mabel who ends the affair.
Why does Mabel cast Jeeves aside, then? Perhaps she is keen to travel – to establish herself on the New York stage, or ingratiate herself with a rich Australian Uncle? Or does the pretty waitress become embroiled in a new love triangle, in which Jeeves loses out to someone more dashing, less stuffy, or socially well-connected? It’s all very well for Bingo’s uncle and Rosie M. Banks, who are both rolling in the stuff, to cast aside outdated class snobbery in favour of marrying for love – but neither of them have had to support themselves in London on a waitress’s salary.
I’d like to think of Mabel as having intellectual qualities we didn’t see in her brief appearance in The Inimitable Jeeves, but there is little evidence to suggest this from our brief encounter with her:
‘Hallo, Mabel!’ he said, with a sort of gulp.
‘Hallo!’ said the girl.
‘Mabel,’ said Bingo, ‘this is Bertie Wooster, a pal of mine.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said. ‘Nice morning.’
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘You see I’m wearing the tie,’ said Bingo.
‘It suits you beautiful,’ said the girl.
And this is it. Our brief encounter with Mabel, the waitress, is at an end.
We wish her well.
The struggle between Prater’s cat and Prater’s cat’s conscience was short, and ended in the hollowest of victories for the former. The conscience really had no sort of chance from the beginning.
The Tabby Terror (1902) published in Tales of St Austin’s (1903)
P.G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were devoted animal lovers who donated generously to establish the Long Island Bide-a-Wee animal sanctuary. But Wodehouse was not above casting the occasional cat as chief miscreant when it suited him.
His black heart was hidden by a sleek coat of tabby fur, which rendered stroking a luxury. His scheming brain was out of sight in a shapely head.
The Tabby Terror
I was attacked in my own kitchen by a not dissimilar animal, this very a.m – a large, Churchillian beast with a decidedly high opinion of himself. He insisted upon the best chair from the moment of his arrival, and I expect will soon take to smoking cigars. Mr Mulliner outlines the attitude nicely in The Story of Webster:
Cats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods.
The Story of Webster inMulliner Nights (1933)
My nominee for Most Fiendish Exhibit in the Wodehouse Cat Show must surely be Percy, from the stable of Mrs Pulteney-Banks. He appears in another story from the same volume, which leads one to wonder if Wodehouse had some cat troubles of his own at the time.
(H)e was pure poison. Orange of body and inky black of soul, he lay stretched out on the rug, exuding arrogance and hate… One could picture him stealing milk from a sick tabby.
Cats Will Be Cats in Mulliner Nights (1933)
Fortunately for the Mulliners, the cat Webster is on hand to dispose of Percy, for it is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Few mortals succeed in their efforts to outwit a Wodehousian cat, though many fools have tried:
At tea on the following evening the first really serious engagement of the campaign took place. The cat strolled into the team room in the patronising way characteristic of his kind, but was heavily shelled with lump sugar, and beat a rapid retreat… From that moment its paw was against every man, and the tale of the things it stole is too terrible to relate in detail. Like Death in the poem, it knocked at the doors of the highest and the lowest alike. Or rather, it did not exactly knock. It came in without knocking.
The Tabby Terror
A friendly war between species is one thing. Almost natural you might say, especially when careless authors start throwing cats, boys and sardines together. But Wodehouse takes a firm stance on anyone who oversteps the mark. Our sympathies can never rest easily with The Man Who Disliked Cats, who begins by flinging them about hotels, and works his way up to having them destroyed. He fails, loses the girl, and becomes a mere shadow of his former self.
He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle; of one whom the clenched fist of Fate has smitten beneath the temperamental third waistcoat button.
The Man Who Disliked Cats in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories (1914)
And on that note, I must go. The malevolent feline of my household, of whom I spoke earlier, has returned and is giving me a meaningful eye. I’m sitting in his chair – and the consequences of thwarting this dictatorial example of his species are more than I can bare.
This piece is dedicated to my beloved cat Terry who recently passed away, leaving a huge hole in our hearts – and a cold spot on my pillow where a little cat used to be.