The Blog ‘Classically Educated’, which offers itself as ‘A Place for Global Citizens and Polymaths’, recently recommended ‘Three Unconventional Roads to Wodehouse’ – a welcome addition to this subject.
One of my great regrets in life is not having put in the necessary mental spadework to develop my potential as a polymath. My mental faculties are sound – perhaps not genius material, but my mother (like Bertie Wooster’s) thought me bright. And I’m genuinely interested in knowing, well… everything! It’s not a question of prestige, or being good at quiz nights — I just hate to be ignorant.
But life is stern and life is earnest. The necessary toil which consumes one’s fertile thinking hours, also has a tendency to sap ambition. This, along with the inevitable distractions of everyday life, have kept me from developing the old bean to any laudable extent. At this late stage, the best I can reasonably hope for is to become a unimath (if that’s a word, Jeeves), although my areas of current expertise are deplorably limited.
Even on the subject of P.G. Wodehouse, his life and work, I am an enthusiast rather than an expert. I have read (and re-read) his published works, as well as biographies and other works written about him — well over 100 volumes in total. This puts me in the excellent company of hundreds of genial souls around the globe — I am honoured and delighted to be among them. But the experts in our community take their devotion to another level, dedicating long hours to scholarly research to uncover new information (including undiscovered works) for our benefit. I tip my hat to them!
But for the Polymath – or indeed anyone else — looking to extend their reading into the realm of Wodehouse, I feel sufficiently qualified to offer informed advice without making an ass of myself. Indeed, I have already done so.
It always interests me to read others’ recommendations, and I’ve revised my own ideas on the subject many times. There is no wrong way to read Wodehouse, expect perhaps upside-down.
I’m now following this polymath blog in a last-ditch attempt to attain wisdom. Wish me luck!
Mention PG Wodehouse in a conversation and most people will immediately think of Jeeves and Wooster. That’s partly due to the success of the books and stories, but, I suspect, mostly because of the various film and TV adaptations. Of course, the one with Hugh Laurie as Wooster utterly deserves to have that notoriety.
But there is more to Wodehouse than the butler and his hapless gentleman. No less a writer (and polymath) than Isaac Asimov said that Wodehouse, on a sentence level, is one of the three greatest writers in the English language (the other two, if memory serves, being Austen and Dickens).
People often scoff at that, of course. A mere humorist upstaging countless numbers of earnest, serious writers, some of whom are even politically committed? Blasphemy. My answer to that is simple: pick up any of Wodehouse’s books, turn to a random page, and read any sentence…
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Ionicus was the pen name of illustrator Joshua Armitage, whose work featured in Punch, and almost 400 books, in the course of a long career. He is perhaps best known as the illustrator of 58 Penguin paperback editions of P.G. Wodehouse’s work. Although Ionicus and Wodehouse never met, his drawings show a genuine affinity for the Wodehouse material.
The excellent ‘Ionicus and the Art of Wodehouse’ blog delves into the Ionicus Wodehouse editions in more detail. The most recent piece looks at the covers of ‘Eggs, Beans and Crumpets’ and ‘Cocktail Time’ – both are classics. If you are particularly partial to the Ionicus editions (like me) it’s a blog I heartily recommend reading.
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.
from: Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935)
So too, my own father has looked with a somewhat jaundiced eye on my enthusiasm for Wodehouse. For I made the mistake, many years ago, of introducing him to Wodehouse without first taking the time to consider what Jeeves refers to as the ‘Psychology of the individual’. I simply grabbed a book from my shelf at random and shoved it at him with hearty confidence.
The book in question was The Little Nugget (1913). It’s one of Wodehouse’s earlier novels and few people would rank it among his best, but I’m fond of it and had no inkling that it would fail to grip dear old Pa. But grip it didn’t. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t touched Wodehouse again, but with this experience now in the distant past, I feel the time is ripe to try again.
With well over 100 books by or about Wodehouse to choose from, if you’re looking for a Father’s Day gift for your Dad, whether he’s new to Wodehouse or already a fan, there’s plenty to choose from.
Here are five suggestions to get you started.
1. The Clicking of Cuthbert
Sporting gifts for Dad is one of the commercialised world’s biggest clichés, but if your sports-loving Dad has a sense of humour, this collection of golf stories is a terrific choice. Wodehouse enjoyed golf and his affection for the game shines through in these stories, which are among the best he ever wrote. No understanding of golf is required.
George Perkins, as he addressed the ball for the vital stroke, manifestly wobbled. He was scared to the depths of his craven soul. He tried to pray, but all he could remember was the hymn for those in peril on the deep, into which category, he feared, his ball would shortly fall. Breathing a few bars of this, he swung.
From: The Rough Stuff in The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922)
2. The Inimitable Jeeves
The Inimitable Jeeves makes a great introduction to Wodehouse and the Jeeves and Wooster stories. It’s a collection of connected stories rather than a traditional novel, making it a good choice for busy Dads, or those with a short attention span. I particularly recommend the short stories to commuters – they’re an ideal length and will put a spring your step for the rest of the day.
I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
From: The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)
3. Uncle Fred in the Springtime
If your Dad is a genial old soul who enjoys reminiscing about his youth with a twinkle in his eye, try a dash of Uncle Fred. But be warned, Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred doesn’t just reminisce. He acts on his impulses, especially when Pongo’s Aunt Jane isn’t looking. In Uncle Fred in the Springtime, he and his long-suffering nephew visit Blandings Castle as imposters (there are wheels within wheels). And while being Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham, might save our hero from prosecution if his identity is revealed, it won’t save him from Aunt Jane.
‘Don’t blame me, Pongo,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘if Lady Constance takes her lorgnette to you. God bless my soul, though, you can’t compare the lorgnettes of to-day with the ones I used to know as a boy. I remember walking one day in Grosvenor Square with my aunt Brenda and her pug dog Jabberwocky, and a policeman came up and said the latter ought to be wearing a muzzle. My aunt made no verbal reply. She merely whipped her lorgnette from its holster and looked at the man, who gave one choking gasp and fell back against the railings, without a mark on him but with an awful look of horror in his staring eyes, as if he had seen some dreadful sight. A doctor was sent for, and they managed to bring him round, but he was never the same again. He had to leave the Force, and eventually drifted into the grocery business. And that is how Sir Thomas Lipton got his start.
From: Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939)
4. Bring on the Girls
If your Dad enjoys Wodehouse’s fiction, I strongly recommend this biographical volume by Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, Bring on the Girls: The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy, with Pictures to Prove it. The Broadway musicals of Wodehouse, Bolton and Jerome Kern were enormously successful (2017 marks the centenary of Wodehouse having five original productions on Broadway) and Wodehouse and Bolton became lifelong friends. Bring on the Girls is a highly entertaining account of their career, written with the same panache you’d expect of any Wodehouse work.
At the outset it would have seemed that conditions for an early meeting were just right. Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, England, and almost simultaneously Bolton was added to the strength of Broxbourne, Herts. As the crow flies, Guildford and Broxbourne are not much more than twenty miles apart, and it is quite possible that the two infants, destined to collaborate for forty years, may often have seen the same crow engaged in checking the distance.
From: Bring On The Girls (1953)
For my own Dad, I’ve selected Ukridge. It’s a controversial choice perhaps, as Ukridge is one of Wodehouse’s most divisive characters. He is certainly a scoundrel who abuses the bonds of family and friendship, but he goes about his business with a hearty, almost infectious optimism – the big, broad, flexible outlook, he calls it. And Wodehouse’s joyous narration may appeal to anyone who has been repeatedly ‘touched for a fiver’ by an acquaintance lacking in both shame and moral compass. Wodehouse knew the feeling I suspect (Ukridge was inspired by a real person). He presumably made good on his ‘investment’ in the creation of Ukridge.
If the leading incidents of S.F. Ukridge’s disreputable career are to be given to the public – and not, as some might suggest, decently hushed up – I suppose I am the man to write them.
Finally, for the Wodehouse-loving Father who has almost everything, the Wodehouse expert and collector Tony Ring has recently parted with some rare gems from his collection, and these are available for sale from Noel Pearson’s Rare Books.
These are a few of my suggestions. What about yours?
Dads — please tell us what’s on your Wodehouse wish-list.
Happy reading and cheers to all Fathers, including my own!
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.