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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.
It’s a pretty special week for P.G. Wodehouse fans. June 26th will mark 100 years since the first Blandings story, Something Fresh, was serialised in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’. It was published in book form later that year (in the U.S. as Something New).
If Wodehouse had not gone on to write more Blandings stories, Something Fresh would be highly-regarded as a fine comic novel. Aside from the memorable central romance between detective fiction writer Ashe Marson and the enterprising Joan Valentine, Wodehouse gives us all the subplots and subterfuge we expect from a Blandings adventure.
And as the work that introduced characters like Lord Emsworth, Freddie Threepwood, Rupert Baxter, and Beach, Something Fresh holds a special place in many Wodehouse lovers’ hearts. It’s one of the books I often return to. The title Something Fresh seems particularly apt because the story leaps from the page, as fresh to me as when I first read it over twenty years ago.
To say that Baxter’s heart stood still would be medically inexact. The heart does not stand still. Whatever the emotions of its owner, it goes on beating. It would be more accurate to say that Baxter felt like a man taking his first ride in an express elevator who has outstripped his vital organs by several floors and sees no immediate prospect of their ever catching up with him again.
It might equally have been titled ‘Something Special’ because there is an extra ‘something’ in this novel that arguably marked a turning point in his work. Perhaps there’s an added injection of happiness in there too — it was while writing Something Fresh that P.G. Wodehouse met and married Ethel Wayman.
He recalls this time in his Preface to a later penguin edition:
Half-way through it I got married (and have been ever since) to an angel in human form who had seventy-five dollars. As I had managed to save fifty, we were fairly well fixed financially, but we felt we could do with a bit more, and by what I have always looked on as a major miracle we got it. My agent, who must have been an optimist to end all optimists, sent the story to the Saturday Evening Post and George Horace Lorimer, its world famous editor, bought it as a serial and paid me the stupefying sum of $3,500 for it, at that time the equivalent of seven hundred gleaming golden sovereigns. I was stunned. I had always known in a vague sort of way that there was money like $3,500 in the world, but I had never expected to touch it. If I was a hundred bucks ahead of the game in those days, I thought I was doing well.
After an already impressive early career, P.G. Wodehouse had arrived!
For a full and informed review of Something Fresh, I recommend the excellent Bully — one of the first and best Wodehouse related blogs. It contains plot-spoilers, so you may prefer to read Something Fresh first.
Finally, a reminder.
It’s not too late to enter my fabulous competition: win a copy of 2015 Wodehouse prize winner ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ by Alexander McCall Smith.
To enter, just read my previous post respond with your answer to the question: Who is your favourite large/fat/generously proportioned Wodehouse character and why?
Competition closes July 12th 2015
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!
This piece began as a story about my search for Sebastian Faulks’ new book ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’ in my local bookshop. With the giddy excitement of a school girl, I had rushed forth to purchase my copy, but found things less straightforward than expected. The book was not filed under ‘F’ for Faulks as is, I believe, customary. Nor was it among the new releases. But after some first rate detective work, and much tut-tutting under the breath, I discovered the bally thing in the ‘humour section’, under ‘W’, next to Wodehouse.
I greatly dislike finding Wodehouse in the ‘humour section’, filed among the joke books, cartoons, mediocre comedy memoirs, and other bilge produced purely as a money-making exercise. P.G. Wodehouse was an exceptional writer, widely acknowledged as one of the best, who more than earns his place on the shelf between Winton and Wolfe. I’ve never read anything else by Faulks, but I believe he deserves the same courtesy.
Sebastian Faulks is a living – even youngish – modern writer. In his thoughtful introduction, Faulks tells us he is a Wodehouse fan and explains his reasons for not attempting ‘too close an imitation’ of the original. He also echoes the view of many Wodehouse’s enthusiasts in wanting to introduce Wodehouse to a younger audience. These comments gave me cause for great anxiety about the work to follow, because I had heard them before, not so long ago….
Cast your mind back, if you will, to January 2013. I was giddyish with excitement yet again, leaping about in my chair like a breaching whale, as the long-awaited first episode of the BBC’s Blandings series went to air. There was every reason be hopeful, after two excellent Wodehouse adaptations in the 1990s (Fry and Laurie’s ‘Jeeves and Wooster‘ series, and the 1995 BBC telemovie Heavy Weather), as well as the much-loved 1970s Wodehouse Playhouse with John Alderton and Pauline Collins. When you have such great original material as Wodehouse to work with, it’s surely hard to go wrong.
Unless, of course, you decide that Wodehouse needs a bit of ‘freshening up’ for a younger, modern audience.
I’m not sure who this modern target audience includes, but if the 2013 Blandings series is an indication, it doesn’t include Wodehouse fans. Within five minutes, my hopes were shattered. After ten minutes, I turned off (actually, I popped the 1995 Heavy Weather television movie on instead). Over the coming weeks, the Wodehouse forum I frequent online was inundated by the similarly disappointed. Blandings wasn’t Wodehouse – it fell flat, and has unfortunately confirmed some people’s erroneous impressions of Wodehouse as a trivial writer of upper class twits. I’m yet to come across anyone who has discovered the joy of reading Wodehouse through this series.
It pains me to disagree with Faulks or anyone else wanting to spread the joy of Wodehouse, but I believe this policy of adapting Wodehouse for a younger audiences is misguided.
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Wodehouse has a healthy following among young readers. They may not be as visible or as well known as the more eminent members of our fraternity, but they’re out there, raiding the bookshelves of friends, relations, libraries and booksellers, and quietly getting on with the job of reading them.
In researching this piece, I posted a question to members of the very active Wodehouse fan group in Facebook. Within the first half hour, I received more than twenty enthusiastic replies from young Wodehouse fans. Many had been introduced to Wodehouse early in life by their Wodehouse loving families. The thread quickly expanded, with replies from more young readers, as well as wonderful reminiscences from older readers, recalling how their love of Wodehouse began at a tender age – although nothing beats the delight of an older person discovering Wodehouse for the first time. The Facebook fan page is a terrific forum, connecting readers of all ages from around the globe. Age is irrelevant. We are all joined in happy union by our love of Plum.
But perhaps my biggest objection to this mania for young audiences is the personal slight. It implies there is something slightly amiss with us – Wodehouse’s dedicated, but slightly crustier fans. The ‘oldest members’ among our ranks are critically important and should not be passed over. Many give generously of their time to help other readers understand Wodehouse’s many references, quotations and cultural elements that would otherwise be lost to us. Projects such as the Wodehouse annotations are critically important.
There is nothing to be gained – and much to lose – by continuing to overlook, disappoint and take for granted P.G. Wodehouse’s loyal readers in the quest for finding new ones.
If the stories coming through to me on Facebook tonight (almost 50 of them now) are any indication, when it comes to introducing Wodehouse to new readers, it is the fans who are putting in the bulk of the spadework, spreading largess to friends and family in our wake. We deserve better than Blandings – and so do potential new readers.
But we Plum lovers are also an obliging sort, always happy to indulge the next effort with an open mind, which brings me back to where I started – with Faulks’ introductory remarks. It is time to stop speculating, and start enjoying Jeeves And The Wedding Bells. I’ve taken a blow, but my hopes are not dashed.
It is commonly understood that, far from representing a bygone age, P.G. Wodehouse created an idealised England that never really existed. Personally, I remain determined to find fragments of Wodehouse in reallife, and last October I immigrated to England in search of Plumtopia.
I arrived in time for a glorious Autumn – my favourite season. Surprisingly, Wodehouse sets only one novel in Autumn (that I can recall).
I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.
‘Good evening, Jeeves,’
‘Good morning, sir’
This surprised me.
‘Is it morning?’
‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’
‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Season of what?’
‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’
The Code of the Woosters (1938)
After a stunning Autumn – mellow and fruitful as advertised – the English Spring of 2013 has been disappointing by comparison, especially when Wodehouse’s Spring promises so much:
‘In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnish’d dove.’
So says Bertie Wooster, with a little help from Tennyson, in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) in a story originally published in The Strand magazine as Jeeves in the Springtime (1921). It is among his finest and best loved.
‘I don’t know if you know that sort of feeling you get on these days around the end of April and the beginning of May, when the sky’s a light blue, with cotton-wool clouds, and there’s a bit of a breeze blowing from the west? Kind of uplifted feeling. Romantic, if you know what I mean. 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.’
Earlier, Wodehouse had contributed lyrics for the Broadway musical Miss Springtime (1916) and continued the spring motif with novels Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) and Spring Fever (1948). In his other work,Spring is arguably the default climate.
The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town. Out in Piccadily its heartening warmth seemed to infuse into traffic and pedestrians alike a novel jauntiness, so that bus-drivers jested and even the lips of chauffeurs uncurled into not unkindly smiles. Policemen whistled at their posts, clerks on their way to work, beggars approached the task of trying to persuade perfect strangers to bear the burden of their maintenance with that optimistic vim which makes all the difference. It was one of those happy mornings.
Something Fresh (1915)
This passage neatly expresses a kind of shared joviality that I’ve witnessed in England, when the sun blesses us unexpectedly on a Spring morning.
In Blandings it’s always Spring – with the Shropshire Agricultural Show keenly anticipated – or else it’s Summer. Leave it to Psmith (1923) begins precisely on ‘…June the thirtieth, which is the very high-tide time of summer flowers’, and the cast return (without Psmith) in Summer Lightning (1929). In Pigs Have Wings (1952) the ‘sultry summer’ heat prevents Maudie Stubbs from walking over to Matchingham Hall to settle a grievance with Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe.
Beyond Blandings, Wodehouse gave us Summer Moonshine (1937), and in Right-Ho Jeeves (1934) Bertie tells us it is ‘July twenty-fifth’ when he returns from a trip to Cannes ‘looking bronzed and fit’. Although we can’t always be sure of the season it’s clear that Wodehouse, unlike the great Russian novelists, prefers to bask his characters in sunshine and light.
In The Mating Season (1949) for example, Bertie must catch a 2.45am Milk Train and hides in the shrubbery outside The Larches, Wimbledon Common to intercept the morning post. He complains bitterly about his experience, not least the beetles down his back, but his author resists the literary tradition of meteorological symbolism.
Though howling hurricanes and driving rainstorms would have been a more suitable accompaniment to the run of the action, the morning – or morn , if you prefer to string along with Aunt Charlotte – was bright and fair. My nervous system was seriously disordered, and one of God’s less likeable creatures with about a hundred and fourteen legs had crawled down the back of my neck and was doing its daily dozen on the sensitive skin, but did Nature care? Not a hoot. The sky continued blue, and the fat-headed sun which I have mentioned shone smilingly throughout.
Even in trying of circumstances, the V-shaped depressions are usually metaphorical.
If somebody had told Frederick Fitch-Fitch at that moment that even now a V-shaped depression was coming along which would shortly blacken the skies and lower the general temperature to freezing-point, he would not have believed him.
Romance at Droitgate Spa (1937) published in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (1940)
Of winter, I can find very little. There is Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit (December 1927), and a poem The Cricketer in Winter:
Now, as incessantly it pours,
And each succeeding day seems bleaker,
The cricketer remains indoors,
And quaffs mayhap the warming beaker.
Without, the scrummage heaves and slips;
Not his to play the muddied oaf. A
Well-seasoned pipe between his lips,
He reads his Wisden on the sofa.
Perhaps this last extract best explains Plum’s fondness for the warmer, sporting months when school is out and there’s cricket, tennis and golf to be played. So many of Wodehouse’s best scenes occur outside – it’s little wonder he chose not to limit his characters to rainy days indoors.
But how wonderful it would be to have a peep into Wodehouse’s world all year round.
Henry glanced hastily at the mirror. Yes, he did look rather old. He must have overdone some of the lines on his forehead. He looked something between a youngish centenarian and a nonagenarian who had seen a good deal of trouble.
The Man with Two Left Feet (1917)
I feel much like Henry did, as I glance in the mirror to inspect the remains of my former self on the eve of what I’ll just call a ‘significant’ birthday. But I shall resist the urge to impersonate the great Russian novelists, and reflect instead upon some of my favourite Wodehouse moments. I have selected five favourite novels to share, representing one for each completed decade, and one for the future. I do hope you will indulge me.
My first selection is a school story, published in magazine (The Captain) and book format under various aliases including Mike, The Lost Lambs and Enter Psmith. My copy is entitled Mike and Psmith and despite my disinclination for the genre, I’ve read it over 20 times and it never fails to grip. It also introduces my favourite of all Wodehouse heroes – a specimen so close to my ideal man it’s as though I’d drawn up the specifications myself. His comrades call him Psmith. The P is silent, as in Pshrimp.
A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.
“Hullo,” he said. He spoke in a tired voice.
Mike and Psmith (1908)
If forced at knifepoint to select my favourite Wodehouse work, I would chose Leave it to Psmith. Most critics would agree that, in 1923, Wodehouse’s greatest writing was still ahead of him, but Leave it to Psmith holds a special place in my heart for delivering Psmith (in his last appearance) to Blandings Castle – under an alias of course – to match wits with The Efficient Baxter.
“I don’t like poets as a rule. But this fellow’s so different from the other poets I’ve met. Different altogether. And,” said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, “I strongly object to Baxter throwing flower-pots at him. I won’t have Baxter throwing flower-pots at my guests,” he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
It is impossible to overlook the priceless characters and concatenations of Jeeves and Wooster, but making a choice is very difficult. The Inimitable Jeeves well deserves its place as a classic, and I recommend it as an excellent starting place for anyone looking to discover Wodehouse. With much difficulty, I have opted for The Mating Season, which sees Bertie impersonating Gussie Fink-Nottle at Deverill Hall, home of Esmond Haddock and his five aunts.
On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter but the courage which one brings to them, I pulled myself together.
The Mating Season (1940)
Every line of the Mating Season is a perfect slice of Wodehouse, every scene as fresh and snappy as the first time read. I have attempted several times to read aloud the chapter describing the village concert, but it always reduces me to an inaudible hysteria. The concert begins with the Rev. Sidney Pirbright, Uncle to Corky and Catsmeat, who is described as “(a) tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…” Every act that follows is sheer delight.
Unlike her sister Muriel, who had resembled a Criterion barmaid of the old school, Poppy Kegley-Bassington was long and dark and supple, with a sinuous figure suggestive of a snake with hips; one of those girls who do rhythmic dances at the drop of a hat and can be dissuaded from doing them only with a meat-axe.
The Mating Season
And there are few things in this life that please me as much as the Pat and Mike knockabout cross-talk act of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. As well as the book, I can thoroughly recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil, a consummate professional who reads without hysterics.
I have not touched upon the delights of Ukridge, Mulliner or the Oldest Member, but they are not forgotten; The Clicking of Cuthbert is surely one of the finest short stories in our language. But I am compelled to select, as my fourth choice, The Girl on the Boat. It opens with the strong-willed theosophist author Mrs Horace Hignett, who pinches her son’s trousers to prevent his elopement with Wilhelmina Bennett. And a good thing too, for it frees young Eustace to be wooed by the admirable Jane Hubbard (my favourite of all Wodehouse heroines).
…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…
“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 began 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.”
“Oh, it’s just a knack,” said Jane, carelessly. “You soon pick it up.”
“It ruined them unfortunately. They were never any use again. For the rest of the trip I had to manicure myself with a hunting spear.”
The Girl on The Boat (1921)
Although the romance of Eustace and Jane is not the central affair of The Girl on the Boat, theirs is perhaps my favourite of all Wodehouse couplings. They were marvelously portrayed by Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in a 1962 film adaptation in which they were (as in the book) far more interesting than the leading lovers. The film itself is worth watching, despite some inexcusable departures from the original – much funnier – plot.
To close, we return to my spiritual fictional home of Blandings Castle. I love every word of the Blandings saga and choosing a favourite is impossible, but I offer Heavy Weather for inclusion here because the 1995 television adaptation is my favourite Wodehouse adaptation (with Richard Briers again, this time as Galahad). I shall entertain no criticisms of Peter O’Toole’s performance of Lord Emsworth.
As Heavy Weather closes, we share with the Empress in a state of simple, wholesome contentment that epitomises the Plumtopian ideal – and kind of relaxed mental state I would do well to emulate on the eve of my ‘significant’ birthday.
Empress of Blandings stirred in her sleep and opened an eye. She thought she had heard the rustle of a cabbage-leaf, and she was always ready for cabbage-leaves, no matter how advanced the hour. Something came bowling across the straw, driven by the night breeze.
It was not a cabbage-leaf, only a sheet of paper with writing on it, but she ate it with no sense of disappointment. She was a philosopher and could take things as they came. Tomorrow was another day, and there would be cabbage-leaves in the morning.
Heavy Weather (1933)
In selecting just five works, I am committing the unpardonable sin of overlooking 90 or so others. It has been said, by a very wise bird in Facebook’s Wodehouse community, that choosing one’s favourite Wodehouse is like choosing between your children. But let me assure you that, like the male codfish, I love them all.
Emsworth, that worthy critic with an equally worthy name, suggests “P.G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers“ – The Cat-Nappers being an alias for the work known to British readers as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. Emsworth provides some good evidence that this 1974 work of a nonagenarian is not Wodehouse at his finest. For those unacquainted with Emsworth’s excellent piece, I suggest reading it for yourself. When my considered response (however unqualified I am to make it) ran to half a page, I decided to post it here instead.
Wodehouse was a careful and proficient editor in the habit of re-working his stories thoroughly until he was satisfied with them. I wonder whether this book received a less scrupulous reworking than Wodehouse was accustomed to. Perhaps Wodehouse felt he was running out of time…
Emsworth’s comments on Wodehouse’s repeated use of abbreviations (telegram-speak being a forerunner of SMS) illustrates my point. Wodehouse used this sparingly to great comic effect in other novels, but the criticism of overuse here could be indicative of writer’s shorthand – perfectly acceptable in a draft manuscript. Similarly, the issues with repetition.
I have often wondered whether publishers their treat star authors differently when it comes to editing. J.K Rowling’s work might make an interesting study in this regard. The first Harry Potter novel is fine, tight writing, but the same cannot be said of the later instalments — there are all sorts of issues with them, which I feel would have benefited from a firm editorial hand.
Emsworth notes instances of rambling and dithering, which could also be attributed to editing. Most writers ramble and dither, and need to cut material from their first drafts, age notwithstanding. But Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen certainly isn’t a rambling final novel, in the way that Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate is.
Emsworth also believes that in Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen Wodehouse reveals his true political colours, citing the following example:
Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.
Bertie Wooster is hardly a mouthpiece for expressing the political views of his author. Bertie’s position on Communism, made clear in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), is one of genial self-preservation. While Wodehouse made Comrade Bingo’s Heralds of the Red Dawn appear ridiculous, he was an egalitarian writer who created the equally ludicrous fascists (Roderick Spode), crooked Conservatives (Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe), loathsome Lords, and grotesque Captains of Industry.
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?The Code of the Woosters (1938)
Wodehouse’s consistent treatment of political activists – if it tells us anything at all – suggests that he found them all equally ridiculous, and ripe for picking as excellent sources of ‘material’
If I were find fault with Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen I would tend to agree with FretfulPorpentine’s response to Emsworth:
I wonder whether one of the problems with Aunts Aren’t Gentleman / The Catnappers is that its setting was more or less contemporary to when it was written, with its Sixties student demos and jokes about Billy Graham. Better, perhaps, had it been set in the classic (and, if it’s not a contradiction to say so) Wodehousian interwar era. The sixties bits really jar with me.
It’s not that the setting doesn’t work – it’s just different from what we’ve become accustomed to. We want more of the old stuff we know and love. But it shows us that Wodehouse was still striving to write something new. A younger Wodehouse might have popped this manuscript in his bottom drawer and reworked it again later, but at 93, one can be forgiven for not putting things off.
As is stands, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen still offers much of the usual Wodehouse to enjoy and I am reluctant to damn it as the work of a man who had lost his touch. I would gladly ‘suffer’ another 20 books of this quality.
I would gladly have continued our conversation, but I knew he must be wanting to get back to his Spinoza. No doubt I had interrupted him just as Spinoza was on the point of solving the mystery of the headless body on the library floor.
Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen is currently available in paperback for around £7.54.