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P.G. Wodehouse reading list: the Blandings stories

blandings-castle

Lord Emsworth breathed heavily. He had not supposed that in these degenerate days a family like this existed. The sister copped Angus McAllister on the shin with stones, the brother bit Constance in the leg . . . It was like listening to some grand saga of the exploits of heroes and demigods.

‘Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend’

(Blandings Castle)

This piece is the third in a series of guides for readers wanting to discover the joys of P.G. Wodehouse — from the popular Jeeves and Wooster stories, and the Blandings series, to the wider world of Wodehouse ‘hidden gems’. Previous instalments in the series offered:

A reading list for the Blandings saga is offered below, followed by notes on the series.

A Blandings Reading List

The evolution of Blandings   

Blandings Castle has joined Narnia, Brideshead and 221B Baker Street as a hallowed setting of English literature. Every enthusiast knows its rose garden, the terraces overlooking the lake, the steps down to the lawn where Gally sips a thoughtful whiskey, the gardens presided over by McAllister, the cottage in the West Wood suitable for concealing diamond necklaces or Berkshire pigs, and the hamlet of Blandings Parva which adjoins the estate.

N.T.P Murphy: The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany

something-fresh

The much loved Blandings series features the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, his prize-winning pig the Empress of Blandings, and a changing cast of relations, staff, guests and imposters. The first Blandings novel Something Fresh, written in 1915, is one of my favourites and a great place to start. Wodehouse continued to write about Blandings for another 60 years (he was working on Sunset at Blandings when he died).

The early novels have a different atmosphere to the Blandings that emerges in Blandings Castle, in which Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings is introduced.

Blandings Castle is a short-story collection containing several classic Blandings stories, mostly written before Summer Lightning. Blandings Castle should be read before Summer Lightning to avoid spoilers. The stories are among Wodehouse’s best, and include:

  • The Custody of the Pumpkin (1929)
  • Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best (1926)
  • Pig-Hoo-o-o-o-ey (1927)
  • Company for Gertrude (1928)
  • Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend (1928)
  • The Go-getter (1931)

The volume also includes some fine non-Blandings short stories.

The tranquillity of Lord Emsworth’s life at Blandings is constantly under threat throughout the series: from oily villains (like Smooth Lizzie and Eddie Cootes); regrettable relatives (such as Lady Constance Keeble and younger son Freddie Threepwood); supercilious staff (Rupert Baxter); and invited guests (the revolting Duke of Dunstable).

At an earlier point in this chronicle, we have compared the aspect of Rupert Baxter, when burning with resentment, to a thunder-cloud, and it is possible that the reader may have formed a mental picture of just an ordinary thunder-cloud, the kind that rumbles a bit but does not really amount to anything very much. It was not this kind of cloud that the secretary resembled now, but one of those which burst over cities in the Tropics, inundating countrysides while thousands flee.

‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’ in Lord Emsworth and Others

32-23Happily for Lord Emsworth, Blandings’ extended cast of heroes and heroines are equal to the challenges presented to them.

Lord Emsworth’s younger brother, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, makes his first appearance in Summer Lightning. He and Uncle Fred (Frederick Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham) put a debonair spring-in-the-step of the later novels, much as Psmith had done in the earlier Leave it to Psmith.

The final novel Sunset at Blandings was completed after Wodehouse’s death, from his draft manuscript and notes, by Richard Usborne.

When you’ve completed the novels, you may also wish to track down the remaining short stories, which can found in the following collections:

Happy reading!

HP

 

 

Honoria presents the prizes: ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ competition

Having taken the obligatory swigs of orange juice, it gives me great pleasure to announce the prize winner of the ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ competition. Judging was more difficult than expected. I’m only sorry there aren’t enough prizes to go around.

The entries deserves some discussion, beginning with Sally — what a wonderful name for a Wodehouse lover. Sally was quick off the mark in suggesting Cakebread, butler of Shipley Hall in Money in the Bank. A fine answer. Even the name Cakebread implies calories. Those of you who’ve read Money in the Bank will also know it’s an alias. Cakebread isn’t Cakebread. He’s not a real butler either. But he is large.

‘The newcomer, as the sound of his footsteps had suggested, was built on generous lines. In shape, he resembled a pear, reasonably narrow at the top but getting wider and wider all the way down and culminating in a pair of boots of the outsize or violin-case type. Above these great spreading steppes of body there was poised a large and egglike head, the bald dome of which rose like some proud mountain peak from a foothill fringe of straggling hair.”

Money in the Bank

Corky Pirbright supported her nomination of Aunt Dahlia with well chosen quotations that remind us of her stout proportions. Aunt Dahlia is always a favourite among Wodehouse readers, and she looms large as a character in every sense.

“Aunt Dahlia is one of those big, hearty women. She used to go in a lot for hunting, and she generally speaks as if she had just sighted a fox on a hillside half a mile away.”

‘Jeeves and the Song of Songs’ (Very Good Jeeves)

As big personalities go, Aunt Dahlia is a winner, but she is far from being the fattest entrant. Bertie tells us she is a shorter, stockier specimen than Aunt Agatha. Comparisons with Mae West are made. These descriptions paint Dahlia as a large woman of full-figure. I’m not sure that her figure runneth over.

For that, we must turn to Noel Bushnell’s nomination of Lord Bittlesham, uncle of Bingo Little. He was one of the first candidates to spring to my mind when I posed this little contest. Bertie Wooster describes Bittlesham (before his elevation to the peerage, when he is still plain old Mortimer Little), as ‘the fattest man I have ever seen in my life.”

The motto of the Little family was evidently “variety”. Young Bingo is long and thin and hasn’t had a superflous ounce on him since we first met; but the uncle restored the average and a bit over. The hand which grasped mine wrapped it round and enfolded it till I began to wonder if I’d ever get it out without excavating machinery.

Jeeves in the Springtime (The Inimitable Jeeves)

A clear winner you might think, but Susan Jones’ nomination of the Empress of Blandings provided some restless hours of contemplation by the committee (self and cat). The rules do not state that the prize winning fat character must be human, and The Empress has form; she is a triple silver medalist in the fat pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural show. Being fat is her raison d’être!

Being a pig of substance hasn’t stopped the Empress of Blandings from winning the hearts of Wodehouse readers around the world (she even has a pub named after her). The Empress is a queen among her sex and her species — and what a fine species it is! You wouldn’t catch a pig making uncomplimentary remarks about another pig’s weight, or writing a mildly amusing book that repeatedly humiliates the central fat pig on account of his bulk. Her life is free from such unbecoming censure. Indeed The Empress might arguably be considered a model to us all, living mindfully in the moment, content to simply wallow, to eat, and to expand.

The Empress lived in a bijou residence nor far from the kitchen garden, and when Lord Emsworth arrived at her boudoir she was engaged, as pretty nearly always when you dropped in on her, in hoisting into her vast interior those fifty-seven thousand and eight hundred calories on which Whiffle insists. Monica Simmons, the pig girl, had done her well in the way of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes, and separated buttermilk, and she was digging in and getting hers in a manner calculated to inspire the brightest confidence in the bosoms of her friends and admirers.

Pigs Have Wings

If we all viewed our expanding waistlines — and those of our fellow citizens — with the same ambivalence as the Empress, the world would be a kinder, happier place.

I am compelled to hand the prize to Susan Jones.

Thanks to everyone who contributed. I’m sorry not to have prizes for you all, but if you’re ever passing through Somerset, I should be proud to stand you a pint in a local hostelry.

HP

 

Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire

Psmith

Cover of the Bietti edition of Leave it to Psmith (1936) courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’d like to take a short break from my series exploring Wodehouse on Women  to share a remarkable piece entitled 111 Male Characters Of British Literature, In Order Of Bangability by Carrie Frye, in which Ms Frye lists 111 fictional characters she finds sexually desirable enough to take to her bed. Almost as astonishing as her stamina, is the fact that she includes not one, but three Wodehouse characters in her list of male sex objects. These are, in order of appearance:

Gussie Fink Nottle (at 106)

Bertram Wooster (at 87)

– Jeeves (at 65)

Gussie’s inclusion in the list defies belief, as does Jeeves, who at 65 ranks above the virile and irresistible Flashman.  Ms Frye gives her source for these appearances, as Right-Ho Jeeves and the story Extricating Young Gussie. I’ve read both, but confess I’ve never felt these characters casting quite the same kind of spell over me.

It would not be in quite the Wodehouse spirit for me to devise a list of my own, but if I may take the liberty, I would like to offer some alternative suggestions for the benefit of any other impressionable romantics considering a mate from the world of Wodehouse:

Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, would make an excellent companion for any woman who is looking to curl up happily with a book in her spacious ancestral boudoir, unbothered by  the attentions of a human octopus, or indeed any attention at all. If your idea of romance is watching the sun set over the Empress of Blandings as she enjoys a late supper (of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes and separated buttermilk)  in her sty, then Clarence is the man for you.

Monty Bodkin is a romantic soul who will make considerable personal sacrifices (like working for Lord Tilbury) to win the girl he loves. Unlike many of his fellow Drones, he is financially solvent and won’t ‘touch’ you for a fiver or pawn your jewellery to placate a wrathful bookie. He is handsome, charming and honourable, but – it must be said – not an intellectual giant.

Galahad Threepwood is a debonair man-about-town who can be relied upon to show you a good time, taking in the best restaurants and night spots of London. You’ll be enthralled by his conversation too, particularly his reminiscences. You may not replace the women he loved and lost (Dolly Henderson) in his affections, or persuade this old bachelor to don the sponge-bag trousers and gardenia button-hole, but his gallant conduct is unlikely to bring about a breach-of-promise case either.

Esmond Haddock has the kind of rugged good looks and self-effacing charm that enticed actress Cora Star to give up Hollywood in favour of Kings Deverill, Hampshire. He is the popular local squire, loved by one and all. But this handsome, likeable fellow may need your help to prevent his five scaly Aunts (including the domineering Dame Daphne Winkworth) from dominating the proceedings at Deverill Hall.

Rupert Psmith is my personal ideal, an appealing Dorian Gray of comedy, without all that fuss in the attic. He is witty, adventurous, original and terrific fun. (If he takes you to dinner, don’t order the fish.)  Life will never be dull with Psmith around, but you may have to get used to living in the shadow of his remarkable personality.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to retire to bed with a good book.

HP

The desert island pickings of a quadragenarian

Wodehouse, as a nonagenarian

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.

Leave It To Psmith “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.

PGW MatingSeasonOn 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.”

“Nail-scissors!”

“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 the Girl on the Boat (1961 film)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.

1933 Heavy WeatherEmpress 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.

HP

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