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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

 

 

The birth of P.G. Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes

Strand pagetPGW quoted this famous character from his third book up to his ninety-third and had a tremendous admiration for Arthur Conan Doyle.

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.”

The Adventure of the Split Infinitive (1902)

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.

Honeysuckle Cottage

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!

HP

Moments when one needs a drink (Barmy in Wonderland)

1952 Barmy in Wonderland (UK title) mycopy

‘There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’

So says Mervyn Potter, Hollywood heart-throb, who leads poor Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps astray in Barmy in Wonderland (1952). But before you start quoting these sentiments as the views of the author himself, have look at what happens to the frequently pie-eyed Mervyn. In Chapter One, he gets blotto, burns down a hotel bungalow, and induces Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (a hotel employee) to slip a frog into his employer’s bedroom. In Chapter Five, Mervyn is already soaked when Barmy arrives at his house (for a dinner he never gets).

It was plain to him that the other, fatigued no doubt after a long day’s rehearsal, had yielded to the dictates of his lower self and for some considerable time must have been mopping up the stuff like a vacuum cleaner. If not actually ossified, he was indubitably plastered, and Barmy could only hope that he would not eventually reach the truculent stage.

Mervyn Potter does indeed reach the truculent stage. First, he creates a disturbance during the cabaret performance in the Champagne Room at the Piazza Hotel. Next he takes a late taxi to the Long Island home of his fiancé, where the occupants of the house are sleeping. Mervyn insists that Barmy ‘shin up the waterpipe’ and start breaking windows. The episode ends badly for Mervyn, who is discovered by Bulstrode the butler, sitting at the foot of the drainpipe reciting Longfellow’s Excelsior.  At this point his fiancé, Hermione Brimble,  very sensibly insists that he give up drinking.

‘I wonder, Phipps,’ he said, ‘if you have the slightest conception what it means to be on the wagon. I shall go through the world a haunted man. There will be joy and mirth in that world, but not in the heart of Mervyn Potter. Everywhere around me I shall hear the happy laughter of children as they dig into their Scotch highballs, but I shall not be able to join them. I shall feel like a thirsty leper.’

This is moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. I am reminded of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking, as told by Galahad Threepwood in Heavy Weather:

…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”

“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”

His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”

Unfortunately Mervyn Potter is unable to sustain this binge-free lifestyle and Hermione cancels the fixture. He gets drunk on the opening night of his latest play (in which Phipps has invested his fortune) and refuses to perform. When ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ closes, Potter is the happy star of a hit play, but his long-term future is uncertain. Whereas Barmy, who hardly touches a drop after his initial night out with Potter, is rewarded with both riches and romance.

I’m not suggesting ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is a moral tale about the evils of drink – far from it. But it’s not quite the ringing endorsement of drinking that the original quotation (if taken as the author’s view on the subject) might suggest.  Which brings me back to my original point. Wodehouse’s characters espoused a great variety of views and opinions, often ludicrous or extreme, which makes for great comedy. We can do nothing to stop a vexatious critic from presenting these opinions as the author’s own, but we should take care not to do so ourselves.

But that’s enough from me for one day.  This blogging is thirsty business and it’s almost noon – or will be once I’ve dressed and prepared my liver for the day’s potations. I leave you with these fine sentiments from the attractive Peggy Marlowe (‘not unknown to the choruses of Broadway’) who has difficulty procuring a glass of champagne after the opening-night flop in ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ .

‘What I vote,’ said Miss Marlowe, ‘is that somebody slips me a tankard of that juice. I’m surprised you haven’t offered me any before, dreamboat,’ she went on, addressing Barmy reproachfully: ‘Who do you think I am? Volstead or someone?’

HP

A matter of style: Wodehouse and the modern rules of writing.

“I am no stranger to butterfly belly. A man who has had to pass himself off as Gussie Fink-Nottle to four aunts in a chilly Hampshire dining room with only orange juice in the carburettor knows the meaning of fear.”

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

Sebastian Faulks presumably knows the feeling pretty well too. As the author of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Faulks has risked the ire of Wodehouse fans (already disgrunted after the BBC Blandings fiasco) and potentially his own reputation as a writer. For one of the problems with imitating Wodehouse in the 21st Century is that his style runs somewhat contrary to prevailing ideas about ‘good writing’. For an idea of the depths to which modern writing has sunk, consider these Ten rules for writing fiction:

1933 Heavy Weather cropped1 “Never open a book with weather.”

If Wodehouse were starting out today, he could expect to have a fair portion of his work flung back at him on these grounds alone. The busy modern publisher would read no further than: “The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town” (Something Fresh). Or “Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London” (Heavy Weather). I can hear the clicking tongues already. Today, entire novels are rejected due to opening lines like these. We have to be instantly gripped.

2 “Avoid prologue.”

Specifically, writers are advised to avoid beginning with too much backstory. This must be lobbed in later, and in small doses. The rationale for this is unclear, but it is widely accepted to be good writing. We writers must strive to keep our readers in the dark, only revealing snippets of information as required. Apparently this keeps them interested. We must show, not tell. And we would never dream of writing, as Wodehouse does on page one of The Mating Season:

“But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. you whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.

Let me get into reverse and put you abreast.”

According to the rules of modern writing, telling a backstory ‘takes the story backwards’. It is apparently a ‘blunder’ typical of new writers and one that must be corrected. A 21st Century Wodehouse would almost certainly have his manuscript returned for rework. He would be advised to get rid of the backstory and start with some action as a ‘hook’ to get the reader interested. Any explanation of what’s actually going on is, at this point,  considered undesirable. I don’t know what Wodehouse would make of this advice, but I am reminded of Psmith’s comments in Psmith Journalist:

“Your narratives, Comrade Maloney, always seem to me to suffer from a certain lack of construction. You start at the end, and then you go back to any portion of the story which happens to appeal to you at the moment, eventually winding up at the beginning.”

3 “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”

Wodehouse fares very well on this score. Indeed, his dialogue is so snappy that he writes long passages without so much as a ‘said’ in sight, perhaps a legacy of his time in the theatre.

” ‘I say, Bertie,’ he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.

‘Hallo!’

‘Do you like the name Mabel?’

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘No.’

‘You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?’

‘No.’

He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.

‘Of course, you wouldn’t. You always were a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?’ ”

The Inimitable Jeeves

Wodehouse does break the rule of never using alternatives to said: “‘Croquet!’ He gulped” in The Clicking of Cuthbert; “ ‘Am I a serf?’ demanded Evangeline” in Mulliner Nights; ” ‘Go away, boy!’ he boomed” (the Duke of Dunstable) in Service with a Smile. But such transgressions are rare.

4 “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.”

According to the rules for writing fiction: ‘”To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Again, Wodehouse breaks the rule of never using an adverb in his dialogue, but examples are hard to come by:”‘I suppose you know who did it, hey?’ he said satirically” (Service with a Smile). This is the Duke of Dunstable again. What was it about Dunstable, arguably Wodehouse’s foulest creation, that caused such reckless use of verbs and adverbs?

5Keep your exclamation points ­under control.”

The incorrect use of exclamation marks is a modern misdemeanour that we would not expect Wodehouse to commit. Nor does he. Mostly we find them in his dialogue: an occasional ‘Darling!’ here, a justified ‘What ho!’ there. Every so often, he throws caution to the wind and has a character exclaim: ‘Am I mortified! I’m as mad as a wet hen.’ Or: ‘Lord-love-a-duck!’ (both from Money in the Bank).

Regarding the use of exclamation marks, the rule is: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Wodehouse certainly exceeds this quota. It’s only natural that, when his plots reach their feverish high points, his characters feel the urge to exclaim things. But Wodehouse never misuses or overuses exclamations, and they fit seamlessly into the text. How sad that this perfectly useful punctuation mark has come to be considered a hallmark of poor writing.

6 “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.”

Of course Wodehouse breaks this rule. As a writer of over ninety published works, I would be exceedingly surprised if he had never employed this useful word on occasion. Consider this example, from one of the finest short stories ever written in the English language:

“As Cuthbert, for it was he who had so nearly reduced the muster-roll of rising novelists by one, hopped down from the table after his stroke, he was suddenly aware that a beautiful girl was looking at him intently. As a matter of fact, everyone in the room was looking at him intently, none more so than Raymond Parsloe Devine, but none of the others were beautiful girls. Long as the members of Wood Hills Literary Society were on brain, they were short on looks, and, to Cuthbert’s excited eye, Adeline Smethurst stood out like a jewel in a pile of coke.”

The Clicking of Cuthbert

Does the word suddenly leap out at you in that passage? Does it make the editor in you itch for your red pen? Is it poor writing? I’ve no doubt the many commas and sub-clauses will make our more sluggish-minded readers’ eyes water. It’s just lack of practice. Too much Hemingway in your diet. Not enough Wodehouse.

7 “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”

Wodehouse breaks this rule often, from the slang of the Drones Club to his gangs of New York. Some of these attempts are more successful than others.

“Why, den dis kid’s in bad for fair, ‘cos der ain’t nobody to pungle de bones.”

“Pungle de what, Comrade Maloney?”

“De bones. De stuff. Dat’s right. De dollars. He’s all alone, dis kid, so when de rent-guy blows in, who’s to slip him over de simoleons?”

Psmith Journalist

Wodehouse’s technique develops from this early effort, in 1909, and by the time he writes Piccadilly Jim (1917), the patois is a little more refined:

“Chicago Ed’s my monaker.”

“I don’t remember any Chicago Ed.”

“Well, you will after dis!” said Mr. Crocker, happily inspired.

Ogden was eyeing him with sudden suspicion.

“Take that mask off and let’s have a look at you.”

“Nothing doin’.”

Wodehouse continues to use this particular dialect throughout his writing career, and many of the examples defy ‘the rules’.

8 “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”

This is a rule inspired by Hemingway, who apparently felt it only necessary to mention whether or not his character wore a hat. Why Hemingway’s preference should be considered a rule for all writers is unclear. Wodehouse frequently devotes a sentence or two in drawing up the external specifications of his characters, especially when there is comedic value in it. In The Mating Season, for example, he describes the Rev. Sidney Pirbright as:

“A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…”

His central characters usually get a few more inches of description. In The Mating Season, he devotes a paragraph to the beautiful ‘Corky’ Pirbright: “The general effect is of an angel who eats lots of yeast.” Her love interest, Esmond Haddock, gets a full two paragraphs:

“He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean – broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe , though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic. He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.”

None of these are detailed descriptions – Wodehouse drew his characters lightly – but it’s fair to say that he goes beyond the cursory mention of head-wear, so admired by the Hemingway school.

9 “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

Avoid description. Avoid adverbs. Is this advice for novel-writers or twitter users? According to ‘the rules’: “You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.” It’s all about action. I pity the reader who turns to modern literature as an escape from the stress and anxiety of modern life, when we writers seem intent on keeping them in this state of tension.

Wodehouse doesn’t avoid description. Nor does he encumber us with dull pages of the stuff. His descriptive passages are, as we’d expect from a humourous writer, entertaining. The opening paragraph from Piccadilly Jim is a good example:

“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. Architects, confronted by it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this  reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.”

A fine beginning, an enjoyable description – no mention of the weather. It isn’t clear from ‘the rules’ how much description is too much, but Wodehouse judges this for himself and gets it just right for his audience and purpose.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Which reader would that be? ‘The rules’ say: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”

In my case, I would begin by skipping the complete works of Hemingway.

But where does this leave our assessment of Wodehouse, according to the modern rules? The answer is, of course, that it hardly matters. Wodehouse is an acknowledged master of his craft and has nothing to prove, in spite of changing fashions about what constitutes ‘good writing’.

On reflection, my argument has is less to do with Wodehouse than ‘the rules’ themselves. If Wodehouse, one of our great writers who remains well-loved more than a century after he began writing, doesn’t fit the modern rule book, are editors, publishers and critics closing their minds to other potentially great writers who don’t fit them either?

I’m not talking about myself, but… as it happens I am working on a novel at present and it does happen to begin with the weather, followed by quite a lot of backstory. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me. At the very least I shall have to scrap that first sentence:

“My parents died in a thunderstorm!” she cried suddenly.

 

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.

“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.”

“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 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.

HP

Cocktail Time

There had fallen upon the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest one of those soothing silences which from time to time punctuate the nightly feasts of Reason and flows of Soul in that cosy resort. It was broken by a Whiskey and Splash.

“I’ve been thinking a lot,” said the Whiskey and Splash…

Cats will Be Cats (Mulliner Nights)

I recently wrote an item on Drink’ in my personal blog, which was meant to be entertaining, but reads far more seriously than intended. As usual, this error could have been avoided with a little Plumtopian inspiration – Wodehouse had plenty to offer on the subject, as his biographer Robert McCrum noted recently in Oxford Today: ‘Wodehouse and the English language’:

Unique in the canon of English literature, almost none of Wodehouse’s characters is indifferent to the temptations of a quiet snort. Wodehouse’s Drones will make for the bar like buffalo for a watering hole. Their lexicon for inebriated includes: awash; boiled; fried; lathered; illuminated; oiled; ossified; pie-eyed; polluted; primed; stinko; squiffy; tanked and woozled.

I am especially fond of Wodehouse’s application of drinking lingo to non-drinking situations. The line, ‘he was white and shaken, like a dry Martini,” is often quoted, even appearing under the Free Online Dictionary definition for Shock. Other examples along these lines include:

“Hugo, scooped J. Wilmot out of his comfortable morris chair as if he had been a clam, corked him up in a swift taxicab, and decanted him into a Deck B stateroom on the Olympic.”

The Man with Two Left Feet

And:

“The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say `When!’ ”

Very Good Jeeves

And then there are the drinking exploits of old Pelicans Galahad Threepwood and Uncle Fred. In Heavy Weather, Wodehouse teases us with glamourous stories from Gally’s unpublished Reminiscences, including this tale of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking.

…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”

“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”

His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”

Heavy Weather

Wodehouse’s popular hero Bertie Wooster hero is, by his own admission, a comparatively light drinker.

Except at times of special revelry, I am exceedingly moderate in my potations. A brace of cocktails, a glass of wine at dinner and possibly a liqueur with the coffee – that is Bertram Wooster.

The Code of The Woosters

I could go on – and I had planned to – but in the course of my research today I’ve discovered a certain Pete Bunten has been there before me. Am I bitter? Not a bit. I can heartily recommend you to partake in a snifter of his excellent work, Literary Drinkers where he pays a fitting homage to our beloved Wodehouse.

What are your favourite drinking quotes from Wodehouse? 

 

 

…Oh, and if you want to read that aforementioned item of mine on ‘Drink’ you’ll find it at my other Blog:  Strong Remarks from the Bar

HP

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