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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!
The Old Reliable Ashokbhatia has written yet another pippin on the subject of Plum – this time offering a chap’s perspective on the issue of Wodehouse’s female characters. Your thoughts?
The delicately nurtured amongst us occasionally bemoan the way they have been treated by the Master Wordsmith of our times – P G Wodehouse. Admittedly, his narratives are replete with somewhat jaundiced references to the fairer sex. We could readily jump to the conclusion that his works have been written only for an exclusive boys’ club.
Consider these samples from ‘Jeeves in the Offing’:
‘It just shows you what women are like. A frightful sex, Bertie. There ought to be a law. I hope to live to see the day when women are no longer allowed.’
‘That would rather put a stopper on keeping the human race going, wouldn’t it?’
‘Well, who wants to keep the human race going?’
‘I see what you mean. Yes, something in that, of course.’
‘Why? You were crazy about the girl once.’
‘But no longer. The fever has…
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Wodehouse offers so much more to female readers than he is usually given credit for. A few months ago, I responded to criticism of Indian Summer of an Uncle by Janet Cameron (see my case for the defence). I feel sad that Cameron’s cursory appraisal of perceived gender issues has blinded her to the exquisite joys of his work. So today, I want to talk about why Wodehouse is a great writer of, and for, women.
First, Wodehouse presents readers with heroines who are full of pep and ginger; independent, sometimes feisty, characters who frequently outsmart the men. What a refreshing change this makes from the kind of insipid, helpless females we so often see in romantic fiction (often created by women writers).
And I am thrilled to find other female readers who feel the same. In her excellent piece ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’, Marilee Scot discusses Wodehouse heroine Joan Valentine, who appears in Something Fresh (1915). Marilee says,
“…the woman has already had an adventurous life: she’s worked a variety of jobs (including magazine-writing), lives alone in a London flat, introduces herself to the young man she’ll eventually marry, and has excellent ideas for scarab-stealing.”
My favourite Wodehouse heroine, Jane Hubbard (The Girl on the Boat, 1921) is a crack shot with an elephant gun. Nor are feminine youth and beauty prerequisites for romance in Wodehouse’s world. His women find love regardless of age, class, shape or size. ‘Plus-sized’ Maudie Stubbs is a widow of mature age, a butler’s niece, former barmaid, and Detective Agency proprietress. She is touchingly reunited with former flame ‘Tubby Parsloe’ (now Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe) who returns her affection, preferring her to the young woman he’d been about to marry. In Galahad at Blandings (1964), Lord Emsworth’s nephew Wilfred Allsop falls in love with his Uncle’s ‘pig-girl’ Monica Simmons, whose solid build and agricultural occupation could hardly be less feminine. Wilfred Allsop objects strongly when his friend Tipton ‘Tippy’ Plimsoll points this out.
“I’m sorry you think she looks like an all-in wrestler,’ he said stiffly. ‘To me she seems to resemble one of those Norse goddesses. However , be that as it may, I love her, Tippy. I fell in love with her at first sight.’ Recalling the picture of Miss Simmons in smock and trousers with a good deal of mud on her face, Tipton found this difficult to believe, but he was sympathetic.”
In Wodehouse’s art, as in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This puts him above most writers I know, male or female. who rarely take the trouble to create ‘unattractive’ female characters, let alone make them central figures in romance. Of course Wodehouse offers plenty of attractive women too. All this makes Wodehouse a terrific writer of, and for, women (Terry Pratchett is another) and it’s hardly surprising to learn that he has a large and enthusiastic female following. His fans include Dr Sophie Ratcliffe from the University of Oxford, who edited P. G. Wodehouse: A life in Letters. Fittingly, she dedicated the book:
For all Wodehouse’s heroines,
imaginary and real, especially Leonora.