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Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party, the 39th outing for Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, was first published In November 1969.
Christie dedicated it:
To P. G. Wodehouse — whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.
In February 2015, many of Agatha Christie’s letters were published to mark the 125th anniversary of her birth. They included a letter from P.G.Wodehouse, thanking Christie for the dedication.
Wodehouse and Christie were mutual admirers of each other’s work, and had begun corresponding fifteen years earlier, although a 1955 letter from Wodehouse to his friend Denis Mackail shows their relationship got off to a rocky start.
…I’m seething with fury. Sir Allen Lane of Penguin was over here not long ago and told me that Agatha Christie simply loved my stuff and I must write to her and tell her how much I liked hers. So with infinite sweat I wrote her a long gushing letter, and what comes back? About three lines, the sort of thing you write to an unknown fan. ‘So glad you have enjoyed my criminal adventures’ – that sort of thing.
The really bitter part was that she said the book of mine she liked best was The Little Nugget –1908 production. And the maddening thing is that one has got to go on reading her, because she is about the only writer today who is readable.
(Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’)
But as Wodehouse himself wrote, in ‘Strychnine in the Soup’ (Mulliner Nights): “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” Despite this inauspicious beginning, Wodehouse and Christie continued corresponding until the early 1970s (Wodehouse died in 1975). As prolific and popular writers, they had much in common. They discussed their methods, their work, and in later years, their ailments.
In one letter, Wodehouse wrote to Christie:
I often wonder how you write, — I mean do you sit upright at a desk? I ask because I find these days I can’t get out of an arm chair and face my desk, and when I write in an arm chair I have the greatest difficulty in reading what I have written. This may be because I have a deckchair, a Boxer and one of our seven cats sitting on me. But oh, how I have slowed up. It’s terrible.
(Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’)
Agatha Christie’s letters to P.G. Wodehouse are contained in the Wodehouse archives, which I was privileged to view in 2016. Among the treasures I discovered during my visit, was a letter from Agatha Christie dated 15 October 1969, telling Wodehouse of her dedication of Halowe’en Party to him.
Other letters from Christie recount her pleasure on finishing a novel, frustrations with proof readers’ corrections, and her delight that their waxworks were ‘…sitting side by side in Madam Tussauds’ in 1974. These letters, many of them handwritten, were among the Wodehouse archives acquired by the British Library last year.
This will be welcome news for Wodehouse readers who are also fans of Agatha Christie – of whom there are many. A 2014 poll in the Fans of P.G. Wodehouse Facebook group suggests Agatha Christie is the Number 1 author Wodehouse lovers read when not reading Wodehouse.
I am happy to count myself among them. I started reading Agatha Christie in my early teens — a natural progression from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, which I had collected and read many times over as a child. By the time I encountered my first Wodehouse story, in my 21st year, I had a solid grounding in the culture and era in which he wrote, and the crime genre he so admired (which he often incorporated into his work). Having also read my allotted share of Shakespeare and Chaucer by this time, I was not frightened by the complexity of Wodehouse’s style, or his extensive literary, classical and biblical references.
Agatha Christie needs no endorsement from me — she is the top selling novelist of all time. But I particularly recommend her books to people wanting to prepare younger readers for enjoying Wodehouse at a later age.
Of course, I shall take it as read that some of you were child geniuses, devouring Wodehouse novels from the age of five, and that your own child began (under your expert tutelage) to read Wodehouse — and possibly Shakespeare — in the womb. Top stuff, old Bean! However, the average modern child is likely to be thoroughly put off Wodehouse, whose writing is more complex than he’s given credit for, if it’s thrust upon them too soon. I suggest these wilderness years can be productively spent reading Agatha Christie instead.
Murders are not as uncommon as you might think in the often gruesome world of Young Adult fiction. Unless your prospective younger reader is particularly sensitive, they may well appreciate the central murder in Hallowe’en Party — of a boastful thirteen year old called Joyce, during a children’s party.
Christie also created some terrific young heroines, try Cat Among the Pigeons, and The Secret Adversary. When the time comes to move on to Wodehouse, the adventures of Joan Valentine in Something Fresh, and Eve Halliday in Leave it to Psmith, will make great places to start.
In fact, I think I’ll finish with a dash of Joan Valentine and Ashe Marson now.
To set the scene for you, Ashe is struggling to come up with a plot for his new mystery story, which he has decided to call ‘The Wand of Death’, when he is interrupted by a girl (Joan Valentine).
‘I am sorry for your troubles,’ said Ashe firmly, ‘but we are wandering from the point. What is a wand of death?’
A wand of death?’
‘A wand of death.’
The girl paused reflectively.
‘Why, of course it’s the sacred ebony stick stolen from the Indian temple which is supposed to bring death to whoever possesses it. The hero gets hold of it, and the priests dog him and send him threatening messages. What else could it be?’
Ashe could not restrain his admiration.
‘This is genius. I see it all. The hero calls in Gridley Quayle, and that patronizing ass, by the aid of a series of wicked coincidences, solves the mystery, and there I am with another month’s work done.’
She looked at him with interest.
‘Are you the author of “Gridley Quayle”?’
‘Don’t tell me you read him?’
‘I do not read him. But he is published by the same firm that publishes “Home Gossip”, and I can’t help seeing his cover sometimes while I am waiting to see the editress.’
Ashe felt like one who meets a boyhood’s chum on a desert island. Here was a real bond between them.
‘Do the Mammoth publish you too? Why we are comrades in misfortune — fellow-serfs. We should be friends. Shall we be friends?’
‘I should be delighted.’
(From: Something Fresh, 1915)
May all your pumpkins be prize-winners this Halloween.
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)
Back in June, you may recall, I gave my father a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Ukridge. Previous attempts to introduce Dad to the joys of Wodehouse had been unsuccessful – both The Little Nugget and a Jeeves novel had failed to click. But after a decent interval of about a decade, and a good deal of musing on the Psychology of the Individual, I bunged a copy of Ukridge in the post.
I felt supremely confident in my choice. Reading Ukridge always gives me a warm inner glow, and much of my early reading was influenced by my Father’s tastes. How could it fail? But as soon as the parcel left my clutches I began to waiver, because Ukridge is Wodehouse’s most divisive character. Some fans don’t enjoy these stories at all.
A look at Goodreads reviews for the book help to explain why.
JASON: Early Wodehouse work that didn’t quite meet the mark.’ And ‘…the fact of the matter is, the titular character, Ukridge, is a jerk. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I just can’t warm to him the way I did with Bertie Wooster.’
SPIROS: Chalk this one down to the axiom that artists and writers are notoriously unreliable judges of their own work: I remember reading somewhere that Ukridge was Wodehouse’s favorite of all the characters he created. I don’t see it, myself. He has none of the flair of Uncle Fred or Galahad Threepwood, none of the lyricism of Psmith, none of the muddleheaded chivalry of Bertie Wooster. Basically, he is a slightly more resourceful, boorish version of Bingo Little, Bertie’s chum who Jeeves was constantly extricating from the soup in the early Jeeves & Wooster stories…
RACHEL: This is the first of Wodehouse’s books that i’ve read that didn’t involve Jeeves. I can’t say I was overly enamoured. The book is set out in 10 shorter stories, many of which refer back to previous episodes, and are based around Ukridge trying to make money and in most case failing miserably. The stories were quite short and I found myself reading quickly just to get to the end of them. They do not have the same kind of humour that other Wodehouse novels do. Quite disappointing and not the place to start with Wodehouse. So many better novels have been written.
Ukridge is not a novel, but a collection of short stories. Partly, it’s the central character of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge that some readers dislike. Ukridge takes brazen advantage of the bonds of family and friendship to support his money-making schemes, and Corky the narrator is repeatedly put upon in this way. No sensible reader would want a person like Ukridge in their life, and some object to him on the page too. It’s a pity, because he’s a tremendous character.
Ukridge is also sometimes dismissed on the grounds of being an ‘early’ character, having first appeared in 1906 in Love Among The Chickens (which Wodehouse later rewrote). It’s not a view I happen to share. Much of Wodehouse’s early work is outstanding (I read the school stories often) and by the time Ukridge was published in 1924, Wodehouse had classics including Something Fresh (1915), Leave it to Psmith (1923) and The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) under his belt. Most of my own favourites were written during this period.
But I suspect the main cause of disappointment for Ukridge readers is that he is not Bertie Wooster. So often, the modern reader works their way through the Jeeves and Bertie stories without exploring the wider Wodehouse world until the supply of B. and J. has given out. The poor reader, familiar with these stories and expecting more of the same, finds a chap like Ukridge a bit of a jolt.
Indeed, Corky felt much the same way whenever Ukridge made an appearance in his life.
‘I was to give you this letter, sir.’
I took it and opened the envelope with a sigh. I had recognised the handwriting of Ukridge, and for the hundredth time in our close acquaintance there smote me like a blow the sad suspicion that this man had once more gone and wished upon me some frightful thing.
MY DEAR OLD HORSE,
It’s not often I ask you to do anything for me…
I laughed hollowly.
(‘The Return of Battling Billson’ in Ukridge)
My poor Father might well have had a similar response to the book shaped package that appeared on his doorstep in June, but his review, when it came via email from the antipodes, was a good one:
DAD: I was a little hesitant about starting it, because Wooster was not one of my favourite characters, but I became hooked and had to ration myself to two stories per night otherwise I would have still been reading at midnight!
The plots were deceiving – they seemed simple but became ever more complex. I liked the way it all came together in the last few paragraphs – leaving me somewhat stunned at the Wodehouse ingenuity. Although I doubt that the moral message of the Ukridge person would sit well with today’s “correctness” in all things.
However the cover of the modern edition was a bit off the mark. It depicts Ukridge as a John Lennon look-a-like – dapper and suave – with the tattered yellow mackintosh looking more like a tailored double-breasted overcoat!
I liked Stephen Fry’s evaluation on the back cover: “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”
I’m delighted that the old boy, now in his 70th year, and Wodehouse have finally clicked. I’ve sent him Blandings Castle and Elsewhere by return post.
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’
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:
- an overview of Wodehouse’s work, with suggestions for new readers, and
- a reading list for the Bertie and Jeeves stories.
A reading list for the Blandings saga is offered below, followed by notes on the series.
A Blandings Reading List
- Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New)
- Leave it to Psmith (1923)
- Blandings Castle (1935)*
- Summer Lightning (1929; US title Fish Preferred)
- Heavy Weather (1933)
- Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) featuring Uncle Fred
- Full Moon (1947)
- Pigs Have Wings (1952)
- Service with a Smile (1961) featuring Uncle Fred
- Galahad at Blandings (1965; US title: The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood)
- A Pelican at Blandings (1969; US title: No Nudes is Good Nudes)
- Sunset at Blandings (1977)
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
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
Happily 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:
- ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’ in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937)
- ‘Birth of a Salesman’ in Nothing Serious (1950)
- ‘Sticky Wicket at Blandings’ in Plum Pie (1966)
This February’s Great Wodehouse romances series continues with another guest author, K.V.K. Murthy, known to Facebook friends as James Joyce. His piece takes us on a walk through romantic literary history with Psmith and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith).
A note on the Psmith-Halliday romance
by K.V.K. Murthy
The question of favourites is mostly subjective, and Wodehouse’s vast canvas of miniature romances doubtless provides for each taste. The Gussie-Bassett, Tuppy-Angela, Bingo-Banks and others too numerous to mention are all miniatures :a concatenation (to use Jeeves’ word) of comical situation, Edwardian silly-assness and a bit of fat-headedness thrown in for seasoning. They are the staple of drawing-room one-act plays of a certain generation, given occasional revivals in schools to round off the Annual Day shindig. Barring minor changes in detail, they are all more or less cast from the same block. Wodehouse’s success with that block – or formula – lay in the plasticity of his language: in anybody else’s hands it would have spelt tedium, a tiresomely unfunny business.
But the Psmith-Halliday romance stands out, a class apart, with little in common with the other country-house capers. To begin with, this is not a miniature sketch: it is an epic, a work conceived on classical lines working on classical allusions (‘the fruit of an expensive education,’ as Psmith himself would say). If the whole comedy of errors is Bardic, Psmith’s first encounter with Eve, and his first act of devotion is pleasingly (and appropriately) Elizabethan: Eve’s hat, the rain, the hastily produced umbrella are nothing if not throwbacks to Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous act with his cloak for his Queen(Psmith indeed mentions this parallel to the unfortunate Walderwick).
Psmith’s courting is a stately progress, like a gavotte or apas-de-deux – matched perfectly by a languid stateliness of Wodehousian idiom absent from the miniature romances, which again underscores the Master’s fine ear for symphonic form (the book can actually be visualised as a symphony in four movements: a brief adagio, followed by an allegro ma non troppo, a longish andante, and a final presto).
If the romance begins on an Elizabethan note, it also seems to advance through epochs. In his initial moves to Eve, Psmith’s demeanour has faint courtly echoes of Andrew Marvell, although without the fatalistic overtones (in a bizarre coincidence there is even a Cynthia in one of his poems) – and with this we have stepped quietly and seamlessly into the Restoration. But we don’t linger long here.
Soon, Psmith and Eve decant us, seamlessly again, and charmingly – into the Regency. It doesn’t require too overwrought an imagination to see Psmith as a latter-day Beau Brummell – his fastidious appearance alone would have earned a hat doff from that laced and cravated dandy, to say nothing of his manner of speech- and Eve as a fine Belgravia belle (even if her origins in the book, though genteel, are decidedly not West End).
Whether Wodehouse saw these associations, much less intended them to be seen is a moot point. In any case it is only critics who look for them and find them, as this one did. And I’m sure the Master wouldn’t complain. But there is one other aspect which sets the Psmith-Halliday chronicle apart from all the others: its is a complete novel in the classical sense, in the elegant Jane Austen mould, a perfect marriage of form and content.
On a beautiful autumn day, I left London’s Victoria Station for the glorious Sussex countryside to visit the home of Sir Edward Cazalet, P.G. Wodehouse’s step-grandson. I had met Edward and his wife Camilla, Lady Cazalet, in London during the summer, and they generously invited me to visit their home to view the family’s archive of Wodehouse materials.
The train journey was a pleasant, uneventful affair, which did not seem, to me, to be in quite the proper Wodehouse spirit. I ought to have been playing ‘Persian Monarchs’ with a genial stranger, or thumbing through a volume of poems by Ralston McTodd. But the closest approximation I could muster was an affinity for Lord Emsworth.
Lord Emsworth, in a train moving in the direction of home, was behaving like a horse heading for his stable. He snorted eagerly, and spoke at length and with emotion of roses and herbaceous borders.
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
It did seem a pity to be traveling merely as myself, and not an imposter. There is a lot to be said for adopting an alias, particularly when your own persona is as dull as my own. Polly Pott managed to pass herself off at Blandings as Gwendolyne Glossop, daughter of the eminent nerve specialist Sir Roderick Glossop (in Uncle Fred in the Springtime). With a bit of forethought, I might have presented myself as his other daughter. But forethought was never my strong suit, and I arrived with a sheepish sense of having let the side down.
I needn’t have worried. Edward Cazalet’s deep affection for his grandfather and enthusiasm for his work ensured a mutual understanding from the start. I spent the day giddy with joy as we looked through Edward’s impressive archive of Plum’s letters and personal materials, including notes for stories and draft manuscripts in various stages of devolvement.
Wodehouse’s letters include correspondence with well-known figures of the day, including Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, and Richard Burton. Reading his personal correspondence with family and friends (a tremendous privilege) left a lingering impression of Plum, the man. The impression is a good one. His private letters (many of them published in Sophie Ratcliffe’s P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters) are imbued with the same qualities as his fictional work, displaying sharp wit tempered by a generous spirit.
The other night, having run out of ‘Murine’, Ethel squirted some stuff into her eyes which the vet prescribed for Wonder, and a quarter of an hour later complained of violent pains in the head and said that the room was all dark and she couldn’t read the print of her Saturday Evening Post. Instead of regarding this as a bit of luck, as anyone who knows the present Saturday Evening Post, she got very alarmed and remained so till next morning, when all was clear again. It just shows what a dog has to endure. Though, as a matter of fact, I believe dogs’ eyes are absolutely insensitive. I don’t think dogs bother about their eyes at all, relying mostly on their noses.
Letter to Denis Mackail (March 28, 1946)
P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
There is also a good deal of love in them.
My darling Angel Bunny.
Gosh, how I am missing my loved one! The house is a morgue without you. Do you realise that – except for two nights I spent in NY and the time you were in the hospital – we haven’t been separated for a night for twenty years!! This morning Jed waddled into my room at about nine, and I said to myself ‘My Bunny’s awake early’ and was just starting for your room when I remembered. It’s too awful being separated like this.
Letter to Ethel Wodehouse (July 6, 1967)
P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
In the afternoon, Edward took me on a walking tour of the family farm and shared memories of afternoon walks with Plum, during visits to his grandfather’s home in Remsenburg (Long Island, New York). Nature had pulled up her socks and ordered us an exceptionally fine day to compliment the rolling farmland views, and I found myself pondering as Rogers, or possibly Hammerstein, once pondered, whether somewhere in my youth or childhood I had done something good.
This joyous feeling reached a crescendo shortly before the cocktail hour, when I visited the cosy attic in which Plum’s treasured possessions have been lovingly preserved by Edward and his family. It contains Plum’s reading chair, his hat and pipe, golf clubs — even his personal statue of the infant Samuel at Prayer. The room is lined with bookshelves containing books from Wodehouse’s own library. The remaining walls are adorned with family photographs and sporting memorabilia.
Never a brilliant conversationalist, I was unequal to expressing this pleasure to my hosts at the time. I simply alternated between gaping and grinning for the remainder of my visit.
I don’t recall doing ‘something good’ in my youth or childhood. Or since, for that matter. But I did spend five years in Van Diemen’s Land without the usual preliminaries of having committed a crime. Perhaps my visit to the Cazalets was Fate’s way of evening out the ledger.
Rupert (or Ronald) Psmith was one of Wodehouse’s earliest heroes. He made his memorable first appearance in 1908 in a school story serialised in The Captain as ‘The Lost Lambs’, better known to many readers under the 1953 title Mike and Psmith. Alongside his bosom school chum Mike Jackson, Psmith (the P is silent as in pshrimp) made a successful transition from school stories to adult fiction in two further novels, Psmith in the City (1910) and Psmith Journalist (1915), before his final appearance in Leave it to Psmith (1923).
It is clear from comments in the growing Wodehouse Facebook community that my own love for this character is shared by many others, so it seems apt that when Wodehouse cast him as a romantic lead, he created Eve.
She was a girl of medium height, very straight and slim; and her fair hair , her cheerful smile, and the boyish suppleness of her body all contributed to a general effect of valiant gaiety, a sort of golden sunniness – accentuated by the fact that, like all girls who looked to Paris for inspiration in their dress that season, she was wearing black.
Leave it to Psmith
Aside from her outward charms, Eve Halliday is also an attractive character. She is one of Plum’s independent heroines, with no stern father or serious minded aunt to misguide her. The prospect of pinching Lady Constance Keeble’s necklace (in aid of a good cause) does not faze her. She also shows herself to be a loyal friend, with an intelligent mind and an elegance of manner that make her a fitting mate for one of Plum’s most beloved characters.
“This,” said Psmith, “is becoming more and more gratifying every moment. It seems that you and I were made for each other. I am your best friend’s best friend and we both have a taste for stealing other people’s jewellery. I cannot see how you can very well resist the conclusion that we are twin-souls.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“We shall get into that series of ‘Husbands and Wives Who Work Together’.”
At the end of Leave it to Psmith, the couple are engaged and Psmith is hired to replace The Efficient Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Although Wodehouse later adapted the story (with Ian Hay) for the stage, he never revisited the Psmiths after their marriage. One possible explanation for this, given by Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson, is that Wodehouse could not envisage Psmith without a substantial income. Donaldson also suggests that Leave it to Psmith was written ‘only after much badgering’ by Plum’s daughter Leonora, to whom the book is also dedicated.
Another explanation has been given, by some brainy cove whose name escapes me for the moment (I have a feeling it was Plum himself, but cannot find the reference), is that Wodehouse found it difficult to envisage suitable plots for Psmith after his marriage. Having found his niche as a writer of romantic comedies, Wodehouse had little use for a married hero (Bertie Wooster was kept notably single). Although we are treated to a few short stories centred on the married life of Bingo and Rosie Little, these are exceptions.
The fate of the Psmiths after marriage continues to be a topic for speculation among Wodehouse readers. We want more of them! I have often thought of writing a little homage myself – along the lines of Sebastain Faulks, but without the advance.
Perhaps like the Molloys (Dolly and Soapy, to their friends) the Psmiths might build on their early forays in the necklace pinching business and turn their capable minds to crime. They would excel I am sure, provided they could overcome any moral objections. I see their criminal activities confined to pinching only from those who have the stuff in piles, coupled with a propensity to share their ill-gotten gains with the needy, combining the debonair style of Raffles with the generosity of Robin Hood.
Perhaps more plausibly, I can also imagine the Psmiths entering the crime detection business. From almost the first moment, when Psmith meets Mike Jackson in the common room at Sedleigh, there is something Holmesian about him. Wodehouse was a great fan of Arthur Conan-Doyle, and it is Psmith, not Sherlock Holmes, who first utters the phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (in Psmith Journalist). Psmith has the perfect partner in Eve, who promises to be every bit as capable as Agatha Christie’s delightful Tuppence Beresford.
Plotting out the next few chapters in their lives, I see Psmith becoming the unexpected recipient of a modest inheritance (a distant Aunt, or perhaps a rich Uncle in Australia) that would enable the Psmiths to purchase a detective agency. They would excel in the detection business, although they may have to fight off some underhanded skulduggery from a competing agency run by Percy Pilbeam.
Great wealth may never be theirs, unless the Psmiths have the good fortune to recover a Maharaja’s ruby, or compromising letters for a wealthy heiress. But they would have enough to secure a modicum of comfort and keep the wolves at bay. Even in tough times, one suspects the enterprising Psmiths have the necessary wherewithal to succeed in life without ever having to fall back on the fish business.
All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.
The world of literature is blessed with many brilliantly conceived and well-remembered beginnings, celebrated in fitting tributes across the blogoshpere. Inspired by Albert Camus’s appreciation of the ridiculous, I have been contemplating great beginnings in humorous fiction.
Terry Pratchett, the modern master of intelligent ridiculousness, begins Hogfather on a similar theme.
Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.
The story so far:
In the beginning the universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
One of my favourite beginnings comes from P.G Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith.
At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.
Wodehouse was a true master of the ridiculous and, despite what you may may have heard, dished out the treatment to all classes and political persuasions in equal measure. In Pigs Have Wings, he begins below stairs.
Beach the butler, wheezing a little after navigating the stairs, for he was not the streamlined young under-footman he had been thirty years ago, entered the library of Blandings Castle, a salver piled with letters in his hand.
One of the most famous first line of all time, and another favourite, comes from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
A provocatively ridiculous beginning from another author who delighted in the absurdity of human society. Jane Austen is shamefully regarded by too many as a mere romance novelist when she deserves pride of place among satirists. Perhaps this is because audiences are more familiar with (some) film and television adaptations that replace much of the humour with cleavage and bonnets.
So ends my beginning. In quoting the beginnings of others, I’m conscious that I have offered very little in the way of original thought, but I think it’s important to always begin with respect for what has gone before.
Last week, I began a series exploring ‘Wodehouse on Women’ in response to criticism of Indian Summer of an Uncle by Janet Cameron. In Part 1, I opened the case for the defence by demonstrating that Wodehouse did not specifically exclude women as complex characters in his work. One Wodehouse expert has added further evidence, noting that several Wodehouse novels featured well-developed female central characters. The Adventures of Sally (1922) is a good example.
Today, I address the next item on the charge sheet.
‘Men are portrayed as being in league against women’
Cameron writes: ‘the male characters (are shown as) victims who support each other as if repelling an unwelcome, alien force’ and that the ‘need to exclude women even overcomes class-consciousness.’ In order to respond to this, a short summary of Indian Summer of an Uncle (1930) is required.
Bertie Wooster‘s Uncle George is ‘a prominent London clubman’ of advanced years and even more advanced waistline: ‘tailors measure him just for the sake of the exercise.’ He spends his life gorging at table and boring anyone who’ll listen with complaints about the lining of his stomach or (especially after a few drinks) a barmaid he once loved. At the beginning of the story, Uncle George announces his intention of marrying a young waitress, Miss Rhoda Platt.
Bertie thinks Uncle George is behaving like an ‘old fathead’ over a young girl, but he has no particular objection to the girl’s social position. Bertie’s only thought is to escape London before his Aunt Agatha – a notorious snob – hears of it and attempts to involve him in breaking off the affair . He is too late however, and Agatha sends him off, most unwillingly, to offer the girl money to ‘release’ Uncle George.
When this scheme fails, Bertie consents to a more subtle plan proposed by Jeeves (whose friend is also in love with the young girl) to introduce Uncle George to the young woman’s Aunt Maudie. Mrs Wilberforce is a large, jovial woman who plans to live with her niece when she is married. Jeeves suggests that Uncle George’s resolve might weaken when he meets this woman, who is definitely ‘of the people’. However, when Bertie orchestrates the meeting, he learns that Aunt Maudie is the barmaid who Uncle George loved and lost in his youth – a fact already known to Jeeves (but withheld from Bertie).
An affecting reunion takes place.
‘Maudie, you don’t look a day older, dash it!’
‘Nor do you, Piggy.’
‘How have you been all these years?’
‘Pretty well. The lining of my stomach isn’t all it should be.’
‘Good Gad! You don’t say so? I have trouble with the lining of my stomach.’
‘It’s a sort of heavy feeling after meals.’
‘I get a sort of heavy feeling after meals. What are you trying for it?’
When Uncle George and Aunt Maudie become engaged, Bertie is (rightly) annoyed to discover that this was Jeeves’ plan all along. But for the reader, the union between Uncle George and Aunt Maudie is a satisfying end. Far from brooding on the engagement, Bertie’s primary concern is to escape the metropolis before his Aunt Agatha finds out.
Treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
Indian Summer of an Uncle, like most Wodehouse stories, is tangled with plots and sub-plots. The complexity of his plots is one reason why he needed to sketch his characters so lightly and make use of stereotypes. His characters are frequently drawn into league with other characters, not always willingly, with an ambitious and eclectic array of personal motives.
In this story, the following characters work ‘in league’ at some point:
- Bertie reluctantly colludes with Aunt Agatha to undermine Uncle George – Aunt Agatha’s plan to bribe Rhoda Platt to ‘release’ Uncle George (without his knowledge) parodies popular romantic fiction of the era. It would have been unpleasant for Miss Platt, but she would at least have some choice in the matter -unlike Uncle George.
- Bertie and Jeeves work in league to end Uncle George’s engagement – While they collude to end Uncle George’s attachment, theirs is not an open and honest partnership. Jeeves hides critical facts from Bertie when he proposes the scheme that will reunite Uncle George with his old flame, Mrs Wilberforce.
- Bertie and Jeeves unite to escape Aunt Agatha – They conspire to leave town as quickly as possible, before Bertie is asked to intervene in Uncle George’s new engagement.
The charge of men ‘working in league’ is therefore partly correct, but most of the collusion in this story occurs at the expense of besotted Uncle George. But there is never a suggestion that Bertie and Jeeves are acting to save George from the clutches of a female or the state of marriage on principle. For that particular storyline, we must turn to Bachelors Anonymous.
‘…for many years I have belonged to a little circle whose members have decided that the celibate life is best. We call ourselves Bachelors Anonymous… When one of us feels the urge to take a woman out to dinner becoming too strong for him, he seeks the other members of the circle and tells them of his craving, and they reason with him. He pleads that just one dinner cannot do him any harm, but they know what one dinner can lead to. They point out the inevitable results of that first downward step. Once yield to temptation, they say, and dinner will be followed by further dinners, lunches for two and tete-a-tetes in dimly lit boudoirs, until in morning-coat and sponge-bag trousers he stands cowering beside his bride at the alter rails, racked with regret and remorse when it is too late.”
Bachelors Anonymous (1973)
If you’re looking for male characters who plot against women purely on misogynistic principle, the book you want is Bachelors Anonymous; it’s stuffed to the gills with male ‘victims’ banding together to thwart the romantic attachments of their comrades. But it would take a stern and humourless critic to object to Bachelors Anonymous on these grounds, when Wodehouse is clearly poking fun at these men and their sentiments. Later, one of the Bachelors complains:
‘Have you ever considered what marriage means? I do not refer to the ghastly ordeal of the actual service, with its bishops and assistant clergy, its bridesmaids and the influx of all the relations you have been trying to avoid for years, but to what comes after… From what you were saying about the dimple on this girl’s left cheek I gather that she is not without physical allure, but can she drive a car? Somebody has got to drive the car and do the shopping while you are playing golf. Somebody has got to be able to fix a flat tyre… Like so many young men… you have allowed yourself to be ensnared by a pretty face, never asking yourself if the person you are hoping to marry is capable of making out your income tax return and can be relied on to shovel snow while you are curled up beside the fire with a novel of suspense.’
Wodehouse’s misogynist-bachelors are just as ridiculous as the other extremists in his wide cast of characters that includes amateur dictators, snobbish peers, communists, business executives, golfers, Bishop, serious poets – not forgetting the gang of Aunts. By the end of Bachelors Anonymous, his chief Bachelor has seen the light, and espouses just as fanatically on the joys of marriage.
Elsewhere in the world of Wodehouse, men and women can frequently be found plotting and scheming together in harmony, thwarting the machinations of appalling villains of both sexes. In Piccadilly Jim (1917), Jimmy Crocker and Ann Chester conspire to kidnap the revolting Ogden Ford. In Leave it Psmith (1923) Psmith unites with Eve Halliday to outwit Rupert Baxter (and a cunning male-female crime duo) to steal Lady Constance’s necklace.
It is true that Wodehouse’s men often collude against women, but the reasons are usually complex and plot driven. There are men who are portrayed as victims of women, and in the Jeeves stories the need to ‘save’ chums from marriage (to particular females) is a recurring plot device. But Bertie also helps friends – male and female – towards marriage – and is supportive of his female friends and relatives. As someone who has read Wodehouse widely, I feel qualified to say there is no pattern of male characters specifically excluding and working against females.
I feel satisfied that we can dismiss this second charge.
- Wodehouse on Women: the case for the defence (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
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.