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People often come to Plumtopia looking for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular. It’s a good question.
The short answer, is that there is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse –and if you ask the question in one of the many online Wodehouse forums, you’ll get at least a dozen answers. Picking up the first book you come across is often as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.
But the short answer isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for practical advice. This post, and the short series to follow, offers a guide to readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.
A suggested reading list for getting started is provided below, followed by some general guidance for new readers.
Reading suggestions for getting started
Jeeves and Wooster: Start your adventure with Wodehouse’s best known characters in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). It’s not a novel, but a fine collection of short stories –many of them classics– from the very start of the saga. If you prefer to start with a novel, try Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor). See my second piece in this series for a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list.
Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea.
The Inimitable Jeeves
Blandings: Blandings Castle is arguably literature’s finest Utopia. Or as Evelyn Waugh put it: ‘the gardens of Blandings Castle are the original gardens of Eden from which we are all exiled.’ Dip your toe into Paradise with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New), or the classic short story collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935).
“Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”
‘The Custody of the Pumpkin’ in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere
Psmith: Rupert or Ronald Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp) is a favourite among Wodehouse lovers. Start with his first appearance in the brilliant school stories, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you prefer an adult novel, his final outing in Leave it to Psmith (1923) is wonderful (and won’t spoil your enjoyment of the earlier stories).
Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”
Mike and Psmith
Ukridge: He’s the character Wodehouse readers love to hate — a blighter and a scoundrel to be sure, but his adventures are comedy gold. Start with the short story collection Ukridge (1924) or the novel Love Among the Chickens (revised in 1921).
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge
Uncle Fred: Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred is a dapper old gent with a twinkle in his eye, and a penchant for adventure — a man who can adopt an alias at the drop of a hat, and frequently does. Start with his first appearance in the short story, Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), in the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save this treat for later if you can.
I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means, but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.
‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ in Young Men in Spats
Short Stories: Wodehouse was a master of the short story format, and would be classed alongside greats like Chekhov if he hadn’t been a humourist. The Mulliner stories are outstanding. Start anywhere you like, but Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927) is the first. The Oldest Member golf stories are also terrific –try The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required to enjoy them.
Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.
The Clicking of Cuthbert
The novels: Plot spoilers are less of a problem with Wodehouse’s ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some are connected by recurring characters. There are plenty of novels to choose from, but if you’re chronologically inclined, some good examples from his early period include Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) and The Small Bachelor (1927).
The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you.
Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse (or know where to start, unless you’re lucky), but they should be able to order books for you. If your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.
Links to books currently in print and available for purchase online have been included in the text. Out of print books are frequently available second-hand at reasonable prices. Don’t be alarmed by the price of expensive first and collectable editions. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks and don’t mind which editions you buy. Most titles are also available as Ebooks, including those which are out of print.
Understanding the chronological challenge
Many of Wodehouse’s stories first appeared in magazines such as The Strand (UK) and The Saturday Evening Post (US), but weren’t always published in book form in the same order – or under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of publication you will encounter ‘spoilers’, particularly in the Blandings series. Wodehouse also rewrote some of his early stories, so the beginning isn’t always the best place to start. It’s also helpful to know that Wodehouse’s books were often published under different titles in the UK and US.
In putting this series together, I’ve referred to many excellent online resources that exist for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefitted from the invaluable advice of Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.
The next piece in the series provides a reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories.
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.”
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.
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!
A dash of Wodehouse is always a great gift idea. This seasons piece offers a few ideas to help you choose something special for the Wodehouse lover in your life — or for those poor souls of your acquaintance who have yet to discover his healing prose.
Wodehouse for first timers
I often give Wodehouse books to new readers, with mixed results. The trick is to tailor your choice to what Jeeves calls ‘the psychology of the individual’. If you want to start your intended reader on the Jeeves stories, I recommend The Inimitable Jeeves.
With the Everyman (Overlook) Library editions making Wodehouse’s lesser known works widely available, you needn’t start with Jeeves. If your intended recipient is a fan of detective stories, Wodehouse’s world is full of shady activities, from impersonation through to pig-napping. Why not start them off with Sam the Sudden, or Piccadilly Jim? Or the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh — it’s a particular favourite of mine, now available in a special 100th Anniversary edition.
For romance with a female central character, try The Adventures of Sally or French Leave. For sports enthusiasts, try Wodehouse on golf in The Clicking of Cuthbert, or cricket in Wodehouse at the Wicket (compiled by Murray Hedgcock).
Wodehouse for enthusiasts
The task of collecting and reading your way through the published works of Wodehouse has never been easier, thanks to the aforementioned Everyman’s Library. If money is no object you can complete the set very quickly, but it’s a bit like eating a box of chocolates in one sitting.
Acquiring Wodehouse in smaller bites over a longer period allows readers to savour the pleasures of anticipating and enjoying each book on its own merits. It also allows friends and family to contribute with gifts they know will be appreciated. To avoid duplication, keep a list of the titles you already have. Try this list of the Everyman editions as a starting point.
For serious enthusiasts, including those who have collected all the Wodehouse they can get their hands on, there are other ways to bring sweetness and light into their lives. Here are a few suggestions.
Recent releases on the subject of Wodehouse
John Dawson and the Globe Reclamation Project team have spent two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper. John spoke passionately at the Seattle convention about his quest to uncover more of Wodehouse’s work, and the result is this wealth of ‘new’ Wodehouse material, made available to us all in: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking with a discount available to Wodehouse Society members.
2015 also saw the release of N.T.P. Murphy’s The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany . It’s available in Kindle and Hardcover from Amazon or Kobo ebook (more details below). I’ve found this nifty little volume to be a valuable reference in the few short months since its release, and expect it will quickly establish itself as a ‘must have’ for Wodehouse enthusiasts.
Volume 1 of Murphy’s highly regarded A Wodehouse Handbook has been revised and rereleased as an ebook, available from Kobo Books . You or your gift recipient will need the Kobo’s e-reader software, which is free to download from their website.
Wodehouse Society Membership.
Why not give the gift of membership? For a modest annual fee, members can attend society gatherings and receive a quarterly journal to keep them up to date on all things Wodehouse. Find out more from:
- The Wodehouse Society (US) Membership costs $25. Have a look at their Regional Chapters page to find your nearest group.
- The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) Membership costs £22 for a full year (£11 for 6 months if you join between December-February). The society holds meetings and social evenings in London, as well as occasional outings in the other locations.
- A list of other Wodehouse Societies is available from the UK Society website.
For younger readers who may not be ready for their first Wodehouse, I recommend The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (recommended age 10+) or Guards! Guards! for adult readers. Terry Pratchett was a fitting winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and I’d recommend his books generally to Wodehouse fans.
My daughter enjoys the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens (Puffin Books recommend for ages 7-12). Set in a 1930s English girls’ boarding school, each book involves the girls in solving a murder. They’re written in an engaging style that doesn’t underestimate young readers’ intelligence, and they provide a good introduction to the period. This should help when your youngster is ready for Wodehouse. The fourth book in the series, Jolly Foul Play, is due out in March 2016.
Film, Television and Audiobook adaptations
Not all Wodehouse lovers enjoy seeing his work adapted. For those of us who do, some adaptations are difficult to find (the BBC telemovie Heavy Weather is not available on DVD) and others are best avoided. I don’t think you can go wrong with the Wodehouse Playhouse series. P.G. Wodehouse introduces several episodes himself. Another popular adaptation is the Jeeves and Wooster television series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. This series introduced many people to the joys of Wodehouse, making it a good choice for Wodehouse fans and new readers alike.
I’d also highly recommend adding Wodehouse audiobooks to your collection, or giving them as a gift. There have been various narrators – all of them good in my view. A Wodehouse audiobook would make a wonderful gift for someone who may be incapacitated, ‘getting on’ in years or for people with reading difficulties.
Miscellaneous gift ideas
I had many more ideas to share, but Christmas will have come and gone before a full list could be completed (if you’ve already done your shopping, you’ll at least be in time for the January sales). Here are a few more suggestions for the Wodehouse lover in your life:
- A silver cow creamer
- Spats and a Homburg hat, or a well-fitted Topper
- A tightly rolled umbrella
- Dahlias or Chrysanthemums
- A Berkshire sow
- Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire
- A statue of the Infant Samuel at Prayer
In the spirit of Plumtopia, I end with another Wodehouse wishlist, from Mr Ashok Bhatia -– A Plum Wish List for Santa this Christmas! — as a reminder of the joy Wodehouse brings to readers all year round.
In the case of Wodehouse, that cliché about gifts that keep on giving, really does apply.
Happy Christmas everyone!
“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:
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.
‘Do you like the name Mabel?’
‘You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?’
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?
5 “Keep 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?”
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.”
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.
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)
Mrs Pett, like most other people, subconsciously held the view that the ruder a person is the more efficient he must be. It is but rarely that anyone is found who is not dazzled by the glamour of incivility.
from Piccadilly Jim
I’m bitterly well-acquainted with the ‘glamour of incivility‘. Shop assistants and waiters seem particularly susceptible to its charms. I, on the other hand, am immune.
Picture, if you will, an orderly line of shoppers at a supermarket checkout. After a reasonable wait, it is my turn and I attempt to place my small handful of items before the checkout assistant. I am unexpectedly thwarted by the woman behind me, who steps in front of me, and presents her basket of goods. She has the air of one who believes rudeness is quite acceptable in the filthy rich.
This blot on the landscape of womanhood looks directly at the shop assistant with a condescending half-smile.
“If you don’t mind… My car’s in the 5 minute park.” It is a statement, not a question. She doesn’t need to tell us how large and expensive her car is. It’s implied.
“I mind!” I say.
I must be invisible and surrounded by a cone of silence, because nobody looks at me.
The shop assistant promptly serves the foul female, who leaves without a hint of apology or gratitude. She never acknowledges my presence at any point.
When it’s my turn… again, I give the assistant a sympathetic smile.
“I really hate rude people, ” I say.
She gives me a blank, and frankly unfriendly stare. Clearly, I wasn’t rude enough.