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P.G. Wodehouse reading list: the Blandings stories

blandings-castle

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

‘Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend’

(Blandings Castle)

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

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

A Blandings Reading List

The evolution of Blandings   

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

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

something-fresh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

HP

 

 

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The birth of P.G. Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes

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

N.T.P. Murphy, A Wodehouse Handbook

On the 15th of October, 1881, P.G. Wodehouse was born in Guildford , England.

Coincidentally, 1881 was also the year in which Dr. John Watson first met Sherlock Holmes. Their meeting was recounted by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887).

Some years later, the young Wodehouse became an avid reader of these stories, and his early work is littered with Holmesian references.  In The Adventure of the Split Infinitive , a 1902 short story published in ‘Public School Magazine’, Wodehouse sends Mr. Burdock Rose and his companion Dr. Wotsing to investigate a murder at St. Asterisk’s school.

“Anyone suspected?” I asked.

“I was coming to that. One of the Form, Vanderpoop by name, under whose desk the corpse was discovered, has already been arrested.”

“Did he make any statement?”

“Well, he hit the policeman under the jaw, if that could be called making a statement. He is now in the local police-station awaiting trial. Popular opinion is, I should say, strongly against him.”

“That I should think is in itself almost enough to clear him. Popular opinion is always wrong.”

The Adventure of the Split Infinitive (1902)

Wodehouse’s wonderful school duo Psmith and Jackson bear some similarity to Holmes and Watson. Psmith is uniquely brilliantly, while his friend Mike Jackson is loyal and dependable. Psmith sees himself as a Holmsian figure and consciously uses Holmes-speak in conversation. It was Wodehouse’s Psmith, not Conan-Doyle’s Holmes, who first used the words ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ — in Psmith Journalist (1910).

“Sherlock Holmes was right,” said Psmith regretfully. “You may remember that he advised Doctor Watson never to take the first cab, or the second. He should have gone further, and urged him not to take cabs at all. Walking is far healthier.”

Psmith Journalist (1910).

The language of Holmes and Watson was one that Wodehouse readers knew – then and now. Many Wodehouse enthusiasts today are fans of Conan Doyle, and much research has been done to find the Holmesian references in Wodehouse’s writing. An excellent list, compiled by John Dawson, is available from the Madam Eulalie website.

Another well researched piece by fellow blogger Shreevatsa reveals that Wodehouse wrote an introduction to a 1970s edition of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.

When I was starting out as a writer—this would be about the time Caxton invented the printing press—Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.

Wodehouse and Conan Dolyle also became friends. They shared a mutual love of cricket and played together for the Authors Cricket Club .

Wodehouse retained a love of detective stories throughout his life, and this was reflected in his work. He enjoyed entangling characters in a spot of light crime, and created numerous detectives to catch them at it –like Miss Trimble and Mr Sturgis (Piccadilly Jim), Percy Frobisher Pilbeam (Heavy Weather), and Maudie Stubbs née Beach (Pigs Have Wings). He even tried his hand at straight detective fiction, in The Education of Detective Oakes (Pearson’s Magazine, 1914), later republished as The Harmonica Mystery, and Death at the Excelsior. 

Perhaps, if he had applied himself seriously, P.G. Wodehouse might have become a great crime writer. Happily for us, he didn’t — readers of detective fiction are spoiled for choice, but great humour writers are lamentably rare. The result was a happy one for his characters too. As a creator of comedy romances, Wodehouse’s detectives were permitted time off from the study of little known Asiatic poisons to relax at the Senior Bloodstain, and even to fall in love.

A hardboiled crime writer could never permit such diversions, as we learn from Wodehouse’s fictional crime writer, James Rodman, in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’.

He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not descend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.

Honeysuckle Cottage

While the great Sherlock Holmes remained a bachelor, Wodehouse’s Adrian Mulliner, detective with the firm Widgery and Boon, won the heart of Millicent Shipton-Bellinger after he distinguished himself in the Adventure of the Missing Sealyham (‘The Smile That Wins).

All her life she had been accustomed to brainless juveniles who eked out their meagre eyesight with monocles and, as far as conversation was concerned, were a spent force after they had asked her if she had seen the Academy or did she think she would prefer a glass of lemonade. The effect on her of a dark, keen-eyed man like Adrian Mulliner, who spoke well and easily of footprints, psychology and the underworld, must have been stupendous.

‘The Smile That Wins’ (Mulliner Nights)

No less stupendous, it seems, was Wodehouse’s life-long love for the genre. I can imagine him, even as a nonagenarian, clawing at the birthday gift-wrapping with indecent haste to get at the latest crime thriller inside.

Happy Birthday Plum!

HP

Ridiculous Beginnings

Pigs Have Wings (1952)

All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.

Albert Camus

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.

Further thoughts on the subject are offered by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe .

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.

HP

The four seasons of Wodehouse

1939 Uncle Fred in the SpringtimeIt 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?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘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)

Autumn 2012 in Berskhire

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.

1938 Summer MoonshineIn 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.

HP

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