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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 with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) short stories or the novel 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: Avoid plot spoilers by starting with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New). Or get acquainted with the (later) classic Blandings short stories in Blandings Castle (1935).
‘I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?’
Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervour. Mr Simmonds, eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children.
Psmith: Start with the brilliant school story, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you’re not a fan of the genre, try Leave it to Psmith (1923), the last Psmith novel. Reading it first shouldn’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)
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: Start with Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), a short story from the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save it for later.
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: Start the Mulliner stories with Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927); and the Oldest Member golf stories with 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 the ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some of them are connected by recurring characters. Try Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) or The Small Bachelor (1927) to start.
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, but they should be able to order them for you –and 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 you see advertised, which are aimed at collectors. 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. And it’s 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 identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.
‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’
Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.
The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.
The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.
There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.
(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)
Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.
There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.
We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.
My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.
Best wishes to you all for 2016!
I recently took a well-thumbed copy of Wodehouse’s French Leave on holiday to Paris, a city famed for its literary connections. P.G. Wodehouse was briefly a resident, and opens the second chapter of French Leave (1956) there:
As the clocks of Paris were striking eleven on a morning three weeks after the Bensonburg expeditionary force had set out for Europe, a tall, willowy, elegant figure dressed in the extreme of fashion, turned the corner of the Rue Belleau and entered the Rue Vanaye. It was Nicholas Jules St Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne, affectionately known to his friends, of whom he had many in all walks of life, as Old Nick.
This ‘Bensonburg expeditionary force’ are three Trent sisters, chicken-farmers from Long Island USA. Having received a modest lump sum, they decide to take a well-earned jaunt to the French resort towns of St. Rocque and Roville. Our heroine is Terry (short for Teresa), who falls in love with Old Nick’s son Jeff. Wodehouse is in top form, expertly employing all the usual comic devices to bring our lovers together. As we expect from Wodehouse, the marriage quest involves overcoming a lack of money and parental objections, as well as painful misunderstandings, and other romantic entanglements.
French Leave also deviates from the classic Wodehouse novel. It is set in France, with a French and American cast. The French flavour includes a summer festival, a corruptible Commissaire of Police, and even a risqué bedroom scene. Terry Trent is the central character, and although she is not Wodehouse’s only female lead, we are more accustomed to following the hero. It is clear that in French Leave, Wodehouse is trying something a little different – and he does it superbly.
French Leave was not universally well-received back in 1956, and it seems modern readers (judging by ‘Good Reads’ reviews) are similarly inclined to prefer it when Wodehouse sticks to his established formula and characters. This seems a shame, because there is much to enjoy in Wodehouse’s stand-alone novels. One of the delights of French Leave is the Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne. Old Nick steals the show with a terrific personality, reminiscent of Ukridge.
Old Nick quivered at the magic word. Americans were always rich. God bless America, he had often felt, unconsciously plagiarizing the poet Berlin.
‘She has a suite on the first floor.’
Old Nick quivered again. He knew what those suites on the first floor of the Hotel Splendide cost.
‘Looks a nice girl,’ said Jeff carelessly. ‘I’ve seen her about the place. I’ve wished occasionally that there was some way of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Some way?’ Old Nicks voice trembled. ‘There are a hundred ways of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Such as —?’
‘Save her from drowning.’
‘She’d be much more likely to save me. She’s a wonderful swimmer. I’ve—er—happened to see her once or twice. But she goes out too far, much too far,’ said Jeff earnestly. ‘It’s dangerous. Suppose she got a cramp? It makes me anxious. Any other suggestions as to what I could save her from? Fire? Runaway horse? Assassins?’
‘Don’t treat this thing with levity,’ said Old Nick severely. He was still thinking of that suite on the first floor. ‘I don’t like to feel that a son of mine is lacking in enterprise. Get into a conversation with her—casually, as it were.’
My favourite passage in French Leave provides an excellent example of Wodehouse demonstrating (again) a depth of understanding he is rarely credited with. Here is Old Nick, explaining a prolonged absence from work to his employer:
‘What happens? I wake. I rise. I shave. I bathe. I breakfast. I take my hat and cane. I say to myself ‘And now for the bureau.’ I go out into the street, and at once I am in a world of sunshine and laughter and happiness, a world in which it seems ridiculous to be shut up in a stuffy office with the senile Soupe and the homicidal Letondu. And all of a sudden. . . how it happens I couldn’t tell you . . . I find myself in a chair on the boulevard, a cigarette between my lips, coffee and a cognac in front of me. It’s a most mysterious state of affairs.’
‘A state of affairs which cannot—’
‘But I am strong,’ proceeded Nick. ‘I take out my watch and lay it on the table. ‘When the hands point to eleven,’ I say to myself, ‘Ho for the bureau.’ And when they point to eleven, I say ‘Ho for the bureau when they point to half past.’ And when they point to half past—’
‘You wait til noon and then go off to lunch?’
Old Nick, unaccustomed to office life, finds the prospects of a fine day cooped up at work unendurable. Instead of enduring, as we workers do, he bucks. We can only dream of following his example. My own life is ebbing away inside a tiny, windowless office — designed by the sort of people who feel that a combination of concrete and asbestos makes the perfect work environment — and not a day passes when I don’t feel it. Old Nick’s defiance brings us both pleasure and a reminder of our pain.
Nor is this a one-off. Wodehouse (who was once a bank employee) releases many captive workers in his stories, and there is a depth to this recurring theme that his critics (and even some fans) overlook, especially if they are readers who lead easy lives. There’s nothing wrong with an easy life, but for those less fortunate, Wodehouse gets to heart of our plight — it’s no surprise to us that George Orwell was a Wodehouse fan.
Similar sentiments are expressed by the chicken-farming Trent sisters :
‘Here we are, young, ardent idealistic, yearning for life and love and laughter, and what do we get? Eggs.’
Like the Trent girls, my trip to Paris was a fleeting escape that drained the family coffers, but was worth every penny.
While strolling in the Latin Quarter, I spotted a man who might have been the Marquis himself, long haired in the style of Louis the Somethingth, wearing flamboyant purple trousers and a pair of preposterous gentleman’s heels. His face was furnished with a dashing moustache. I don’t wish to give the impression that all of France was got up in this sort of fancy dress, but I was delighted to encounter such a character in 21st century Paris. I do hope he was bunking off work!
This summer I visited the Hampshire town of Emsworth, where P.G Wodehouse once lived. He first arrived at the invitation of Herbert Westbrook, who was teaching at Emsworth House School. Westbrook is described in Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse, A Life in Letters’ as “handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke.” He is forever associated in my mind with the character Ukridge and, for some unfathomable reason, the novel I most associate with Emsworth is Love Among the Chickens (1906).
Wodehouse lived for a time at Emsworth House School, run by Baldwin King-Hall and his sister Ella. The school is mentioned in Mike (1909) and provided the setting for The Little Nugget (1913). Sadly the building no longer exists. Wodehouse dedicated the Indiscretions of Archie (1921) to Baldwin King-Hall:
My Dear Buddy
We have been friends for eighteen years. A considerable
proportion of my books were written under your hospitable
roof. And I have never dedicated one to you. What will
be the verdict of Posterity on this? The fact is, I have
become rather superstitious about dedications. No sooner
do you label a book with the legend :
MY BEST FRIEND
Then X cuts you in Piccadilly, or you bring a lawsuit
against him. There is a fatality about it. However I can’t
imagine anyone quarrelling with you, and I am getting more
attractive all the time, so let’s take a chance.
Ella King Hall married Westbrook and there is some suggestion that he may have been Wodehouse’s rival for her affection. She later became Wodehouse’s literary agent in the UK.
Wodehouse moved from his lodgings at the school and rented a house nearby called ‘Threepwood’ (which he later bought). The blue plaque is faintly visible from the road. The name Threepwood should be familiar to fans of Wodehouse’s Blandings series, along with ‘Emsworth’ itself. Indeed the signs around town are almost a Blandings Who’s Who.
Wodehouse also had family in Emsworth, in the shape of his Uncle Walter and Aunt. They lived for a time in Havant Road and presumably ensured that young Plum lived up to familial expectations. This may well have extended to churchgoing. Which of Plum’s many ecclesiastical stories, I wonder, were inspired by his time on the pews here?
Wodehouse was a keen sportsman in his youth, and maintained an exercise regime throughout his life that included ‘Daily Dozen’ exercises and regular walking. So I particularly enjoyed strolling the coastal path (at the end of Beach Road) into town, knowing that Plum had ambled this way before me.
My tour of Emsworth was guided by notes graciously supplied by N.T.P Murphy, who mentions that George Bevan from A Damsel in Distress stays at the Crown Hotel. Although I was unable to get a decent photograph of its exterior, I spent several very pleasant hours at The Crown and look forward to returning there on future visits. A Damsel in Distress is set in the fictional fishing and oyster town of Belpher, which is clearly based on Emsworth.
And I certainly shall be returning – I want to visit the highly recommended Emsworth Museum, which was closed on the day of my visit. The town also celebrates its association with Wodehouse, hosting a P.G Wodehouse Festival that should attract Plumtopians for years to come.
More details about Wodehouse’s life and associations with Emsworth can be found in Christine Hewitt’s lovely article for the P G Wodehouse Society (UK) . There is also a Wodehouse page at Emsworth Online.
(c) All images are my own. Please send a request for permission to reproduce.
…a vacancy had been got for him in that flourishing institution, the New Asiatic Bank, and he was to enter upon his duties, whatever they might be, on the Tuesday of the following week. It was short notice, but banks have a habit of swallowing their victims rather abruptly.
from: Psmith in the City
P.G. Wodehouse experienced the world of banking at close range as a reluctant employee of The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank between 1900-1902. Some insight into Wodehouse’s experiences at the bank can be gleaned from Psmith in the City, in which young Mike Jackson, like Wodehouse himself, is launched unwillingly into a banking career by his father.
Wodehouse is pretty stern on the subject of bank managers.
They train bank clerks to stifle emotion, so they will be able to refuse overdrafts when they become managers.
But times, and banks, have changed since Wodehouse’s day. If reports from the world of finance are to be believed, the modern bank manger is an endangered species, more to be pitied than censured.