Many years ago, I received a report from my English teacher which went something like this: “It’s lovely that he reads so much. Perhaps at some point he could be made aware that there are other authors than PG Wodehouse.”
Well, yes. Fair point. But if, in some twist on Desert Island Discs, I were told to pick one author – just one – to be the only one I could read for the rest of my life, it would have to be PG Wodehouse. I would regret the loss of David Eddings and Jane Austen. I’d part with Dickens without (much of) a pang. I’d be sorry about abandoning Waugh and the Brontës. I’d give a rueful smile as I gave up Le Guin. Ditching Dumas would be distressing. But I don’t think the issue would ever be in any doubt. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, who went by his initials or “Plum” for reasons which have just been made abundantly clear, would take the prize as surely as if nobody else had even turned up. Thus far I am, fortunately, my father’s son.
That’s not just a question of volume, though he did produce around ninety novels and collections of short stories. It’s a matter of craftsmanship and comic brilliance; of deftly drawn, compelling characters and tightly woven plots. It’s about dialogue which is perfectly ridiculous and ridiculously perfect, and drawing a sharp line between the impossible and the merely improbable. It is, in short, a question of being simply the greatest, by which I mean: possibly the funniest human being ever to have lived.
Here we have seven gems, and by deft selection I have by and large avoided the established settings. Five of the books are entirely standalone full-length novels, while two are collections taking in the Drones and Mr Mulliner. Not only am I out to convert the heathen non-fan (which must surely be a category of people coterminous with those who have never read PG’s work), I am also compelled to strive with might and main for the Wodehouse beyond Wooster – the Ukridges, Psmiths, Emsworths and Bodkins of the world.
Taking them in turn, we begin with The Adventures of Sally. One of the novels, it deals with Sally Nicholas and the cast of characters (by turns delightful, intriguing, charming and ridiculous) who assemble around her as she buzzes from one side of the Atlantic to the other. We have Fillmore, her theatrical impresario (among other half-baked ideas) of a brother; Gerald Foster, her playwright fiancé; Lancelot “Ginger” Kemp, who appears to be some sort of dog-whisperer; and the other inmates of Mrs Meecher’s boarding house, where Sally lays a weary head and keeps body and soul together. These supporting actors move in and out of Sally’s life (which, as we open, has been made gloriously complicated by a recent inheritance) with just the crafted naturalness you’d expect from Wodehouse. There are lovely letters and unwanted suitors; hilarious moments and moving ones; changes of scenery from France to New York to the English countryside (“Why any of you ever live in towns I can’t think”). Ginger tries to explain rugby – I’ll tread lightly here, because I know I’m sometimes about as clear as mud when I start expounding that sport of sports, but at least I’ve never quite said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who didn’t know what a scrum-half was.” “‘You don’t have two scrum-halves in a team,’ he said, pained at this ignorance on a vital matter.”
Old hands will find a refreshing change of pace. Newcomers will be able to experience the great man genuinely fresh, rather than against a hinterland of half-absorbed cultural understanding. A perfect little fait accompli.
Ever tried kissing her? I’ve known that to answer.
From Sally to (Lord) Shortlands (who looks more like a butler than a peer), and Spring Fever. Schemes and stratagems and secrets are to PG Wodehouse as catnip is to cats.
Those of my readers who are exactly as ill-informed about tragedy as I am (those better-informed will be sure to know that I am wrong) will agree that one of the great theories of the genre compares it to a piece of clockwork, which, once wound up and set going, will continue with inexorable precision. When it’s all over, and the stage is littered with corpses, all one can think is “How could it have been otherwise?”
Spring Fever gives me flashes of the same feeling. There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will; here the divinity is Mr Wodehouse, and he moves his characters about the stage in the literary equivalent of a cross between Blind-Man’s Bluff and the Bolshoi Ballet.
“He sullied my ears by describing you as a cuddly little piece.”
“But aren’t I?”
“That is not the point.”
And that, as they say, is that.
By the time Young Men in Spats was published in 1936, the spat as an item of men’s clothing was on the decline. I mention it as an interesting titbit from sartorial history, but it does also underscore the point that attempting to date Wodehouse’s books is more or less futile. About the only things that change between them are the names of the movie stars occasionally invoked to provide an ideal of feminine beauty, male grace or romantic sentiment. Young men in spats don’t fail to be nattily turned-out because of something as trivial as the vagaries of real-world fashion. (The title is also, of course, a pun.)
This is one of the collections, a mixture of Drones Club and Mr Mulliner short stories. I’ve discussed Mr Mulliner before, but the Drones will bear just a touch of explanation. It’s a members’ club, populated almost exclusively by specimens of that Wodehousian breed of always-broke young men of the upper classes – Bertie Wooster’s running mates (although he, unlike what appears to be the typical member, is generally solvent). They are rowdy and high-spirited – “if you can stop short of smashing the piano, there isn’t much you can do at the Drones that will cause the raised eyebrow and the sharp intake of breath” – and they while away the weary hour with stories of adventure and misadventure, usually in romance. Our “ordinary” members, as opposed to the named protagonists of the stories they tell, fall into one of three or four categories: Eggs, Beans, or Crumpets, with a smattering of Piefaces. Usually Crumpets are the ones regaling, and Eggs, Beans and Piefaces are the ones regaled.
One of the Drones stories features the fantastic Uncle Fred (aka the Earl of Ickenham), an almost offensively sprightly chap – considering his dissipated youth in the nineties – somewhat reminiscent of Galahad Threepwood or an older Psmith, and who feels, apparently, “a youngish twenty-two”. “I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means,” comments our narrator Crumpet, “but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.” Uncle Fred himself prefers to refer to it as spreading sweetness and light. If you enjoy him here, and I can’t think how one shouldn’t, you can find him elsewhere – for example, the helpfully-titled Uncle Fred in the Springtime.
“I am only a poor poet…”
“How poor?” asked the other, keenly.
“I was referring to my Art. Financially, I am nicely fixed.”
Barmy went to the door and opened it sharply. There was the unmistakeable sound of a barmaid falling downstairs.
She could not have looked better to him if he had drawn up the specifications himself.
His standing with her, he perceived, was now approximately what King Herod’s would have been at an Israelite Mothers’ Social Saturday Afternoon.
There were girls within a biscuit-throw in bathing-suits which began at the base of the spine and ended two inches lower down, but he did not give them so much as a glance.
An Englishman, she thought bitterly, would have to have a signed permit from a girl before he felt justified in kissing her.
One parallel, at least, even if no more, can be drawn between Company for Henry and Spring Fever: that of the American millionaire obsessed with his connections to a landed English family. Here, the millionaire is J Wendell Stickney; the landed English family, the Paradenes, of Ashby Hall, Ashby Paradene, Sussex. The titular Henry is Harry Paradene, head of the family, former actor and rather short of ready money. Supporting characters include Stickney’s Aunt Kelly, who “resembled a Ziegfeld Follies girl who had been left out in the rain and swollen a little”; Harry’s niece and nephew Jane and Algy, one of whom is lovely and the other of whom is always about to be rich; and Algy’s good friend Bill Hardy, a writer with a face as villainous as his heart is pure.
The plot revolves around a paperweight – specifically, an heirloom paperweight which Harry (despite his burning desire to trade it for cold, hard cash) is legally incapable of selling, and which J Wendell Stickney (in accordance with his paperweight-mania) is desperate to get his hands on.
Plans for this end and that abound, ranging from the ingenious to the insipid; angry purveyors of wines and spirits send out brokers’ men in pursuit of unpaid bills; Biblical references and allusions to snippets of verse flourish. Bon appetit.
Oh. Oh. Oh, The Girl in Blue. More people engaged to the wrong people! More wrong people proving how much they’re the wrong people! More readers basking in something very much akin to “the sentimental glow which comes to old bachelors when they hear stories of young love”!
I find it difficult to express just why I like this book. I think it might just be that I like Jerry and Jane (another Jane – blame my reading order, not Wodehouse). Throw in a missing Gainsborough, a country house with paying guests and a (possibly) kleptomaniac American woman (“The arresting of shoplifters, like Art, knows no frontiers. A repugnance towards those who lift shops is common to all emporia”) and presto! a zany rom-com. I have no idea why Hollywood hasn’t snapped this up yet.
Penultimate book of the seven. Second collection. Eggs Beans and Crumpets is, again, a mixture of Drones Club action with some Mulliner; this time, though, we’re also treated to the absolute treat that is Ukridge.
How to describe Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge? Words fail, frankly. He’s scruffy and disreputable and (a little like Algy of Company for Henry) always on the make, looking for the next scheme to land him on velvet. His stories are narrated by the long-suffering Corky, who has had to become resigned to coming home to find Ukridge lounging on his (Corky’s) furniture, probably wearing his (Corky’s) clothes and generally making himself (Ukridge) at home. Ukridge is periodically thrown out and taken back in by his Aunt Julia, a very smart woman who on the one hand makes him wear a morning coat, but on the other provides him with three square meals and a roof over his head. He’s peculiarly charming but, at the same time, just irritating enough that you rather enjoy seeing him get his comeuppances. Most of my sympathy, at least, is monopolised by Corky, so I don’t have huge amounts left over. Ukridge can writhe – like the indiarubber man, he always bounces back.
And finally, the question on everyone’s lips, Do Butlers Burgle Banks? The answer, in short: this one does.
With some of the most civilised crooks you ever heard of, this is a really masterful piece of work. The characters are deft and amusing, the plotting enjoyable and intricate, and the dialogue smile-inducing at the very least.
“But you told me you didn’t like him.”
“Just a slip of the tongue.”
The bank in question is Bond’s Bank, last owned by Sir Hugo Bond – “The rule by which he had always lived was that the best would have to do until something better came along” – and now in the hands of Mike Bond and under the cosh of severe financial trouble. Different people, some more amateur than others, have different motives for its burglary. And in the end, “everything’s all right in the all-rightest of all possible worlds, as the fellow said.”
The Adventures of Sally
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “‘What ho!’ said Ginger, also internally condemning the poverty of speech as a vehicle for conveying thought.”
Best character Lovely old Mr Faucitt.
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “Some people are made incompatible by nature, like film-stars and their husbands.”
Best character Mike. Mike. A thousand times Mike.
Young Men in Spats
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “A box of matches fell at their feet like a father’s benediction.”
Best character Miss Postlethwaite, the erudite barmaid of the Angler’s Rest.
Company For Henry
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “It seemed to Bill that the lounge of the Beetle and Wedge, though solidly built, had broken into one of those modern dances.”
Best character Algy, who for all his insanities and inanities is essentially good-hearted.
The Girl in Blue
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “The library was on the second floor, a large sombre room brooded over by hundreds of grim calf-bound books assembled in the days when the reading public went in for volumes of collected sermons and had not yet acquired a taste for anything with spies and a couple of good murders in it.”
Best character Duane Stottlemeyer.
Eggs Beans and Crumpets
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “Myrtle, on her side, was endeavouring not to give utterance to a rough translation of something she had once heard a French taxi-driver say to a gendarme during her finishing-school days in Paris.”
Best character Bingo Little. How can one help loving Bingo?
Do Butlers Burgle Banks?
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “One may be relieved to see dregs of the Underworld, but there is no need to become chummy with them.”
Best character Ada Cootes.