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P.G. Wodehouse recommends: A Reading List for World Book Day

‘The two twin souls gazed into each other’s eyes. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’

P.G. Wodehouse

‘Strychnine In The Soup’ (Mulliner Nights)

To celebrate World Book Day, I’ve put together a little reading list of some of the books featured in Wodehouse’s writing.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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‘… I’m in the middle of a rather special book. Ever read Great Expectations? Dickens, you know.’

‘I know. Haven’t read it, though. Always rather funk starting on a classic, somehow. Good?’

‘My dear chap! Good’s not the word.’

The Pothunters (1902)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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‘Mr. Downing had read all the Holmes stories with great attention, and had thought many times what an incompetent ass Doctor Watson was; but, now that he had started to handle his own first case, he was compelled to admit that there was a good deal to be said in extenuation of Watson’s inability to unravel tangles.’

Mike and Psmith (1909)

‘His book was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the particular story, which he selected for perusal was the one entitled, “The Speckled Band.” He was not a great reader, but, when he read, he liked something with a bit of zip to it.’

Indiscretions Of Archie (1921)

Tennyson’s Idylls of the King 

She looked down. “Have you been reading? What is the book?”

“It’s a volume of Tennyson.”

“Are you fond of Tennyson?”

“I worship him,” said Sam reverently. “Those–” he glanced at his cuff–“those Idylls of the King! I do not like to think what an ocean voyage would be if I had not my Tennyson with me.”

“We must read him together. He is my favourite poet!”

“We will! There is something about Tennyson….”

“Yes, isn’t there! I’ve felt that myself so often!”

The Girl on The Boat (1922)

A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

‘Out of a library which was probably congested with the most awful tosh, he had stumbled first pop upon Mark Twain’s Tramp Abroad, a book which he had not read since he was a kid but had always been meaning to read again; just the sort of book, in fact, which would enable a fellow to forget the anguish of starvation until that milk-train went.’

Mr Mulliner Speaking (1929)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

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‘You cannot copyright an idea, and times have become so hard for thriller-writers that they are after any possible new murderer like a pack of wolves.

You see, the supply of murderers is giving out. They have all been used so often. You cannot even be sure of the detective’s friend flow. Ever since Agatha Christie’s Roger Ackroyd we keep a very sharp eye on that friend. It is very lucky for Doctor Watson that he belonged to the pre-Christie era.’

Louder and Funnier (1932)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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What does a fellow’s face matter anyway?’ said Joey Cooley.

‘Exactly.’

‘Looks don’t mean a thing. Didn’t Frankenstein get married?’

‘Did he?’ said Eggy. ‘I don’t know. I never met him. Harrow man, I expect.’

Laughing Gas (1936)

Das Kapital by Karl Marx

What a curse these social distinctions are. They ought to be abolished. I remember saying that to Karl Marx once, and he thought there might be an idea for a book in it.

Quick Service (1940)

Spinoza’s Ethics

‘Bertie! This is amazing! Do you really read Spinoza?’

It’s extraordinary how one yields to that fatal temptation to swank. It undoes the best of us. Nothing, I mean, would have been simpler than to reply that she had got the data twisted and that the authoritatively annotated edition was a present for Jeeves. But, instead of doing the simple, manly, straightforward thing, I had to go and put on dog.

‘Oh, rather,’ I said, with an intellectual flick of the umbrella. ‘When I have a leisure moment, you will generally find me curled up with Spinoza’s latest.’

Joy in the Morning (1947)

And not forgetting:

The complete works of William Shakespeare

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‘Beginning by quoting from Polonius’s speech to Laertes, which a surprising number of people whom you would not have suspected of familiarity with the writings of Shakespeare seem to know, Mr Pott had gone on to say that lending money always made him feel as if he were rubbing velvet the wrong way, and that in any case he would not lend it to Pongo, because he valued his friendship too highly.’

Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939)

‘From start to finish of every meal she soliloquized. Shakespeare would have liked her.’

The Mating Season (1949)

‘His blood pressure was high, his eye rolled in what they call a fine frenzy, and he was death-where-is-thy-sting-ing like nobody’s business.’

Jeeves in the Offing (1960)

This little compilation merely scratches the surface of literary reference in Wodehouse’s work, providing further proof, if further proof is needed, that the great comic master offers much more than a light read — he’s educational!

Happy Reading!

HP

Cover Image: P.G. Wodehouse’s reading chair and library by Honoria Plum

Highballs for Breakfast

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Highballs for Breakfast is a new compilation of P.G. Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of liquor, drinking, Dutch Courage and mornings after, compiled and edited by Richard T. Kelly. It’s a well-researched collection that delves widely into the Wodehouse canon, unearthing plenty of treasures on the subject.

‘…Have you ever tasted a mint-julep, Beach?’

‘Not to my recollection, sir.’

‘Oh, you’d remember all right if you had. Insidious things. They creep up on you like a baby sister and slide their little hands into yours and the next thing you know the judge is telling you to pay the clerk of the court fifty dollars…’

Summer Lightning (1929)

The classic scenes you’d expect to find are here, including Gussie Fink Nottle’s presentation of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School in Right Ho, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster’s ‘a-hunting-we-will-go’ with the port decanter in The Mating Season. But if you’re unfamiliar with Wodehouse’s world beyond the Jeeves stories, this book should also whet your appetite to discover hidden gems like Cocktail Time, Doctor Sally, Uncle Dynamite, Ukridge, and the Mulliner stories.

‘Suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another, what in your view would best meet the case?’

The gentlemanly bar-tender pondered for some moments.

‘Well,’ he replied at length, ‘I advance it, you understand, as a purely personal opinion, and I shall not be in the least offended if you decide not to act upon it; but my suggestion – for what it is worth – is that you try a Dynamite Dew Drop.’

One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.

‘Much better give him a Dreamland Special.’

A second man, in a sweater and a cloth cap, had yet another theory.

‘You can’t beat an Undertaker’s Joy.’

‘The Story of William’

Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927)

Few good books are without controversy; Wodehouse has always attracted his share and Highballs for Breakfast is no exception. The hot topic of discussion among the troops on this occasion is the assessment of Wodehouse’s non-drinkers as ‘puritans and bores’. Richard Kelly introduces this chapter, noting:

Given the affection Wodehouse reserves for cheery serial tipplers, you can well imagine the rough treatment he dishes out to characters who make a terrific show of never touching a drop. A degree of moderation, at times, is commendable, perhaps – but someone who abstains entirely simply cannot be serious.

The teetotallers in our ranks object. Wodehouse certainly created some memorably foul examples of the puritanical temperance advocate. Having lived through prohibition, he would have had a decent supply of real-life examples to work from, adding them to his diverse cast of ridiculous extremists. But Wodehouse’s most degenerate drinkers are not always such affectionate portraits.

Kelly offers Mervyn Potter’s fiancé as an example of the puritanical type; she insists that Mervyn give up drink and threatens to cancel the fixture if he fails. Anyone reading Barmy in Wonderland (as discussed previously at Plumtopia) can see that she has a point. Mervyn is habitually plastered — he gets truculent, creates disturbances and burns down hotels. Wodehouse gets full comedy value from these scenes, but it’s clear that Mervyn Potter is a menace who gives Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps hell.  The reader’s sympathies are with Barmy and Potter’s fiancé, on this occasion.

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Another character who overdoes his snifters is Reggie Swithin’s Cousin ‘Eggy’ in Laughing Gas. Wodehouse gets good comedic mileage from Eggy, who thinks he is having alcohol induced hallucinations and is persuaded to give up drinking by a temperance group called the Temple of the New Dawn. The female responsible for saving Eggy is a girl called Mabel, and, while undeniably one of the puritans, she is not without her charms. There is no suggestion that Mabel is a bore, or that Eggy is anything but better off when he decides to marry her.

Gussie Fink-Nottle, Wodehouse’s most famous abstainer, may have restricted himself to orange juice, but I don’t recall him ever forcing the subject on his friends. Between a puritanical temperance advocate and a quiet, unassuming teetotaller there is a wide and substantial difference —neither Wodehouse nor Richard T Kelly is really ‘having a go’ at the latter.

A little controversy is good for us –it keeps the mental faculties sharp — but the inclination to analyse or search for deeper meaning in Wodehouse quickly reaches a point where it makes us (well, me usually) look ridiculous. It causes pure minded jaws to clench. ‘Leave Plum alone!’ they cry. ‘He is to be enjoyed, not dissected.’ Spades and soufflés are mentioned. Kelly does not take things too far. He applies an informed, but light touch to the material and lets Wodehouse’s magic do the rest.

I drink high-balls for breakfast. I am saved.

My Battle with Drink (1915)

I would like to thank Penguin Random House for providing my copy of Highballs for Breakfast. If the producers of fine wine and porter ales would do likewise, Plumtopia would be a far, far brighter place.

HP

To win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House, visit the competition page and and reply by comment before 15 December 2016.

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Laughing Gas (for troubled times)

‘Haven’t you ever heard of Sister Lora Luella Stott?’

‘No. Who is she?’

‘She is the woman who is leading California out of the swamp of alcohol.’

‘Good God!’ I could tell by Eggy’s voice that he was interested. ‘Is there a swamp of alcohol in these parts? What an amazing country America is. Talk about every modern convenience. Do you mean you can simply go there and lap?’

Laughing Gas (1936)

We live in troubled times. Evelyn Waugh knew a thing or two when he said of Wodehouse: ‘He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.’

I would be failing in my duties as a modern commentator if I didn’t observe that the captivity is looking every bit as irksome as Waugh predicted, and getting irksomer all the time. Or as the aforementioned Eggy says, on page 90 of the Everyman edition:

‘I never needed a snifter more in my life.’

Lapping at the swamp of alcohol is one solution. Reading Wodehouse is another. This week I opted for a dose of Laughing Gas, courtesy of my excellent local library. If you cast your mind back to January, you may recall my 2016 Wodehouse Reading Challenge . A book from the library’ is one of the categories in the POPSUGAR Reading challenge.

Set in Hollywood, where the Wodehouses lived in 1930-31 and 1936-37, Laughing Gas follows the adventures of Reggie Swithin, who has unexpectedly become the third Earl of Havershot after the supply of eligible uncles and cousins has given out. As newly appointed head of the family, Reggie is shoved off to Hollywood to rescue Cousin ‘Eggy’ Egremont from drink fuelled debauchery and an inadvisable engagement.

Laughing Gas is a rare Wodehouse dalliance with the science-fiction genre (‘The Amazing Hat Mystery’ from Young Men in Spats also touches upon the Fourth Dimension). Poor Reggie awakes from an emergency dental procedure dressed in knickerbockers and golden ringlets. He has switched bodies with a precocious child film star called Joey Cooley, also under the influence of laughing gas in room the next door.

A bit breath-taking, the whole affair, you will agree. Of course, I had read stories where much the same sort of thing had happened, but I had never supposed that a chap had got to budget for such an eventuality as a possible feature of the programme in real life. I know they say you ought to be prepared for anything, but, I mean, dash it!

I am in complete sympathy with poor Reggie. Added to the indignity that a grown man quite rightly feels on finding himself transformed against his will back to an age which he has long outgrown, Reggie must adjust to a meagre diet of Perfecto prunes and take naps in the afternoon, tucked in by his former fiancé Ann Bannister. He also suffers the consequences of wrongs committed previously by Joey Cooley, who is now happily running amok in Reggie’s body. Out of cash, and out of favour with his authoritarian hostess Miss Brinkmeyer, and the neighbourhood lads, Reggie’s prospects for the future look grim.

Happily, Wodehouse always contrives a way out of the mire for his characters, and he doesn’t let Reggie Havershot down in his hour of need. Reggie’s ordeal as Joey Cooley is eventually undone, to the satisfaction of all parties. Restored to his mature self, Reggie is rewarded with an opportunity to renew his addresses to Ann Bannister. At first he hesitates, on account of his gorilla-like appearance, but cousin Eggy and young Joey (who has evidently spent too long in movie circles) rally around with advice and encouragement.

‘What does a fellow’s face matter anyway?’ said Joey Cooley.

‘Exactly.’

‘Looks don’t mean a thing. Didn’t Frankenstein get married?’

‘Did he?’ said Eggy. ‘I don’t know. I never met him. Harrow man, I expect.’

‘It’s the strong passionate stuff that counts,’ said the Cooley child. ‘All you got to do is get tough. Walk straight up to her and grab her by the wrist and glare into her eyes and make your chest heave.’

‘Exactly.’

‘And snarl.’

‘And, of course, snarl,’ said Eggy. ‘Though when you say “snarl” you mean, I take it, not just make a noise like a Pekingese surprised while eating cake….’

While real-world events may not be so easily undone as Reggie’s troubles, we still have Wodehouse.

Happy lapping!

Take part in the 2016 Wodehouse Reading Challenge

Read a book by P.G. Wodehouse in 2016 and reply to the original challenge page  explaining which reading challenge and category you it could be included under. You don’t have to be actively participating in any other reading challenge to enter.