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’
This is a guide for readers wanting to discover the joys of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings series. It follows previous guides:
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
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)
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
Happily 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:
“Oh, yes! I thought it was much better than Severed Throats.”
“So did I,” said Cyril. “Much better. Brighter murders, subtler detectives, crisper clues … better in every way.”
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’ in Mulliner Nights)
I recently asked the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse’ Facebook community about their favourite authors – who they like to read when not curled up with Plum’s latest. The response was a staggering 370 comments (and counting) listing over 250 different authors. I’ve collated the replies and can now reveal the top 50 authors these Wodehouse lovers named as their favourites. I start today with the top 5.
1. Agatha Christie
Christie and Wodehouse had much in common: they were contemporaries, prolific writers, and masters of their respective genres with huge audiences for their work. They both had problems with income tax, and were embroiled in personal scandals that continue to attract media speculation long after their deaths. In their lifetimes they were mutual fans, and Agatha Christie dedicated her 1969 Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party:
“To P. G. Wodehouse — whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”
Wodehouse was an enthusiastic reader of crime stories, as Maggie Schnader discusses in her excellent piece: ‘On P.G. Wodehouse and Crime Fiction: Or, Wodehouse Writes a Thriller?’ , and Wodehouse’s plots are brimming with criminal activity – from burglary, fraud and impersonation through to assault and battery. Mickey Finns abound, and even Jeeves knows how to handle a cosh! Some of Wodehouse’s best ‘crime’ stories have been collected in a volume called Wodehouse on Crime.
With Christie and Wodehouse among the world’s most loved (and translated) writers, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see her feature so highly among Wodehouse readers. She is certainly one of my favourites.
2. Douglas Adams
People sometimes say to me, “Do you ever aspire to write a serious book?” And my practiced glib answer to that is, “No, my aspirations are much greater than that. I aspire to write like P.G. Wodehouse.” (Writing like P.G. Wodehouse)
Douglas Adams was open in his admiration for Wodehouse, calling him ‘the greatest comic writer ever’, and Wodehouse’s influence is clear in his wonderfully funny style. He contributed a Foreword to a modern edition of Wodehouse’s last novel, Sunset at Blandings, which was included in ‘The Salmon of Doubt.’
Master? Great genius? Oh yes. One of the most blissful joys of the English language is the fact that one of its greatest practitioners ever, one of the guys on the very top table of all, was a jokesmith. Though maybe it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Who else would be up there? Austen, of course, Dickens and Chaucer. The only one who couldn’t make a joke to save his life would be Shakespeare….
What Wodehouse writes is pure word music. It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.
Adams’ Introduction to Sunset at Blandings
Many modern readers of Wodehouse (myself included) read Douglas Adams before we discovered Wodehouse. Some have even come to Wodehouse on the strength of Adams’ recommendations – so it’s little wonder that Adams is so highly regarded among the modern Wodehouse-loving public.
3. Terry Pratchett
‘Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.’
Terry Pratchett (Soul Music)
Susan’s feelings on ‘Literature’ are in sympathy with views expressed by many a Wodehouse hero. As a huge Terry Pratchett fan, I was delighted to discover Pratchett is a popular author among fellow Wodehouse fans – and with good reason. There is much to enjoy in Pratchett’s wit and style, and like Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett is a superb creator of strong female characters. The following exchange ( for example) would not be out of place in Wodehouse:
“The female mind is certainly a devious one, my lord.”
Vetinari looked at his secretary in surprise. “Well, of course it is. It has to deal with the male one.”
“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.”
Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility)
Elinor Dashwood might as easily have been speaking to Madeline Bassett, or indeed to thousands of modern females who delight in the romance of Jane Austen, but don’t ‘get’ the jokes. In a world where the commercialisation of Jane Austen has depreciated her work through ill-conceived adaptations for the soupy ‘bosoms and bonnet’ brigade, it is heart-warming to know there are still many – men and women – who read and admire Austen for her sharp, satirical humour.
Douglas Adams, in his introduction to Sunset at Blandings (cited above) also included Austen in his list of greatest writers. Oddly enough, Wodehouse wasn’t a great fan of Jane Austen. One can only presume he started with the ‘wrong’ book.
5. Jerome K. Jerome
“It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at. The heroine of a modern novel is always “divinely tall,” and she is ever “drawing herself up to her full height.” At the “Barley Mow” she would bump her head against the ceiling each time she did this.” Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat)
Wodehouse, who preferred his heroines pint-sized, might well have approved. He would certainly have been familiar with Jerome K. Jerome’s much-loved classic ‘Three Men and a Boat’, which was published in 1889 when young Plum was still in sailor suits. Was Wodehouse a fan? Either the record is silent on the matter, or it’s a record I couldn’t find. Experts please advise.
Three Men in a Boat is a work often cited by Wodehouse readers. I read it following a recommendation from a fellow Plum fan several years ago, and I recall attracting unwanted attention while reading it on The Tube – as my feeble attempts to suppress laughter resulted in a fit of bodily heaving and shaking. Here is a classic excerpt:
I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch – hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into – some fearful, devastating scourge, I know – and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee….I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.I went to my medical man. He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, and looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather, all for nothing, when I fancy I’m ill; so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now. “What a doctor wants,” I said, “is practice. He shall have me. He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each.” So I went straight up and saw him, and he said:“Well, what’s the matter with you?”
“I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is NOT the matter with me. I have not got housemaid’s knee. Why I have not got housemaid’s knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I HAVE got.”
These five authors were the indisputable (and deserving) favourites of our group, but if you think these choices reflect rather predictable reading tastes, think again! The reading lists of Wodehouse fans are incredibly diverse, and I look forward to sharing more with you over the coming days and weeks.
You might also like to join the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse‘ Facebook community (which is just one of many excellent Wodehouse groups) as well our new Facebook bookclub ‘The Wood Hills Literary Society’. We look forward to meeting you.
Emsworth, that worthy critic with an equally worthy name, suggests “P.G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers“ – The Cat-Nappers being an alias for the work known to British readers as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. Emsworth provides some good evidence that this 1974 work of a nonagenarian is not Wodehouse at his finest. For those unacquainted with Emsworth’s excellent piece, I suggest reading it for yourself. When my considered response (however unqualified I am to make it) ran to half a page, I decided to post it here instead.
Wodehouse was a careful and proficient editor in the habit of re-working his stories thoroughly until he was satisfied with them. I wonder whether this book received a less scrupulous reworking than Wodehouse was accustomed to. Perhaps Wodehouse felt he was running out of time…
Emsworth’s comments on Wodehouse’s repeated use of abbreviations (telegram-speak being a forerunner of SMS) illustrates my point. Wodehouse used this sparingly to great comic effect in other novels, but the criticism of overuse here could be indicative of writer’s shorthand – perfectly acceptable in a draft manuscript. Similarly, the issues with repetition.
I have often wondered whether publishers their treat star authors differently when it comes to editing. J.K Rowling’s work might make an interesting study in this regard. The first Harry Potter novel is fine, tight writing, but the same cannot be said of the later instalments — there are all sorts of issues with them, which I feel would have benefited from a firm editorial hand.
Emsworth notes instances of rambling and dithering, which could also be attributed to editing. Most writers ramble and dither, and need to cut material from their first drafts, age notwithstanding. But Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen certainly isn’t a rambling final novel, in the way that Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate is.
Emsworth also believes that in Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen Wodehouse reveals his true political colours, citing the following example:
Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.
Bertie Wooster is hardly a mouthpiece for expressing the political views of his author. Bertie’s position on Communism, made clear in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), is one of genial self-preservation. While Wodehouse made Comrade Bingo’s Heralds of the Red Dawn appear ridiculous, he was an egalitarian writer who created the equally ludicrous fascists (Roderick Spode), crooked Conservatives (Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe), loathsome Lords, and grotesque Captains of Industry.
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?
The Code of the Woosters
Wodehouse’s consistent treatment of political activists – if it tells us anything at all – suggests that he found them all equally ridiculous, and ripe for picking as excellent sources of ‘material’
If I were find fault with Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen I would tend to agree with FretfulPorpentine’s response to Emsworth:
I wonder whether one of the problems with Aunts Aren’t Gentleman / The Catnappers is that its setting was more or less contemporary to when it was written, with its Sixties student demos and jokes about Billy Graham. Better, perhaps, had it been set in the classic (and, if it’s not a contradiction to say so) Wodehousian interwar era. The sixties bits really jar with me.
It’s not that the setting doesn’t work – it’s just different from what we’ve become accustomed to. We want more of the old stuff we know and love. But it shows us that Wodehouse was still striving to write something new. A younger Wodehouse might have popped this manuscript in his bottom drawer and reworked it again later, but at 93, one can be forgiven for not putting things off.
As is stands, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen still offers much of the usual Wodehouse to enjoy and I am reluctant to damn it as the work of a man who had lost his touch. I would gladly ‘suffer’ another 20 books of this quality.
I would gladly have continued our conversation, but I knew he must be wanting to get back to his Spinoza. No doubt I had interrupted him just as Spinoza was on the point of solving the mystery of the headless body on the library floor.