Tag Archives: the Oldest Member

P.G. Wodehouse reading guide

So you’d like to give P.G. Wodehouse a try, but don’t know where to start? Or perhaps you’ve read the Jeeves stories and want to discover the wider world of Wodehouse.  

You’ve come to the right place.

There is no correct approach to reading Wodehouse. If you ask a dozen Wodehouse fans, you’ll get at least a dozen different suggestions — and picking up the first book you come across can be as good a starting point as any.  But if you want more practical advice, this guide will help you discover the joys of Wodehouse — from Jeeves and Wooster to Blandings, and the ‘hidden gems‘ beyond. 

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Bertie Wooster & Jeeves 

Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves are P.G. Wodehouse’s most celebrated characters. They appear in a series of short stories and novels, all masterfully crafted for optimum joy. Bertie Wooster’s narrative voice is one of the greatest delights in all literature.

Get started with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) short stories arranged as an episodic novel from the start of the saga. Or leap ahead to Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor).

See the Jeeves and Wooster reading list for a full guide to the series.

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

something-fresh

Blandings

Evelyn Waugh put it best when he said: ‘the gardens of Blandings Castle are the original gardens of Eden from which we are all exiled.’

Lord Emsworth wants only to be left alone to enjoy his garden and tend to his prize winning pig, the Empress of Blandings, without interference from his relations, neighbours, guests and imposters. So many imposters. 

Get started with Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New), or the classic short story collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935).

See the Blandings reading list for a complete guide to the series.

“Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”

‘The Custody of the Pumpkin’ in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere
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Psmith

Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp) made his first appearance in an early Wodehouse school story. Wodehouse knew when he was onto a good thing, and Psmith made the transition to adult novels along with his author. Adoration for Psmith among Wodehouse fans borders on the cultish, and for good reason (he certainly makes me swoon).

Get started: From the beginning with Mike and Psmith or start with his final appearance in Leave it to Psmith (1923) and work your way backwards. Both are wonderful.

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

Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse

Ukridge

The character Wodehouse readers love to hate, Ukridge is a blighter and a scoundrel, but his adventures are comedy gold. If you’ve ever had a friend or relation who pinches items from your wardrobe without asking, and is perpetually ‘borrowing’ money, this series is for you.  

Get started: With the short story collection Ukridge (1924) or the novel Love Among the Chickens (revised in 1921).

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

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Uncle Fred

Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred is a dapper old gent with a twinkle in his eye and a penchant for adventure. The sort of chap who can adopt an alias at the drop of a hat, and frequently does. He first appeared in the short story, Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), which was voted the favourite short story by members of the international Wodehouse Societies.

Get started: Read Uncle Fred Flits By in the story collection Young Men in Spats (1936) or try one of the Uncle Fred novels, Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939).

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

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Short Stories

Wodehouse was a master of the short story format and would be classed alongside Chekhov as one of the greats if he hadn’t been a humourist.

Get started: Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927) is the first in the superb Mulliner series. For the Oldest Member golfing stories try The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required.

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

Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse 2

The novels

Plot spoilers are less of a problem with Wodehouse’s ‘stand-alone’ novels, though some are connected by recurring characters. There are plenty to choose from, but if you’re chronologically inclined, some good examples from his early period include Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) and The Small Bachelor (1927).

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.

Piccadilly Jim

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The School Stories

Wodehouse began writing at a young age and his early school stories depict English public-school life as he knew it — with plenty of sports, as well as the literary and classical references he used so cleverly in his adult work. 

Get started: With Wodehouse’s first published novel, The Pothunters (1902) or head straight for his best work in the genre Mike and Psmith.

See the School Stories Reading List for a guide to the series.

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 even under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of book 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. It’s also 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 for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and invaluable advice from Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.

Where to buy Wodehouse
Unless you are particularly fortunate, your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse, or even know which books to start with. But they should be able to order books for you. If your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.

Most books are currently in print and available online (links included in this series), including second hand and rare editions. Don’t be alarmed by the pricing of first and collectable editions — it is possible to read your way through Wodehouse relatively cheaply in paperback, and most titles are now available as Ebooks.

And don’t forget your local library.

Happy reading!

HP

More posts in this series:

With more reading lists to follow.

HP

The Great Wodehouse Romances: Archibald’s Benefit

themanupstairs‘Archibald’s Benefit’ (1909) is a delightful short story, included in The Man Upstairs (1914). It relates the trials of Archibald Mealing, a keen but inept golfer, and his romance with Margaret Milsom. I say inept. Wodehouse says:

Archibald, mark you, whose golf was a kind of blend of hockey, Swedish drill, and buck-and-wing dancing.

For a sense of Archibald’s golfing style, this excellent instructional video from Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz (of Duke University) helps to demonstrate how a dash of buck-and-wing might have impaired Archibald’s success off the tee.

His golf may be rotten, but Archie is in good spirits, having recently become engaged to Margaret Milsom, a soulful looking girl with big blue eyes.

But in Wodehouse’s world, as in life, few romances are a simple matter of ‘A’ meets ‘B’. There is also ‘C’ to be considered, not mention ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’. These extras may come in the shape of interfering relations (Margaret Milsom has a couple of these) or misguided friends (in this case, Archie’s pal McCay). Our hero ‘A’ may also have to impersonate hens, perform tricks with a bit of string, or suffer some other frightful ordeal before he and ‘B’ can finally dance their wedding glide.

The complications for Archie and Margaret are well above par. In addition to a cast of interfering extras, Archie has also feigned an interest in poetry to impress the soulful looking Margaret, and finds the deception torturous to maintain.

Every evening he read painfully a portion of the classics. He plodded through the poetry sections of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Margaret’s devotion to the various bards was so enthusiastic, and her reading so wide, that there were times when Archibald wondered if he could endure the strain.

Once again, Wodehouse is true to life. How many of us have feigned interest in things beyond our expertise in the budding stages of a romance? Over the years I’ve been a temporary enthusiast of heavy-metal music, beer coasters, comic books, and beard-care. But I have my limits, as the chap who expected me to watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead and like it discovered. Like Archibald Mealing, I too have suffered.

Archie’s sentimental friend McCay (who ‘knew Ella Wheeler Wilcox by heart, and could take Browning without anaesthetics’) is also concerned that when Margaret comes to see Archie play in a local golf tournament, her girlish enthusiasm will be dashed. He fears the ordeal will test their romance, so McCay colludes with the other club-members to ensure Archie wins his games.

McCay is unaware that Archie has hidden his passion for golf from Margaret — she is such a soulful girl that he fears her disapproval. And as Archie has no expectation of winning the tournament, he has confidently arranged to meet her elsewhere on the afternoon of the final. When the appointed hour arrives, however, he is at the fifteenth tee with a real chance of winning.

Archie’s devotion for Margaret is tested:

If Margaret broke off the engagement—well, it might be that Time would heal the wound, and that after many years he would find some other girl for whom he might come to care in a wrecked, broken sort of way. But a chance like this could never come again. What is Love compared with holing out before your opponent?

Sentimental readers may be scandalised, but Wodehouse the realist does not shirk from difficult truths. Like the case of Freddie Widgeon in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, who attempts to woo April Carroway with Tennyson and fails, we may even feel that Archie has had a lucky escape. After all, no fair-minded girl would begrudge her lover playing golf.

When Archie attempts a reconciliation with Margaret, he is forced to confess that he has been playing golf. But, rather than chastise him for indulging in frivolous pass-times, Margaret confesses to suppressing her own fondness for golf.

Archibald took a step forward. His voice was tense and trembling.
‘Margaret,’ he said, ‘this is no time for misunderstandings. We must be open with one another. Our happiness is at stake. Tell me honestly, do you like poetry really?’

Margaret hesitated, then answered bravely:

‘No, Archibald,’ she said, ‘it is as you suspect. I am not worthy of you. I do not like poetry. Ah, you shudder! You turn away! Your face grows hard and scornful!’

‘I don’t!’ yelled Archibald. ‘It doesn’t! It doesn’t do anything of the sort! You’ve made me another man!’

She stared, wild-eyed, astonished.

‘What! Do you mean that you, too—’

Wodehouse reveals another difficult romantic truth; when love grips, there is illusion on both sides. ‘A’ is too enraptured with ‘B’ to suspect. And ‘B’ would hotly resent any suggestion that ‘A’ is less than he appears. But if a relationship is to last, we must eventually tear off the false whiskers and take our chances.

Wodehouse lovers who, unlike poor Archie, can take Browning without anaesthetic, might enjoy the Wodehouse poetry associations in Pippa’s Song.