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If I Were You – P.G. Wodehouse

13 Jan

51fdg9cAeSL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I love P.G. Wodehouse. He’s most famous for creating Jeeves and Wooster, but my favorite of his stories are those part of his Blandings series, with Lord Emsworth, his prize pig and the parade of impostors that always seem to be trooping through his estate. However, Wodehouse also wrote a host of stand alone novels that have nothing to do with Blandings or Bertie Wooster and I have begun sampling them. If I Were You was written in 1931 and is a Wodehouseian blend of The Prince and the Pauper and “The H.M.S. Pinafore.” Two boys switched at birth must now trade places. The barber becomes an earl and the earl becomes a barber (except no one will let him give them a shave).

Anthony – Tony to his family and friends – believes he is the Earl of Droitwich and has just gotten himself engaged to the somewhat cold-blooded Violet Waddington, heiress of Waddington’s Ninety-Seven Soups. He lives with his “brother,” the Honorable (and useless) Freddie Chalk-Marshall, his aunt and uncle, Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia Bassinger, and his butler, Slingsby (who likes to play the horses and has an unfortunate habit of picking the wrong one).

But Mrs. Price (coincidentally the sister of Slingsby), Tony’s childhood nurse, likes to make lachrymose and slightly tipsy visits to cry over him, often bringing along the putative Syd Price, pugnacious socialist and barber extraordinaire…. who happens to look just like one of the ancestors hanging on the wall.

Soon the cat is out of the bag and Syd insists on his rights and settles in to learn how to be an earl while Tony must play barber for a while…while the family tries to sort everything out. Lady Lydia, Sir Herbert, Freddie and Violet are all for taking the matter to court. Tony isn’t too perturbed, though. He’s fallen in love with Syd’s American manicurist, Polly Brown, and is enjoying being near her at the barbershop.

It’s a typical Wodehouse concoction and made me laugh numerous times (no one can make me laugh quite like Wodehouse), but If I Were You turned out to be somewhat unexpectedly grating. On the one hand, Wodehouse is subverting the traditional notion that “blood will tell.” In this case, blood most certainly does not as Syd proves much more at home giving a shave than riding a horse or interacting with the nobility, while Tony has all the ease, polish and good manners of – not good breeding – but a good education. On the other hand, Wodehouse can’t help but betray a certain degree of snobbery regarding education and refined manners.

16418The trouble is that Syd really is done out of his inheritance by his scheming family. It’s justified by saying that he isn’t really happy as an earl, but that seems a feeble excuse. The family is appalled at the thought that this uncouth, cockney socialist could really be their relative and they deal with the situation by quite simply refusing to believe it’s true…even though it probably is (though it’s never proved quite proved). Their horror was so gratuitous and ungenerous that I couldn’t help wishing that Syd would remain the earl, just to spite them.

Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert do everything in their power to oust Syd and are joined in their endeavor by Slingsby, who can’t stand to have his former nephew lording it over him. Perhaps I felt for Syd simply because no one was on his side…not his real uncle or even his supposed uncle. He’s supposed to be universally obnoxious, but he isn’t really (after all, Polly likes him and often defends him). He just likes to assert that he’s as good as anybody else and with people like Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert trying to prove that he isn’t, one can’t help but feel for him.

Admittedly, Wodehouse is definitely aware that the British aristocracy is of limited use in the world. Tony’s somewhat humorous justification for it? “Every time…that I got a twinge of conscience at the thought that I was living off the fat of the land and doing nothing to deserve it, I used to console myself by reflecting: ‘Well, at least I’m a sportsman!’” He could have also said that at least he has “nice manners,” which Syd does not have. Though Tony does occasionally wonder of what use people like Freddie are in the world, Wodehouse backs out by having Freddie save the day in manipulating Syd into voluntarily giving up his claim to be earl (he’s instead going to be an extremely wealthy barber). I think it would have been more satisfying if everything wasn’t restored to exactly the same state at the beginning.

And when Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia pretend to teach Syd how to be a proper earl and succeed in turning him into a slightly cringing, browbeaten man, I almost hated them. Even Tony is uncomfortable, bringing up his thoughts that at all costs they must be good sportsmen. Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert are definitely not good sportsmen, but I guess we are to forgive them because they are so fond of Tony. Besides, as Lady Lydia says, “the whole British social system…rests on the principle that a man with his ancestry can’t be a vulgarian.”

And even though Wodehouse is definitely writing tongue-in-cheek, one gets the feeling not even he would not like to have a cockney socialist earl on the loose.

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20 Comments

Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Books

 

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20 responses to “If I Were You – P.G. Wodehouse

  1. BNoirDetour

    January 13, 2016 at 11:16 am

    I love Wodehouse, too. Thanks for this overview of a novel I haven’t read (yet). I recommend The Adventures of Sally as another stand-alone delight.

    Liked by 2 people

     
    • christinawehner

      January 13, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve had that on my kindle for a couple of years, but haven’t read it yet (because I always seem to put off reading things I actually own, which is an awful habit), but will now definitely have to stop waiting! Wodehouse is such a delightful author, isn’t he?

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • BNoirDetour

        January 13, 2016 at 1:02 pm

        His wit is non-stop wonderful. And there are so many wonderful dramatized audio version of his work, too.

        If you’re ever in the market for something similar, I also like E.F. Benson’s Lucia books. The BBC show Mapp and Lucia was based on them, and I recommend both the books and the tv show.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • christinawehner

          January 13, 2016 at 1:23 pm

          I’d heard of Benson, but was not familiar with what sort of novels he wrote. Anything similar to Wodehouse sounds delightful! I understand there is a Blandings BBC series, too…which I have not had time to check out.

          Liked by 1 person

           
          • BNoirDetour

            January 13, 2016 at 1:27 pm

            I bought the BBC Blandings DVD. Was excited because Jennifer Saunders plays Lady Constance. But then I watched it. Unrecognizable and dreadful. It’s like they tossed Bertie Wooster (as Freddy) into the center of it and stirred.

            If you can get hold of the older BBC version with Peter O’Toole as Lord Emsworth, it’s at least interesting.

            Liked by 1 person

             
            • christinawehner

              January 13, 2016 at 1:39 pm

              How disappointing! It sounds like they tried too hard to capture the Jeeves and Wooster magic and ignored the unique charm of the Blandings series.

              Liked by 1 person

               
              • BNoirDetour

                January 13, 2016 at 1:45 pm

                I really don’t understand how they got so much wrong. Maybe I should watch the last episode and see if it got better. Or just send you the DVD 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

                 
                • christinawehner

                  January 13, 2016 at 2:52 pm

                  I’ve had movies like that, where I keep watching them as if to check to see if they were really as bad as I remembered. They usually are, too…but I keep watching them anyway. 🙂

                  Liked by 1 person

                   
  2. Chained King

    January 13, 2016 at 11:27 am

    Have you read any of the Mr. Mulliner stories?

    Like

     
    • christinawehner

      January 13, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      I’ve read a few – there are a couple of his stories in Blandings Castle, which was a collection of Blandings stories, Mulliner stories and a few others. I quite enjoyed them!

      Like

       
  3. FictionFan

    January 14, 2016 at 5:17 am

    Just to say I agree – the Blandings TV programme was appalling – a travesty! Haven’t read this one, but yes, the snobbery grates sometimes more than others. But it’s terribly British…

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      January 14, 2016 at 9:43 am

      That is such a shame they messed up the Blandings show so badly! How odd that they got so far off! Usually terribly British is a plus for me (I seem to read more British fiction than American – I think they write more interesting sentences; Americans can be a little too journalistic in their approach for me), but somehow this one just got my goat. I think it’s because I felt the deck was stacked against him. If he’d had a better chance, I wouldn’t have minded so much.

      Liked by 2 people

       
  4. Silver Screenings

    January 16, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Wodehouse is always a treat. I love the Jeeves/Wooster stories (and the British series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry), but I’ve not even heard of the Blandings series, or this novel in particular. Sounds like a terrific read. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Liked by 2 people

     
    • christinawehner

      January 16, 2016 at 10:35 pm

      You’re welcome! The Blandings series is kind of an unofficial series with novels and short stories that usually involves Blandings or the family in some way and, like Jeeves and Wooster, is its own world with repeating characters. He is unendingly delightful to read!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  5. ashokbhatia

    January 17, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    The C of the W is one of my favourites; so is Blandings Castle! In fact when it comes to Plum, it is difficult to make a choice!

    Liked by 1 person

     

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