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If I Were You – P.G. Wodehouse

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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Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Books

 

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Eternal Sunshine of the Well-Breakfasted Author – How P.G. Wodehouse Opens a Novel

Despite the title, there isn't a whole lot of heavy weather going on in any of his books, let alone this one

Despite the title, there isn’t a whole lot of heavy weather going on in any of his books, let alone this one

I read somewhere – actually in several places – that you should never start a novel with weather, but that’s all that P.G. Wodehouse seems to do. Occasionally, he varies it up with reflections on somebody’s garden, but mostly he sticks to the weather. I’ve been reading a lot of his novels and short stories and he’s done it so many times that I thought I might collect a few of his opening sentences to prove it.

“The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town.” Something Fresh

“Blandings Castle slept in sunshine.” Summer Lightning 

“Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London.” Heavy Weather

He really likes the sunshine, whether in London or in the country.

And in the short story “The Custody of the Pumpkin,” he tries a variation on a familiar theme: “The morning sunshine descended like an amber shower-bath on Blandings Castle.”

Also, from “Lord Emsworth And the Girl Friend:” “The day was so warm, so fair, so magically a thing of sunshine and blue skies and bird-songs that anyone acquainted with Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, and aware of his liking for fine weather, would have pictured him going about the place on this summer morning with a beaming smile and an uplifted heart.”

Perhaps his obsession with weather is more of a Blandings Castle obsession. All the above quotes are from his Blandings Castle series and I don’t recall Bertie Wooster opening his novels with remarks on the weather to Jeeves. But Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle series seems to be perpetually bathed in sunshine.

P.G. Wodehouse is also capable of a breakfast obsession.

“Freddie Rooke gazed coldly at the breakfast-table.” Jill The Reckless

Another book cover featuring weather...though no sunshine

Another book cover featuring weather…though no sunshine

“‘A gentleman called to see you when you were out last night, sir,’ said Mrs. Medley, my landlady, removing the last of the breakfast things.” Love Among the Chickens 

“Jeeves placed the sizzling eggs and b. on the breakfast table, and Reginald (“Kipper”) Herring and I, licking our lips, squared our elbows and got down to it.” How Right You Are, Jeeves

“I marmaladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don’t suppose I have ever come much closer to saying “Tra-la-la” as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning.” Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

This highlights another feature of Wodehouse’s openings: morning. Both the sunshine and the breakfast tend to come in the morning.

Clearly, there is something to all this sunshine and good weather and fine mornings and breakfasts. There isn’t much originality to his opening sentences, but he seems to use it as both a backdrop and a segue. Especially the sunshine. The sunshine is almost always used to segue into the constrastingly troubled brow of Lord Emsworth or some other hapless character.

But the sunshine and breakfast also serve to show that no matter the difficultly, all is still right with the world and always will be right with the world, as soon as the difficultly is inevitably resolved. The day can always begin fresh again, with warmth and bacon. It’s so utterly, positively optimistic, I can’t help grinning my whole way through Wodehouse’s books.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2015 in Fiction, Literary Thoughts

 

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A Damsel in Distress (1919) – P.G. Wodehouse

25-15At the opening of his book, P.G. Wodehouse muses on the difficulty in instantly capturing a reader’s attention: “Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”

And except for the reference to tramcars and picture palaces, it a reflection that could have been written today. Somehow, it is comforting to know that authors faced similar issues in 1919 as we do in 2014.

However, I don’t think there is excessive danger in anybody tossing P.G. Wodehouse aside in favor of the modern equivalent of a picture palace. A Damsel in Distress is very funny and the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. I laughed so hard throughout, it renewed my faith in the pleasures of reading. Sometimes, reading can get to be a chore, when I am plowing through some book I feel I ought to read and I forget that reading is supposed to be delightful and riveting.

A Damsel in Distress is Wodehouse having a bit of fun with the concept of chivalry in the dawn of the jazz age. He is also having a bit of fun at the expense of the fading aristocracy. Most of the story takes place at Belpher Castle, where Lord Marshmoreton resides with his son, daughter, sister, sister’s step-son, his secretary and many servants. Lord Marshmoreton is an avid gardener (avid doesn’t really do him justice) and desires only to be left alone. As a result, it is his sister, Lady Caroline Byng, who is running the show. It is her darling wish that Lord Marshmoreton’s daughter, Lady Maud Marsh, marry her step-son, Reginald Byng. It’s not a bad plan, except that Maud loves a man she met a year ago in Switzerland and Reggie loves the secretary and it is beginning to affect his golf swing, which worries him.

The family is trying to keep Maud away from the man by keeping her at the castle, but she sneaks up to London one day, with the help of Reggie, and unfortunately runs into her brother, Percy. In an effort to escape him, she hops into a random taxicab and encounters George Bevan, a songwriter. It is love at first sight for him. All his chivalrous nature is awakened and he even knocks Percy’s hat off his head in an effort to keep him from discovering Maud in the cab.

Maud is very grateful, but doesn’t tell him her name. However, he soon discovers it and immediately goes down to Belpher Castle and rents a cottage nearby so that he can discover a means of communicating with Maud and render her assistance, since she had mentioned that she was in need of help. And soon the fun really begins.

P.G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse

He is immediately taken by the household to be the man Maud fell in love with in Switzerland and the household quickly divides itself up into allies and enemies, with some permeability among the ranks, especially among the servants. For the servants, specifically Keggs the butler (who looks like a bishop and is known to be a socialist in his private life) and Albert, the young footman, are part of a servant’s sweepstake regarding who Lady Maud will wed and both are determined to do everything in their power to further the cause of their respective man. Keggs drew Reggie while Albert drew “Mr. X,” though there is some shifting of sweepstake’s tickets throughout the story.

Many of the features of a Wodehouse book are present, the overbearing aunt (Wodehouse books have more overbearing aunts than anybody I know of: for example, Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha), there are golf references and an awful lot of well-meaning, agreeable and not terribly bright men, though the male servants are smarter. It always seems to me that in Wodehouse romances there is a definitive maternal aspect, with the more competent and sensible women nurturing the men they love. This is true in at least two of the three romances that occur in A Damsel in Distress, though George Bevan does better than your usual Wodehouse male in that he is far less hapless and immature, but there is still a bit of the puppy love in him.

Ironically, it is usually women and servants who seem to make out better, in terms of brains and in getting things done. There is a definite ineffectuality of the male, British upper classes. George Bevan is doing better, but he is an American who works for his living as a songwriter, though he is also extremely wealthy. Humorously, it never occurs to the Lord Marshmoreton or his sister that George would actually be quite wealthy from his songwriting and that, outside of them, he is a celebrity.

George also reminds one a little bit of the songwriter, George Gershwin, who was just getting going in 1919. With various characters mentioning prohibition in America and the issue of temperance in England, the independent women, the defuncting of the older traditions and authority, the young people without too much to occupy them except golf and the dawning of a new form of popular music and jazz as spearheaded by composers like George Gershwin, A Damsel in Distress actually represents a very unique time in history; it’s the world about to plunge into the Jazz Age, but not quite there yet. It is also a very, very funny book.

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2014 in Fiction

 

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