Monday, 6 June 2011

The Master, PG Wodehouse.

Since my last blog post, things have moved on. I asked you all to vote for Belfast Girls on the Sinclair Books Book of the Month contest, and I want to thank the great number of people who did. I didn't win, but I came in second, which was very nice in itself - so thanks again, everybody! I've also discovered that I was among the twelve top selling books on Night Publishing for May - a very pleasant surprise!

So, back to the subject.

Developing my intention of alternating authors which are old favourites of mine with those I've come across quite recently, I come now to PG Wodehouse, master of English Literature, expert wordsmith and maker of phrases. It's been said of Wodehouse that his skill with words equals that of our best poets, an opinion with which I fully agree. 'There is none like him, none,' as he frequently quotes about one or other of his characters.

Recently I've been re-reading my PG Wodehouse books. Since Wodehouse wrote nearly a hundred books, this is not something which you whizz through in a week or so. However, it is undoubtedly something which provides extraordinary pleasure, so as the actress said to the bishop, the longer it takes the better.

I first came across Wodehouse in the children's library at the age of nine when, attracted by the title, I took out Love among the Chickens (the first, and only full-length, Ukridge book.) I can place my age at the time because I had just moved up from junior to middle Sunday School - which happened when you turned nine - and I can clearly remember holding my entire class enthralled as I told them the story in great detail one Sunday afternoon. (My Sunday School teacher wasn't quite so pleased, as I remember it.)

The next Wodehouse I found, also in the children's library, was Enter Psmith. Psmith is still probably my favourite Wodehouse character. Wodehouse used the character and his best lines under other names over and over again in his other books, but Psmith is the original and best. Here is Psmith on early rising, for instance: 'One of the Georges, I forget which, once said that a certain number of hours' sleep a day - I cannot recall for the moment how many - made a man something, which for the time being has slipped my memory. However, there you are. I've given you the main idea of the thing.' And I've spent my life quoting another Psmith saying regarding exercise: 'Muscular development provides a foothold for fat.'

It wasn't long before I'd bought other Wodehouse books, firstly, if memory serves me right, The Inimitable Jeeves, still one of my favourite books, especially The Great Sermon Handicap. Blandings Castle was another early purchase, and Uncle Fred in the Springtime. Over the years I'ver added to my collection, and now have most of them, I suppose.

And what can I say about the Master?

Like most people, I could easily be reduced to simply quoting his own felicities. I'll try not just to do that, but to talk instead about some of the things that make him great. Evelyn Waugh has said that Wodehouse 'has made a world for us to live in and delight in,' and undoubtedly the atmosphere of these books is one of the great pleasures of reading them. However, Wodehouse has created some marvellous characters who have become a part of our heritage, from Jeeves and Wooster, Lord Emsworth and his pig the Empress of Blandings, Uncle Fred ('Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, Fifth Earl of good old Ickenham' as he often introduces himself), Psmith, Ukridge, and Bobbie Wickham, to name only the most obvious.

There are also a number of characters who appear through many of the books, such as the American crooks, Dolly and Soapy Molloy, first seen in Sam the Sudden in 1925 and still on the scene in Ice in the Bedroom in 1961; Mr Cornelius the house agent from Valley Fields; Percy Pilbeam the slimy detective; the members of the Drones club (what a brilliant name!) such as Oofy Prosser; and a host of others.

Lord Uffenham is one of my favourites among the lesser known characters. He appears in Money in the Bank and in Something Fishy, a book which I think demonstrates Wodehouse's skill with words almost more than any other. But there are so many amazing people.

In addition to his excellent character drawing, Wodehouse's expert plotting has never been beaten. My own belief is that if a book is to hold our interest it must have a good plot as well as characters we can like and relate to. Wodehouse never lets us down in this area. His last published book, Aunts Aren't Gentleman, written when he was in his nineties, is just as accomplished as regards plot as his earlier ones, and the characters are still adding on layers of intricacy. Bertie's swim in the pool is sheer joy, to say nothing of the whole business of the cat. Wodehouse gives us situation comedy as well as a gazillion marvellous one liners.

My own opinion is that it's in his short stories that Wodehouse really excels. All the best Bertie Wooster books are short stories. The same is true of Ukridge. Mr Mulliner is consistently entertaining, and so is the Oldest Member, and the Crumpet. It was after reading Wodehouse's golfing stories, told by the Oldest Member, that I borrowed my sister's hockey stick, laid out a course consisting of bricks on the rough grass behind our houses, and taught my young friends to play a version of golf which worked by hitting each brick in turn with a tennis ball propelled by the hockey stick. The game remained popular among us for the whole of one summer until my sister, getting ready for the new school term, indignantly reclaimed her hockey stick, and made sure I never succeeded in 'borrowing' it again.

The Crumpet has been very under-rated as one of Wodehouse's narrators. The Amazing Hat Mystery, Uncle Fred Flits By, and a whole series of Freddy Widgeon stories are his, and he deserves full credit for them. The first two named are certainly among Wodehouse's best, although I also love the Ukridge story, told by Corky, A Bit of Luck for Mabel, and Company for Gertrude - where Lord Emsworth's swim in the lake and 'rescue' by 'Popjoy' is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

I've managed to write a fair bit already without simply quoting. Maybe I could be allowed to finish with a few of the Master's own words. The thing about Wodehouse's best lines, of course, is that they are funniest in context. Quote them without explanation and they don't have the same punch. But here, for instance, is a lovely thought about Lord Emsworth's prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, who is coveted in a couple of the books by Lord Tilbury (another recurrent character worth examining in his own right.)
'...ever since the day when he had met that ornament of her sex he had yearned to add her to his Buckingham piggery. That was how the pig-minded always reacted to even the briefest glance at the Empress. They came, saw, gasped and went away unhappy and discontented, ever after to move through life bemused, like men kissed by goddesses in dreams.'

And Jeeves' reproof to Bertie when Bertie says,'What do ties matter, Jeeves, at a time like this?' 'There is never a time, sir, when ties do not matter.'

Are you among the many Wodehouse fans? You're very sensible! Are you someone who hasn't read the Master as yet? Don't lose any more time in reading at least one of the books!

And if you'd like to read my own book, Belfast Girls, you can buy it on Kindle for only £1.39 /$1.99. Or as a paperback for a little more.


  1. Thank you, Gerry; I'll get on Wodehouse right away!

  2. I'm sure you'll love him, Johanna!

  3. Thank you for filling in a blank in my knowledge of great authors, Gerry! On my list now!

  4. That's good to know Hannah - I hope you really enjoy him!

  5. Blogger blogs finally accessible!

    Your post had me rushing to the Kindle store to check out what's available, but sadly far too overpriced for me to be comfortable buying.

    I live here among some of the poorest people on the planet, and while I can justify indie prices as part of my work essentials (not to mention tax deductable) the price of a PG Wodehouse e-book could feed a family here for a week.

    Ebooks at that price give a 70% royalty, of which the author's estate will get a fraction.

    It's a nice earner for the publishers who have long since recouped their costs, but why should a backlist ebook at least decades old with no production costs, storage or distribution fees be priced so high?

  6. I hadn't checked the eBook prices, Mark. I fully agree with you that high prices for backlist books are a disgrace. What a shame! I can only suggest, how about trying the nearest library? - unless there isn't one within miles! Probably the prices will come down when publishers come to their senses - at least, I hope so!

  7. Ah, you've encouraged me to go read more Wodehouse. I loved Blandings Castle stories and had no idea he'd written 100 books... must get onto some of those.

    What struck me as extremely skilled is his ability to conjure up a whole person from one tiny detail mentioned almost in passing. In one of the Blandings stories he describes someone as having "eyebrows made for a bigger face". Brilliant.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Sandie. Yes, one of the things about Wodehouse is that every page includes at least three memorable expressions which shriek to be quoted. ...'so crooked he could hide at will behind a spiral staircase,' for instance!