Archive for the ‘P.G. Wodehouse’ Category

As I’ve said before, one of the great pleasures of reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe has been learning Plum’s thoughts on books and other authors.  I’ve shared how he loved Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street and came to a belated but deep enjoyment of the works of Anthony Trollope.

But now we reach the critical stuff: his opinion of my adored Angela Thirkell.  In November 1945, after staying away from her works for years out of a sense of loyalty to his friend Denis Mackail (Thirkell’s younger brother), Wodehouse finally discovered her charms – and even dared to write to Denis in praise of them:

Talking of books, as we so often do when we get together, ought I to be ashamed to confessing to you a furtive fondness for Angela Thirkell?  You told me once that she bullied you when you were a child, and for years I refused austerely to read her.  But recently Wild Strawberries and Pomfret Towers have weakened me.  I do think she’s good, though if we are roasting her I will add that August Folly was rotten and I couldn’t get through it.

He’s clearly wrong about August Folly (who doesn’t love the the awfulness of Richard Tebben?  And the excessive number of Jane Austen allusions?  And a village that puts on Hippolytus as casual recreation?) but I can forgive him that for otherwise seeing the light.


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When I shared one of the letters from P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe a couple of weeks ago (when Wodehouse wrote to Denis Mackail to praise the newly published Greenery Street), I mentioned the book was full of Wodehouse’s comments on authors who were his contemporaries.  What I’d forgotten until I found myself flipping through the book again this weekend was that Wodehouse’s reading was wider than that!

In June 1945 Wodehouse was living in Paris when he discovered the genius of that most British of authors, Anthony Trollope.  Trollope had been recommended to him by his old school friend, Bill Townend, and it was to Bill that Wodehouse wrote to share his excitement:

[…] In one of your letters you asked me if I had ever read anything by Trollope.  At that time I hadn’t, but the other day, reading in Edward Marsh’s A Number of People that Barrie had been fascinated by a book of his called Is He Popenjoy? I took it out of the American Library.  I found it almost intolerably slow at first, and then suddenly it gripped me, and now I am devouring it.  It is rather like listening to somebody who is long-winded telling you a story about real people.  The characters live in the most extraordinary way and you feel that the whole thing is true. […] Anyways, I think Trollope is damned good and I mean to read as much of him as I can get hold of.

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Over the weekend I finished off P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe.  It’s less full of bon mots than you might expect (but rather full of balance sheet considerations) however it does contain some rather wonderful letters to or remarks about contemporary authors of Wodehouse’s acquaintance that must be shared.

My favourite letter was the one below, written to Denis Mackail on the publication of the entirely wonderful Greenery Street (still one of my favourite Persephone titles).  Whatever issues I may have with Wodehouse, his taste in books is not one of them!

Dear Denis,

I started the sale of Greenery Street off with a bang this afternoon by rushing into Hatchard’s and insisting on a copy.  They pretend it wasn’t out.  I said I had seen it mentioned among “Books Received” in my morning paper.  They said in a superior sort of way that the papers got their copies early.  I then began to scream and kick, and they at once produced it.

When I had got to page 42, I had to break off to write this letter.  No longer able to hold enthusiasm in check.  It is simply terrific, miles the best thing you have ever done – or anyone else, for that matter.  It’s so good that it makes one feel that it’s the only possible way of writing a book, to take an ordinary couple and just tell the reader about them.  It’s the sort of book one wishes would go on for ever.  That scene where Ian comes to dinner is pure genius.

The only possible criticism I would make is that it is not the sort of book which should be put into the hands of one who ought to be working on a short story.  Ethel [Wodehouse’s wife] got skinned to the bone at Ascot yesterday – myself present, incidentally, in a grey tophat and white spats – and I promised her I would work all day today at something that would put us square.  So far I have done nothing but read Greenery Street.

Yours ever,

P.G. Wodehouse (18 June 1925)

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Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

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10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

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7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

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4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.


1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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Mike and PsmithIn the way of many of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, Mike and Psmith has a complicated history.  In 1909, Wodehouse published a lengthy (some people *ahem* might call it overly long) novel entitled Mike.  The first half detailed Mike Jackson’s entirely dull experiences as a school boy; the second half introduced the extraordinary Psmith, who made Mike’s remaining school days decidedly less dull.  Wodehouse reissued the second half (with a few changes) as Enter Psmith in the 1930s.  In 1953, the two parts of Mike were rewritten and reissued as Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith.  For those of us who, though fond of Comrade Jackson, have no interest in his solo adventures, Mike and Psmith is an ideal distillation of the story begun back in 1909.

When his father pulls Mike out of Wrykyn after too many poor reports from his teachers, Mike is aghast.  His dreams of captaining the cricket team have been shattered and it is with a heavy heart that he sets out for his new school, Sedleigh, determined to dislike it and to never play for its inferior cricket team.  Almost as soon as he arrives, he meets the school’s other new arrival: the exiled Etonian, Rupert Psmith, who, as he tells Mike, has just decided that morning to distinguish his patronym with the addition of a silent P.  Even as a youth, Psmith is deeply interested in those around him and within moments is attempting to discern Mike’s allotted role in the school:

“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”

“The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.”

The teenaged Psmith is already as elegant and composed as a statesman, comfortable leaning against the mantelpiece and admiring newcomers through his monocle.  Already he is “…one of those people who lend dignity to everything they touch.”  Within a few hours of his arrival, he has seized Mike as his boon companion, commandeered a study, and set up a retreat that sounds exceeding comfortable.  He is much at home by the time the other students realise what has happened.  Once they appear, Psmith is only too happy to host them:

“We are having a little tea,” said Psmith, “to restore our tissues after our journey.  Come in and join us.  We keep open house, we Psmiths.  Let me introduce you to Comrade Jackson.  A stout fellow.  Homely in appearance, perhaps, but one of us.  I am Psmith.  Your own name will doubtless come up in the course of general chit-chat over the tea-cups.”

Mike is rather swept along by the brilliance of Psmith, as Psmith thwarts pranksters, allies with influential school figures, and determines the best way to keep both himself and Mike from having to play school cricket.  Mike, a cricket addict, sneaks off and plays for the village team; Psmith feels no such desire, though he is happy enough to watch.  As he so beautifully puts it: “Cricket I dislike but watching cricket is one of the finest of Britain’s manly sports.”

Psmith’s method of escaping school cricket is to sign up for the school’s archaeological club, run by his and Mike’s housemaster.   Psmith is capable of cultivating an interest in anything and so it is with archaeology.   Rather like a royal prince bound by duty to pretend an interest in the quaint hobbies of the peasants, Psmith throws himself into the club:

…Psmith followed his leader with the pleased and indulgent air of a father whose infant son is showing him round the garden.  Psmith’s archaeological research struck a new note in the history of that neglected science.  He was amiable, but patronizing.  He patronized fossils, and he patronized ruins.  If he had been confronted with the Great Pyramid, he would have patronized that.

I have just realised that my fondness for Tony Morland owes no smart part to his similarities with Psmith; namely, their amazing sangfroid, their passionate interest in other people and things, and their extraordinary gift for condescending to others.  Fascinating.

Unfortunately, the book does rather revolve around cricket, which I have always found far too tedious to learn the rules of.  All I know of cricket has been learned through the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne books and, as far as I am concerned, I know far too much.  By the end of the book, both Mike and Psmith have proved themselves heroes on the cricket pitch.  Before that can happen though, there are a few awkward moments when, with the school leaders hot on Mike’s trail after a misdeed, Psmith must do his best to confound their efforts.  Of course, being Psmith, he does this by talking circles – of sense and nonsense – around everyone.  Unsurprisingly, the headmaster finds it all a little bewildering:

The headmaster seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding.  He paused again.  Then he went on.

“Er – Smith, I do not for a moment wish to pain you, but have you – er, do you remember ever having had, as a child, let us say, any – er – severe illness?  Any – er – mental illness?”

“No, sir.”

“There  is no – forgive me if I am touching on a sad subject – there is no – none of your near relatives have ever suffered in the way I – er – have described?”

“There isn’t a lunatic on the list, sir,” said Psmith cheerfully. 

For me, these exchanges are so far preferable to Wodehouse’s descriptions of incomprehensible sporting achievements.  This is what Psmith does best (as can be seen in those other fine novels Psmith in the City, Psmith, Journalist, and Leave it to Psmith) and it is why he will always be my choice for fictional character I would most like to have with me in a troubling situation.  Or, frankly, any situation.  You can keep Uncle Fred and Gally, Jeeves and Lord Emsworth.  To me, Psmith will always be Wodehouse’s greatest and most charming creation.


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Sunset at BlandingsWhen P.G. Wodehouse died in February 1975, he was working on another Blandings Castle novel, full of all the classic Blandings trademarks: a niece in love with an ineligible young man, forbidding aunts, a mischievous and complicated plot concocted by Uncle Gally to unite the young lovers, an assortment of other guests dealing with their own romantic misadventures, and, of course, the Empress of Blandings herself, presiding over all with the majesty that befits her enormous girth.  The book was never finished but in 1977 the manuscript was published as Sunset at Blandings and it makes for an interesting read, though it is nowhere near as satisfying as Wodehouse at his best.

Sunset at Blandings is recognizably Wodehouse but it is not finished Wodehouse.  There are too many phrases that need polishing, too many short scenes that need fleshing out with the verbal gymnastics that were Wodehouse’s trademark.  The established characters (Gally, Lord Emsworth, Freddie, etc) are recognizable but Gally especially is not quite up to the mark.  I am used to treasuring his every word but here, in this early draft, many of them fall flat.  They are almost funny but seem to act more as placeholders for where jokes should go rather than fill that purpose themselves.  Still, I find it impossible to feel hard done by: any glimpse of Gally is better than none.  I love this passage particularly:

Galahad Threepwood was the only genuinely distinguished member of the family of which Lord Emsworth was the head.  Lord Emsworth himself had once won a first prize for pumpkins at the Shropshire Agricultural Show, and his Berkshire sow, Empress of Blandings, had three times been awarded the silver medal for fatness, but you could not say that he had really risen to eminence in the public life of England.  But Gally had made a name for himself.  There were men in London – bookmakers, skittle sharps, jellied eel sellers on race courses, and men like that – who would not have known whom you were referring to if you had mentioned Einstein, but they all knew Gally.  He had been, till that institution passed beyond the veil, a man at whom the old Pelican Club pointed with pride, and had known more policemen by their first names than any man in the metropolis.

The story part of the book is brief; just sixteen chapters but far shorter in length than the chapters in Wodehouse’s finished books.  Had he lived, these would have been expanded and polished, filled with ramblingly and highly amusing speeches from Gally, no doubt.  But it is getting to see the story so early on in the process that makes this book so interesting.  The story is far from original but maybe that is why it is so easy to tell what is missing, what needs to be fleshed out, and what is not quite right.  As a reader, you know how Wodehouse handled this material before and you have a pretty firm idea of how he would have handled it here, given the chance.  The second half of the book contains his notes on the story and his ideas for what to change (playing around with characters’ back stories, giving minor characters love interests, that sort of thing) so you have an even clearer idea of what would have been altered as he continued to work on the book.  It is fascinating to know that characters and plots did not spring fully formed onto the page but were instead developed and inserted over time.

As a story, this is nothing special but as a glimpse of how Wodehouse approached writing a novel, it is fascinating.

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If there is one fictional character I wish could be brought to life, it would have to be the unflappable Psmith.  Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse, published in 1915, though not my favourite of the Psmith books, does a wonderful job of highlighting all of the characteristics that make Psmith so irresistible as he calmly bounds through a rather eventful trip to New York, involving the reinvention of a saccharine newspaper, a crusade against slum landlords, and the less-than-friendly advances of dangerous gangsters.

Mike Jackson is touring America with his cricket club and, loathe to be left behind, Psmith has accompanied his friend across the Atlantic.  However, counter to all laws of nature, it is Mike who is the center of attention once they arrive in New York, leaping from match to match, from party to party, with Psmith in the unfamiliar role of hanger-on.  The high life he had envisioned has not materialised and Psmith is becoming less and less enthralled by the reality of this American tour:

I have been here a week, and I have not see a single citizen clubbed by a policeman.  No negroes dance cakewalks in the street.  No cowboy has let off his revolver at random in Broadway.  The cables flash the message across the ocean, ‘Psmith is losing his illusions.’

Luckily, at just that moment he becomes entangled in the life of one Billy Windsor.  Billy is the temporary editor of a particularly awful publication called Cosy Moments.  The editor and owner are both abroad, leaving Billy in charge of the loathed newspaper with its sentimental columns and complete lack of anything that could be called news.  But, a honest and forthright young man, he feels duty-bound to hold up the standards and traditions of the newspaper that was left in his charge.  Psmith feels no such compunctions.  He is enchanted by the newspaper world and charmed to meet Billy:

‘I had long been convinced that about the nearest approach to the perfect job in this world, where good jobs are hard to acquire, was to own a paper.  All you had to do, once you had secured your paper, was to sit back and watch the other fellows work, and from time to time forward big cheques to the bank.  Nothing could be more nicely attuned to the tastes of a Shropshire Psmith.’

Having in only a few moments discovered the extent of Billy’s power and his dissatisfaction with the paper’s current offering, Psmith exerts his considerable charm to convince Billy to change the paper to be as he would like it.  The twee articles are cut, new sensational writers are hired, and, with Psmith as an honorary co-editor, the paper takes off.

One of the first issues the paper takes on in its new guise is the atrocious slum housing that abounds in certain parts of the city.  It is not long before their investigative journalism and outraged editorials catch the eyes of those in power.  As they pursue their chosen cause, Psmith and Billy find themselves in direct and often violent conflict with gangsters.  If Psmith had longed for local colour, he certainly found it.  But Psmith does not flinch in the face of such opposition.  He is as witty and languorous as ever, but there is steel in him:

Psmith was one of those people who are content to accept most of the happenings of life in an airy spirit of tolerance.  Life had been more or less of a game with him up till now.  In his previous encounters with those with whom fate has brought him in contact there had been little at stake.  The prize of victory had been merely a comfortable feeling of having had the best of a battle of wits; the penalty of defeat nothing worse than the discomfort of having failed to score.  But this tenement business was different.  Here he had touched the realities.  There was something worth fighting for.

For me, this is the weakest of the Psmith books.  The story does suffer from the absence of Mike, who disappears early on with the rest of the cricket team while Psmith decides to remain in New York with Billy and the paper.  Psmith needs a good straight man to play off of and Billy Windsor is a poor substitute for the easily embarrassed Comrade Jackson.  Wodehouse’s particular brand of Psmith-honour is best appreciated in long speeches and this tale is so action focused that there is little opportunity for the lengthy ramblings that Psmith excels at.  Wodehouse’s New York is an absurd place and can at times grate.  It is peopled entirely with men, all of whom have an uncertain understanding of English and are blessed with incomprehensible accents, all gleefully and painstakingly recorded by Wodehouse.  I understand the allure of local colour but it got a bit excessive.  Still, it is a fun, fast-paced story and I can never come away from an encounter with Psmith without being reminded of my deep affection for him.

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