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Archive for the ‘P.G. Wodehouse’ Category

I love A Century of Books, I really do.  But I hate the feeling of doom that encroaches as I slack off and my list of books to review grows ever longer.  (On the plus side, this means I am reading from years that are part of my Century and not going entirely off piste again.  Hurrah for me!)  The only way to silence this dread is with action and so I give you three very brief reviews of three very different and not entirely memorable books.  They vary from not at all good to absolutely delightful but all three are guaranteed to disappear from your memory relatively fast.

Let’s start in 1948 with the instantly forgettable Pirouette by Susan Scarlett.  Scarlett was the pen name under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light and extraordinary gentle romances.  They are all formulaic and trite but generally enjoyable.  Unfortunately, this one was just trite and formulaic.  It’s the story of Judith Nell, a young ballerina (and young means very young – only 18), who has just been offered a big professional break.  At the same time, her boyfriend accepts a job in Rhodesia and asks her to marry and go with him.  In the background are discontented ballerinas – one of whom is more than happy to go out dancing and drinking (and who knows what else’ing) with Paul while Judith struggles with her decision – and young men who see no future in England, only in Africa.  As we know, that’s not going to end at all well for anyone.  There are class struggles, career struggles, and familial struggles and yet it all manages to be quite dull.  The only good thing about it is the portrait of Judith’s family and how all its members struggle because of Mrs Nell’s stage mother ways.  It’s a bit overwrought but essentially good, especially the conspiracies that spring up between the other members of the family as they try to out manoeuvre Mrs Nell.


Much better but still forgettable was Meet Mr Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse from 1927.  Mr Mulliner is a slight variation on The Oldest Member, here to regale unwilling listeners with stories of his family’s comic exploits (rather than The Oldest Member’s golf-focused yarns).  While I was delighted by the career of Mr Mulliner’s nephew Augustine, a once meek curate whose entire life is changed thanks to an extraordinarily effective potion created by his relative Wilfred Mulliner (whose tale is also told), the rest of the stories were a bit too repetitive and never truly caught my attention.  That said, a little Wodehouse is better than none.

And in the entirely satisfactory category of “frothy and forgettable but enjoyable” we have Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland.  First published in 1961 and recently reissued, this is a very amusing little book of de Havilland’s observations as an American among the French.  Shortly after divorcing her first husband, de Havilland met a charming Frenchman while attending the Cannes film festival.  Soon enough she was moving to France with her small son and marrying her Frenchman, taking on both a new spouse, a new country, and an entirely new culture.  Her stumbles as she finds her way are recounted with an impressively light touch and it’s delightful to see her enjoyment of the country.  And it’s one an enjoyment that hasn’t faded – she moved there in the mid-1950s and is there still at age 102.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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After months of anticipation, a very great event occurred last Sunday: I became an aunt.  Arguably, that was the least of the changes: my brother and sister-in-law became parents, two sets of existing parents became grandparents, and a small and rather wonderful girl came into being.

But as I am unable to comment on any of their mindsets with confidence, let us focus on me.

I am rather adrift as to what it means to be an aunt.  Literature provides few useful guides.  If I wanted to be a terrifyingly despotic aunt, or a meek spinster aunt, or an emotionally withholding aunt, I am overwhelmed with bookish inspiration.  Children’s literature runneth over with aunts you would never want to expose your children to.  But what about the kindly aunts?

Eva Ibbotson offers a few: the aunts in Magic Flutes are wonderful, as are the equally supportive aunts in The Dragonfly Pool, but they are a bit timid.  Perhaps more suitable inspiration lies with the suffragette aunts in A Song for Summer, who love their niece even if they can’t understand why she would throw away an education to work at an eccentric boarding school.  That sounds much more like me.

But Ibbotson also offers up some joyfully awful aunts in A Company of Swans and in some of her children’s books.  She was, she admitted, a fan of using aunts in her books and deployed them in all their various facets.

And, of course, P.G. Wodehouse created aunts so terrifying I run from them as quickly as their lily-livered nieces and nephews ever did.  There are some nice ones mixed in but who remembers them?

Jane Austen certainly had a flurry of memorable aunts floating around in her books, from the very, very bad (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice) to the very good (Mrs Gardiner, an excellent source of motherly counsel for Elizabeth Bennet) to the undefinable (Miss Bates – doubtlessly a good woman but who doesn’t pity Jane Fairfax for having to deal with her tiresome fussings and rather vocal timidity?).

But that does put me in mind of Fay Weldon’s excellent Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  If I could be the kind of aunt who dispenses sensible, non-binding advice while discoursing on Jane Austen I think I should be very happy indeed.  We may need to wait a few years for that though.  Until then, I will be content with cooing over her and buying obscene numbers of children’s books and looking forward to the day we can read them together.

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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.

TheSmallHouseatAllington

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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