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The evolution of P.G. Wodehouse

I am a huge fan of author P.G. Wodehouse and have read and re-read a large fraction of his oeuvre, a not insignificant feat considering how prolific he was. I am particularly partial to his Blandings Castle series and his Jeeves and Wooster series. While the books are self-contained, they do contain recurring characters so the author provides enough explanatory details from other books to fill in the reader of the state of affairs so that one does not necessarily need to read them in order to follow the plots.

But I realized that I had not read them all and so recently have decided to read each series again in chronological order. I checked out from the library the first book in the Blandings series, which was Something Fresh, written in 1915. It was the first book for which Wodehouse made serious money, having sold it to be serialized in the Saturday Evening Post magazine.

It was fun for me to read it to see how he began the series but it clearly shows that he had not quite achieved that light comic touch, witty dialogue, and careful plotting that became his trademark. So I cannot recommend it on its own merits except to those who want to see how the Blandings saga began.

For one thing, his characters were not as engaging and there were far too many of them. Clarence, Lord Emsworth, was his usual doddering, absent-minded self but not quite as much as in subsequent books. His secretary, the Efficient Baxter was there with his gleaming spectacles suspecting everyone, but Emsworth seemed to find him helpful and not as the pest he later came to see him as. Emsworth’s son Freddie was there as well as Beach the butler.

But Emsworth’s brother Galahad Threepwood who later to become one of the key players, was nowhere mentioned and neither was his sister, Lady Constance Keeble who, along with her ally Baxter, later played the role of the person who had to be outmaneuvered by the young romantics who desired to get married to people considered unsuitable. Instead we had a sister Lady Ann Warblington who is mentioned as living at Blandings but does not appear, a daughter and son-in-law, plus many houseguests and servants, almost all of whom as far as I know, never appear again in any books.

In later books, Wodehouse kept the cast of characters lean, with just enough to play major roles and advance the plot and who could be developed more fully. He later also had most chapters ending with a small cliff-hanger.

By the time the next Blandings castle novel came along in 1923 Wodehouse had hit his stride. His Leave it to Psmith is one of his funniest books, a laugh riot all the way. The title character R. Psmith had appeared before in two earlier non-Blandings books in 1910 and 1915 that were not as good, but this book saw him at his peak but also was his swan song and he inexplicably never appeared again. It is possible that Wodehouse may have split his character into that of Jeeves, with his urbane unflappability, and the Earl of Ickenham, with his desire for adventure and willingness to impersonate others.

In Wodehouse’s books one rarely encounters married couples. In the Blandings series, the older people are either single or widows or widowers or if married their spouses are mentioned as being elsewhere. Lady Constance had a husband in Leave it to Psmith but then he disappeared and presumably died. The young people are all romancing each other and trying to get married, usually to someone unsuitable in the eyes of the elderly aunts, or trying to escape from an engagement.

One cannot help but notice that elderly single aunts played major roles in Wodehouse’s books, almost always as the spoilsports, trying to disrupt romances among their children, nieces, and nephews. The one exception was Bertie Wooster’s genial Aunt Dahlia who also was the unusual aunt who had a living husband though he had a very small role and rarely appeared in person, usually just referred to by others.

It has been suggested that the reason for Wodehouse’s anti-aunt bias was that his parents left him in the care of his various aunts and boarding schools in England while his father worked for the British government in Hong Kong and so he barely saw his parents during his childhood and adolescence, and his memories of his aunts were not fond ones. Of course, he was too gentle a writer (and by all accounts was very gentle in real life too) to make them actually evil. Instead he gave them a steely-eyed determination to maintain the traditional order and flout young love. That was as bad as people got in the world of Wodehouse.

Comments

  1. Nick Gotts says

    That was as bad as people got in the world of Wodehouse.

    Two words: Roderick Spode.

    Thanks for the recommendation of Leave it to Psmith – in general I haven’t foundthe Blandings Castle series nearly as good as Jeeves and Wooster, but that’s one I haven’t read.

  2. Mano Singham says

    But Spode, apart from marching his followers around in black shorts, has as his main interest trying to make Madeline Bassett happy, however misguided he was about her affection for Bertie, even at some sacrifice to his own love for her.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    It has been suggested that the reason for Wodehouse’s anti-aunt bias was that his parents left him in the care of his various aunts and boarding schools in England while his father worked for the British government in Hong Kong and so he barely saw his parents during his childhood and adolescence, and his memories of his aunts were not fond ones. Of course, he was too gentle a writer (and by all accounts was very gentle in real life too) to make them actually evil.

    Perhaps Wodehouse’s aunts didn’t treat him too badly. Compare Kipling in the autobiographical short story “Baa! Baa! Black Sheep” and Saki/H.H. Munro, in “The Lumber Room” and other stories, whose carers (aunts in Saki’s case) were undoubtedly evil and did lifelong harm to the children in their care. Nearer to Wodehouse is Kenneth Grahame, brought up by his grandmother and aunts, described as “The Olympians”, in The Golden Age and Dream Days. It’s notable that unlike the other writers Wodehouse doesn’t seem to have described the relationship of children and aunts- except that Bertie never grew up, of course.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    sc_770 @3: Was anyone in Saki’s work not evil? He seemed to be the anti-Wodehouse.

    Re Grahame: The Wind in the Willows was my favourite book as a kid. I still reread bits of it occasionally.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    Horrible aunts seem to be a major feature in British Literature — I’m thinking back to Lady Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Lady Catherine Deburgh in Pride and Prejudice, or Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest. So Wodehouse had a long tradition to draw from. The whole vilification of aunts really got in high gear in the early 20th century, when it became the national pastime to kick the stuffings out of everything Victorian — what could be more Victorian than an aunt?

    Another one is the great-aunt in the Swallows and Amazons series, always insisting the children recite poetry for them when the kids want to be out sailing around in boats. There’s also the play Charlie’s Aunt, “from Brazil, where the nuts come from.”

    Actually, Wodehouse may be the rare exception with his sympathetic aunt Dahlia.

  6. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I’m thinking back to Lady Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Lady Catherine Deburgh in Pride and Prejudice, or Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest.

    It’s Mrs. Hardcastle, actually, and she and Lady Bracknell are both important as mothers- as is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, actually- her main concern with Darcy is to marry him to her daughter. The nightmare aunt was a late nineteenth or early twentieth century phenomenon, probably reflecting reluctance to let money out of the family by daughters finding “unsuitable” husbands.

    Rob Grigjanis @4: I’d say the children in Saki aren’t evil- Saki portrays a world when they are transformed from amoral beings to evil ones.
    Tom Sharpe in one of his Wilt books has Wilt deliver a lecture arguing that The Wind in the Willows portrays the ideal society in the eyes of Englishmen- a s sort of homosocial society where women exist to cook and do the laundry.

  7. MNb says

    The only Wodehouse novel I ever read was Pigs Have Wings. I enjoyed for what it was: light hearted and trivial, with no trace of political, social or historical relevance (yeah, two world wars and an economic crisis plus England losing an Empire) and with flat but likeable characters. That will also be the reason Pigs Have Wings will probably be the last Wodehouse novel I ever read.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    I think of Wodehouse as the perfect dessert chef. He basically knows how to make one particular kind of frothy meringue, and he cooks it all the time. It has no nutritional value — it’s really just sugar and air — but it’s still perfect for what it sets out to do. Obviously you wouldn’t want to eat that and nothing else, but sometimes it’s just what you need.

    As for the two World Wars, read up on his biography a bit. Basically, he stayed in France a bit too long in 1939 because he was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, and got scooped up by the Nazis. He was held prisoner for a while; then while being held in Berlin, he gave some humorous talks about his captivity that were used as German propaganda. He took all kinds of flak for it after the war, and his only excuse was basically that he really was about as politically clueless as Bertie Wooster in real life.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    I’m not sure I’d call it one of his best essays, but only because that is a bar that is set extraordinarily high.

    “in the case of Wodehouse, if we drive him to retire to the United States and renounce his British citizenship, we shall end by being horribly ashamed of ourselves” — indeed.

  10. Nick Gotts says

    I doubt it’s a complete coincidence that the only fascist who appears in his books – the above-mentioned Roderick Spode – has a very lean time of it, being knocked unconscious three times (variously coshed by Aunt Dahlia, beaten in a fist-fight by a curate, and hit over the head with a china basin containing beans by a cook), and additionally “plugged in the eye with a potato” at a political meeting.

  11. Nick Gotts says

    Oh, and he ends up with Madeline Bassett, who thinks the stars are God’s daisy chain.

  12. Mano Singham says

    @#12

    Don’t forget that she also thinks that very time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee star is born, so she is not afraid of contradictions. So gets his just desserts, no?

  13. Mano Singham says

    @#11,

    Spode was also hit by Bertie Wooster with a framed artwork, except that Bertie did not hit him with the frame and so he ended up just tearing up the canvas.

  14. brucegee1962 says

    Normally I suppress the urge to correct, but I was just talking about meringues, after all, and you seem to be the sort who would care about such things. Was that what you were referring to with “just desserts,” or did you mean deserts in the sense of “that which is deserved”?

  15. Mano Singham says

    That was a mistake on my part. In this case, I was not making a pun, at lest not consciously!

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