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.