Blandings book 4 – Summer Lightning

Published in 1929, Summer Lightning was actually the second Blandings book that I ever read –  the first was, ironically, the one that follows on from this one.

It introduces one of Wodehouse’s greatest characters, Lord Emsworth’s younger brother Galahad. Gally, as he is known to all, had been a flamboyant man-about-town in his younger days who has moved back to Blandings to write his reminiscences. A man of imagination and with a sense of humour he brooks no nonsense from Connie or (as we shall see later) his other sisters. The description of him in the first chapter is a classic:

A thoroughly misspent life had left the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, contrary to the most elementary justice, in what appeared to be perfect, even exuberantly perfect physical condition. How a man who ought to have had the liver of the century could look and behave as he did was a constant mystery to his associates. His eye was not dimmed nor his natural force abated. And when, skipping lithely across the turf, he tripped over the spaniel, so graceful was the agility with which he recovered his balance that he did not spill a drop of the whisky-and-soda in his hand. He continued to bear the glass aloft like some brave banner beneath which he had often fought and won. Instead of the blot on a proud family he might have been a teetotal acrobat.

We also have most of the Blandings posse – Emsworth, Connie, Beach, and the Empress herself, plus one nephew, Ronnie Fish and another niece, Millicent Threepwood. Millicent is secretly in love with Emsworth’s secretary Hugo Carmody and Ronnie is secretly engaged to Sue Brown, a girl in the chorus at the Regal Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.

Without giving away all of the plot suffice it to say that the story revolves around the theft of the pig by Ronnie (in order to find it again and get into Emsworth’s good books) and the pursuit of the reminiscences by Connie and Sir Gregory Parsloe in order to stop them being published. The plot twists and turns as others become embroiled, Connie gets Baxter back to help get rid of the reminiscences, Ronnie gets jealous of both Hugo and Pilbeam (a private detective), and of course the almost obligatory imposter (Sue)  makes her way into the Castle and is then exposed but in the end she has Gally on her side and love wins out over all obstacles.

Summer Lightning contains the first occurrence of something that happens at regular intervals through the rest of the saga: the theft of The Empress. Over the next few books she is stolen by several people – Ronnie, the first to do it, in this book, does it again in Heavy Weather. Gally does it too further on into the saga.

If we can think of Something Fresh as showing Wodehouse developing into a good humorous writer, and Leave it to Psmith being, as I said in an earlier blog the first of his really great books, then Summer Lightning shows his writing at the very best. This is Wodehouse at his peak! The humour is there, the plotting is superb and the standard is set for at least the next 30 years.

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Blandings book 3 – Blandings Castle

Blanding Castle is the third book in the Blandings saga chronologically but was actually published after the fifth book, Heavy Weather. Subtitled “And Elsewhere” it is a collection of short stories that was first published in 1935, and consists of six stories about Blandings, one Bobby Wickham story and five Mr Mulliner stories about Hollywood. As good as the second half of the book is, my interest here is with that esteemed Shropshire establishment and thus this blog will be about those first six stories.

Well, mainly about those stories! Before getting into them, the preface to the book is worthy of note because famously it’s where Wodehouse discusses what he calls “the Saga habit”.

(The author) writes a story. Another story dealing with the same characters occurs to him, and he writes that. He feels that one more won’t hurt him and he writes a third. And before he knows where he is, he is down with a Saga and no cure in sight.

He then talks about his saga habit in regard to both the Jeeves books and the Blandings ones, and refers to the habit leading to ever decreasing intervals between one book and the next. And it’s the preface that allows me accurately to place these stories within the story line, because, and I quote: “these stories come after Leave it to Psmith and before Summer Lightning“.

So to the stories.

The first one, Custody of the Pumpkin, is when Lord Emsworth is in what proves to be a short lived phase of pumpkin growing, and trying for the prize for pumpkins at the Shropshire Show. It involves Freddie eloping with a relative of McAllister the head gardener, his Lordship being almost arrested for picking flowers in Kensington Gardens, and then Freddie’s new father-in-law turning out to be an American millionaire manufacturer of dog biscuits who offers Freddie a job in the company in New York. The latter prompting one of those Wodehouse laugh-out-loud moments that occur from time to time:

Lord Emsworth could conceive of no way in which Freddie could be of value to a dog-biscuit firm, except possibly as a taster; but he refrained from damping the other’s enthusiasm by saying so.

Three of the next stories are concerning Freddie, his new bride and his new job promoting the dog biscuits, Donaldson’s Dog-Joy. We also meet another of Emsworth’s sisters, Lady Georgiana Alcester, and these stories being set around Blandings there is, naturally, an imposter; Popjoy, in reality the Rev Rupert (Beefy) Bingham, in the story Company for Gertrude.

There are two stories that particularly stand out in the canon and in the saga. Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey is the first appearance of the Empress of Blandings, the prize black Berkshire sow who features in almost all of the subsequent books; and the pigman George Cyril Wellbeloved. As I mentioned above, this volume was published in 1935 but Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey was clearly written (or at least planned) far earlier because it is mentioned in the preface to Summer Lightning, the fourth volume in the saga.

The other brilliant story is Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend which is always one of the contenders in discussions of the funniest short stories that the Master ever wrote. The description of the tea tent at the annual Blandings Parva School Treat is wonderful:

All civilised laws had obviously gone by the board and Anarchy reigned in the marquee. The curate was doing his best to form a provisional government consisting of himself and two school-teachers, but there was only one man who could have coped adequately  with the situation and that was King Herod, who – regrettably – was not among those present.

Lord Emsworth spends most of his time being harrassed by his sisters, but every now and then he rebels and this story is one of those. It’s great to see him facing down both McAllister and Connie – we’re cheering him on.

 

Blandings book 2 – Leave it to Psmith

Leave it to Psmith (“the p is silent, as in pshrimp”), the second book in the Blandings Castle saga is notable on several fronts. It’s the first one where we see Blandings as it is portrayed in the rest of the saga: the terraces, the flowerbeds, the yew tree alley, and the atmosphere of the house are better defined than in Something Fresh where the actual location is rather more incidental to the story. It’s the book where we meet the first of Lord Emsworth’s formidable sisters, Lady Constance. (Yes, a previous sister, Lady Anne, is mentioned in Something Fresh but she plays no part at all in the story and never appears again.) Connie appears in most of the saga from here onward and is a constant thorn in the side of her brother. It’s also the book where Angus McAllister, Lord Emsworth’s head gardener first gets mentioned; he too crops up often.

Two other points of interest: one general to the Wodehouse canon, one pertaining to the saga.

Leave it to Psmith is the last Psmith book. He first appears in one of the school books, Mike, written in 1909. There followed two other novels (Psmith in the City, 1910, and Psmith, Journalist, 1915) before this final one.

And this is the book that contains the story of Baxter and the flower pots, something that is mentioned time and again throughout the saga.

Leave it to Psmith is the story of the theft of a diamond necklace belonging to Lady Constance, for reasons too complex to mention here. It has another of Wodehouse’s finest heroines in Eve Halliday. In most discussions among the Wodehouse illuminati she ranks with Joan Valentine and Jill Mariner as the most well drawn, likeable and engaging. Clever, resourceful, intelligent, a strong and faithful friend and extremely courageous in pursuit of the necklace, Eve is one of the very finest. Her changing relationship with Psmith, from the initial gift of the umbrella in the rain outside the Drone Club, to her mistaken belief that he is married to her best friend, through the perceived betrayal over the stolen necklace before the final reconciliation is drawn with perception and insight.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the women who many would regard as Wodehouse’s finest heroines were written down between 1915, (Joan in Something Fresh) and 1923, (Eve in this volume), with Jill the Reckless (Jill Mariner its eponymous heroine) written in 1921. As his career progressed Wodehouse’s male protagonists tended to be more prominent in the stories and the women, though attractive and important, became less of personalities in their own right. Anne Benedick in Money in the Bank (1946) is the only other heroine (in my opinion of course) that stands out on her own.

Being a Blandings book it does, of course, have its share of imposters – three in this case: Psmith, Eddie Cootes and Liz (Aileen) Peavey. There is also Miss Simmonds who could be thought of as an imposter insofar as she is an undercover detective brought in by Baxter unknown to everyone else.

I would claim that Leave it to Psmith is the first truly great Wodehouse novel. It has superb humour! Chapter 11, called “Almost entirely about flower-pots” is 30 pages of narration telling the afore-mentioned story concerning Baxter and is a priceless read. The description of Baxter slowly going berserk with fury after being accidentally locked out of the house at 3am, looking for the stolen necklace and then waking his Lordship by throwing flower pots through his bedroom window is a piece of funny writing that arguably is some of the finest that Wodehouse wrote. But it’s more than that one chapter! Almost every part is funny. From Freddy conspiring with his Uncle to steal Connie’s necklace, to Psmith protecting Eve from the rain with an umbrella “borrowed” from the cloakroom of The Drones Club; from the description of Lord Emsworth’s looking for his lost glasses to the advert in the Morning Globe that gives us the title of the book – every part of this book is a sheer joy to read. I absolutely love it!

Blandings book 1 – Something Fresh

Although it is the first novel in the Blandings Castle saga, Something Fresh was one of the last that I read. As someone who had come to Wodehouse as he was approaching his prime (Heavy Weather, the first novel I read was published in 1933) initially I found the writing style of this one, which was published in 1915, only 12 years after he began writing, slightly less fluent. Not there’s anything wrong with the writing, but it does not quite have the free flowing narrative style of the Master in his pomp.

There are shades of the more erudite and conversational narration that became his style, particularly in the Jeeves and Wooster books, and occasionally he slips into the first person narrative, amongst which this is a favourite of mine:

“One of the Georges – I forget which – once said that a certain number of hours’ sleep each night – I cannot recall at the moment how many – made a man something, which for the time being has slipped my memory, and Baxter agreed with him”

Something Fresh starts in London and introduces us in the first chapter to the main characters of the story, Ashe Marston and Joan Valentine. In terms of character Joan is the most noteworthy and she is often considered to be one of Wodehouse’s finest heroines. She is clever, forthright, dynamic, resourceful and could fit right into a novel written a hundred years later in her arguments for women’s equality. She is not quite my personal favourite Wodehouse heroine, as that is Anne Benedick in Money in the Bank, (see my previous blog on that book) but she’s definitely in the top three.

Chapter Two introduces the Honourable Freddy Threepwood and his father, the Earl of Emsworth, both of whom are to become staples of the entire saga. There is a superbly humourous scene in the dining room of the Senior Conservative Club (a location that crops up occasionally in other books), before the action switches to Blandings Castle where all the subsequent books are set. And it is at Blandings that we are introduced to one of the saga’s most notable characters, the man we love to hate, the saturnine, bespectacled Rupert Baxter, who when we first meet him is Lord Emsworth’s secretary.

A further note on the writing: Wodehouse devotes five pages on the arrival at Blandings station to describe the moment of Ashe falling in love with Joan. It’s lyrical, tender, insightful and, as ever, slightly comic. And it is worthy of note because though described as a light and even comic writer, Wodehouse most certainly knew and could handle the finer aspect of human emotions when he wanted to.

The main thrust of the story of this book is to do with the accidental purloining by Lord Emsworth of a very rare ancient Egyptian scarab from Mr Peters, the father of Freddy’s fiance, and Mr Peters’ attempts to get it back. As ever with Wodehouse, the fun comes not so much from the events of the story but from the people who get caught up in it. Ashe and Joan meet up, both get conscripted separately to retrieve the scarab and end up falling in love. Freddy starts off being engaged and fearing a breach of promise case, and ends up as single, but relieved. The book shows an apparently well informed view of the hierarchy of life below stairs, and gives us our first introduction to Mr Beach, the butler. Interestingly, considered across the whole saga, Beach is the character that changes most in the writer’s mind and pen. In Something Fresh he is shown as a figure of immense superiority, aloof, ponderous and wholly separate. Within a couple of books he is shown as having a beer in the Emsworth Arms (one of the village pubs), and towards the end of the saga he is winning a darts tournament!

The final aspect of this book that becomes a common feature of almost all the Blandings book is the imposters. Joan and Ashe are the first of many. I can’t think of any Blandings books that don’t have at least one imposter.

It’s a fun book to read. It was written as a standalone novel in 1915 (none of the characters appears again until the second novel, Leave it to Psmith eight years later) and is very interesting to read it in that context. Emsworth, Freddy, Beach and Baxter are presented as characters with whom the reader is entirely unfamiliar and if Wodehouse fans can forget all the subsequent character development reading it is quite an exciting intellectual exercise.

Blogging about books, with particular reference to PG Wodehouse

Some time ago I set off with the intention of writing a blog a week about books. It went fairly well for the first few months of 2017 but then my daughter’s wedding intervened and knocked me out of my stride and sadly the whole enterprise staggered to a halt. Shortly after that another daughter announced her intention to marry, and that plus my personal project for 2018 (I’ve become a runner! Something that might well have a blog of its own at some point.) have managed to defer all thoughts of blogging.

Until now.

I want to start again, though in a manner that is less prescriptive, particularly in terms of time. I’m going to read all of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books in chronological order, and will write about each one as I go.

I was introduced to Wodehouse at the age of 10 by a friend of my father’s who, it transpired, had pretty much a complete collection of his books. He lent me A Wodehouse Miscellany, consisting of short stories, extracts from books and innumerable quotes. I greatly enjoyed it so he then gave me my first Blandings book, Heavy Weather. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this is actually the fourth volume in the canon and directly follows on from Summer Lightning, so some of the events and characters were a touch confusing. But I loved that book! The humour, the place, the style of writing and the characters all made an impression on my young mind and I was hooked. As I grew up my collection gradually expanded; I met Jeeves and Wooster; explored the wacky world of Psmith and devoured the thoughts and remembrances of both Mr Mulliner and The Oldest Member. All these books I read and re-read – still do.

Wodehouse aficionados will argue long into the night as to which parts of the Master’s oeuvre are the funniest. Some (well, ok, many!) will support the Jeeves and Wooster stories as the highest form; others are supportive of the golfing stories, the Blandings saga or the adventures of Ukridge. And I will freely admit to hugely enjoying all of these. But for me the stories of Blandings Castle, its dreamy owner Lord Emsworth, his numerous nieces and their suitors, his array of formidable sisters, his brother Gally (now there’s a bloke to go for a drink with!) and the supreme pig, the Empress of Blandings. These are the ones that pull me back most, time after time and I am greatly looking forward to reading them all again and sharing my thoughts in this blog in the weeks to come.

Book 16 – Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson first came to England in 1973, settled here in 1977 and has become probably our only American National Treasure. He has written books on the English language (Mother Tongue is superb!) and then developed into a travel writer with an idiosyncratic style that makes him always a joy to read.

After marrying here and bringing up a family, he decided in the mid-nineties to move back to the USA but before going he wanted to write a farewell to Great Britain. Notes from a Small Island is Bryson’s tribute to this country, written with an eye to detail, a command of language and a heartfelt love of the place that has long been one of my very favourite books. It is funny; it is accurate; it is perceptive. He shows us both the faults of the people and the systems and all that makes them so wonderful.

He packs the book with incidental facts about places that were (and still are) a surprise to me. There’s one part when writing about the Cotswolds where he gives just enough detail for an determined enquirer to find a genuine roman mosaid floor hidden away in a wood. Armed with an ordnance survey map and his hints we managed to find it too!

His perceptions on the way we think here are spot on. The first chapter contains a near parody of a pub discussion about how to travel somewhere that is side-splittingly funny and deadly accurate.

It is quite simply one of the best books about this country that’s ever been written. And as an aside, he has moved back here and now has a followup volume called The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island that is high on my list of Books To Get Very Soon.

Book 15 – The Tin Princess

I think I’m going to have to read some more Philip Pullman. Some years back I got hold of the His Dark Materials trilogy, partly because I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and partly because Pullman was quoted as saying that he wanted to use the trilogy “to kill God” – spoiler alert: he doesn’t! The books were a thoughful and entertaining read with some wonderful characters – who could not fall in love with Serafina Pekkala? – but left me somewhat dissatisfied as in the end it all seemed to peter out somehow.

A year or so ago I found The Tin Princess in a secondhand book sale, thought it was a very different looking Pullman novel and therefore decided to try it. But again, it seems to not really have much of an ending and all the anticipation leads to nowhere in particular. As with the trilogy, some of the writing is superb. There’s a description of a small battle in a developing snowstorm that is wonderful and evocative to read, but overall I was left feeling “is that it?”.

This could be because the book is part of a series for young adults (something I was not aware of when starting it) and thus there is a back story of which I knew nothing. And perhaps these days modern young adult fiction is not for me. As I said at the beginning, I’ll have to try some more Pullman before definitely making up my mind.