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.