Following a busy weekend at BookExpo America, there's no better Wodehouse book to delight myself with than Heavy Weather (1933), not merely because it's been muggy and hot both in Manhattan and in the setting of the novel, but because much of it is concerned with the threat of publication of a certain book (Galahad Threepwood's saucy memoirs). Heavy Weather even opens up in a publishing house, where Mammoth Publishing's agitated publisher has just learned Gally has refused to let his book be published. As Tilbury himself exclaims, "Cor!" Whatever is to be done?
But the delight of a novel concerned with my field of work and taking place in humid summer weather like I've been living with over the past few days is all secondary to my delight that this is one of Wodehouse's Blandings novels: the series concerning the denizens and guests of Blandings Castle, Shropshire. There are eleven novels (of which this is the fourth) and nine short stories about Blandings Castle, and to this little stuffed Wodehouse fan, there's not a dud among 'em. The joy and exuberance of Wodehouse shines exceptionally brightly in the Blandings books, and in the best of them he's at the tip-toppest of his sparkling career: intricate plots, howl-out-funny dialogue and narrative, loveable (and hissable) characters like dotty Lord Emsworth, Beach the butler, Lord Emsworth's terrifying sisters Connie and Julia, the outrageous Galahad Threepwood and his friend Uncle Fred Twistleton, assorted fake secretaries, maids, pig keepers and servants, and the single greatest non-speaking character in the entire Wodehousean canon: Empress of Blandings, prize-winning pig.
Also present in Heavy Weather is a now-familiar friend to readers of "A Wodehouse a Week"why yes, it's Monty Bodkin of Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin, sandwiched before that story and before the Mickey Mouse-smuggling antics of the (yet-to-be-reviewed by me) The Luck of the Bodkins. As in Pearls, Monty must hold down a job for an entire year to win approval to marry Gertrude Butterwick from Gertrude's father. As the story opens, Monty's serving as an editor of Tiny Tots ("that admirable children's paper") at Mammoth Publishing, but it's a sure bet that he'll be back on the street once Lord Tilbury reads the following Monty-contribution to Tiny Tots's latest number:
Well now, let's get down to it. This week, my dear little souls, Uncle Woggly is going to put you on to a good thing. We all want to make a spot of easy money these hard times, don't we? Well, here's the lowdown, straight from the horse's mouth. All you have to do is get hold of some mug and lure him into betting that a quart whisky bottle holds a quart of whisky.Useful info I would enjoy reading in any of my children's magazines, but it gets Monty tossed out into the street, jobless again and this (as they say) is where the fun starts.
Sounds rummy, what? I mean, that's what you would naturally think that it would hold. So does the mug. But it isn't. It's really more, and I'll tell you why.
First you fill the bottle. This gives you your quart. Then you shove the cork in. And thenfollow me closely hereyou turn the bottle upside down and you'll find there's a sort of bulging-ion part at the bottom. Well, slosh some whisky into that, and there you are. Because the bot. is now holding more than a quart and you scoop the stakes.
Through the help of his friendly ex-fianceé and ex-chorus-girl Sue Brown, Monty secures a job as secretary to Lord Emsworth at Blandings Castle, where Sue is based (she's engaged to be married to Emsworth's nephew Ronnie). Double complications from the start: 1) Ronnie being the jealous type, Monty and Sue don't dare let on that they know each other, much less were once engaged, and 2) Monty's uncle is the notorious Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, rival to Lord Emsworth in the annual Market Blandings agricultural fair pig competition...so Emsworth naturally assumes Monty has been sent there from Parsloe to hobble his pig, the serene and plump Empress of Blandings. Got that? Hang onto those facts. At the same time, Emsworth's brother, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, has just finished his memoirs of club life at the turn of the century, the publication of which will embarrass members of cultured high societyincluding Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloewith true tales of their wild youthful antics. Gally has promised not to publish the book if Emsworth gives the engaged Ronnie his full trust fund in order to get married. Mammoth Publishing head Tilbury, with sparkling pound signs in his beady eyes, hires shady private detective Percy Pilbeam to steal it. Pilbeam's also been hired by Emsworth's sister Lady Constance to steal the manuscript to completely remove the threat of publication and public humiliation. Parsloe wants the manuscript stolen to avoid revealing his wayward past. Like Parsloe, Monty is suspected of trying to sabotage the Empress of Blanding's fair prospects but instead becomes entangled in the plot to steal the manuscript. With me so far? Did I mention one of the greatest butlers in the history of English literature, Beach? I did not, but he's vital to the plot, too. In short, it's the perfect Blandings novel: characters rushing to and fro, changing loyalties, being lightly blackmailed, and what Hitchcock might call a MacGuffin but which is a sheaf of manuscript pages entitled The Reminiscences of Galahad Threepwood to Wodehouse, shuffled back and forth from desk drawer to butler's pantry to pigsty in an elaborate game of hide the memoirs, until your head is quite dizzy at trying to remember who's in the game for money, who's in it for themselves and who's in it for love.
Aside from the always-captivating characters, intricate coincidences and carefully-planned plot, Wodehouse adds a rare third element he often comments on but does not usually make such a major point of as he does in this book: the titular heavy weather. It's deep summer in London and Shropshire, and weather influences and directs much of the plot and happenstances in ways I don't remember being evident in his other novels. It's not mere coincidence that Heavy Weather's first line is "Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London." The weather is warm and growing more oppressive: barometer's falling, and it ain't gonna be raining men in the world of Wodehouse, it's going to be directly the storyline. Like each of his cast of characters, Wodehouse's weather has an absolutely essential and important part to play. The action of the book spins and grows more elaborate and entangled straight through the first half, even as weather references pop up, warning of the turmoil ahead. Witness the following beautifully vivid paragraph, which could have come straight out of Thomas Hardy...until a typical Wodehousean turn pops in at the very last second:
It was four o'clock of a sultry, overcast, oppressive afternoon, and a sudden stillness had fallen on the world. The heat wave which for the past two weeks had been grilling England was in the uncomfortable process of working up to a thunderstorm. Shropshire, under a leaden sky, had taken on a sinister and a brooding air. The flowers in the garden drooped forlornly. The lake was a grey smudge, and the river in the valley below a thread of sickly tarnished silver. Gone, too, was the friendly charm of the Scotch fir spinneys that dotted the park. They seems now black and haunted and menacing, as if witches lived in crooked little cottages in the heart of them.The storm breaks midway through the novel, and like the storm in King Lear, it serves as a turning point for the lazy susan of the plot's action to take its specific turn. The rain traps Pilbeam on the estate grounds instead of fleeing across the back gardens, so he takes refuge in a gardening shed and hides the pilfered manuscript in a pile of hay rather than getting away scot-free with it. The heavy weather convinces Beach the butler, more portly than Adonis, to mop his brow and stop in for a beer at the local pub, where he overhears the plot to steal the manuscript. And the rain catches Monty Bodkin full force, soaking him to the skin, so that when he dashes to the house to towel off, Ronnie spots a telltale tattoo and assumes the worst: that Sue still loves Monty and Monty still loves Sue:
'Ugh!' said Sue, hating Shropshire.
...Ronnie Fish uttered a quick, sharp exclamation.Weep no tears for shattered Ronnie and poor Sue, because Ronnie will see the light and the truth when Galahad forces them to sit down and talk to each other; like Sherlock Holmes, the outrageous older uncle untangled the skein of missing manuscripts, lost loves and pilfered pigs with incisive delight. This is a comedy, after all, and it all ends happily, with lovers clasping each other to their bosoms, marriages set to be scheduled (at least until the next Monty Bodkin novel) and while I won't tell you the final fate of an important MacGuffin, let's just say that like much of the novel's action, the problem is solved by nature...but not so much an Act of God as an Act of Pig.
Monty looked up, surprised. His benefactor had turned a vivid vermilion and was staring at him in a marked manner.
'Eh?' he said, puzzled.
Ronnie did not speak immediately. He appeared to be engaged in swallowing some hard, jagged substance.
'On your chest,' he said at length, in a strange, toneless voice.
Eton and Cambridge came to Ronnie's aid. Outwardly calm, he swallowed again, picked a piece of fluff off his left sleeve, and cleared his throat.
'There's something on your chest.'
'It looks like "Sue".'
He paused again.
'"Sue",' he said casually, 'with a heart round it.'
The hard jagged substance seemed to have transferred itself to Monty's throat. There was a brief silence while he disposed of it.
He was blaming himself. Rummy, he reflected ruefully, how when you saw a thing day after day for a couple or years or so it ceased to make any impression on what he rather fancied was called the retina. This heart-encircled 'Sue', this pink and ultramarine tribute to a long-vanished love, which in a gush of romantic fervour he had caused to be graven on his skin in the early days of their engagement, might during the last eighteen months just as well not have been there for all the notice he had taken of it. He had practically forgotten that it was still in existence.
It was a moment for quick thinking.
'Not "Sue",' he said. '"S.U.E."Sarah Ursula Ebbsmith.'
'Sarah Ursula Ebbsmith," repeated Monty firmly. 'Girl I used to be engaged to. She died. Pneumonia. Very sad. Don't let's talk of it.'
There was a long pause. Ronnie moved to the door. His feelings were almost too deep for words, but he managed a couple.
Any Wodehouse book is a wonderful thing; even the lesser ones (I haven't gotten to The Coming of Bill yet but I shan't be as complimentary) have a few moments to recommend them. The Blandings novels, along with the Jeeves stories, are the cream of the crop, and you could do worse than to spend a humid summer day lazing in a hammock with a cold glass of lemonade and burying yourself in Blandings. Beach, Lord Emsworth, and Gally are among Wodehouse's top comic creations, and the more I read of the many adventures of Monty Bodkin the more I enjoy him as an epitome of Wodehouse's hapless heroes. You really should read the book instead of simply paging through my excerpts, but what the dilly: one more half-page excerpt then, to take you inside the befuddled, absent-minded, but utterly pig-focused world of Clarence, Lord Emsworth:
'God bless my soul!' said Lord Emsworth querulously.I only have one edition in my collection of Heavy Weather: an early 1980s Penguin paperback with a cheery Ionicus illustration of Lord Tilbury confronting Gally. That edition's long out of print, but you can pick up this perfect piece of art in a newer Penguin edition with a doleful frog on the cover (A frog? Why not a hog?) by clicking on the Amazon.com link to the right. Extra bonus: this edition has an introduction by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite contemporary writers. Gee, now I'm going to have to get that edition too. See what Wodehouse inspires in me? I won't buy multiple copies of comic books anymore, but I'm a sucker for different editions of my favorite author. Whatever edition you pick up, this is one of Wodehouse's high points and a wonderful introduction or return to the world of Blandings.
He turned from the piano, and Lady Constance was enabled to see him steadily and see him whole. The sight caused her to utter a stricken cry.
'Whatwhat is that thing in your shirt-front?'
The ninth Earl squinted down.
'It's a paper-fastener. One of those brass things you fasten papers with. I lost my stud.'
'You must have more than one stud.'
'Here's another, up here.'
'Have you only two studs?'
'Three,' said Lord Emsworth, a little proudly. 'For the front of the shirt, three. Dashed inconvenient things. The heads come off. You screw them on and then you put them in and then you screw them on.'
'Well, go straight up to your room and screw on the spare one.'
It was not often that Lord Emsworth found himself in the position of being able to score a debating point against his sister Constance. The fact that he was about to do so now filled him with justifiable complacency. It seemed to lend to his manner a strange, quiet dignity.
'I can't,' he said. 'I swallowed it.'