Monday, October 08, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #24: Ukridge

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'I've been reading your book, old man,' said Ukridge, breaking a pregnant silence with an overdone carelessness. He brandished winningly the only novel I had ever written, and I can offer no better proof of the black hostility of my soul than the statement that even this did not soften me. 'It's immense, laddie. No other word for it. Immense. Damme, I've been crying like a child.'

'It is supposed to be a humorous novel," I pointed out, coldly.

'Crying with laughter,' explained Ukridge, hurriedly.

I eyed him with loathing.
—from Ukridge by P. G. Wodehouse

Almost a quarter of the way through the Wodehouse Canon and I've introduced you to very nearly all the major series characters: Bertie and Jeeves, Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings, Mr. Mulliner, The Oldest Member, Psmith, Monty Bodkin, Galahad've been acquainted with them all and I'll continue to keep you spot up to date on their adventures as I work my way through the next year-and-a-half's worth of Wodehouseiana. But could it be possible that nearly half a year into the Canon and we still haven't met all the major players? Why yes...yes, it is! Curiously enough, we've yet to meet my favorite Wodehouse character, Uncle Fred, Earl of Ickenham: in my view the epitome of the mischievous and wild-lived elderly peer that Wodehouse brought so well to life, and an especial favorite of mine because I had an Uncle Fred of my own. We won't meet Uncle Fred this week (soon, I promise you), but instead, meet another leading player in several Wodehouse works: Stanley Featherstonehaugh (pronounced 'Fanshaw,' in that delightful British way) Ukridge.

Ukridge is his name, and Ukridge (1924) is his book, although it was renamed He Rather Enjoyed It when it was re-published in the US in 1926. And that's an apt description and summary of my whole review of this book: this little stuffed bull rather enjoyed it. Ukridge debuted in an earlier work of Wodehouse's, the 1906 novel Love Among the Chickens), but in my little button eyes, Ukridge is his finest moment—or, to be precise, ten finest moments, as these are ten Ukridge short stories, originally published separately in The Strand magazine (worth picking up even after Mister Sherlock Holmes retired, you see!). Though the stories can be read separately and are all amusing, they gain a strong sweep and strength when read as a whole, situations in later stories building upon those from earlier to a comic climax in the final chapter, much like the separate but interconnected stories in The Inimitable Jeeves from the same period.

Ukridge and the narrator of the tales, professional writer James "Corky" Corcoran (what a fine, fine name!) are no Jeeves and Wooster, and Ukridge might even be described as an anti-Jeeves: he ensnares Corky in his plans and plots to make quick money, all of which fail spectacularly (or at least financially and socially inconvenience Corky). Corky and Ukridge were at Wrykyn together (the boarding school that features in Wodehouse's earliest school stories, and my favorite of the Wodehouse schools), so Ukridge's tendencies to borrow without repaying are not new, but so charming are his ways, Corky falls into the same trap every time:
'I was told to give you this letter, sir.'

I took it and opened the envelope with a sigh. I had recognized the handwriting of Ukridge, and for the hundredth time in our close acquaintance there smote me like a blow the sad suspicion that this man had once more gone and wished upon me some frightful thing.

It's not often I ask you to do anything for me...

I laughed hollowly.
Ukridge isn't so much a criminal or a swindler, but he is a rogue and a con man, always ready to touch his friends for a fast pound note, ever-ready to entangle them in his newest outlandish get-rich-quick scheme. Although he has the best of intentions, Ukridge isn't above misdirection, white lies, or even a spot of petty theft to fund his endeavors:
'Gentlemen,' said Ukridge, 'it would seem that the company requires more capital. How about it, old horses? Let's get together in a frank, business-like cards-on-the-table spirit, and see what can be done. I can raise ten bob.'

'What!" cried the entire assembled company, amazed. 'How?'

'I'll pawn a banjo.'

'You haven't got a banjo.'

'No, but George Tupper has, and I know where he keeps it.'
Thus begins an elaborate scheme to defraud insurance companies by funding Teddy Weeks, one of Ukridge's circle who has drawn the short straw, to have a disastrous accident and collecting on several insurance claims to be split among the investors. Ukridge then spends the rest of the story attempting to convince Teddy to willingly break his leg for the good of the conglomerate, to no avail, as Wodehouse informs us, in a rather macabrely gleeful paragraph that I can imagine Gomez Addams cackling at as he reads:
All over the inhabited globe, so the well-informed sheet gave one to understand, every kind of accident was happening every day to practically everybody in existence except Teddy Weeks. Farmers in Minnesota were getting mixed up with reaping-machines, peasants in India we being bisected by crocodiles; iron girders from skyscrapers were falling hourly on the heads of citizens in every town from Philadelphia to San Francisco; and the only people who were not down with ptomaine poisoning were those who had walked over cliffs, driven motors into walls, tripped over manholes, or assumed on too slight evidence that the gun was not loaded. In a crippled world, it seemed, Teddy Weeks walked alone, whole and glowing with health. It was one of those grim, ironical, hopeless, grey, despairful situations which the Russian novelists love to write about...
When happenstance fails to injure Teddy, Ukridge then resorts to elbowing or shoving or pushing Teddy in harm's way, each attempt resulting in the injury of some other (non-insured) friend. When at last Teddy drunkenly and accidentally steps on a banana peel and breaks two ribs and his arm, Ukridge is delighted: time to collect the money at last. It would be, that is, if Teddy hadn't suffered amnesia from his fall and refuses to parcel out his substantial insurance benefits.

The same O. Henry-esque twists complicate each one of Ukridge's end schemes in every story, leaving him as penniless as ever, whether he's attempting to raise trained dogs (stolen from his imposing aunt), train and fight a prize boxer (the burly but sensitive Battling Billson (who appears later, behind the scenes, in Something Fishy), or, most hopeless of all, attempting a scheme to put one over on his wealthy, sweet-faced but sour-demeanored Aunt Julia, a writer:
'Does your aunt write novels?'

'The world's worst, laddie, the world's worst. She's been steeped to the gills in literature ever since I can remember. They've just made her president of the Pen and Ink Club. As a matter of fact, it was her novels that did me in when I lived with her. She used to send me to bed with the beastly things and ask me questions about them at breakfast. It was a dog's life, and I'm glad it's over. Flesh and blood couldn't stand the strain.'
One of Ukridge's rare successes is oversubscribing his aunt's literary dance by selling tickets to an entirely different group and pocketing the proceeds, but for the most part his plans are doomed to failure., and it's off again on another attempt at the easy ready when the next story begins: Ukridge is undaunted and ever-clever, often working harder to gain a few illegal pounds than he would if he actually worked for a living. He's an excellent example of the frustrated confidence rogue in literature: a lovable scoundrel, not quite a crook, but never on the straight-and-narrow: a spiritual brother to Sergeant Bilko, Harold Hill, Johnny Hooker, The Duke and the Dauphin, Lyle Lanley and Jack of Fables. As Stevie Nicks would sing, "Will you ever win?" Nope. Not a chance.

Except...well, at the end, Ukridge does kinda win: he falls in love and swindles his way into the hearts of his girl Millie's family by stealing a beloved family pet—a parrot—and then becoming the hero by returning it. And Millie helps him do it. Typical to the last, they stash the parrot at Corky's and entangle him in a plot to keep Aunt Julia away from Millie's family. At last, our con man hero has met a girl with as duplicitous a heart as his, and it's love for Ukridge and when the final page of the last story is turned. Their tumultuous but good-humored marriage is recounted in the (earlier) novel Love Among the Chickens, which I have yet to re-read in the Wodehouse a Week project. It's difficult to imagine this rogue in a domestic setting, but I'm looking forward to dropping in on him at home later on.

For what's a relatively minor Wodehouse book I was surprised to find I have on the old PGW bookshelf several editions from different eras: the recent Everyman Wodehouse hardcover reprint, of course; a battered but lovely Herbert Jenkins fourth printing hardcover edition from 1930 featuring a Li'l Abneresque Battling Billson on the cover (purchased for ten quid at the late lamented Gloucester Road Book Shop on my London trip of 1997); a late-eighties uniform Hutchinson UK reprint edition with a dustjacket that looks like tweed; but my favorite edition is the one I've been reading this week: a paperback Penguin reprint from the 1960s, the era when Penguin had abandoned the Jan Tschichold-designed all-typography covers they were most famous for and began experimenting with different typographical and art elements on their covers. This one has a lovely energetic cartoon of Ukridge being chased by Aunt Julia's vicious Pekes. It's a book very dear to me as I purchased it on my very first trip to London (in 1983) for what the pencil marks on the inside page tell me was a whopping 90p. (The original price on the cover? 3 shillings and sixpence.) It also features one of my favorite short and dry descriptions of any Wodehouse book on the back cover:
The leading incidents of easy-money Ukridge's disreputable career—from dog-training, fight-management, and bookmaking down to politics—now presented to the public, and not, as some might prefer, decently hushed up.
Below that, the cover declares in bold letters: For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A. But lucky, lucky you: Ukridge is at last actually available to you here in the States, and in the lovely Overlook hardcover reprint edition, complete with Pekes on the cover. (Cheaper used paperback copies can also be found on Amazon by clicking through to 'other editions' if you're as short on the ready money as Ukridge.) Please take my advice, order one up today, and enjoy your time with Mister Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge: but keep your hand on your wallet and don't lend him a single quid.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


J.R. Jenks said...

Yay! Another Wodehouse a Week. I've been waiting for this so I could point you to my thank-you post, Right Ho, Bully!

SallyP said...

Amusing as usual. I'm ashamed to admit that I've never even heard of Ukridge! I'll have to head to the library again.

Anonymous said...

Ukridge is my favorite Wodehouse character. PG didn't write enough of 'im for my tastes!

Yatz said...

Like Jenks, I'd first like to thank you - for "The Small Bachellor", which I've just finished (moving on to "Big Money", all with a big smile on my face!)
I heartily recommend "Ukridge", which is another great non-formula Wodehouse.

Mike Lynch said...

I read a number of Ukridge stories onboard a dreadful bit of plane travel. The insurance scheme story you relate, Bully, was great. I was chuckling rather loudly and, lemme tell ya, these days fellow plane passengers look at you like you're insane when you laugh out loud while reading. I pity them!