Monday, May 05, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #49: Young Men in Spats

A Wodehouse a Week

John BuchanSpats! All the hip cool cats are wearin' 'em. From John Buchan (left) to John D. Rockefeller to Uncle Scrooge McDuck, spats make the man (and duck) and tell us, the spat-less observer, that this truly is a person (or miserly waterfowl) to be reckoned with. They're snazzy, stylish, and sharp—just like this week's Wodehouse! Young Men in Spats (1936) is a collection of short stories, mostly about the various members of the outrageous Drones Club. Interestingly, whenever there's a Drones story, there's neither hide nor well-combed hair of Bertie Wooster—not even a mention of him as one of the most illustrious members of that particular gentleman's social organization. No matter. These young men (chiefly Freddie Widgeon, Pongo Twistleton and Archibald Mulliner—yes, nephew of the illustrious Mr Mulliner) face challenges in love and life without the expert help of Jeeves, so there's no shame in them temporarily eclipsing the spotlight from Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, is there?

These eleven short stories feature some of the most hapless members of the Drones thrust into situations that would try the souls of many stronger men:
Rather a chump it made him feel, he tells me, because a fellow all by himself on the bank of a river shouting 'Prudence! Prudence!' is apt to give a false impression to any passer-0by who may hear him. However, he didn't have to bother about that long, for at this point, happening to glance at the river, he saw her body floating in it.

'Oh, dash it!' said Freddie.
Which is almost as serious a situation for Freddie Widgeon as when he tries to make his escape:
...Not ten seconds, accordingly, after the other had disappeared, he was wrenching the front door open.

He was taking a risk, of course. There was the possibility that he might be walking into an ambush. But all seemed well. The Captain had apparently genuinely gone round to the back, and Freddie reached the gate with the comfortable feeling that in another couple of seconds he would be out in the open and in a position to leg it away from the danger zone.

All's well that ends well, felt Freddie.

it was at this juncture that he found that he had no trousers on.
And I think we all know how much of a setback that can be.

In this collection, Adolphus "Stiffy" Stiffham is mistaken for a ghost by his objectionable (and objecting) future father-in-law, Percy Wimbolt and Nelson Cork experience the mystery of the mis-sized top hats (a puzzlement so dire it leads them to swap girlfriends), while Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Pongo Twistleton vie for the same vicar's daughter (and emerge from the trial better and stronger men). There's three Mr Mulliner stories as well (two of them about Drone member Archibald Mulliner), but the star of four of the stories is Freddie Widgeon, and you know you're always in for some dandy and delightful dialogue when you're tagging along with Mr W.:
'Looking for someone?' she asked.

'Why, yes,' said Freddie. 'I suppose you couldn't tell me when Miss Jennings will be in?'

'Miss Who?'


'How do you spell it?'

'Oh, much the usual way, I expect. Start off with a J and then a good many 'n's and 'g's and things.'
Not to mention Wodehouse's usual sparkling, technicolour descriptions:
Always a natty dresser, today he had eclipsed himself. The glistening trousers, the spotless shirt, the form-fitting blue coat...all these combined to present an intoxicating picture. And this picture he had topped off with a superb tie which he had contrived to pinch overnight from his uncle's effects. Gold and lavender in its general colour scheme, with a red stripe thrown in for good measure. Lots of fellows, he tells me, couldn't have carried it off, but it made him look positive godlike.
I'm sure Wodehouse only accidentally forgot to mention the spats in that last paragraph.

Young Man in Spats is a clever and entertaining collection—not one of Wodehouse's finest, and not starring any of his top-billed characters (with the exception of one I'll get to in a moment), but it's one of my favorite books of Wodehouse short stories: cheerful and lyrical at the same time, fast-paced tidbits of delight. What brings it up from the level of a merely good Drones collection like Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets is the first appearance, in the Pongo Twistleton story, of Frederick, Lord Ickenham: the irrepressible Uncle Fred. If you're been following along with A Wodehouse a Week, you met him first in my review of Cocktail Time, but here's his debut short story: "Uncle Fred Flits By." When Uncle, flits by, trouble follows, as he casually and enthusiastically cons his way past a maid into a home to take refuge from a rainstorm:
...Lord Ickenham lit the gas-fire and drew a chair up.

'So here we are, my boy,' he said. 'A little tact, a little address, and here we are, snug and cosy and not catching our deaths of cold. You'll never go far wrong if you leave things to me.'

'But dash it, we can't stop here.' said Pongo.

Lord Ickenham raised his eyebrows.

'Not stop here? Are you suggesting that we go out into that rain? My dear lad, you are not aware of the grave issues involved. This morning, as I was leaving home, I had a rather painful disagreement with your aunt. She said the weather was treacherous and wished me to take my woolly muffler. I replied that the weather was not treacherous and I would be dashed if I took my woolly muffler. Eventually, by the exercise of an iron will, I had my way, and I ask you, my dear boy, to envisage what will happen if I return with a cold in the head. I shall sink to the level of a fifth-class power. Next time I came to London, it would be with a liver pad and a respirator. No! I shall remain here, toasting my toes at this really excellent fire. I had no idea that a gas-fire radiated such warmth. I feel all in a glow.'

So did Pongo. His brow was wet with honest sweat.
Not content to simply put his feet up and relax, Uncle Fred involves himself in the affairs of the denizens of the house, including cementing a romance between the young woman of the household and her true love, disapproved of by the family:
'I found to my horror that a young man of whom I knew nothing was arranging to marry my daughter. I sent for him immediately, and found him to be quite impossible. He jellies eels!'

'Does what?'

'He is an assistant at a jellied eel shop.'

'But surely,' said Lord Ickenham, 'that speaks well for him. The capacity to jelly an eel seems to me to argue intelligence of a high order. It isn't everyone who can do it, by any means. I know if someone came to me and said "Jelly this eel!" I should be nonplussed. And so, or I am very much mistaken, would Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill.'

The woman did not seem to see eye to eye.
Uncle Fred is my favorite Wodehouse character, not merely for his enthusiastically carpe diem and laissez-faire lifestyle, or for his casually criminal view to putting things right that might have gone wrong. Most of all, however, Uncle Fred Ickenham reminds me of my own Uncle Fred, who taught me, among other lessons, that Things Oughta Be Fun. His spirit lives on in his fictional counterpart, and every time I read an Uncle Fred story, I think of my own Uncle Fred.

It might be coincidence or it might be kismet, therefore, that last night I went out for a lovely evening of theater at Lincoln Center here in Manhattan to see John Lithgow's one-man show Stories By Heart, a celebrating of tales and story-telling. He recounts with humor and charm the effect of story-telling by his grandmother and father upon his young life, and how he was able to return the favor years later by reading to his parents when they were much older. The story he recounts reading to them? "Uncle Fred Flits By." And then Lithgow begins to read us the story, doing all the voices of the Crumpet and Pongo and Uncle Fred—and then he puts down the book and continues from heart, reciting with great energy and humor the text of the story, acting out the characters and their outrageous circumstances. I do truly love reading Wodehouse, but you pick up so much more when it it read or recited by a great storyteller, and I was laughing my stuffing out all the way through. If you're in New York City, I highly recommend seeing the show. Remember to turn off your cell phones because he'll scold you gently if you don't, and be ready to be charmed and amused!

Even if you don't have an Uncle Fred, you can experience the joy that is Lord Ickenham (plus Drones galore) by picking up a copy of Young Men in Spats. I've got a trio of editions of the book: a Penguin UK paperback, a Collier's US hardcover reprint (with a slightly different line-up of stories: it includes three Oldest Member golf stories that appeared in the UK edition of Lord Emsworth and Others), and a lovely hardcover edition published by the Everyman Library, available in the US from Overlook Press; click on the Amazon link to the right to buy yourself a copy of this edition. Or, if you want to skip the middleman and go right to the stylish glamour of the Drones Club, well, then, get yourself a pair of these:

Is that all? Of course not! Wodehouse fans and scholars out there will note that I haven't discussed one of this collection's most delightful and yet eerily macabre stories. But I'll leave that to a special guest star to discuss tomorrow...stay tuned, cool cats!

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


Monty Ashley said...

Young Men in Spats is what I always give people to give them a taste of Wodehouse. Bertie and Jeeves are more traditional, but "Uncle Fred Flits By" is my favorite short story by anyone, ever, and I always figure that if someone reads it and doesn't like it, there's no hope for them anyway.

SallyP said...

I think that the word "hapless" pretty much sums up just about everyone in the Drone's club.

I have to admit that "Young Men in Spats" is a shockingly good title.