Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #53: Uncle Fred in the Springtime

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If you're a comic book fan like me, you're incredibly familiar with the concept of a team-up story, where characters from different titles join together to a common victory. Both DC and Marvel have had entire titles devoted to the team-up (Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, DC Comics Presents, The Brave and the Bold, World's Finest, Green Lantern Hangs Out Down on the Corner Pickin' Up Chicks). Occasionally there's even some team-ups on a broader, bigger, grander scale: Batman vs. The Hulk! The Teen Titans and the X-Men! Jerry Lewis meets Batman! Superman vs. Popeye!


This sort of powerhouse crossover adventure only happens once in a blue moon (or, if it's crossing over with Witchblade and Tomb Raider, once every month and a half). But it's not restricted to superheroes, or Sherlock Holmes meeting Tarzan, or Sean Connery makin' whoopee with that girl from La Femme Nikita. No, you can fine amazing world-shattering team-ups just around the bend, almost everywhere you look. Like, in a Wodehouse book? But of course!

Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939), besides being the first of the delightful Uncle Fred, Lord Ickenham novels (he's my favorite Wodehouse character, in part because he reminds me in so many ways of my own Uncle Fred), besides being a crossover between the Uncle Fred stories, the Drones Club stories, and the Blandings Castle saga...besides all that, it's a really spiffing yarn, one of my favorites. Wodehouse's prose is at his best during these years: sharp, detailed, funny, elaborate but never overwritten. You can see the care and detail he brings in writing and rewriting every chapter, and it's an elaborate plot that you can either scratch your head over and try to keep track of who knows what when and where, or you can just dive in and enjoy the fun.

Uncle Fred starts out with one of the finest and most Wodehousean of openings:
The door of the Drones Club swung open, and a young man in form-fitting tweeds came down the steps and started to walk westwards. An observant passer-by, scanning his face, would have fancied that he discerned on it a keen, tense look, like that of an African hunter stalking a hippopotamus. And he would have been right. Pongo Twistleton—for it was he—was on his way to try to touch Horace Pendlebury-Davenport for two hundred pounds.

To touch Horace Pendlebury-Davenport, if you are coming from the Drones, you go down Hay Hill;, through Berkeley Square, along Mount Street and up Park Lane to the new block of luxury flats which they have built where Bloxham House use to be: and it did not take Pongo long to reach journey's end.
In other words:

Touching Horace map

Although possibly with more twirling of the umbrella.

One of those Wodehouse books where you might need a scorecard to keep track of the players, Uncle Fred in the Springtime piles on a lot of info right from the get-go: Pongo needs a spot of ready cash to pay off his gambling debts following a particular disaster round of "Clothes Stakes" at the Drones, Horace is in double-dutch with his girlfriend, Pongo's cousin Valerie, and there's much trouble afoot at Blandings Castle: barmy, the egg-flinging Duke of Dunstable has come to stay and is plotting to steal the Empress of Blandings, that paragon among porkers, the swine standard. Lady Constance is on the warpath to invite the noted brain-care specialist (e.g.: loony doctor) Sir Roderick Glossop to spy on the Duke. What's a beleaguered Lord Emsworth to do? Or, more accurately, who you gonna call?
There was a strange look on Lord Emsworth's face as the door closed. It was the look of a man who has just found himself on the receiving end of a miracle. His knees were trembling a little as he rose and walked to the book-case, where the red and gold of Debrett's Peerage gleamed like the ray of a lighthouse guiding a storm-tossed mariner.

Beach, the butler, hearing the bell, presented himself at the library.


'Oh, beach, I want you to put in a trunk telephone call for me. I don't know the number, but the address is Ickenham Hall, Ickenham, Hampshire. I want a personal call to Lord Ickenham.'

'Very good, m'lord.'
Uncle Fred, like his old pal Galahad Threepwood (Emsworth's brother), is an elder and spry gentleman, fond of the good life and sneaking out under the nose of his firm-handed wife, so with a tip of his hat he's off to join forces with the crew at Blandings. This isn't the first major Wodehouse Blandings crossover, of course: Psmith visited and served a vital role in sorting out the affairs of all concerned in 1923's Leave It To Psmith, but Uncle Fred is a richer, fuller, funnier novel than the (admittedly wonderful) Psmith. A Blandings novel often gives us one or two imposters at the castle: Uncle Fred in the Springtime gives us three, as Uncle Fred, Pongo, and Polly Potts (Horace's cousin's fianceé—yes, see how complicated it is?) pose as Sir Roderick Glossop, his secretary, and niece. Like Jeeves, Uncle Fred is skilled in untangling complications—he's got a brain as sharp and brilliant as Jeeves but with a much more definite air of confidence trickster about him. He can't be flapped, he can't be confused, and best of all, he thinks on his feet, even when his plans are crumbling around him. Witness:
'It is unfortunate for you that I should have met the real Sir Roderick. When I saw him on the train, he had not forgotten me, of course, but I know him immediately. He has altered very little!'

Lord Ickenham raised his eyebrows.

'Are you insinuating that I am not Sir Roderick Glossop?'

'I am.'

'I see. You accuse me of assuming another man's identity, do you, of abusing Lady Constance's hospitality by entering her house under false pretences? You deliberately assert that I am a fraud and an imposter?'

'I do.'

'And how right you are, my dear fellow!' said Lord Ickenham. 'How right you are.'
Any other novel...well, to be fair, any other author...and the next page would be our pal Uncle Fred carted away to Wormwood Scrubs in handcuffs, which might be an interesting adventure, but it's not really Wodehouse, now, is it? (He's much more the manor house type than Dartmoor Prison.) No, as he always does, Uncle Fred eludes the long arm of the local constabulary quite neatly through a combination of smooth talking and blackmail.

In fact, one of the delights of Uncle Fred in the Springtime is that, unlike many Wodehouse novels where the true identities of the ubiquitous imposters are unveiled to much consternation and uproar, most of this book is spent with exactly everyone knowing that Fred is an imposter: Lady Constance, the efficient Baxter, Lord Emsworth's son Lord fact he manages to hornswoggle and perplex just about every great mind placed before him with the possible exception of the Empress of Blandings.

Empress of BlandingsAh, yes, the Empress. The porcine princess, the highest hog, the best of the boarettes. After Uncle Fred, she's probably my second favorite Wodehouse character, so it's fitting the plot revolves around an plot to steal her away. There's some discussion of Pongo ferrying her out of the country in an automobile, quickly dismissed as unfeasible...
Pongo had listened to this exposition with mixed feelings. On the whole, relief prevailed. A purse of gold would undoubtedly have some in uncommonly handy, but better, he felt, to give it a miss than to pass a night of terror in a car with a pig. Like so many sensitive young men, he shrank from making himself conspicuous, and only a person wilfully blind to the realities of life could deny that you made yourself dashed conspicuous, driving pigs across England in cars.
Still, what a remake of Rain Man it would have made!

The Empress is sadly not on stage much in Uncle Fred, but when she does appear, it's with a splash: ferreted away and hidden in the Duke of Dunstable's bathroom, she, like all great actresses with an impeccable sense of comic timing, makes an abrupt appearance at just the proper moment:
The Empress of Blandings was a pig who took things as they came. Her motto, like Horace's, was nil admirari. But, cool and even aloof as she was as a general rule, she had been a little puzzled by the events of the day. In particular, she had found the bathroom odd. It was the only place she had ever been in where there appeared to be a shortage of food. The best it had to offer was a cake of shaving-soap, and she had been eating this with a thoughtful frown when Mr Pott joined her. As she emerged now, she was still foaming at the mouth a little and it was perhaps this that set the seal on Lord Bosham's astonishment and caused him not only to recoil a yard or two with his eyes popping but also to pull the trigger of his gun.
In the works of a different writer...say, Ernest Hemingway or Irvine Welsh...the next chapter would have been titled "Pork Is a Nice Sweet Meat." Fear not then, Empress enthusiasts—she escapes the bang with aplomb and nary a curl of her tail scathed. She lives, to scarf down potatoes another day.

If there's anything that keeps Uncle Fred in the Springtime from being theperfect Wodehouse novel, it is that Lord Emsworth is sadly too often off stage. He disappears from the narrative for long stretches at a time, and even when Uncle Fred ropes him into a card game in his plot to fund the long-planned marriage with the winnings, the events of the game are told after the fact. Perhaps there's not room on the grand Wodehouse stage for two such magnificent hereditary peers, and anyway, Uncle Fred captures (or cons his way into) the spotlight of nearly every scene. But while he's missed, there's still plenty to amuse and delight. Let me share with you one short exchange of dialogue that had yours little stuffed truly guffawing out loud on the F train as I read this book:
'Well, dash it, I want to tell her to go and explain to Ricky that my behaviour towards her throughout was scrupulously correct. At present, he's got the idea that I'm a kind of...Who was the chap who was such a devil with the other sex? Donald something?'

'Donald Duck?'

'Don Juan. That's the fellow I mean.'
...and one other passage, in which the wisdom and prescience of Uncle Fred is shown, as he predicts, forty-four years ahead of his time, the single greatest music video in history:
Polly frowned. In a world scented with flowers and full of soft music, these sentiments jarred upon her.

'I don't see why it's got to be a sort of fight.'

'Well, it has. Marriage is a battlefield, not a bed of roses. Who said that? It sounds too good to be my own. Not that I don't think of some extraordinarily good things, generally in my bath.'

A Wodehouse a Week #63: Uncle Fred in the Springtime
Hey, lookit all the copies of Uncle Fred in the Springtime I've got: one for every season! I'm 'specially fond of the Penguin paperback edition, illustrated with an Ionicus watercolor of Uncle Fred greeting Lord Emsworth: a meeting of the two literary lords that certainly is a summit of Asgardian proportions. And if you're puzzled by the African warrior on the jacket of the hardcover Everyman/Overlook edition, worry not—this book does not take place among the Zulu tribes, but rather illustrates the scene in which Pongo loses his shirt (figuratively) when Horace Davenport upsets the Drones Club Clothes Stakes by entering the room straight from a costume ball. Don't you lose your shirt—you can pick up an inexpensive copy of Uncle Fred in the Springtime by clicking on the link to your right. I highly recommend it as one of the finest, and funnest, of Wodehouse's comic novels. Lie out in the backyard in a hammock with a cold glass of lemon fizz and dip into it (the book, not the lemon fizz): it needn't be springtime for you to enjoy it, but while reading it, it'll be spring in your heart.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


Phillip said...

But... but, how could it be the greatest video of all time when it doesn't have Jane Weidlin in it?

Novice said...

Another crossover: Polly Potts turned out to be Pepper Potts Great Auntie!

Monty Ashley said...

I remember when I found out that Uncle Fred in the Springtime existed. Up until then, I had been under the impression that Uncle Fred only existed in Uncle Fred Flits By, but now there's a whole *book* about him? my mind was blown.

I have a very similar story about the time I found out who starred in Uncle Dynamite.

Unknown said...

Then Monty can look forward to having his mind blown again when he discovers Uncle Fred's further adventures in "Cocktail Time" and "Service With a Smile".

Yet another example of crossover can be found in this 1939 book, which features the Duke of Dunstable's first appearance in Wodehouse. One can only assume that this Duke is the son of W. S. Gilbert's Duke of Dunstable, the lead tenor role in the 1881 Gilbert & Sullivan opera "Patience; or Bunthorne's Bride".

Monty Ashley said...

Well, by the time I found out about Uncle Dynamite, I had figured out where to find proper lists of Wodehouse books. Still, it would have been easier if Uncle Fred had always been in the title, like Psmith was.

Matt Phelan said...

All that plus Mustard Potts. I just finished this one and you are absolutely right on the money. It's brilliant (of course). I always picture David Niven (Pink Panther era) as Uncle Fred.