R: Famous First Edition #F-6 (April-May 1975), art by Harry G. Peter
(Click picture to lazy-ass-size)
'Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?'Far from being simply a comedy bit of juggling with a club fork, it's an important plot point when Emsworth makes a father-in-law to father-in-law visit to J. Preston Peters and accidentally pockets the prize centerpiece of Peters's Egyptian scarab collection. The scarab becomes the Silver Cow Creamerthe object of everyone's intent to steal itthroughout the book, and in a Blandings book that means imposters at the castle. Ashe is hired by Peters to pose as his valet and recover the scarab during Peters's visit. When Aline confides her father's distress to her friend Joan, Joan poses as a lady's maid and accompanies Aline to Blandingsboth couples trailed by Jones in an attempt to steal the scarab first. Add to the mix Lord Emsworth's personal secretary, the Efficient Baxter; police officer George Emerson, in love with Aline (and vice-versa? Hmmm...) and of course, butler Beach, presiding over the regular runnings of the household in his usual buterlish way.
'Not yet, your lordship. I was about to send the waiter for it.'
'Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late.'
'Shall I take the fork, your lordship?'
'Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat pocket.'
Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and with the air of an inexpert conjurer whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise; then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
'Adams, I'm getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?'
'Oh, no, your lordship.'
Lord Emsworth raised his revolver and emptied it in the direction of the sound.While it sets the groundwork for the eventual Blandings sequels, however Something Fresh has several absences and early versions that show how fully the rich cast of characters evolves. One of the occupants of Blandings Castle in this first book is Lady Ann Warblington, Clarence's widowed sister, but Ann remains off stage for virtually all of the novel and shows none of the vigor and overbearing grace that the Threepwood sisters introduced laterparticularly doyenne the intimidating Connie. Beach the butler is a rather stiff version of his later self, prone to dramatic pronunciations on his health and ruling over the household staff with an iron hand in a silk glove, decorum and propriety always prime in his mind.
Extremely fortunately for him, the Efficient Baxter had not changed his all-fours attitude. This undoubtedly saved Lord Emsworth the worry of engaging a new secretary. The shots sang above Baxter's head one after the other, six in all, and found other billets than his person. They disposed themselves as follows: The first shot broke a window and whistled out into the night; the second shot hit the dinner gong and made a perfectly extraordinary noise, like the Last Trump; the third, fourth and fifth shots embedded themselves in the wall; the sixth and final shot hit a life-size picture of his lordship's grandmother in the face and improved it out of all knowledge.
One thinks no worse of Lord Emsworth's grandmother because she looked like Eddie Foy, and had allowed herself to be painted, after the heavy classic manner of some of the portraits of a hundred years ago, in the character of Venussuitably draped, of course, rising from the sea; but it was beyond the possibility of denial that her grandson's bullet permanently removed one of Blandings Castle's most prominent eyesores.
"It has been," said Mr. Beach, summing up, "a most unfortunate occurrence. The modern tendency of the lower classes to get above themselves is becoming more marked every day. The young female in this case was, I understand, a barmaid. It is deplorable that our young men should allow themselves to get into such entanglements."This is quite a change from the later Beach, who has a niece named Maudie who is a barmaid herself. As we see in Pigs Have Wings, Beach is very fond of her indeed. The unstarching of Beach as the saga goes on is one of the finer evolutions of characters in Wodehouse: the Beach in Something Fresh is a bit unlikable and serves is a suspicious antagonist towards Ashe's impersonation of a valet. There's an extended section in the book, reminiscent of the movie Gosford Park or the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, which takes us into the lives of the castle's servants; Wodehouse seldom repeated this in-depth serving-class examination later on, which gives Something Fresh a slightly more social-novel feel than the others.
Baxter, then, as he bicycled to Market Blandings for tobacco, had good reason to brood. Having bought his tobacco and observed the life and thought of the town for half an hourit was market day and the normal stagnation of the place was temporarily relieved and brightened by pigs that eluded their keepers, and a bull calf which caught a stout farmer at the psychological moment when he was tying his shoe lace and lifted him six feethe made his way to the Emsworth Arms.
In every man's life there is generally one moment to which in later years he can look back and say: 'In this moment I fell in love!' Such a moment came to Ashe now.Which is why the tale of Ashe and Joan is a perfect one for a dreamy bull to read today: it's whimsical, witty, and has what every great romance story needs: a heist. After discovering they're both after the same big cash reward for the return of the scarab, Ashe and Joan agree to compete, and may the best thief win. But like the best Cary Grant/Grace Kelly movie, there's a lot of bantering and one-upmanship, and like the best of Wodehouse's spirited heroines, modern woman Joan Valentine is not to be swayed easily by a pair of strong shoulders and a dashing smile:
Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I asked; mercy I found.
So sings the poet and so it was with Ashe.
In the almost incredibly brief time it took the small but sturdy porter to roll a milk can across the platform and hump it, with a clang, against other milk cans similarly treated a moment before, Ashe fell in love.
Joan laughed.Don't lissen to her, Ashe: don't call ladies 'pig-headed'it isn't polite. You and I know that by the end of the novel Ashe and Joan will be enfolded in each other's arms, whether or not they get their hands on the scarab. That's the not-so-secret to a Wodehouse romance: no matter the problems, whatever the banter, they'll come together in the end. But well before that, there's a lovely parting line from Joan that mixes romance and rodents like no other love story has:
'It won't do, Mr. Marson. You remind me of an old cat I once had. Whenever he killed a mouse he would bring it into the drawing-room and lay it affectionately at my feet. I would reject the corpse with horror and turn him out, but back he would come with his loathsome gift. I simply couldn't make him understand that he was not doing me a kindness. He thought highly of his mouse and it was beyond him to realize that I did not want it.
'You are just the same with your chivalry. It's very kind of you to keep offering me your dead mouse; but honestly I have no use for it. I won't take favors just because I happen to be a female. If we are going to form this partnership I insist on doing my fair share of the work and running my fair share of the risksthe practically nonexistent risks.'
'Say pig-headed; I shan't mind.'
As they parted at the door, Joan made one further remark: 'There's just one thing, Mr. Marson.'So. Something Fresh. Read it with the love of your life. And if, to paraphrase a very wise man, you can't find a partner, use your nearest rodent.
'If I could have accepted the mouse from anyone I should certainly have accepted it from you.'
When I was starting out as a writerthis would be about the time Caxton invented the printing pressConan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.This isn't just a homage, of courseWodehouse has something much wittier up his sleeve: where did Holmes get all his money from? It's a clever and funnyand well-arguedessay. Holmes couldn't afford to rent rooms by himself (leading to his historic meeting with Doctor John Watson and their subsequent lodging at 221B Baker Street). He has a small income from cases, but while a handful are from dukes or barons, most of these are from clerks, governesses, landladies, undergraduates, or unpaid work for Scotland Yard. There isn't a grand or regular amount of money flowing into the Holmes bank account. Yet he has a steady purchase habit of tobacco, ammunition, chemistry supplies, newspapers, cab fares, and the like (not to mention cocaine), and is willing to spend money dashing off on trains around the countryside at the first hint of a case.
For what would the ordinary private investigator have said to himself when starting out in business? He would have said 'Before I take on work for a client I must be sure that the client has the stuff, the daily sweetener and the little something down in advance are of the essence,' and he would have had those landladies and those Greek interpreters out of his sitting room before you could say 'bloodstain.' Yet Holmes, who could not afford a pound a week for lodgings, never bothered. Significant!Wodehouse's solution to the mystery? Holmes had a stack of cash he was hiding from Watson. But where do you get stacks of cash? Crime, my son, crime. Simply put, Holmes was a master criminal. Wodehouse qualifies that: Holmes was the master criminal: Professor Moriarty.
And Holmes made a little slip on the occasion. He said that on his way to see Watson he had been attacked by a rough with a bludgeon. A face-oscillating napoleon of Crime, anxious to eliminate someone who disliked, would have thought up something better than roughs with bludgeons. Dropping cobras down the chimney is the mildest thing that would have occurred to him.Why, it's elementary! You might even gasp upon reading it. Such a revelation would startle and shock Holmesean scholarship and shake it to its roots. At least until Wodehouse adds
P.S. Just kidding, boys. Actually, like all the rest of you, I am never happier than when curled up with Sherlock Holmes, and I hope Messrs Ballantine will sell several million of him. As the fellow said, there's no police like Holmes.Whew! Another of my childhood heroes preserved and saved.