Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #37: Something Fresh

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The back cover blurb on the dust jacket of the week's Wodehouse reads 'Take the 4.15 from Paddington Station to Shropshire and arrive in heaven.' Okay!
Bully in the station

But, as you will see, there's no need to book a ticket or hop on board an express train: simply pick up a copy of Something Fresh (1915), published in the US under the title Something New (perhaps to avoid confusing it with definition 3e in the Merriam-Webster). Whatever the title, it's absolutely appropriate: not only for a lovely Spring-ish day here in January, not only because it's a brand fresh new year, but because it's A Month of Firsts here at A Wodehouse a Week. And here in my hooves I have the very first Blandings novel, the start to one of Wodehouse's most delightful series.

Let's meet the contestants, shall we? When vigorous, in-shape, energetic mystery writer Ashe Marson meets his neighbor, the lovely and personably Joan Valentine, sparks fly instantly. (With a name like Valentine, it's got to be love!) Far from being immune to her charms, Ashe is utterly mune, and he isn't alone: once upon a time, before our story begins, Freddy Threepwood was enamored of Joan when he saw her on the stage, and tho' he never met her, sent her a stack o' letter professing his undying love. Now Freddy is engaged to Joan's friend Aline, the daughter of millionaire J. Preston Peters, and fears that Joan might use those letters to force a breach of promise suit upon him. (Ah, the days when breach of promise suits would fall upon young bachelors at the drop of a hat!) Freddie needn't worry—Joan had long ago destroyed the letters—but Freddy doesn't know that, and hires shady Dickie Jones to recover the letters. Jones sees an opportunity to make money for himself and rake Freddy over the coals. All clear so far? Good, because here's the catalyst that starts the whole adventure off with a bang:

Enter Clarence, Lord Emsworth, the centerpiece of all Blandings tales: the elder statesman of the Threepwood clan, established early on as a pleasant but absent-minded and easily distracted man:
'Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?'

'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?'

'The fork?'

'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.'
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 Creamer—the object of everyone's intent to steal it—throughout 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 Blandings—both 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.

With various thieves sneaking in the night in search of the scarab, this is very clearly not an ordinary stay at Blandings—and yet, it sets the stage for the other novels and stories in the Blandings saga: sought-after secret item, imposters at the Castle posing as servants to sneak into the household, dastardly manipulators plotting their plots from the relative safety of the Emsworth Arms inn in Market Blandings town, and a midnight how-do-you-do in which residents fall downstairs, tables are broken, windows are smashed, and Lord Emsworth fires a pistol wildly into the dark:
Lord Emsworth raised his revolver and emptied it in the direction of the sound.

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 Venus—suitably 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.
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 later—particularly 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.
"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.

Oh! I almost forgot another, very vital, very important difference: in Something Fresh, there is no Empress of Blandings!
No Empress

Yes, that's right: the greatest fictional pig of them all is not present in the first Blandings novel and will not make her debut for another 12 years (in the aptly named short story "Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey"). It's a fine, fine novel, but it's poorer for the paucity of porcines.

On the other hand, it does have a lovely cameo appearance by a little bull (italics mine)!:
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 hour—it 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 feet—he made his way to the Emsworth Arms.

The other major element of a Blandings novel is there, however: love, love, love, which makes the world go 'round. It's January right now but it's sixty-plus degrees outside, and it feels like Spring, and in the Spring a young bull's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. (Sigh.)
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.

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.
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:
Joan laughed.

'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 risks—the practically nonexistent risks.'

'You're very—resolute.'

'Say pig-headed; I shan't mind.'
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:
As they parted at the door, Joan made one further remark: 'There's just one thing, Mr. Marson.'


'If I could have accepted the mouse from anyone I should certainly have accepted it from you.'
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.

I've got a rather beat-up old 1970s American mass market edition (printed by Beagle Books, that paragon of publishers) of Something New, an ex-library edition from the Canton Public Library (not the one in China, but the one in New York State's North Country). Like the few other Beagle Books editions in my collection, it's got a rather odd and formal Aubrey Beardsleyesque illustration on the cover; I much prefer the Ionicus watercolor on my Penguin paperback of Something Fresh, with Lord Emsworth (always a bit thinner than I picture him, but never mind) showing off his absent-minded scarab display to Davies while the Efficient Baxter hovers in the background. Want to zoom in on that scarab? No worries: the Everyman Wodehouse/Overlook Press edition features a lovely close-up cartoon of the beetle scarab on its cover, and if that doesn't make you want to go out and get a scarab for yourself, I don't know what will. Hmmm, let's see...ah yes, here we go:

Crickey! A sterling silver scarab poison ring. I would like to have one of those and no mistake. Don't worry, everyone, I will not put poison in it. (I wouldn't even know where to get poison!) I will instead fill it with confectioner's sugar to sprinkle on dessert treats to make them even sweeter. A sugar scarab! Now that would be a beetle worthy of burgling. (Please don't steal, though. It's wrong.)

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


J.R. Jenks said...

I wouldn't want a sterling silver scarab poison ring!

But an Underdog ring? A secret compartment of that ring I'd fill with an Underdog super energy pill. Oh, yes!

Anonymous said...

A very nice review, Bully!

Something that always sticks out in my memory of Something Fresh - aside from Wodehouse's terrific introduction, where he hopes that it will be one of the five best books named Something Fresh that year - is a brief mention of the Blandings under-butler, Merridew. Presumbaly he took care of all the buttling that was left-over when Beach was finished. There couldn't have been that much, since Beach's buttling was so broad and robust, which is maybe why he never appears again.