Monday, August 11, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #58: Blandings Castle

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Monday night in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest is usually book night. This is due to the fact that on Sunday afternoon it is the practice of Miss Postlethwaite, our literature-loving barmaid, to retire to her room with a box of caramels and a novel from the circulating library and, having removed her shoes, to lie down on the bed and indulge in what she calls a good read. On the following evening she places the results of her researches before us and invites our judgement.—from "The Castaways" in Blandings Castle by P. G. Wodehouse

It's funny, but isn't that just about what I do here with A Wodehouse a Week? I don't have shoes (just hooves) and I haven't a box of caramels (more's the pity), but here it is, Monday after Sunday, and let's have our little Wodehouse Book Club, shall we? Miss Postlethwaite not required, of course, although I wouldn't say no to a yummy caramel.

Tonight's Wodehouse is 1935's Blandings Castle, and there's no better description for this collection of short stories than Wodehouse himself gave it in the introduction: "A collection of short snorts between the solid orgies." I'm sure I don't know what an orgy is, but I certainly enjoy a good snort now and again, and this book's full of them. Not to mention chortles, guffaws, rib-ticklers, and more than a handful of bellylaughs. Half of the twelve stories concern Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle, our home away from home where English literary manor estates are concerned. Let's return to those in a wee bit, shall we?

There's a Bobbie Wickham short story entitled "Mr Potter Takes a Rest Cure," which is not the final volume in the J. K. Rowling saga, but rather an anti-romance story in which feisty, strong-willing Bobbie hobbles her own engagement to stuffy prig Clifford Gandle by arranging for him to ominously (and seemingly murderously) stalk nervous houseguest John Potter, who doesn't take at all well waking up to find Gandle looming over him in the middle of the night, demanding a razor. Bobbie's methods are faintly reminiscent of those of Jeeves—a clever plan to keep a marriage from happening, although Bobbie tends to use a blunderbuss approach rather than the subtle machinations of the clever Jeeves. I'm not certain who I'd put my money on in a plot-off, but it would be interesting to watch!

Five of the stories are Mr Mulliner shorts, in which the ubiquitous guest at the Anglers Rest public house once again tells extraordinary tales of his Mulliner relatives and their quests for—and setbacks in—love. There's a theme to all of these stories, however, which set them apart from the other Mulliner tales, aptly summed up in the section's heading: "The Mulliners of Hollywood." The stories here are of a Mulliner relative in the movie business, all of them working for that noted motion picture studio Perfecto-Zizzbaum, headed by sharp-tongued Hollywood mogul Jacob Z. Schnellenhamer (in many ways a blood-brother of Wodehouse's Ivor Llewellyn). In fact, Schnellenhamer who appears in every story, even the Mulliner-less "The Rise of Minna Nordstrom," where he's flummoxed by his parlourmaid, who has arranged to have every drop of illegal alcohol in Prohibition Hollywood seized by the police unless Schnellenhamer arranges for her to become a movie star. She does, of course. (Isn't that how Scarlett Johansson got her start?) There's the tale of Montrose Mulliner, whose publicity-obsessed fiancé arranges for them to be married in a cage with a wild gorilla. When the gorilla breaks free and begins to terrorize the back lots of Perfecto-Zizzbaum, who can save everyone now except Melrose, who must face off against the ferocious beast:
'Excuse me, sir,' said the gorilla, 'but are you by any chance a family man?'

For an instant, on hearing the question, Montrose's astonishment deepened., Then he realized what must have happened. He must have been torn limb from limb without knowing it, and now he was in heaven. Though even this did not altogether satisfy him as an explanation, for he had never expected top find gorillas in heaven.

The animal now gave a sudden start.

'Why, it's you! I didn't recognize you at first. Before going any further, I should like to thank you for those bananas. They were delicious. A little something round about the middle of the afternoon picks one up quite a bit, doesn't it?'

Montrose blinked. He could still hear the noise of the crowd below. His bewilderment increased.

'You speak very good English for a gorilla,' was all he could fins to say. And, indeed, the animal's diction had been remarkable for its purity.

The gorilla waved the compliment aside modestly.

'Oh, well, Balliol, you know. Dear old Balliol. One never quite forgets the lessons learned at Alma Mater, don't you think? You are not an Oxford man, by any chance?'
Fear not, Wodehouse fans, he hasn't lost his senses, nor is he writing the Wodehouse version of Planet of the Apes. (Altho' that would be pretty nifty, wouldn't it? 'I dare say, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, would you be ever so kind as to remove your noisome appendage from me, you devilishly smutty simian? I mean, if you wouldn't mind, that is.') No, that's is actually Cyril Waddesley-Davenport, a stunt gorilla, a man in a gorilla skin, who has found himself working in the motion picture industry. Even though he appears to have all the qualifications for, say, the job of a librarian:

Another of the Mulliner stories, "The Nodder," includes this gem of a portrayal of the mutual drunkenness of a Hollywood yes man and a midget impersonating a child star:
'You're a good chap, Bingley.'

'So are you, Mulliner.'

'Both good chaps?'

'Both good chaps.'

'Making two in all?' asked Wilmot, anxious to get this straight.

'That's how I work it out.'

'Yes, two,' agreed Wilmot, ceasing to twiddle his fingers. 'In fact, you might say both gentlemen.'

'Both gentlemen is correct.'

'Then let us see what we have got. Yes,' said Wilmot, as he laid down the pencil with which he had been writing figures on the table-cloth. 'Here are the final returns, as I get them. Two good chaps, two gentlemen. And yet,' he said, frowning in a puzzled way, 'that seems to make four, and there are only two of us.'
The gems of the collection, however, are those half-dozen Lord Emsworth/Blandings Castle stories. Chronologically set between 1923's Leave it to Psmith and 1929's Summer Lightning, these are not the most polished Blandings plots but, in their shortness and wittiness, among the best portraits of Clarence, Lord Emsworth, the perpetually befuddled and besieged lord of the manor. Clarence is a wee bit sharper in these tales, but not too sharp, who is puzzledly peering through a telescope as the first story begins:
'Beach,' said Lord Esmworth.


'I've been swindled. This dashed thing doesn't work.'

'Your lordship cannot see clearly?'

'I can't see at all, dash it. It's all black.'

The butler was an observant man.

'Perhaps if I were to remove the cap at the extremity of the instrument, m'lord, more satisfactory results might be obtained?'

'Eh? Cap? Is there a cap? So there is. Take it off, Beach.'

'Very good, m'lord.'
The life of Lord Emsworth is one of simplicity: he merely wants to enjoy his gardens, his country estate, his meals, a quiet read, raising his flowers and pumpkins...but he's assaulted on all sides by aggressive and boisterous sisters, sons, visitors, gardeners, and an assortment of nieces and nephews, including the morose Gertrude, who might hold claim to being literature's original goth:
'It must be wonderful to be as old as you are, Uncle Clarence.'

'Eh?' said his lordship, starting.

'To feel that there is such a short, short step to the quiet tomb, to the ineffable peace of the grave. To me, life seems to stretch out endlessly, like a long, dusty desert. Twenty-three! That's all I am. Only twenty-three. And all our family lives to sixty.'

'What do you mean, sixty?' demanding his lordship, with the warmth of a man who would be that next birthday.
Winona RyderPerhaps coincidentally, sixty years after Wodehouse wrote this story, Lydia Deetz, when her parents offer her a darkroom for her photography, murmurs "My whole life is a dark room. One... big... dark... room." See, goths? Winona Ryder's (admittedly brilliant) character in Beetlejuice is not the first sullen and somber morose and languid lady. She owes a certain debt to Gertrude Alcester. And probably some to Wednesday Addams as well.

Were you casting a movie or TV play of the stories in Blandings Castle, the young light-fingered but dark-hearted Winona Ryder might be a very good choice indeed to play Gertrude. I tend to think Jim Broadbent would make a wonderful Lord Emsworth myself, but wait! There's been a BBC production of the stories in this book back in the late 1960s, starring Ralph Richardson as Lord Emsworth, with Richardson's wife Meriel Forbes as sister Connie, and Stanley Holloway as Beach the butler. Brilliant! I'd love to see these, and would order a DVD set up post-haste. Sadly, like those early Doctor Who serials and the first couple series of The Goon Show, the BBC foolishly erased their master recordings of the broadcast to save money and reuse the tapes. Only the first episode of six survived. What would have been is probably better in my head than on the screen, but it's a sad loss that we'll won't get to judge for ourselves.

As befits early stories in the Blandings canon, there's some mild tweaking that will later contribute to the eventual "definitive" version of the characters, but for the most part these are fully-drawn and absolutely recognizable as the folks we know and love. Lord Emsworth is only mildly more aware of his predicaments and enforced situations than later:
Lord Emsworth quivered.

'Have I got to go into that tea-tent?'

'Of course you have. Don't be so ridiculous. I do wish you would realize your position. As master of Blandings Castle...'

A bitter, mirthless laugh from the poor peon thus ludicrously drowned out the rest of the sentence.
And Beach the butler is as unflappable as ever, even when called upon to perform the most outrageous of domestic duties:
'Beach!' The voice was that of Lady Constance. 'Take away those rats!'

'Rats, m'lady?'

'Take that sack away from Mr Frederick!'

Beach understood. If he was surprised at the presence of the younger son of the house in the amber drawing-room with a sack of rats in his hand, he gave no indication of the fact. With a murmured apology, he secured the sack and started to withdraw. It was not, strictly, his place to carry rats, but a good butler is always ready to give and take. Only so can the amenities of a large country house be preserved.
The gem of the book, however, is a tale I consider one of the finest of all Wodehouse's short stories: a rousing chapter that in a mere 22 pages introduces one of the finest characters of all English literature. Appearing to her eager audience for the first time ever in print, the starring literary debut of...
...Empress of Blandings was far from being an ill-nourished animal. She resembled a captive balloon with ears and a tail, and was circular as a pig can be without bursting.
Yes, it's that princess of porkers, the sultana of swine, Empress of Blandings, premiering in the story "Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey!" She will go on to feature in about nine of the subsequent Blandings stories, but her debut is certainly a splash, setting up the scene for her much-mentioned grand sweep of the Fat Pigs Award at the Shropshire Agricultural Show, in addition to being a wonderful MacGuffin all by herself (or is she a Silver Cow Creamer?) and the key to bringing together two lovers in a happy ending for all. When the wonderful, marvelous, terrific pig goes off her feed, Lord Emsworth searches high and low for the solution to his pig's miseries, finding it in the proper yodeling call to mealtime that all pig-farmers know:
The peace of the summer night was shattered by a triumphant shout.


A window opened. A large, bald head appeared. A dignified voice spoke.

'Who is there? Who is making that noise?'

'Beach!' cried Lord Emsworth. 'Come out here at once.'

'Very good, your lordship.'

And presently the beautiful night was made still more lovely by the added attraction of the butler's presence.

'Beach, listen to this.'

'Very good, your lordship.'


'Very good, your lordship.'

'Now you do it.'

'I, your lordship?'

'Yes. It's a way you call pigs.'

'I do not call pigs, your lordship.'
Huh. See, you learn something every day. But I bet, like gorillas in skins and somber goth girls, that pig call is just fictional. Why, does Mister Wodehouse expect me to attract a pig, simply by yelling


A Wodehouse a Week #68: Blandings Castle

Well. Whadaya know!

Sure, you can sit around all day hollerin' your lungs out for piggy-wigs, but it won't attract you a copy of Blandings Castle. I got mine—a hardcover Everyman's/Overlook Wodehouse, and a Penguin paperback—the easy way, by clicking on that little box to the upper right and ordering myself up a copy from Amazon. See, it's much easier on your lungs.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


SallyP said...

Gosh, I do love the Empress. And Connie, Queen of She-Panthers. And Gally. Gally?

Elen said...

I adore "Pig Ho-o-o-ey!" in all its porcine glory.The Empress and Lord Emsworth are a match made in heaven.

Is this the book with "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend"? I thought it was the sweetest story.

Love the Wodehouse reviews!