Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and enjoy a quick review of some of the high points leading up to the release of Artemis Awakening. Then join me and Alan as we take a look at some of Wodehouse’s non-Jeeves and Wooster fiction.
JANE: From Jeeves and Wooster, I ventured into other of Wodehouse’s works. Some of these delighted me, others… Eh… Not so much. Are you familiar with the Blandings Castle stories?
ALAN: Oh, the wonderful Lord Emsworth and his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings. The BBC have done a Blandings series as well, though I’ve not seen any episodes. Timothy Spall plays Lord Emsworth and Jennifer Saunders plays his imperious sister Connie. It isn’t clear who plays the pig.
JANE: I haven’t seen any adaptions. I was tempted into the environs of Blandings Castle by the title of one novel: Pigs Can Fly.
ALAN (with a soft cough, rather in the polite manner of Jeeves about to correct the young master for a particularly spectacular bloomer): I’m sorry madam, but I believe you will find that the title of the novel in question is actually Pigs Have Wings.
JANE: Oh, righto! I’m sorry. I believe I’ve gone and Americanized it. Over on this side of the Pond the saying “when pigs fly” means a highly unlikely occurrence. Am I correct in assuming “when pigs have wings” would be the British equivalent?
ALAN: Not really – we would tend to say much the same as you. We might make some outrageous statement and then perhaps indicate how unlikely it is by saying “…and pigs might fly.” However we do tend to play with the phrase quite a bit. Perhaps we might end our statement with the observation, “Oh look! A pig just flew past the window!” I suspect that Wodehouse was playing with the phrase by distorting it in his own inimitable and rather clever way to provide an eye-catching title.
JANE: Well, jolly good that! What?
One thing that’s nice about the Blandings Castle stories is that, unlike the Jeeves and Wooster stories, which mostly focus on the young set, these involve more mature characters as well.
Hmm… “Mature” may be stretching it… I should say, characters possessed of a greater number of years upon this earth. I love the Earl of Emsworth – who is absentminded regarding everything but pigs. He’s sweet. This tale of pignapping and the dire deeds this entails had me laughing so hard there were times I needed to rewind the tape to catch parts I missed.
I also liked A Pelican at Blandings, featuring Lord Emsworth’s younger brother, Galahad Threepwood in a major role. I did miss the prominent role played by the pig, The Empress of Blandings, but her dietary distress is an important element in the unfolding drama.
ALAN: Oh, the poor Empress. She spends an awful lot of time being pignapped and held in durance vile by various unscrupulous villains. But it doesn’t seem to worry her. She always flourishes and always returns home in the end, much to Lord Emsworth’s delight as she wins yet another ribbon as the fattest pig in the show.
I’m also very fond of another series of stories that feature a man called Psmith. Wodehouse only wrote four novels about Psmith – perhaps he was not comfortable with the character, for Psmith is undeniably a very different person from Wodehouse’s more usual heroes. Psmith is very clever (unlike Bertie Wooster who hasn’t got a brain in his head) and he is a master of witty repartee and the biting put-down. In many ways, particularly in his dialogue, he reminds me of Simon Templar (a.k.a. The Saint) in the novels by Leslie Charteris. It would not surprise me at all if it turned out that Charteris had been an early fan of Psmith.
JANE: I wouldn’t say that Bertie doesn’t have a brain in his head… Compared to some of his fellows at the Drone’s Club, he is a positive genius. Still, I agree. I’ve only read one Psmith novel (because at that time my library only had one). I remember liking it and I should hunt out more.
ALAN: Psmith was one of Wodehouse’s earliest characters. In his writing youth, Wodehouse actually wrote children’s books. These were generally set at a boarding school and detailed the adventures of the boys at the school. Think Tom Brown’s Schooldays with lots of cricket and a few more jokes.
One of these early novels was called, quite simply, Mike (but I have also seen it published as Mike at Wryken – Wryken being the name of the school). Mike and Psmith are new boarders, though they are actually senior boys, having transferred from other schools where they spent their junior years. Naturally they gravitate together. Psmith, although he is very new at Wryken, is quite experienced in the ways of schools in general, and he immediately implements a cunning scheme to obtain the very best study for himself and Mike. The irrefutable and beautifully subtle logic with which Psmith bamboozles the current occupier of the study out into the cold is an utter joy to read.
JANE: Uh, study? Did schoolboys have separate rooms for studying? That’s rather “top hole.”
ALAN: At boarding schools, the younger pupils were usually housed in dormitories, but the older pupils would have a room of their own which was often shared with one or maybe two close friends. Here they would sleep and study and eat and drink and sometimes have impromptu parties. The younger pupils would keep the studies clean and tidy, and run errands for the older boys. These young servants were known as “fags,” much to the consternation of visiting Americans. Among the younger boys, it was often a point of pride to be a fag for the popular seniors, and a mark of shame to fag for the less worthy.
JANE: So a “study” is actually what we Americans would call a dorm room. I don’t think we ever formalized a situation of turning younger students into servants. (And, yes, the word “fag” has an entirely different meaning here, although, given popular beliefs about the proclivities of British schoolboys, the meanings may not be entirely unconnected.)
Thanks for the clarification…
Another character who is quite different from Bertie and his fellow Drones is Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge. This invites a Tangent. Would you mind?
ALAN: Not in the least.
JANE: How does one pronounce “Featherstonehaugh”? And for that matter, “Psmith”?
ALAN: Featherstonehaugh is pronounced “Fanshaw.” Mainwaring is “Mannering” and Cholmondely is “Chumley.” Furthermore, Marjoribanks is “Marchbanks” or sometimes “Marshbanks,” Belvoir is “Beaver” and Dalziel (as in Dalziell and Pascoe, the famous fictional detectives) is “Dee-yell.” How else could they possibly be pronounced?
JANE: Right! Sure. Reason I asked was that I first encountered Ukridge, it was in an audio recording. The narrator pronounced “Featherstonehaugh” as “Fanshaw,” so I was startled when I saw it in print.
ALAN: And as for Psmith… well this is what the man himself had to say on the subject:
“’There’s a P before the Smith,’ I said to him. ‘Ah, P. Smith, I see,’ replied the goat. ‘Not Peasmith,’ I replied, exercising wonderful self-restraint, ‘just Psmith.’ It took me ten minutes to drive the thing into the man’s head; and when I had driven it in, he sent me out of the room for looking at him through my eye-glass. Comrade Jackson, I fear me we have fallen among bad men. I suspect that we are going to be much persecuted by scoundrels.”
In another story, Psmith is a bit clearer in his explanation: he claims that the P in his name is silent, “as in pshrimp”
JANE: Delightfully insane… Now, to return from our unscheduled Tangent…
Despite his intricate middle name, I simply could not warm to Ukridge. In many ways, he is no worse than many of the members of the Drones Club who Bertie assists, but there is a level of underlying meanness and moneygrubbing to him that made it impossible for me to root for him in his various gambits. He reminded me more of the loathsome Steggles (the bookmaker who appears in “The Purity of the Turf” and other stories) than the oddly innocent Drones.
Are you familiar with the stories? How did you feel about him?
ALAN: Actually no. I appear to have missed out on Ukridge. Perhaps it is time for me to make his acquaintance.
JANE: Let me know when you do. Meantime, now that I know what studies are, I’m reminded of a few other questions I have about a setting frequently featured in British fiction. Next time!