My father’s two favourite books, which he seemed to reread almost annually, were Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and Uncle Fred in the Springtime, by P. G. Wodehouse. Both are distinguished by complexity of plot, an array of eccentric characters and prodigious comic invention. And both are very funny.
Uncle Fred, or to give him his full name and title, Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, fifth Earl of Ickenham, of Ickenham Hall, Ickenham, Hants, is an elderly but sprightly man of distinguished appearance and serene disposition. He is discouraged by his wife from leaving the bounds of the Ickenham estate because of his propensity when let loose on the wider world to be a source of disaster and upheaval in the lives of everyone with whom he comes into contact. The innocent and unwilling accomplice in his misadventures is his nephew, Pongo Twistleton.
The novel opens with Pongo on his way from the Drones Club to attempt to borrow £200 from his friend, Horace Pendlebury-Davenport, who happens to be engaged to Pongo’s sister, Valerie Twistleton. On his arrival at Horace’s Park Lane apartment, he is admitted by Horace’s man, Webster. Webster explains that Mr Davenport has ‘stepped out to take a dancing lesson’. He goes on:
‘Perhaps you would not mind waiting in the library. The sitting-room is in some little disorder at the moment.’
‘No, sir. Mr Davenport has been entertaining his uncle, the Duke of Dunstable, to luncheon, and over the coffee His Grace broke most of the sitting room furniture with the poker.’
Pongo’s immediate thought is that Horace’s uncle might be eccentric, but that ‘thinking of his own Uncle Fred, he felt like Noah listening to someone make a fuss about a drizzle’.
This all occurs on page one of the novel. A distinguished veteran screenplay writer and adaptor of classic novels once explained to me that most modern novels are unsuitable for dramatization because they yield only about three minutes of filmable action: too wordy, too introspective. These disqualifications certainly do not apply to this or any other novel by P. G. Wodehouse. By the end of the first chapter we have discovered the chain of events that is the cause of Dunstable’s rage and why Horace has hired a detective by the name of Claude ‘Mustard’ Pott to shadow and report on the goings-on of his fiancée while she is in Le Touquet; how she has discovered this and has broken off their engagement; and why Horace rashly declares he will transfer his affections to Polly Pott, daughter of the afore-mentioned Claude. Poor Pongo does not succeed in borrowing any money from Horace.
The main setting is Blandings Castle, the peaceful, indeed idyllic home of Lord Emsworth, his beloved prize pig and his slightly less beloved sister, Lady Constance Keeble. Here he is
drooping over the comfortable sty which housed his pre-eminent sow, Empress of Blandings, twice in successive years silver medallist in the Fat Pigs’ class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show. The noble animal, under his adoring eyes, was finishing a late breakfast.
. . . [Emsworth] was experiencing that perfect happiness which comes from a clear conscience, absence of loved ones, congenial society and fine weather.
Alas, all hell is about to break loose. Unoccupied and angry, the Duke of Dunstable invites himself to Blandings. He views Emsworth’s regard for the pig as insane and the animal as dangerously fat and unhealthy. Constance has a soft spot for Dunstable and joins with him in a plot to remove the Empress to Dunstable’s estate. One of the purposes of Uncle Fred (masquerading as Sir Roderick Glossop, the nerve specialist, who has been called in to examine Emsworth) coming to the castle is to foil this dastardly intention. There are other sub-plots, needing Uncle Fred’s touch to solve various broken engagements, raise enough cash to pay off Pongo’s gambling debts and help Ricky Gilpin, another of Dunstable’s nephews, buy an outdoor onion soup bar and marry Polly Pott . . .
A pause for breath here, before the web of events and intrigue becomes inextricably entangled, needing the genius of Wodehouse to guide us through.
Wodehouse was born in 1881 and wrote nearly a hundred books between 1902 and his death in 1975. Uncle Fred in the Springtime appeared in 1939 towards the end of a golden decade in his writing that had begun with Very Good, Jeeves in 1930, and included other novels and stories of Blandings Castle, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, and various recurring characters in Wodehouse’s books. And this is as good a place as any to briefly examine Blandings and indeed the whole of Wodehouse’s imaginary world.
The first thing to be noted is that in the whole sequence of novels and stories, in which a great array of characters come and go, nothing ever really changes. This is not the world of Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles where time passes with inevitable consequences: people grow up, marry, age and die. The first novel set at Blandings appeared in 1915, and Wodehouse’s last unfinished novel was Sunset at Blandings, published posthumously in 1997. In all of the intervening stories and novels the inhabitants of the castle and its grounds live without the normal limitations of mortality. Bertie Wooster and Jeeves live a similar ageless existence for almost as many years.
As Evelyn Waugh said, ‘The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.’ And indeed it is the closest we come in literature to a Garden of Eden where no one really ages or changes their state; the young, the middle-aged and the old are perpetually held in time, and are quite content because they have no sense of the passing of time. I think that the source for this timeless vision may have come from Wodehouse’s own life. Unlike the anguished memories of many writers about their schooldays, Wodehouse seems to have thoroughly enjoyed first his prep-school, then six years at Dulwich College. He was a good athlete and classical scholar, the very model of Ricky Gilpin, muscular poet and games player.
A curious feature of his fiction is the relative absence of fathers and mothers. The figures of authority are aunts and uncles. Well, according to biographies of Wodehouse, he saw little of his parents and had twenty aunts and fifteen uncles to supply him with comic ammunition. Aunts are domineering and often terrifying creatures; uncles are rambunctious, anarchic spirits. It is quite plain that young women like Valerie Twistleton would, if allowed to grow older, develop into fearsome aunts, and young men like Pongo Twistleton, into batty uncles. And in this genial and static world the young fall in love and even marry, but there is no sex of any real kind. The nearest we come to it in this book is when poor Horace plaintively asks why everyone is always trying to borrow money from him and Uncle Fred says, ‘Because you’ve got the stuff, my boy. It is the penalty you pay for having an ancestress who couldn’t say no Charles the Second.’
In this leisurely world the purpose of grown-ups with jobs is to lend money to those without. The prospect of those without is to wait in perpetuity for inheritances and legacies from immortal aunts and uncles. Those from the outside world who come into contact – or, rather, collide – with the upper classes are not in any way looked down on; the bookies, policemen, magistrates, chorus girls, boxers and waitresses are drafted in to help and often to supply practical assistance to the farcical goings-on. As Orwell pointed out, in his essay ‘In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse’, there is class distinction in Wodehouse, but the biggest fools are usually the most blue-blooded.
(Orwell unfortunately went on to confuse fiction with life, saying that Wodehouse’s ‘real sin has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are. All through his books certain problems are constantly avoided.’ Well, no, those sort of problems simply don’t exist in Wodehouse’s fictional world. It is rather like saying that the many volumes of the works of V. I. Lenin lack a certain comic élan, or that in this day and age Lady Macbeth would have benefited from psychiatric counselling.)
There is very little sense of politics or religion in the books. There are quite a few Church of England vicars and curates, but no God. The nearest Wodehouse comes to a god is in the person of Jeeves – an omniscient being who moves mysteriously (‘he shimmered into the room’), now and then allowing himself to assist in the lives of mortals, restoring order, redeeming error, releasing from misery. Beach, butler to Lord Emsworth, is a lesser person, but, with his generous well-padded body and the impression he makes of being ‘a solemn procession of one’, he achieves an almost ecclesiastical gravitas.
Uncle Fred in the Springtime is one of the most beautifully and ingeniously worked out of all Wodehouse’s creations. The penultimate chapter in which virtually every character, including the pig, plays a dramatic and important part in the Duke of Dunstable’s bedroom at Blandings is farce to perfection. It comes as a relief to find that the prolific writer of such benign and flawless comedy was, by all reports, a charming and generally good man. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse lived to a great age, had a very long and happy marriage, and conjured up an idyllic world to which he allowed us access. Saints have done less for humanity.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 52 © William Palmer 2016
About the contributor
William Palmer’s latest novel, The Devil is White, is available from those bookshops still brave enough to remain open.