My recent blog Reading Wodehouse: a plea for help recorded that I had finished the main body of Jeeves and Wooster stories. I sought advice on what other Wodehouse was out there, and what I should read next. I received a host of helpful comments (at the link: feel free to take a look). Thanks, everyone.
In the light of this advice I have started reading the Folio Society “Plums of Wodehouse” collection, which opens with the magnificent short story Uncle Fred Flits By. I have also read Summer Lightning, the first of six novels set at the inimitable Blandings Castle, in Shropshire.
My Folio Society edition of “Summer Lightning”
To read these works is like discovering a delicious new wine from a much-trusted region: a whole new fountain of pleasure which recalls the original, sublime experience. I look forward to getting to know Uncle Fred, and Blandings, better.
What struck me about Summer Lightning, at the risk of getting a bit technical, was that whereas the Jeeves and Wooster stories are narrated by Bertie himself, Summer Lightning is told from the point of view of view of numerous characters, including the efficient Baxter, Beach the butler, Hugh Carmody, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and others, including an omniscient narrator, who comments on things when no-one else is present. This removes a slab of comedy which arises in the Jeeves and Wooster stories from Bertie’s narrative voice, as here in Much obliged, Jeeves:
- She kept it crisp. None of the “Er” stuff which was such a feature of Ginger’s oratory. Even Demosthenes would have been slower in coming to the nub, though he, of course, would have been handicapped by having to speak in Greek.
Despite this apparent handicap, Summer Lightning scales the highest peaks of comedic excellence. My laugh-out-loud-ometer broke; and has had to be replaced by a new, more robust, model. Part of this is down to the terrific characterisation, including the magnificent Lord Emsworth. Part is down to plotting – amongst the best I have found in a Wodehouse to date. And part is down to the setting of Blandings Castle itself – I feel a wave of warm contentment waft over me even as I type the words. Chapter 18, “Painful Scene in a Bedroom” as Lady Constance tries to persuade Lord Emsworth to intervene in the proposed alliance between Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown, while Lord E. is privately preoccupied with thoughts about the diet of the Empress of Blandings, is sublime.
Herewith a few quotes from Summer Lightning which caught my eye:
- A thoroughly misspent life had left the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, contrary to the most elementary justice, in what appeared to be perfect, even exuberantly perfect physical condition.
- A keen observer might have noted a defensiveness in her manner. She looked like a girl preparing to cope with an aunt.
- Lady Constance had a high, arched nose, admirably adapted for sniffing. She used it now to the limits of its power.
- London was full of elderly gentlemen who became pleasantly maudlin when they thought of Dolly Henderson and the dear old days when the heart was young and they had had waists.
- The advance guard of the company appeared, in the shape of a flock of musicians. They passed out of the stage door, first a couple of thirsty-looking flutes, then a couple of violins, finally an oboe by himself with a scowl on his face. Oboes are always savage in captivity.
- The crust of calm detachment from all human emotion, built up by years of Eton and Cambridge, cracked abruptly, and there peeped forth a primitive Ronald Overbury Fish.
- ‘I’m so damned short.’ ‘You’re not a bit too short.’ ‘I am. My Uncle Gally once told me I looked like the protoplasm of a minor jockey.’
- A psychically gifted bystander, standing in the hall of the block of flats, would have heard at this moment a faint moan. It was Sue’s conscience collapsing beneath an unexpected flank attack.
- He felt hot all over, then cold all over, then hot again, and the waiter who stopped him on the threshold of the dining room to inform him that evening dress was indispensable on the dining-floor, and that flannel suits must go up to the balcony, was running a risk which would have caused his insurance company to purse its lips and shake its head.
- His fists clenched. Eton was forgotten, Cambridge not even a memory. He inhaled so sharply that a man at the next table who was eating a mousse of chicken stabbed himself in the chin with his fork.
- Hugo emitted a sound which resembled the bursting of a paper bag. He would have said himself, if asked, that he was laughing mirthlessly.
- ‘Oh?’ said Millicent dully… She looked like something that might have occurred to Ibsen in one of his less frivolous moments.
- ‘His father, old Miles Fish, was the biggest fool in the Brigade of Guards.’ He looked at her impressively through slanting pince-nez, as if to call her attention to the fact that this was something of an achievement
- Millicent came and stood beside her, and, leaning on the stone parapet, gazed disparagingly at the park. She gave the impression of disliking all parks, but this one particularly.
- ‘It sort of happened all of a sudden. I was feeling miserable and very angry with you and… and all that. And I met Ronnie and he took me for a stroll and we went down by the lake and started throwing little bits of stick at the swans, and suddenly Ronnie sort of grunted and said “I say!” and I said “Hallo?” and he said “Will you marry me?” and I said “All right,” and he said “I ought to warn you, I despise all women,” and I said “And I loathe all men” and he said “Right ho, I think we shall be very happy.”‘
- It is a fact not generally known, for a nice sense of the dignity of his position restrained him from exercising it, that Beach possessed a rather attractive singing-voice. It was a mellow baritone, in timbre not unlike that which might have proceeded from a cask of very old, dry sherry, had it had vocal chords.
- The meditations of a man who has recently proposed to and been accepted by a girl, some inches taller than himself, for whom he entertains no warmer sentiment than a casual feeling that, take her for all in all, she isn’t a bad sort of egg, must of necessity tend towards the sombre.
- For an instant he stood eyeing the butler with that natural alarm which comes to all of us when in the presence of a man who a few short hours earlier has given us one look and made us feel like a condemned food product.
- ‘Hugo?’ ‘Millicent?’ ‘Is that you?’ Yes. Is that you?’ ‘Yes.’ Anything in the nature of misunderstanding was cleared away. It was both of them.
- Percy Pilbeam was looking rosy and replete. He swayed slightly and his smile was rather wider and more pebble-beached than a total abstainer’s would have been.
- Eton and Cambridge train their sons well. Once they have grasped the fundamental fact of life that all exhibitions of emotion are bad form, bombshells cannot disturb their poise and earthquakes are lucky if they get some much as an ‘Eh, what?’ from them.
- Ronnie was conscious of a certain uneasiness, but he did his best. He did not like his aunt’s looks, but then he never had.
A couple of quotes on Lord Emsworth:
- [Lord Emsworth] surveyed the preparations for the meal with vague amiability through rimless piece-nez. ‘Tea?’ ‘Yes, your lordship.’ ‘Oh?’ said Lord Emsworth. ‘Ah? Tea, eh? Tea? Yes. Tea. Quite so. to be sure, tea. Capital.’ One gathered from his remarks that he realised that the tea-hour had arrived and was glad of it.
- Lord Emsworth rose. So long as he insisted on wearing an old shooting-jacket with holes in the elbows and letting his tie slip down and show the head of a brass stud, he could never hope to be completely satisfactory as a figure of outraged majesty; but he achieved as imposing an effect as his upholstery would permit.
- ‘What are you going do do about it?’ Lord Emsworth shrugged his shoulders hopelessly. He generally did when people asked him what he was going to do about things.
- From boyhood up, Lord Emsworth had possessed an intelligence about as mean as an intelligence can be without actually being placed under restraint.
- ‘Have you forgotten what I told you the other day?’ ‘Yes,’ said Lord Emsworth. He always forgot what people told him the other day.
- How low an estimate Sir Gregory Parsloe had formed of his visitors’ collective sanity was revealed by the fact that it was actually to Lord Emsworth he now turned as the more intelligent of the pair.
- Lord Emsworth swayed gently. His brain, never a strong one, had tottered perceptibly on its throne.
- ‘Oh, yes.’ The cloud was passing from what, for want of a better word, must be called Lord Emsworth’s mind. ‘Yes, yes, yes. Yes, to be sure.’
- Lord Emsworth, who had been according the conversation the rather meagre interest which he gave to all conversations which did not deal with pigs, created a diversion.
A quote or two on Blandings itself:
- For two hours after this absolutely nothing happened in the grounds of Blandings Castle. At the end of that period there sounded through the mellow, drowsy stillness a drowsy, mellow chiming. It was the clock over the stables striking five.
- In the pantry, in shirtsleeved ease, Beach, the butler, sat taking the well-earned rest of a man whose silver is all done and who has no further duties to perform till lunchtime.
- Sunshine, calling to all right-thinking men to come out and revel in its heartening warmth, poured in at the windows of the great library of Blandings Castle.
- Blandings Castle basked in the afterglow of a golden summer evening. Only a memory now was the storm which, two hours since, had raged with such violence through its parks, pleasure grounds and messuages. It had passed, leaving behind it peace and birdsong and a sunset of pink and green and orange and opal and amethyst. The air was cool and sweet, and the earth sent up a healing fragrance. Little stars were peeping down from a rain-washed sky.
- Velvet darkness shrouded the world, and from the heart of it came the murmur of rustling trees and the clean, sweet smell of earth and flowers. A little breeze had sprung up, stirring the ivy at her side. Somewhere in it a bird was chirping drowsily, and in the distance sounded the tinkle of running water.
I should perhaps record that my edition of Summer Lightning includes a preface by Plum himself, in which he laments that he discovered when publication came around that two novels of the same name had already been published in England, and three in the United States. “I can only express the modest hope,” he says, “that this story will be considered worthy of inclusion in the list of the Hundred Best Books Called Summer Lightning.”
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