The first meeting of The Den(ver) of the Secret Nine will be this Sunday, May 12th at 12:30 p.m. at Pints Pub in Denver. I know that some of those attending are new to Wodehouse (or have only recently returned), so I thought it might help to give some idea of the breadth of Wodehouse’s world. First an incredibly brief biography with relevant links to more information.
(By the way, I’m only a Wodehouse dilettante and I’m sure these categories are open to discussion, which is the whole point of this post. We need something to talk about at our first meeting.)
To put it short and sweet, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in England in 1881 to somewhat distant parents—they were in India. He was raised by aunts and uncles, never went to Oxford or Cambridge but largely made up for it by being the finest comic writer in the English language.
He died in 1975, a month after having been knighted and still in exile in the United States. He had some difficulty at the beginning of World War II when he had the great misfortune of being interned by the Germans and made some radio broadcasts, which in retrospect, he shouldn’t have.
He wrote about a hundred books, too many short stories to count and a goodly number of musicals including Anything Goes, with his friend Guy Bolton and, of course, Cole Porter.
He was married and had a step-daughter. She died while he was interned. He was quite famous and counted among his friends Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling. Now onto the attempt to create a taxonomy of Wodehouse—broad categories by which you can arrange your library.
The Blandings Castle gang
There are several epicenters in the world that Wodehouse created, and the putative lord of Blandings Castle, Clarence, Earl of Emsworth, sits in one like a rather befuddled spider in its web, wondering how he got into the web in the first place and if like another famous spider he has a pet pig. Lord Emsworth would prefer peace and quiet to contemplate the prospects of The Empress of Blandings in the upcoming fat pig competition, but instead he is beset by the machinations of efficient secretaries, the complications of lovelorn offspring and the demands of his sister, Lady Constance Keeble. There are ten full Blandings novels (depending on how you count things), the first being Something Fresh in 1915. Sunset at Blandings, which would have been the eleventh, was uncompleted upon Wodehouse’s death. I may have the numbers wrong.
A Multitude of Milliners
Mulliners are too numerous for me to count (appearing in about forty stories). The stories are generally related by an elderly raconteur, to wit Mr. Mulliner, from the comfortable confines of the Anglers’ Rest pub. He tells these stories to the usually unwilling bar patrons, whom the narrator identifies by their drink order—Lemon Squash, Pint of Ale, etc. The stories usually concern a Mulliner nephew or niece with romantic difficulties and often involve stammers (or other speech impediments), a nervous disposition, an unnerving smile, a tendency toward crime or a love of mysteries. Sometimes all in one story.
The Golf Stories
A cynical person might point out the similarities of the golf stories to the tales of Mr. Mulliner, but such a person hath no music in himself and is fit only for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. On the face of it, the similarity is that the golf stories are related by the Oldest Member of the club (vaguely American in U.S. editions) from the comfortable confines of the Nineteenth Hole and concern the romantic difficulties of younger club members and often involve the yips, bizarre contests, sensitive poets and African explorers. Sometimes all in one story. Of course, golf often plays an important part in non-golf stories, as in Love Among the Chickens.
The Drones Club
Another epicenter is The Drones Club, home to many of the aimless young men to be found in several categories, including the Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings Castle stories. Members include Bingo Little, Oofy Prosser, Rupert Psmith, Freddie Threepwood, Monty Bodkin, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, Tuppy Glossop, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, Archibald Mulliner and of course that pre-eminent club man, Bertie Wooster.
Members can be found throwing bread rolls, imitating a chicken laying an egg or attempting to swing across the swimming pool by means of the exercise rings suspended above same. The Drones Club is mentioned in any number of stories across almost all categories.
Wodehouse created several characters who stand alone, mostly because the wary avoid them like the plague. Head and shoulders above them is Stanley Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshawe) Ukridge (Ewkridge). His friend Jimmy Corcoran, whom Ukridge includes in his get-rich-quick schemes, narrates most of the Ukridge stories. Ukridge is large, loud, unkempt and fond of saying “It’s a bit hard” and calling his friends (that is anyone he hopes to bamboozle) “laddie” and “old horse.”
The cynical fellow we met before might suggest Ukridge in many ways resembles Rupert (or Ronald Eustace) Psmith, only by way of the Mirror Universe. Where Ukridge is unkempt, Psmith is fastidious. Where Ukridge is stout, Psmith is thin, but both characters generally sow discord and confusion wherever they visit. Psmith tends to call people “comrades” and generally espouses a socialist outlook: “Other people are content to talk about the Redistribution of Property. I go out and do it.”
Wodehouse said he based Psmith on Richard D’Oyly Carte (the impresario responsible for the Savoy Hotel and the opera company that bears his name).
Psmith also crosses over to the Blandings gange in Leave it to Psmith (which makes it either the second Blandings novel or the fourth Psmith story).
Uncle Fred is another of the habitués of Blandings Castle and strikes out on his own in four novels. He is a good friend of Galahad Threepwood (younger brother of Lord Emsworth) and is a member of the riotous Pelican Club (Drones on steroids). He also sows confusion wherever he travels, but as with most Wodehouse characters is generally fond of the younger set and wishes them well.
Wodehouse’s earliest stories are set in public school as is his first novel, The Pothunters. What might be called the last of the school stories (well I called it that, but I am singularly uninformed), Mike, introduces, Mike Jackson, that friend who leads us to Psmith, who leads to Blandings, who leads to the Drones Club, etc.
Those that stand alone
All the other categories mentioned here might give the impression that Wodehouse always wrote within established series, but he has a number of wonderful “one off” stories, which include If I Were You (think The Prince and the Pauper), Hot Water (Americans causing mischief in Brittany) and The Old Reliable (Hollywood movie moguls and safe crackers).
Jeeves and Wooster or Bertie and Jeeves
And now we come to the double act that is the full flower of Wodehouse’s genius (and another important epicenter). Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his faithful valet Reginald Jeeves appear in about ten novels and too many short stories for a lazy, indolent woman like myself to count. (It’s almost impossible to count anything in Wodehouse, as U.S. and U.K. titles often differed and the many collections and omnibuses muddy the waters. Jeeves also appears without Bertie in one novel.)
We first meet Jeeves and Wooster fully formed in Jeeves Takes Charge in 1916, although there are presentiments of both characters in earlier short stories. Wodehouse’s last completed novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentleman (in the U.S. as The Cat-nappers) was also the last pairing of Jeeves and Wooster.
In my opinion, The Code of the Woosters stands out as the greatest comic novel of all time. This story, involving Roderick Spode (a thinly disguised Oswald Mosley), the dog Bartholomew, a cow creamer, a policeman’s helmet, and the sinister lair known otherwise as Totleigh Towers (the stately home of Sir Watkyn Bassett), is also the foundation of the Totleigh Towers quad-ology that includes The Mating Season, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and Much Obliged, Jeeves.
Mr. Cynic might observe that all Jeeves and Wooster stories bear a striking resemblance to one another, as they usually involve Jeeves extricating Bertie from the implications caused by an earlier mistaken proposal to Madeleine Bassett, who famously thinks “the stars are God’s daisy chain” and “every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born.”
I would reply that any Wodehousian would gladly give his or her eyeteeth for one more story involving same.
The Unified Field Theory of Wodehouse
From the discussion of the major categories above, I think it obvious that almost all Wodehouse is connected, apart from the one-off category, and even then one can often find some tenuous tie that binds. In the Spring 2013 edition of Plum Lines (the newsletter of the U.S. Wodehouse Society), Jill Cooper Robinson writes, “All connections led to Lord Emsworth. The dreamy, cloth-headed peer of the realm, Clarence Threepwood, so ineffective in and of himself, is a magnet for the domestic drama that provides all our entertainment.”
I won’t dispute this, but I would more liken the world of Wodehouse to the World Wide Web or distributed computing, with major nodes to be found at Blandings Castle, the Drones Club and 3A Berkeley Mansions, Berkeley Square, London W1. This is a world not of six degrees of separation but at best two or three, for all they are all united through Blandings, Bertie Wooster and The Drones Club, either by marriage, school, imposture, schemes or blood. The Wodehouse social network spans countries and continents and merges the Edwardian with the Jazz Age with the interwar years. (Some thought the Sixties was a bit of a stretch.) I think you could cut off any piece of the Wodehousian super organism, plant it in damp soil and it would soon spring to life full of newt fanciers, angry geese and loony doctors. True, it is a fractal organism with many repeating patterns, but each slight variation in pattern is precious in and of itself.
If you want to start creating your own Wodehouse library, you might visit this list of short stories and this list of books at the UK Wodehouse society. The wikipedia bibliography is also very helpful.