The Den(ver) of the Secret Nine next meets at 12:30 pm Sunday, March 11, at Pints Pub in downtown Denver to discuss a Wodehouse novel that had many of us scratching our heads trying to place it. Newest member Jennie offers us discussion notes that will set a new bar for these monographs:
Notes on a late yet delightful entry into the Wodehouse canon.
Company for Henry was first published in the UK on 26 October 1967 by Herbert Jenkins, London, printed by Northumberland Press Ltd., with dustwrapper by illustrator Osbert Lancaster, CBE.
It was retitled The Purloined Paperweight for the U.S. publication on 12 May 1967 by Simon & Schuster, New York. Two later American editions were published by The Paperweight Press of Santa Cruz, CA, in 1986 and 1989.
Although judging a book by its cover is generally frowned upon, can the same be said of judging a book by its title? One afternoon at our friendly fine used bookstore, The Hermitage Bookshop, I was looking for books by P. G. Wodehouse that don’t yet occupy my own bookshelves (admittedly, there are many) when I happened upon a 1986 edition of The Purloined Paperweight. I snapped it up. To be honest, I did not find the cover particularly attractive; it was a photographic image of a gloved hand slipping a glass paperweight into a coat pocket, and it had an air of 1986 aesthetic à la the Angela Lansbury television series Murder, She Wrote.
The title, however, did appeal to me. Who could pass up a “purloined” anything in the Wodehouse canon? Surely I was in for a good–if tea-cozy–mystery. I was also in a mood for metatextual books and deemed Wodehouse on paperweights most relevant. Even better, the publisher was clearly interested in some form of self-referential indulgence I found charming. And the fact that the plot had something to do with eighteenth-century French paperweights clinched things; for too long I’d neglected my university degree in eighteenth-century literature and material culture. The Purloined Paperweight was just the ticket.
I might have picked up a copy of Company for Henry but not with the same eagerness with which I paid for The Purloined Paperweight. Titles matter. Covers also matter. The degree to which one might supersede the other depends on many factors. Certainly the original Company for Henry cover by Lancaster is much more artful than that of The Purloined Paperweight; however, need I repeat? “Purloined”! An underused word in titles if there ever was one. A quick Google search turns up just two remotely relevant titles: Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter” (1844) and Mark Twain’s unfinished children’s book The Purloining of Prince Oleomargerine (2017, completed from his notes).
How important can titles be? In my case The Purloined Paperweight led me to a reading quite different from what I expect I would have found if I had read Company for Henry. A book called Company for Henry would have inclined me to focus on the acquaintances and travails of Henry Paradene, the unfortunate owner of Ashby Hall. It would have been a tale illuminating the truth of our erstwhile narrator’s declaration, “Some men are born to country houses, some achieve country houses, others have country houses thrust upon them. It was to this last section that Henry belonged” (33).
Instead, I read The Purloined Paperweight for the delights of criminality and the intrigue of an item I had never paid much attention to: the paperweight. The lovely characters move around this object of desire in their prescribed dance of squabbles, amours, and mistaken identity. The purloining of the paperweight preoccupied me throughout. But this is less inappropriate to a Wodehouse tale than one might think. “In fact,” as Isaac Asimov points out in his Foreword to Wodehouse on Crime (1981), “when one stops to think of it, there is rarely a story in the entire Wodehouse opera which doesn’t feature crime” (xiii). The Purloined Paperweight is peppered with mysterious and criminal elements: references to Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie; Jane’s fondness for “novels of suspense” (52), particularly the recently published Deadly Ernest; and Bill’s owning up to being Deadly Ernest‘s author.
Following up on Asimov’s Foreword, in his Preface to Wodehouse on Crime, D. R. Benson addresses “the question of why this amiable and blameless man [Wodehouse] chose to steep his works in crime.” “[The] two main influences were, one directly and one indirectly, literary” and can be traced to Wodehouse’s youth: his devoted reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand and his attendance at Dulwich College. Benson’s characterization of this “indirect” literary influence is best imbibed in his own words:
“The second–the indirect–influence is that of Dr. Thomas Arnold who was, if not the actual inventor, the chief propagandist, of the English public-school system. . . . [One] of the many offshoots of his ideas was Dulwich College, which Wodehouse attended. These institutions, ostensibly intended to provide military, political academic, commercial and clerical leaders for the late-Victorian Empre, were in fact remarkably similar to well-run minimum-security prisons of the present day and afforded their inmates a sound education in guerrilla warfare on authority and in circumvention of any and all rules.” (xvi)
“No one exposed from his tenderest years to these malign forces could expect to escape them entirely,” Benson observes. “It is to Wodehouse’s credit that, though proceeding directly from Dulwich to employment in a London bank, he did not use his honed criminal skills to become an embezzler or a loan officer, let alone to seek wider employment for them by standing for Parliament or embarking upon a military or mercantile career” (xvii).
We thus have The Purloined Paperweight (or Company for Henry) before us. It is a brief book, but happily at the time he was drafting Company for Henry, biographer Robert McCrum notes, Wodehouse “still had his standards,” writing to a friend that the new book “will definitely be a novelette . . . . I don’t want to spoil it by padding it” (qtd. in McCrum 409). Happily, too, the purloining of the paperweight is a crime orchestrated by well-intentioned and good-hearted characters, and in the end no one is the worse for it. In fact, as Algy contentedly admits at the end, “The world . . . was not such a bad place after all. True, it contained pipsqueaks who treated their brothers with sickening disrespect, but it also contained splendid men, quick on the draw with their checkbooks, like Wendell Stickney. It all sort of evened up . . . “ (188).
Wendell Stickney is Henry Paradene’s distant American cousin. His collector’s enthusiasm for eighteenth-century French paperweights prompts the happy ending, though achieving a successful purloining is more complicated than one might expect. Stickney’s obsession is supported by a healthy bank account, as is his saving of Ashby Hall and Henry’s peace of mind.
Wodehouse has established a singular understanding of collectors and the collecting spirit as we saw during the auction scene in The Indiscretions of Archie (1921). For Stickney,
[It] was the old, old story. A man tells himself that he can take French eighteenth-century paperweights or leave them alone, but comes a moment when he finds that he is hooked. Such a moment had long since come to Wendell. Nowadays he did not even try to resist the craving. French eighteenth-century paperweights were in his blood. He could not see one or even read about one without coveting it. (41)
Stickney regularly peruses auction catalogs. We first meet him engaged with a Sotheby’s pamphlet, lingering over an announcement “offering for sale a French eighteenth-century paperweight”:
- clichy double overlay weight, turquoise, enclosing a well-formed mushroom, purple and white striped exterior, three concentric rows of pink, blue and green hollow canes, centered by a pink rose within a ring of white stardust canes, the sides cut with five circular windows and the top flattened by a large window, star-cut base. (40)
Stickney attains this fascinating object prior to leaving New York to visit Henry. Having outlined the esoterica of such objects so carefully, Wodehouse simply says of the one residing at Ashby Hall that Henry’s ancestor, “The Beau,” “brought it back from the grand tour in eighteen hundred and something. . . . It’s up in the picture gallery with the other heirlooms” (53). The lack of a more detailed description might suggest that all eighteenth-century French paperweights are the same. And from a distance one might be forgiven thinking so, but the same might be said of Wodehousian novels. Up close, however, each is exquisite in its own right.
In his Introduction to The Paperweight Press Edition paperweight authority extraordinaire Lawrence H. Selman writes,
Wodehouse mistakenly describes paperweights as eighteenth-century art objects. Actually these glass pieces were first made in the nineteenth century. The highly desirable weights Wodehouse refers to in his book were produced in France during a short twenty-year period from about 1840 to 1860. During this time three glass factories in France–Saint Louis, Baccarat and Clichy–produced most of the paperweights considered collectors’ items today.
Selman, according to David McDonough, “seems to be to the paperweight world what Gussie Fink-Nottle is to newts” (qtd. in Ratcliffe 13). Selman certainly knows his subject; L. H. Selman Ltd., Fine Glass Paperweights, Est. 1969, continues today as the purveyor of antique glass paperweights to the world. A recent listing found on Selman’s Pinterest page (a board titled “Antique Millefiori Glass Paperweights”) reads very like that of Stickney’s announcement 109: “Outstanding antique Clichy faceted royal blue double overlay concentric mushroom with central rose paperweight.” The accompanying image offers a good idea of the paperweight Stickney simply had to have.
One-time Oldest Member a.k.a Editor-in-Chief of The Wodehouse Society’s Plum Lines, Ed Ratcliffe in 1998 added to the tale of The Purloined Paperweight “what we ace reporters refer to as a personal angle” (13). After acquiring a copy of the book he sought out Selman’s shop of “trifling wares” in Santa Cruz, California, but the proprietor was not in. “Sometime later, looking for a mailing service for Plum Lines, [Ratcliffe] approached the office of Complete Mailing Service in Santa Cruz.” This he discovered was also owned by Lawrence H. Selman, who, owing to the shipping demands of his business, “had set up a separate mailing operation and later opened it to all comers. Well, dear hearts, we are one (or many) of those comers,” Ratcliffe concluded, addressing the loyal readers of The Wodehouse Society newsletter, “and Lawrence H. Selman, at some remove, has been mailing Plum Lines for four years” (13).
In the end, however, was Wodehouse playing a joke on the reader in his elevation of eighteenth-century French paperweights? I suspect so. Or, at any rate, I think he was aware of the facts. The great frenzy of antique paperweight collection rekindled in the 1950s surely was well underway in the 1960s when L. H. Selman Ltd. was being established and Wodehouse was composing The Purloined Paperweight. To ascribe a classic French paperweight from one of the great manufacturing centers to a century prior almost seems an act of imposing greater antiquity and desirability upon it. An excellent example of, say, a Clichy paperweight presents a simply exquisite and breathtaking moment of beauty and art that defies time. It is anachronistic in a way that the world of The Purloined Paperweight is anachronistic.
Published in 1967, The Purloined Paperweight reflects not the events of its time, the Vietnam War, the space race, and in the U.S. the Supreme Court’s ruling against state bans on interracial marriage. Instead, in his gentle and inimical way, Wodehouse gives us once more a portrait of a world frozen in time, perfect, amusing, even sweet. And we are the better for it.
Page references to The Purloined Paperweight are to The Paperweight Press edition of 1986.
The Russian Wodehouse Society offers a helpful synopsis and list of characters as well as images of the bookcovers for Company for Henry and The Purloined Paperweight on its website at http://wodehouse.ru/89.htm
You can take a look at L. H. Selman Ltd.’s blog post featuring commentary on The Purloined Paperweight. It includes an image that suggests the paperweight featured on the 1986 bookcover was part of the company collection/inventory. It is very different from the one listed in Stickney’s Sotheby’s pamphlet, but this one represents the paperweight at Ashby Hall, which is never described: https://www.theglassgallery.com/blog/through-a-glass-paperweight-darkly/
For fascinating information on the history of paperweights and how they are made take a look at this video from the Corning Museum of Glass (about 45 minutes):
Asimov, Isaac. Foreword. Wodehouse on Crime: A Dozen Tales of Fiendish Cunning. New York: Dorset Press, 1992. vix-xiii.
Bensen, D. R., ed. Preface. Wodehouse on Crime: A Dozen Tales of Fiendish Cunning. New York: Dorset Press, 1992. xv-xvii.
McCrum, Robert. Wodehouse: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.
Ratcliffe, Ed. “Paperweights.” Plum Lines. Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring 1998): 13.
Selman, Lawrence H. Introduction to the Paperweight Press Edition. Wodehouse, P. (Pelham) G. (Grenville). The Purloined Paperweight. Santa Cruz: Paperweight Press, 1986.
Wodehouse, P. (Pelham) G. (Grenville). The Purloined Paperweight. Santa Cruz: Paperweight Press, 1986.