The Den(ver) of the Secret Nine starts the New Year with something we’ve not done before—returning to a book the group has already read. New member Dave exercised his option to do this, so we’re revisiting Something Fresh (or Something New), the first Blandings story, at our 12:30 pm Sunday, Jan. 13 meeting at Pints Pub.
Member Dave has also provided his discussion notes for the story, which follows below:
This is my first attempt summarizing a Wodehouse book and at times I felt I was somewhat out of my depth. Actually this is much longer than I had anticipated, can I still call it a summary? There was so much happening I had a hard keeping it concise and often felt like was straying well into the weeds. I am also sorry I will not be able to make the meeting as I am leaving for San Antonio on urgent family business. I welcome any criticism or comments as that will help me next time I attempt this.
In Something Fresh (1915, published as Something New in the U.S) P.G. Wodehouse gives us our first foray to Blandings Castle and the many eccentric characters inhabiting the place. We are introduced to absent minded Lord Emsworth and his clueless son the Honorable Freddie Threepwood as well as the Efficient Baxter, Lord Emsworth ever suspicious secretary and Beach the Blandings butler. As all these characters are necessary to the story they are not the primary protagonists. Wodehouse himself wrote: “without at least one imposter on the premises, Blandings Castle is never itself.” These roles are filled in the persons of Ashe Marson and Joan Valentine.
The premise of the book is a missing scarab, the prize of the collection, owned by J. Preston Peters a wealthy American industrialist whose daughter Aline is to marry the Honorable Freddie. The scarab went missing when the collection was being shown to Lord Emsworth and he inadvertently put it in his pocket and promptly forgot about. Mister Peterson assumes it was stolen but is hesitant to confront Lord Emsworth with this fact as he feels it might jeopardize his daughter’s upcoming marriage. Of course Lord Emsworth doesn’t remember how he got the scarab and just assumes Mr. Peterson gave it to him. The Efficient Baxter suspects that Mr. Peterson didn’t give up his prize scarab but keeps the information to himself. Mr. Peterson devises a plan to recover the scarab through subterfuge offering a $5000 reward for its return. Enter Ashe Marson.
Ashe Marson is an American from Hayling, Massachusetts whose accomplishments to date were running the mile in 4½ minutes and researches in the art of long jumping at Harvard. A Rhodes scholarship to Oxford brought him to England where his primary accomplishments there were winning Blue for athletics at Oxford and winning the mile and half mile two years in a row against Cambridge at Queen’s Club. Since he did very little actual studying he found he was not really suited for much although he did earn a Bachelor of Arts. After a succession of private tutoring positions he finds himself in London looking for newspaper work eventually becoming the author the Gridley Quayle crime adventure series. Ashe lives in the front upstairs flat at Number Seven Arundell Street, Leicester Square. It should be noted that Ashe is a strong proponent of exercise and health which is how he meets Joan Valentine, while exercising in the front yard.
Joan Valentine, who lives in the front downstairs flat, is also an American from a wealthy family who learned upon her father’s death five years ago that he had squandered the family fortune and was left to find her own way. After a series of jobs she is currently working as the writer of Home Gossip for the same firm as Ashe. In the course of their introductory meeting Ashe mentions he feel like a failure at 26, which she find impossible to believe as he lives in London with opportunities surrounding him and suggests he read the advertisement columns.
The introduction of Joan Valentine presents one of the subplots of the book concerning the Honorable Freddie, Aline Peters, and a Mr. R. Jones. One of the previous jobs Joan had was on the stage where the Honorable Freddie saw her and developed a major crush. He had his man Judson deliver notes and poems to Joan professing his love. As a friend of his was recently sued for breach of contract for similar reasons and lost he was very concerned the same might happen to him. He therefore contacts Mr. R. Jones, a shady fixer, and gave him £500 to give to Joan to make it all go away. Unbeknownst to both of them Joan had destroyed any correspondence she had received from Freddie. Mr. R. Jones goes to Joan’s flat to confront her and immediately realizes that she no longer has the letters and poems and figures to keep the £500. As he is leaving Joan Aline Peterson arrives and sensing and opportunity he listens outside the door. Since Aline and Joan were school mates she confides in Joan the loss of her father’s scarab and his offer of a $5000 reward. They devise a plan where Joan will accompany her to Blandings Castle, home of Lord Emsworth, as her lady’s maid. Mr. R. Jones hearing this determines there is definitely more money in this for him.
Even though Ashe was skeptical regarding Joan’s earlier advice he did give the advertisement columns a glance and a wanted ad for a young man of good appearance and poor willing to take on a delicate and dangerous enterprise for good pay catches his eye. Answering the ad he finds the reception room full of men, none of whom appeared to match the qualities looked for in the ad. By the time he is called for an interview, he was the last, the advertiser, who just so happens to be Mr. J. Preston Peterson is so frustrated he is somewhat surprised that Ashe seems to fit the bill and offers him the job on the spot. He explains the circumstances, the risks involved, and the offer of $5000 upon completion of the job. While Ashe is wary of taking the job eventually agrees but feels he should accompany him to Blandings Castle as his secretary but Mr. Peters insists he go as his valet, a position Ashe is wholly unqualified for. Thus the stage is set.
The journey to Blandings Castle is uneventful, Ashe and Joan share a compartment and she instructs him as to the social hierarchy of the serving staff in the English Country home. As with many if not most of Wodehouse’s stories an underlying theme is a comic caricature of English aristocratic life and in this story the American aristocracy of wealth. He shows that the servants follow a very elaborate hierarchy, taking meals at many different social levels, and in essence mimicking their betters. In doing so he shows the absurdity of the English social class structure. With this explanation Ashe feels even more out of place and highly vulnerable, feeling he could quite easily be discovered a fraud. During this conversation Joan deduces they are likely there for the same reason but does not share this information with Ashe.
Upon arrival at Blandings Castle Ashe is conducted to the presence of Mr. Beach the butler and is regaled with information about Beach’s bad feet and bad stomach. Beach is concerned that this is Ashe’s first position as valet and his vagueness regarding past employment. When the dinner bell rings Ashe is dismissed to go help Mr. Peters dress for dinner. Not knowing where Mr. Peterson’s room is he meets the efficient Baxter, Lord Emsworth’s secretary, and asks him where the room is, speaking to him as an equal. Due to the rigors and pressure of his position and his constant smoking of cigars Mr. Peters has developed a dyspeptic stomach and is forced to eat only bland food. This naturally makes him quite surly most the time and is very concerning to Ashe. After Mr. Peterson berates him Ashe has basically had enough and tells Peterson he will not tolerate that kind of abuse and if it doesn’t stop he is through. Once Mr. Peterson realizes he is serious his demeanor changes and he also agrees to let Ashe help improve his health.
During the servants dinner Freddie’s man appears to recognize Joan, as he was the one who he delivered the letters and poems to, and is about to expose her when Ashe saves the day. He does so by doing his imitation of two cats fighting which stuns those at the table but takes the pressure off Joan. While this could have been a disaster for Ashe it all turns out for the best. After dinner Ashe gets Beach to show him the castle’s museum where the scarab is. When they enter the museum they find Mr. Peterson talking with Baxter. Apparently Mr. Peterson had found himself alone near the museum and decided to snatch the scarab himself almost getting caught by Baxter. When Baxter realizes who Ashe is, especially after nearly catching Mr. Peterson in the act of recovering the scarab he is very suspicious and takes Beach into the hall and asks him about Ashe. When he finds out Ashe asked to see the museum he becomes even more suspicious. Later that night, when everyone else had gone to bed he catches Ashe near the museum and confronts him. Ashe said he had gotten a book to read to Mr. Peterson to help him sleep and fortunately had a book in his possession to prove the fact. This confirms Baxter’s suspicions that Ashe is there to steal the scarab. Since Baxter is more or less the curator of the museum he tends to look on the displays as his own. He decides to keep watch every night sitting in a chair in the hall at the top of the stairs and throughout the rest of the book seem to steadily lose his mind.
While talking to Joan the next day she tells him she knows why he is here and that she is here for the same reason. They decide to work together with one trying one night and the other the next. After a flip of a coin Ashe gets first crack at it. There is an assortment of people at Blandings Castle; Lady Ann Warblington Freddie’s aunt, Lord Stockheath and his cousin Algernon Wooster, Colonel Horace Mant, and the Bishop of Godamling and George Emerson an American friend of Freddie’s. This brings us to another subplot involving George who is in love with Aline Peterson, they know each other from the States. Aline, in support of her father, has been eating the same bland food as him and had confessed to George that she sometimes gets quite hungry early in the morning. Therefore, George decides to go into town and get her a late night snack to leave outside her door thinking this is a way to win her over. He could have simply raided the castle larder but thought it would be quite insulting to his host should he be caught. As luck would have it this was the same night Ashe was making his first attempt to recover the scarab and neither knew that Baxter was on watch. So inevitably they all collide in the dark making such a noise it wakes everyone up. Ashe and George manage to get clear but poor Baxter is floundering on the floor and when he brushes up against the tongue George was brining to Aline he thinks it’s a dead body and tries unsuccessfully to call for help. By that time all the guests were at the top of the stairs in the dark with Lord Emsworth brandishing a pistol which he unloads in the dark in the general direction of the commotion. When the lights are finally turned on there is Baxter on the floor with the food meant for Aline all around him. He is admonished for sneaking food in the dark and told if he is hungry to have the servants bring food to his room.
After this Joan realizes that the next night would be the perfect time to get the scarab as she is sure Baxter will not venture out of his room. The next day is Sunday and most of the guests have gone to church. Baxter slept late and when he wakes immediately checks the museum and finds the scarab gone. He also notices a shoe print in some red paint from a spilled can that Lord Emsworth was using to paint a cabinet. He runs into Ashe, who had also slept late and demands he bring all the shoes the servants were wearing the previous day. Ashe does this and after Baxter finds the shoe Ashe realizes what he is up to. Somehow he manages to swap the shoe for another and then follows Baxter to find Lord Emsworth so he can expose the plot. As the shoe he presents does not have any red paint on it Lord Emsworth gets somewhat annoyed and believing that possibly Baxter was losing his mind hints that maybe it’s time for him to go. He appears to be most concerned as to how he was going to explain to Mr. Peterson that his wonderful gift of the scarab has been stolen. When everyone returns from church Joan confronts Ashe as to why he took the scarab when it was her turn. He pleads innocent and convinces her he did not do it so who they wonder who did. At that moment Freddie’s man appears saying he has to deliver a note to someone in town for Freddie. The note is for Mr. R. Jones who came to town to get more money from Freddie. Ashe and Joan say they will deliver the note and in the process Ashe figures out what happened. Ashe takes the note to Jones and then returns to the castle.
By this time George has received a telegram from the states indicating he needs to return on the next ship. He tells Aline this and promises her that while he loves her and he believes she loves him he will not pursue her any longer. He asks her to see him off and she agrees and at the last minute decides she really loves him and that life with the Honorable Freddie would be untenable and so departs with him. Lord Emsworth, Baxter, and Colonel Mant were also there to see George off. When Aline made her move to go with George, Baxter tries to stop her and it tripped by Colonel Mant who thought he was having another episode and trying to attack her.
When Ashe returns to Blandings Castle, after resolving the issue with Mr. R. Jones, he confronts Freddie with his suspicions. Freddie is laid up in his bed with a sprained ankle he got from tripping over his aunt’s cat on the stairs. Ashe find Freddie deeply enthralled in a Gridley Quayle adventure, all he really seems interested in. Ashe tells him he saw the note to Mr. R. Jones and determined he was in quick need of cash. He tells him the letters were destroyed and he has nothing to fear. He also tells him he knows he is the one who stole the scarab. During the course of their conversation Freddie learns that Ashe is the author of the Gridley Quayle books and is overcome with joy. He confesses to the theft and gives the scarab to Ashe. As their conversation is ending Lord Emsworth, Mr. Peterson, Baxter, and Colonel Mant come into Freddie’s room. Ashe slips out while Freddie is informed that Aline has eloped with George. They tell him to take it like a man and seem stunned when Freddie appears unfazed. Actually the news apparently made no impression on him at all.
Later in the day Ashe comes into Mr. Peterson’s room where he is packing his bags having about all he could take of English country life. He tells Ashe about Aline and George and tells him they are getting out of there. Ashe gives him the scarab and tells him about Freddie stealing it because he needed money. As he is writing a check for the reward he asks Ashe to stay on as his personal trainer, secretary, or whatever he wants to call himself because due to his exercise routine he is feeling much better. Ashe agrees and goes to find Joan. She is found walking somewhat despondently in the drive and they talk about all that has happened and eventually Ashe confesses he loves Joan and wants to marry her. Joan makes the argument that they barely know each other, she has been on her own for so long, that one travels fastest alone but Ashe rebuts all of them. She finally confesses that yes she loves him as well and was dreading their parting.
There are several differences between the British Something Freshand the U.S. Something New as noted on Madame Eulalie’s website. One is that British pounds were converted to American dollars. Also the characters of Ashe Marson, Joan Valentine, and George Emmerson are American in the U.S. version but English in the British version with George a Hong Kong policeman and not a lawyer. This leads to some significant changes in descriptive passages and dialogue. The subplot of the red paint on the shoe is not in the British version at all. Apparently the reason is that the same subplot occurred in an earlier work The Lost Lamb. However, these differences do not substantially change the story and all in all it was an enjoyable read.