Sunday, January 23, 2005

Pig Hooooey!

I've been re-reading a collection of P.G. Wodehouse short stories, Lord Emsworth Acts For the Best. This collects together the stories that Wodehouse wrote about the goings-on at Blandings Castle; there aren't many of them, as he usually used Blandings as a setting for novels. But for the most part, the short stories are better than the novels, mostly because the stories focus on the most interesting of the Blandings characters: Lord Emsworth, that "vague and woolen-headed peer," a character who is sort of a Wodehouse surrogate: anti-social, scared of human society in general and women in particular, and never really at ease except when doing the thing he loves most (in Lord Emsworth's case, taking care of his prize pig; in Wodehouse's case, writing). The best stories in the volume are the ever-popular "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend," where Lord Emsworth forms a bond with a little girl from London (late in life, Wodehouse considered bringing this character back as an adult, but he never got around to it), and "The Crime Wave at Blandings," where various characters take turns shooting Rupert Baxter, Lord Emsworth's ex-secretary and nemesis, with an air-gun.

The Blandings novels are, I believe, pretty popular among hardcore Wodehousians, but most of them don't interest me (an exception is the very funny "Leave it to Psmith," a crossover with the star character of Wodehouse's early work). Like all Wodehouse's novels, they have very complicated plots, but because Lord Emsworth isn't good at plotting and planning, he can't participate much in those plots -- which means that Lord Emsworth, the best character, often gets the least amount of time in the novels. And far too much time is given to his younger brother, Galahad, one of Wodehouse's weakest characters: He's supposed to be a young man-about-town grown old in years (but not in spirit), still sentimental about his wild youth and always ready for a wacky scheme. But as a youthful old man, he's not very convincing, and as a schemer, he's certainly no Jeeves. He's just a walking plot device, there to explain what's going on and help the young lovers. (The one Blandings short story with Galahad, "Sticky Wicket at Blandings," is very weak.) It also doesn't help that by the time he wrote most of the Blandings novels, Wodehouse was no longer very good at writing young lovers; in his early work he would go to great pains to "get the love story right," and in the Jeeves novels, it doesn't matter because all lovers look like idiots from Bertie's point of view. The young couples in Wodehouse's novels from about the late '30s onward are mostly interchangeable sticks who talk way too much and do way too little of interest. He should have stuck with Lord Emsworth, who would rather spend his time with flowers and pigs than young lovers.

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