Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Service With a Smile by P.G. Wodehouse

I will never write a Wodehousian novel: I know that. But the one in my head that I would write, if I were capable, would be the Unified Field Theory Wodehouse book, in which Psmith's plots collide with Jeeves's, with Uncle Fred kibitzing on one side and probably Mr. Mulliner narrating large chunks of the story.

Wodehouse himself never did that, largely because even his normal books were over-complicated and fussy, requiring a lot of time and attention to get all of the silly plot details exactly right, so that everything felt plausible in Wodehouse's least plausible (and most sunny) of all possible worlds. But it's a beautiful dream, and I wish somebody was capable of doing it at the level of the Wodehouse of about 1940, because that would be a kick-ass book.

I was reminded of that while reading Service With a Smile, because this is a crossover book in a smaller way: it brings Uncle Fred (aka the Earl of Ickenham) to Blandings, to spread sweetness and light there in his own way. This is fairly late Wodehouse (1961), so it ends up being an Uncle Fred book that takes place at Blandings -- Lord Emsworth is basically a minor character, and his brother Galahad entirely absent -- rather than the equally-blended souffle of my dreams.

As always, the joys of Wodehouse are in his books' frivolity and lightness: the worst thing that can happen in a Wodehouse novel is that two young people will not marry the people they love...well, that they love deeply and passionately, but intermittently, since they're always breaking engagements at the drop of a hat (and forming multiple engagements as well, as in this book). In this case, it's primarily Uncle Fred's young friend Bill Bailey, a poor vicar engaged to the daughter of an Wall Street tycoon -- she's is at Blandings under the tutelage of Emsworth's formidable sister Lady Constance, who of course does not approve of the match. Uncle Fred and Bill of course are at Blandings themselves, the latter, inevitably, under an alias.

There is also, as there must be, a plot to steal the famous pig The Empress of Blandings, led by the unpleasant Duke of Dunstable, also currently a guest at Blandings, and aided by Emsworth's current horrible secretary, Lavender Briggss, who I am sorry to say has a very distinctive speech pattern that Wodehouse may have meant to indicate a particular social or physical origin. (This is less than clear to an American sixty years later, frankly.)

The plots -- there are a few minor ones I've neglected to mention, as well -- circle each other in that inimitable Wodehouse fashion, as the marriage possibilities and the career-advancement possibilities and the making-money-by-stealing-a-pig possibilities all get tangled up in each other until it seems that there's no way for sweetness and light to win out in the end.

But of course it does: this is Wodehouse after all, and Uncle Fred's plots do find happiness for all of the characters who deserve it (and possibly even one or two the reader would not think deserve it).

This is a late Wodehouse novel, from two of his lesser-known series: if you've never read him before, don't start here. My general advice has been to begin with Joy in the Morning, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, or Leave It To Psmith, but you could also grab any random Jeeves book from before 1960. If you haven't tried Wodehouse, and like silliness, you should try at least one, once.

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