“Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, that vague and dreamy peer, was not one of England’s keenest brains. The life he led made for slowness of the thinking processes. Except when he was attending sisters’ weddings in America, he spent his time pottering about the gardens and messuages of Blandings Castle, his rural seat, his thoughts such as they were, concentrated on his prize sow, Empress of Blandings.”
In this ninth of his eleven Blandings Castle farces, P. G. Wodehouse brings a large cast of mostly repeating characters to Blandings Castle in Shropshire, where their adolescent behavior, their misplaced values, and their obliviousness to real issues in a real world, allow Wodehouse to create gentle but pointed satire of the British upperclass, of which he himself was also a member. Written in 1965, but set in 1929, this novel, like all Wodehouse writing, is timeless in its ability to capture the silly, the petty, and the laughable in complex and hilarious plots in which numerous misunderstandings occur because characters refuse to be honest with themselves and with each other. Wodehouse selects perfect, absurd details to describe these characters as they engage in perfectly outrageous actions, as he coaxes readers of all walks of life to laugh with those whom “society” considers to be “upper” class.
Tipton Plimsoll, who begins the novel “sleeping it off” in the pokey in New York City after a riotous night on the town with fellow Englishman Wilfred Allsop, discovers that his wallet has been stolen during the night. Unable to pay his way out of jail, he calls Lord Emsworth, a future in-law, who is also in New York for the wedding of one of his nine sisters, telling him he has lost his money and needs to borrow a small sum. This is October, 1929, however, and Lord Emsworth and everyone else who hears this story, assumes that the well-heeled Tipton, engaged to marry Lord Emsworth’s niece, is bankrupt as a result of the stock market crash.
While in New York, Tipton discovers that the slightly built Wilfred Allsop worships from afar Monica Simpson, the tall, athletic woman who takes care of the Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworth’s prized pig. Tipton determines to bring them together.
When all the characters have returned to Blandings Castle, Veronica Wedge, Tipton Plimsoll’s fiancée, is told by her mother Hermione to break off the engagement to her now “penniless” suitor. Veronica, described as having “about as much brain as would fit comfortably into an aspirin bottle,” someone whose aim in life was “to look as [much] like a chandelier as possible,” follows her mother’s orders.
Galahad Threepwood, Lord Emsworth’s brother, an incorrigible meddler, also at Blandings Castle makes it his mission to prevent her “Dear John” letter from being delivered. He has also determined to reunite Sandy Callender, Lord Emsworth’s “secretary,” with her former fiance Samuel Galahad Bagshott, who in pique has called her a “ginger-haired fathead.” Sam has also punched the local constable in the face and needs a place to hide, ending up, of course, at Blandings.
As one might expect in a farce, complications arise in even the most elementary plot lines, and Veronica’s “Dear John” letter begins to take on a life of its own as it is passed from hand to hand. The Empress of Blandings becomes ill, alarming Lord Emsworth enough that he calls in the pig expert Augustus Whipple, who finds his life overlapping with another of the characters at Blandings and possibly affecting the outcome of one of the love stories. And as the various lovers try to “conquer all,” Galahad remains front and center pulling the strings.
The action is fast and furious, with one complication following another. The humor is obvious and very visual, with silly characters behaving much the way they do in the early TV sitcoms or Marx Brothers movies. Wodehouse’s sense of timing and his fine grasp of his characters keep readers fully amused in this delightful entertainment which allows Wodehouse to tweak upperclass pretensions and values.
Notes: The author’s photo comes from http://www.guardian.co.uk
Apley Hall, the house used as the model for Blandings Castle was listed for sale on Jan. 9, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk
The Empress of Blandings appears here courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org.