When I was a young teen, I started reading my brothers’ books. They’re nearly 10 years older than I am (they’re not twins but are close in age), and their tastes ran to Louis L’Amour, Dick Francis, Alastair Maclean, and P.G. Wodehouse. A fine, manly selection for a 13 year old girl! While I still occasionally read Francis, Wodehouse became for a very long time the main man in my life.
I still remember the first one I read–Laughing Gas. It’s the story of an English earl visiting Hollywood, who while under the ether at a dentist’s office, exchanges bodies with a bratty child star with golden curls. I liked it, but there was a lot about Hollywood in the 1920s that I didn’t understand. Then my brother bought me a copy of Meet Mr. Mulliner. I giggled my way through the stories, set around a group of men who meet regularly in a pub, one of whom is always telling stories about his nephews. I still smile, thinking about the one whose smile caused all those around him to unburden their guilty conscience, or the one whose future mother-in-law turned him down until he stole the detective story she was in the middle of reading and refused to give it back until she consented to the marriage.
From there, of course, it was but a short step to the immortal joys of Bertie and Wooster. I think I got half of my 8th grade class to read The Code of the Woosters, that masterful imbroglio of…oh I can’t sum it up. Go read or re-read it yourself. It’s total mayhem, and it brings much joy to the reader’s heart.
My favorite stories eventually turned around Blandings Castle. If you read too much Wodehouse in a row, after a while you’ll see some formulas and repetition (for which you can hardly blame the man, considering he wrote 96 novels). However, even though Blandings Castle attracts an unending stream of star-crossed lovers, imposters (it has imposters like other houses have mice, rather like the CTU unit on the TV show “24”), and more, the Earl of Blandings, his prize-winning pig the Empress, and his sister Constance never fail to amuse. Out of the stories, a few stand out. My 2 favorites are Service With a Smile and Leave it to Psmith(although I must just mention Summer Lightning). Psmith has not only Constance but the Efficient Baxter, a secretary with glasses and a brain that can melt sleep like snow in a furnace.
I think you’re getting the idea of how big a part Wodehouse has played in my life. He changed my vocabulary, and was in large part responsible for my decision to study English Lit in university–I wanted to be able to place all his many quotes, from Browning to Rosetti to Wordsworth to Shakespeare. Many of my friends quote him who have never read him, because I am always dropping phrases. And, when I was younger, I had an unabashed crush on Psmith. I liked how his mind worked. There’s a line where Eve, accepting his proposal, tells how her friend advised her to marry someone eccentric–it’s so much more fun. I think, just between you and me, that my husband has that to thank. We’ve been married 22 years and he still cracks me up–and not just me, everyone around him.
But with one thing and another, I took a bit of a break from Wodehouse. I took all my paperback copies to Mauritania with us, where we lived for nearly 6 years, and the incredible heat and dryness crumbled my much-loved and well-thumbed copies to bits. I’ve been slow about replacing them. Plus, I never had a huge collection myself, mostly contenting myself with borrowing my brother’s books, and he was inconsiderate enough to move across the country while I was overseas.
Recently though, I’ve been feeling the need to bring Pelham Grenville back into my life, and I picked up a copy of Leave it to Psmith at Powells. (For yes, I am blessed enough to live near that fortunate realm) I took it on a camping trip. I was laughing my way through Psmith’s name, his wooing of Eve, the Efficient Baxter and his lemon-coloured pajamas, and more, when I saw Ilsa eyeing me. Ilsa is 15 and an avid reader (For empirical proof, see here and here. And here) but instead of bringing fun books to read while camping, she had foolishly brought her AP summer homework. Sure, she should have done it before Labour Day weekend (that is, the weekend before school starts in Oregon), and I could have told her that she wouldn’t get it done around a campfire. “Oh you’d love this book I’m reading,” I told her. “It’s so funny.” Later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pick it up but I pretended not to notice. We have a bit of history, wherein she won’t read a book I enthusiastically recommend, and if I make her, knowing she’ll love it if she gives it a chance, she’ll hate it.
Apparently I hit the right casual note this time. She adored Psmith, and has (be still my beating heart!) even been quoting it. She came home from school yesterday and told me she’d been telling her English teacher all about the book and her teacher wants to borrow it. Part of me is thrilled; part of me appalled that apparently you can become an English teacher these days without having read Wodehouse!
There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” That’s where I’m at these days. And I’ve made a little stack for her: Right Ho, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves–the trilogy that tells the convoluted tale of those star-crossed lovers Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Basset. I’m re-reading them to keep her company.
Your turn. Is there an author you read obsessively as a teen? Do your children read him or her now? And, what are your favorite Wodehouse books?