Sunday, April 22, 2012

Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: I own this

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. This month, we are reading books by P. G. Wodehouse, rather than a particular book. 

Reading to Know - Book Club

Uncle Fred in the Springtime is one of the Lord Emsworth series. Emsworth is a middle-aged member of the formerly glorious gentry, who is dominated by his sisters, in this case, his formidable sister Constance. Emsworth would like nothing better than to be left alone to nurture his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings. Lady Constance convinces the Duke of Dunstable to take possession of the pig. This being Wodehouse, there is no chance that anyone would stand up to a woman of this sort, so Emsworth consults Lord Ickenham, also known as Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred. A scheme is hatched, whereby the Empress will be preemptively stolen.

To add to the fun, Wodehouse adds in a private detective and card shark, “Mustard” Potts; his daughter Polly, whose boyfriend needs to borrow money to purchase an onion soup restaurant; Pongo’s sister Valerie, who has just broken up with Horace Davenport, who is Dunstable’s nephew; and, well, you get the idea.

In order to carry out the necessary plot, Uncle Fred and Pongo must assume a false identity. As is typical in Wodehouse, everything keeps getting more complicated, as each step in the scheme requires further conspiracy and conspirators. Catastrophe looms, and everything is on the verge of going horribly wrong, until a few inspired ideas and some good fortune straighten everything out.

For those who are familiar with Wodehouse, none of this is a surprise. The basic template is the very basis of Wodehouse’s art. However, the humorous characters and the outrageous lengths to which they will go keep the reader on his toes.

My thoughts on the book:

Wodehouse’s use of language and dialogue makes use of the humorous potential of Briticisms, which abound. When Pongo attempts to borrow money from Horace, he is refused.

            “Oh? Right ho. Well in that case,” said Pongo stiffly, “tinkerty-tonk.”

Later, after Valerie has broken up with Horace, Pongo takes his friend’s side against his sister. Later, Uncle Fred reveals Valerie’s thoughts.

            “Then you’re all alone?”
            “Except for your sister Valerie.”
            “Oh, my gosh. Is she here?”
            “She arrived last night, breathing flame through her nostrils. You’ve heard about her broken engagement? Perhaps you have come here with the idea of comforting her in her distress?”
            “Well, not absolutely. In fact, between you and me, I’m not any too keen on meeting her at the moment. I rather took Horace’s side in the recent brawl, and our relations are distant.”
            Lord Ickenham nodded.
            “Yes, now that you mention it, I recollect her saying something about you being some offensive breed of insect. An emotional girl.”
            “But I can’t understand her making such heavy weather over the thing. Everybody knows a broken engagement doesn’t amount to anything. Your aunt, I remember, broke ours six times in all before making me the happiest man in the world.”

Uncle Fred is a force of nature. Perhaps one could say that he is what Psmith would be after age 60. He has that unflappable nature combined with Jeeves’ ingenuity. When the annoyingly serious Rupert Baxter (the Duke’s secretary) discovers Uncle Fred’s impersonation, he confronts Pongo and Fred.

            “The risk you run, when you impersonate another man, is that you are apt to come up against somebody to whom his appearance is familiar.”
            “Trite, but true. Do you like my moustache like that? Or like this?”
            Rupert Baxter’s impatient gesture seemed to say that he was Nemesis, not a judge in a male beauty contest.

Later, Rupert reflects on his employer’s nature.

            Rupert Baxter had no illusions about his employer. He did not suppose that the gruff exterior of the Duke of Dunstable hid a heart of gold, feeling – correctly – that if the Duke were handed a heart of gold on a plate with watercress around it, he would not know what it was.

One of the things that have always struck me about Wodehouse is that he portrays women, particularly aunts, but also sisters, spouses, and girlfriends, as rather domineering. The men, as a counterpart, are weak willed, and completely unable to stand up for themselves when confronted by one of these women. Thus, Bertie Wooster keeps finding himself engaged to women he fears and dislikes. Fearsome aunts run amok, and destroy the complacent happiness of the feckless young men that populate the Wodehouse universe.

The henpecked man/domineering woman stereotype is not unique to Wodehouse. Another author whose career significantly overlapped was James Thurber. The parallels in their respective characters are striking, although Thurber’s writing has a darker edge. I always found it interesting that both writers were reasonably happily married. Wodehouse married a widow who seemed to be his complete opposite in personality and interests. They were married for sixty years. Most likely, Wodehouse based his formidable females on his own aunts, who practically raised him. Thurber’s first marriage ended in divorce, but his second was by all accounts happy. If anything, his second wife was indispensible to him as he went blind, and they were devoted to each other. Whatever the inspiration, both wrote convincingly of the man hounded by the woman. 

 P. G. Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel

 Wodehouse even goes so far in this book as to have Uncle Fred, advise Polly Pott on how to reconcile with her beloved – but not too easily. He recommends she avoid his attempts at reconciliation for a while, lest he think she gave in too easily.

            Polly frowned. In a world scented with flowers and filled with soft music, these sentiments jarred upon her.
            “I don’t see why it’s got to be a sort of fight.”
            “Well, it has. Marriage is a battlefield, not a bed of roses. Who said that? It sounds too good to be my own. Not that I don’t think of some extraordinarily good things, generally in my bath.”
            “I love Ricky.”
            “And very nice too. But the only way of ensuring a happy married life is to get it thoroughly clear at the outset who is going to skipper the team. My own dear wife settled the point during the honeymoon, and ours has been an ideal union.”

Whether or not Uncle Fred actually believes this is a point for speculation, but it certainly reflects the views of many of Wodehouse’s female characters.

One of my goals in life is to introduce my friends and acquaintances to unjustly neglected authors. In an age when humor has become dependent on shock value and vulgarity, and often meanness, Wodehouse stands out as a great example of the power of good natured parody and absurdity to bring a smile, a chuckle, and even a laugh.


  1. I was waiting to read your review until I wrote up my post - once I realized we both read a Blandings Castle book. (I read Summer Lightning. The plot lines are remarkably similar!)

    My post goes up tomorrow - but I see we both like Wodehouse because the humor is not as potty oriented and is more refined. (Can you call Wodehouse refined?) Enjoyed your post!

  2. Thanks for suggesting Wodehouse for this month! I've only read one of his books before, one with Jeeves, and this time one with Psmith. Quite enjoyable!

  3. I read The Hunger Games for another book club in March. It left me with a bad taste in my literary mouth. And so I really appreciate what you said here; "One of my goals in life is to introduce my friends and acquaintances to unjustly neglected authors. In an age when humor has become dependent on shock value and vulgarity, and often meanness, Wodehouse stands out as a great example of the power of good natured parody and absurdity to bring a smile, a chuckle, and even a laugh."
    Yes, yes indeed! Thank you for the reminder to laugh!

  4. I loved this line--“She arrived last night, breathing flame through her nostrils...."--so Wodehouse. Thanks for picking Wodehouse I always enjoy reading him.