Sunday, January 8, 2017

Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: Audiobook I own jointly with my brother.

My goal has been to either listen to or read one (or more) Wodehouse books each year. Given his prolific output, I would have to live a very long time indeed to finish everything he wrote, but it’s worth the attempt. In 2015, I read one, and listened to two more. Then I missed fitting any in to 2016, which is odd, but there you have it. I started 2017 off right with this book, which we listened to on January 2nd.

While by no means a complete list of Wodehouse books I have read, here is the list of the ones I have discussed on this blog:

Wodehouse (WOOD-house) books generally fall into four categories: 1. The Jeeves and Wooster stories 2. The Psmith stories 3. The Blandings/Lord Emsworth stories and 4. Everything else. Although I have read all of the Psmith books, I did so before I started blogging. Those will probably have to wait until I locate an audiobook version so the kids and I can listen on trips. The others are all represented in the above list. 

Summer Lightning is a Lord Emsworth story. It was published under the title of Fish Preferred here in the United States, which makes no sense whatsoever as a title.

Clarence, 9th Earl of Emsworth, is a good natured old chap, a wee bit slow when it comes to conversation. He is utterly dominated by his sister, Lady least until he is pushed beyond his limits and he is forced to stand up to her. His hobby - and indeed his very life - is his prize winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. Also populating the Blandings universe is Rupert Baxter, formerly the Earl’s secretary, but now banished in disgrace - to the great consternation of Lady Constance; and Beech, the imposing butler; and Lord Emsworth’s neighbor and archrival, Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe, whose own pig is the only real rival to the Empress.  

In this particular book, intrigue and love have descended upon Blandings Castle, and, naturally, hilarity ensues.

Lord Emsworth’s disrespectable younger brother Galahad has returned, and is writing his memoirs. Gally had a wild and crazy youth, which is bad enough. But worse, he was a companion to many respectable aristocrats during their wild and crazy youths, and he knows hundreds of embarrassing and juicy secrets. And boy, does he intend to reveal them!

Not happy about this is Sir Gregory, who spent his 20s in dissipation and hijinks. Worst of all would be disclosure of the “prawn incident,” which the book never divulges, but mention of which causes great consternation. Also unhappy about the memoirs is Lady Constance, who, being an aunt and all, is a killjoy.

Love, on the other hand, comes via the younger residents of and visitors to Blandings. Wodehouse would never settle for something as boring as a love triangle. He insists on at least quadrilaterals, or, in this case, a love pentagon.

Lord Emsworth’s niece Millicent has fallen in love with Hugo Carmody, a penniless young man who has taken over for the banished Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Hugo returns the affection, but he knows he must somehow win the heart of Lord Emsworth if he wishes to marry above his station. Meanwhile, Lord Emsworth’s nephew, the rather ditzy Ronnie Fish, is madly in love with Sue Brown, a chorus girl, who often danced with Hugo. Ronnie, to win his uncle’s affection, conspires to steal the Empress, then “find” her and be a hero.

Once the Empress goes missing, things start to get crazy. Lord Emsworth dispatches Hugo to London to hire Percy Frobisher Pilbeam, a private detective who is infatuated with Sue, to recover the Empress. Meanwhile, Sir Gregory hires Pilbeam to steal Gally’s manuscript, which is also being sought by Baxter at the behest of Lady Constance. And then circumstances conspire to lead to a misunderstanding between each set of lovers, and, well, I’ll stop there. The result is typical Wodehouse. Wit and humor abound, and nobody is exempt from being the butt of a joke or two.

I should say a word about the audiobook. From what I can tell, there are two camps of Wodehouse audiobook aficionados: those who insist that Jonathan Cecil is the only true interpreter of Wodehouse, and those who say the same about Martin Jarvis. Find a review thread on Amazon, and expect the discussion to get overheated really fast.

We had previously experienced Cecil, but not Jarvis, who narrated this book. I have to say, if you are going to listen to a Jeeves book, go with Cecil. Because nobody (except, of course, Stephen Fry) can bring Jeeves to life like Cecil. His work is simply outstanding. And really, all of the Wodehouse books he has narrated are top notch. Those who favor him are not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. I would even say that everyone should listen to Jonathan Cecil read Wodehouse at least once in their lifetime.

But, now that I have heard Jarvis, I will give credit where it is due. Jarvis is a legitimate competitor to Cecil, and has earned his place in the pantheon. While Jarvis doesn’t quite raise Beech to the Jeeves level, Jarvis is simply amazing at the other voices. This book has a wide variety of characters, and there is never a doubt about who is speaking - he makes each voice individual. I was particularly impressed that Millicent and Sue sound very different, despite both being earnest young ladies. Jarvis nails the inflections that each class would use. Galahad is also well done, with a distinctive voice that doesn’t really duplicate any other Wodehouse character.

But the very best is the way Jarvis handles Lord Emsworth. The stutter, the fear around Constance, the affection for the pig. It’s all there, and so very well done.

So, I guess I can’t pick. Probably Cecil for Jeeves, but Jarvis for Blandings. Jarvis would probably nail Psmith too, so I may have to seek out one of those.

Summer Lightning is a delightful and typical Wodehouse comedy, a light and pleasant read.


  1. My Dad has been pestering me to read Wodehouse ever since I was a kid. I might give a couple a go.

  2. I just started reading Wodehouse recently after my dad mentioned that he had been a favorite author of my great-uncle. This great-uncle was a real character and a bit of a legend in the family, so I decided to look into it. I'm so glad I did! :-) I'm reading "Psmith, Journalist" and just finished "My Man Jeeves" a few days ago.