The aim of our collection at Sheffield Hallam University is to preserve, read and research popular novels that are in danger of being lost and forgotten. You certainly can’t say that Wodehouse is forgotten! So perhaps I ought not to have accept a donation of Wodehouse novels – but they were all lovely early Herbert Jenkins editions, some with original dust jackets. How could I resist?
Well, I didn’t resist, and instead very gratefully accepted them for the collection.
I read my first non-Jeeves and Wooster Wodehouse: Ukridge (1924). I read the entire book pronouncing the name Uk-ridge, but on looking it up I found it is really Ewk-ridge. The rest of his name is just as bad: Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge – one of those English names whose pronunciation bears only a slight, whimsical relation to its spelling. Clearly designed to fox foreigners and the not-posh.
Ukridge is the subject of the ten linked short stories in this collection. He is a man full of ideas to make money, each more outlandish and unlikely than the next. In the first story he decides the road to wealth is to start a dog college:
“I’m going to train dogs.”
“For the music-hall stage. Dog acts, you know. Performing dogs. Pots of money in it. I start in a modest way with these six. When I’ve taught ’em a few tricks, I sell them to a fellow in the profession for a large sum and buy twelve more. I train those, sell ’em for a large sum, and with the money buy twenty-four more. I train those – ”
“Here, wait a minute.” My head was beginning to swim. I had a vision of England paved with Pekingese dogs, all doing tricks. “How do you know you’ll be able to sell them?”
“Of course I shall. The demand’s enormous. Supply can’t cope with it. At a conservative estimate I should think I ought to scoop in four or five thousand pounds the first year. That, of course, is before the business really starts to expand.”
The stories are told by his long-suffering old school-friend Jimmy Corcoran, a journalist. He knows how hopeless these money-making schemes are:
‘not for the first time in a friendship of years the reflection came to me that Ukridge ought to be in some sort of a home. A capital fellow in many respects, but not a man lightly to be allowed at large.’ (132)
Yet Jimmy always helps him out, lends him money he can ill-afford and buys him dinner. The code of old school-friend is that you do not let one another down.
The dog college is an alternative to trying to suck up to his formidable Aunt Julia, a popular novelist. Aunt Julia is a splendid character. She only has to call ‘Stanley!’ and ‘He seemed to shrink into his mackintosh like a snail surprised while eating lettuce.’ So, many things in common with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but the characters and plots are distinctive enough for the stories to stand in their own right.
We had a great time at the reading group sharing our enjoyment of Wodehouse, though I was pleased that we had one voice of dissent. One reader found that she simply didn’t care about the silly japes of the upper-class cast of her novel. I’m rather surprised that this doesn’t happen more often. At the beginning of reading about Ukridge a part of me was muttering ‘just get a job, man! The rest of the world has to!’ but the sheer skill of the plotting and wit kept this cantankerous voice quiet.
Wodehouse seems particularly popular at the moment. The Interesting Literature blog just had a piece on the words that Wodehouse coined. I went to see Anything Goes (book by Wodehouse amongst others) at the theatre before Christmas – it was wonderful – and I’m going to see Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense in February. Robert Webb as Bertie Wooster. I can’t wait!