* Prices may differ from that shown
P.G. WODEHOUSE - TO THE END
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) published his first book, 'The Pothunters' in 1902. Another ninety volumes or so had followed, at the rate at least one a year, by the time 'Aunts Aren't Gentlemen' appeared in October 1974, the week he celebrated his 93rd birthday. Three months later he was awarded a knighthood. One month after that he went into hospital, taking the manuscript of his recently-started next novel, and a few days later he died of a heart attack. That final story was later completed and published, but the book I am reviewing was thus the last that he finished himself, and the last to appear in his lifetime. Appropriately, it is based around the two most famous characters that he ever created.
The narrative opens with Bertram Wilberforce Wooster in his bath, singing the Toreador song from 'Carmen'. His performance is interrupted when he discovers that he has pink spots on his chest. Although he does not regard himself as a fussy man, he does not like being on a pard (Jeeves's word) with one of those dogs beginning with a d. (Pink dachshunds?) The ever-resourceful Jeeves - who needs the internet and google when you have such a man, what ho? - recommends that he pay a visit to E. Jimpson Murgatroyd of Harley Street.
While driving his way there he finds himself accosted by an old acquaintance from his Oxford days, Orlo Porter, who has become an active leftie and needs a lift urgently as he is fleeing from a policeman with whom he had an altercation on a protest march. In the 1930s Wodehouse was satirising the blackshirts, the British Nazis, and forty years later he is taking a potshot at the later generation of activists, although it must be said rather less convincingly. He was bound to have had his finger less on the pulse in his nineties than in his fifties. By the way, Orlo may be a fire-eating leftie who is more likely to sing The Red Flag than the National Anthem, but that does not stop him from being a faithful employee of the London and Home Counties Insurance Company. (Still, one member of politicised new wavers The Jam, who famously sang about 'Eton Rifles', sent his son to Eton. Admittedly it was Bruce Foxton, not Paul Weller).
But I digress, and back to the story. Orlo is heavily involved with Vanessa Cook, one of the several delightful (well, delightful on the surface, anyway) young spinsters to whom Bertie has been briefly engaged before the jolly old wedding bells have been called off. Meanwhile the temporarily spotted Bertie is advised to take things easy for a while in the quiet little Somerset village of Maiden Eggesford, a place with honeysuckle-covered cottages and apple-cheeked villagers wherever you look. At least, it appears that way until it tears off its whiskers and reveals itself as an inferno. Enter the irascible Mr Cook Sr, the intrepid African explorer Major Plank, plus various racehorses and betting folk, and the usual gallery of hellhounds.
Vanessa reappears in the story, and Bertie is accused by an enraged fiancée and by her father of stalking her. Nevertheless she tells the ever-chivalrous but horrified Bertie that she is prepared to be his wife - and, horror of horrors, she will improve him. He must read more highbrow novels than the kind of escapist trash with which he usually idles the time away with, she tells him sternly. There will be no more cocktails for him, and no more smoking, as Tolstoy says that equal pleasure can be gained merely by twirling one's fingers. (An amusing concept I suppose, but not exactly vintage Wodehouse humour). And of course the lovable but often exacting Aunt Dahlia is part of the cast, as is a black cat which Bertie is expected to kidnap on the quiet - or should it be catnap? Aunt Dahlia is a charming woman, but she is used to getting her way as far as her nephew is concerned. He does not dare get on the wrong side of her as she tends to switch from the iron hand in the velvet glove, or is it the other way round, but she lets him know that if he does not allow himself to be bent to her will, she will put sanctions on him and bar him from further invitations and therefore the delectable cooking of her chef Anatole. She is the living proof that aunts aren't gentlemen.
If you know your Wodehouse - and there is a part inside all of us which ought to know at least one of the prolific Plum's books - you'll know that what follows is a sequence of misunderstandings, musical comedy without the music, potentially tricky situations, with Jeeves coming to the rescue at the end. There are also the inevitable magnificent Wodehousian turns of phrase, particularly one relating to the woman who 'uttered a sound rather like an elephant taking its foot out of a mud hole in a Burmese teak forest'.
Wodehouse's powers were undoubtedly on the wane by this time. How many of us will be mentally as capable in our nineties as we are in our thirties or forties? By comparison with his classic books of the 1920s and 1930s, this may be little more than a late retread, but it is an entertaining retread for all that. I was partly brought up on classic Plum, and while this is no groundbreaking work of humour, it should raise a few chuckles. As Miranda Hart might say, such a hoot. Borrow, rather than buy, though.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]