Friday, September 17, 2010
Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010, all rights reserved
The only cure for the psychosis being caused by the looming mid-term election is a good laugh, and who better to supply this medicine than P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories. Blandings Castle is a loosely connected collection of short stories which reveals the last gasps of the British Empire, the generation that gave us Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the second (whose progeny can be rather embarrassing at times). Mr. Wodehouse was a master of the short story form and possessed that understated and articulate humor only shared by classically educated Brits (of which he was not one due to economic hardship in the family business). He was, however, a keen observer of humanity with an excellent ear for dialog and, living as an expatriate for much of his life, developed a unique perspective on his mother country. Mr. Wodehouse particularly enjoyed the way generations of in-breeding in the upper echelons of society had eliminated any trace of higher intelligence in favor of the stiff upper lip and locked jaws characteristic of those with elite pedigrees. A true “blue blood” only has to utter a single word to let us know where he ranks on the social hierarchy.
Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a lovingly rendered specimen, finds himself surrounded by annoyances the worst of which is his own son. Freddie Threepwood, the future Earl, has the intelligence of stick of gum, the self-control of a three-year-old, and the personality of a Jack Russell terrier. He was, wrote Mr. Wodehouse, “was one of those younger sons who rather invite the jaundiced eye.” The only skills Freddie possessed were racking up gambling debts in London and begging his father for money. Just the same he was harmless and innocent: an overgrown child who just wanted everyone including himself to be happy, even if it meant causing some very awkward situations. To the beleaguered 9th Earl of Emsworth, the only thing worse than having Freddie in London gambling away the family fortunes was having him at home, underfoot and creating havok.
When Lord Emsworth isn’t trying to avoid his son, he is troubled by his gardener, Angus McAllister, who wants to pave over the Earl’s favorite little patch of moss. Angus wields the real power on the estate and Lord Emsworth has no idea how to assert himself in order to save that moss. When Angus takes in a boarder, an unsuitable young girl to whom Freddie has taken a fancy, Lord Emsworth - in a rare moment of manhood - demands that the girl be sent away. Angus sends himself away instead, leaving Lord Emsworth to nurse Blandings’ best chance in years to bring a champion pumpkin to the local fair. When the pumpkin became depressed, yes depressed, Lord Emsworth realizes he has made a terrible mistake, and hat in hand, sets out to make it up to Angus.
These stories are pure entertainment and the characters are so human in their frailties that we can’t help loving them as they scheme against each other, and try to further their own agendas in the most inept and foolish ways. P. G. Wodehouse was not considered a great literary talent, his gift was in plot construction in that each of his best stories is perfectly set up, developed, and resolved in a way that satisfies a reader looking for a brief diversion from life. What makes Mr. Wodehouse’s stories so worthwhile is the humor woven into each situation. There are passages that are so funny you will laugh out loud and beg for mercy. (Hint: this is a book best enjoyed alone.)
If the sorry state of our political system – what with the dysfunctional Legislative Branch of government and the Tea Parties, Koran Burners, Birthers, Militant Vegans, Eco-Terrorists, and Pot Parties – is getting you down, just keep in mind that someone out there is watching and taking lots of notes. I predict that one day we will all laugh about these crazy days and wonder how we survived. In the interim Blandings Castle is a great diversion. Read it and take comfort in the fact that in the future there will be another crop of would-be politicians even less capable of running the nation than those we get to choose from today!