I write today in celebration of P.G. Wodehouse’s sublimely mirthful Blandings stories, one of literary history’s greatest achievements in comic art. I want to submit that the genius of Blandings Castle is its resemblance to the Garden of Eden, the terrestrial paradise. In submitting as much I make no pretense of originality. It was Evelyn Waugh, in a tribute to Wodehouse delivered on BBC radio on July 15, 1961, who said:
For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no “aboriginal calamity.” His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled. The chef Anatole prepares the ambrosia for the immortals of high Olympus. Mr. Wodehouse’s world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.
So mine is not an original thesis—and is no worse for that. Originality is a loathsomely modern aspiration. Wodehouse himself, upon finding out that the title of perhaps his greatest Blandings novel, Summer Lightning, had already been taken by an American novelist, went on and called his novel Summer Lightning anyway, stating in his preface that he hoped his novel would one day be named among the 100 best books called Summer Lightning.
But back to the point: it is precisely because of this resemblance of Blandings Castle to Eden that every reader of the Blandings stories can say, with the actor Stephen Fry (who played Jeeves in the BBC TV’s hugely enjoyable Jeeves & Wooster series), “that the sublime nature of that world is such as to make you gasp.” In Blandings we recognize, as Dante’s Mathilda might put it, that such a garden is an image of “our natural nest.”
Do not be alarmed. I am not foolhardily trying to claim that the Blandings stories are superior to the Jeeves stories or the Mulliner stories or any other series in Wodehouse’s magnificent oeuvre. Such a debate, to quote Stephen Fry again, would be “as pointless as wondering whether God did a better job with the Alps or the Rockies.” I simply want to extract the pith of the Blandings tales, to note the essential brilliance of the eleven Blandings novels and various Blandings short stories, which include the incandescent “Pig-Hooey.”
The analogy of Blandings to Eden relies upon Blandings being what we might call, following the critic Northrop Frye, a “green world.” Scholars have noted that in his work Wodehouse, like Shakespeare, incorporates elements characteristic of the “New Comedy” of Menander, Plautus and Terence, namely, young men in love, older men endeavoring to keep young men from their loves, and clever servants. But the Blandings stories also incorporate another comic tradition, one which Frye locates in medieval folk ritual, but which no doubt also antedates Christianity. Indeed, it is probably as old as human storytelling itself. This comic tradition is part of the dream of man’s innocency, when life was “forever spring.” It is the comedy of the “green world,” the triumph of life over waste land, spring over winter, of the terrestrial paradise rediscovered. We find the comedy of the green world in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And we find it, too, in the demesne and messuages of Blandings Castle.
The pastoral, green world character of the Blandings stories is underscored by some of the story titles: Something Fresh, Summer Lightning, Heavy Weather, as well as in the abundance of nature imagery Wodehouse employs, and in Wodehouse’s use of effects such as the pathetic fallacy.
The green world character of the Blandings stories is also realized in their concentration on the affairs of a great family. The comic tradition of the green world populates its gardens with the best and most beautiful, with handsome princes and beautiful princesses, which are clearly images of our prelapsarian moral and bodily perfection. Wodehouse plays upon this aspect of the tradition in the social prominence of Lord Emsworth and his family, and in his reference, in the preface to Something Fresh, to the Blandings series as a “saga.”
Not that Lord Emsworth, Galahad Threepwood, Lady Constance Keeble, and the Efficient Baxter are paragons of heroic virtue. Gally, for instance, is deemed a beau sabruer (a “handsome swordsman”), but as a knight he comes to the aid of his various damsels in distress using all kinds of below-the-bar subterfuge. Wodehouse’s comedy follows Aristotle’s advice in imitating characters who are worse than average. There are pig-thieves, imposters, and throwers of flower pots at second-story windows. Nonetheless, the green world element shines through when, by a comic grace, the morally less-than-average are raised, in the dénoument, to a blessed condition.
Speaking of imposters. “Blandings Castle,” Wodehouse once observed, “has imposters like other houses have mice.” Imposture is a recurring feature of Blandings plots. But this is in keeping with the character of the green world. In Summer Lightning no less than in As You Like It, the green world is a world of topsy-turvydom, a place where one sets aside one’s customary, and usually constricted, social role in order to enjoy the freedom of being someone else. In this of “play” of identities space is made for comic resolution.
No discussion, however brief, of the Blandings stories can end without mention of Lord Emsworth’s love for his beloved pig, the Empress of Blandings, whom every year he enters in the Shropshire Agricultural Show in the hopes of winning the blue ribbon in the Fat Pigs class. At the heart of Blandings Castle is the love of a pig, a celebration of how even the meanest creatures can afford us endless hours of wonder and delight. In this comic fashion Wodehouse shows us that the world of Blandings, like Eden, is essentially a world ordered to contemplation.
But don’t take my word for it. Treat yourself in these last weeks of summer to a hammock in the shade, a glass of something to restore the tissues, and one or three of P.G. Wodehouse’s glorious Blandings stories.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.