A weekend at Walsingford

If the stress, heat and noise of modern urban life are getting you down, how about a little Summer Moonshine? Relax with P.G. Wodehouse in the bucolic calm of Walsingford Hall in the county of Berkshire, where the sun is shining, the inhabitants are puttering about playing tennis, reminiscing about the old days in Poona, and bathing. Uh, except young Tubby Vanringham, just icily informed by his ex-fiancee that the houseboat has been rented and its tenant “will not want to look out of his window and see strangers – fat strangers – hurling themselves past it.” Alas, all is not well in Walsingford Hall. Indeed, though his wife floats serenely above it all, proprietor Sir Buckstone Abbot is so strapped for cash the wolf is “practically glued to the door.” His daughter Jane, a pillar of strength in dealing with the unavoidable paying guests, is secretly engaged to a penniless cad named Adrian Peake. Tubby and his fiancee are estranged. And the dreadnought Princess von and zu Dzornitzchek, only prospective buyer of Walsingford Hall, will not be amused to find that the stepson she evicted from her life some years back has gotten his revenge by writing a play about her and is now at the hall seeking to detach Jane’s affections from the vile Peake and transfer them to himself.

P.G. Wodehouse may have left behind his most memorable creations, Bertie Wooster and the incomparable Jeeves, in crafting this tale, but his powers of intricate plot and sparkling dialogue are in full bloom. Even Lady Abbott becomes ruffled by the appearance of her long-lost brother Sam, unleashing plot complications that include no fewer than three main characters having their clothes stolen simultaneously in an attempt to stop a fatal set of legal papers being served on the hapless Tubby. Mind you, Wodehouse assures us, her assertion that “you could have knocked me down with a feather” was quite untrue as “The feather had not been grown by bird that could have disturbed her balance for an instant.”

If Wodehouse does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as wits like Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward it is only because he surpasses them all in description and, above all, dialogue. When Sir Buckstone’s secretary recoils on hearing the family name of Tubby’s brother Joe, the latter observes “You seem startled and revolted.” Later, urging his host at all costs to keep Peake far away (“Is he the sort of chap who would be in league with chaps?” Buck asks. “Exactly the sort.”) Joe asks “‘Have you any dogs at Walsingford Hall?’ ‘Eh? Oh, yes, a couple of dogs.’ ‘If Peake tries to get into the house, set them on him.’ ‘They’re only spaniels.’ ‘Spaniels are better than nothing,’ said Joe.” Finally, urging Sir Buckstone to summon the courage of his days hunting big game: “‘Many a time, no doubt, as you made your way through the African jungle – ’ ‘There aren’t any jungles in Africa.’ ‘There aren’t?’ ‘No.’ ‘Negligence somewhere,’ said Joe.”

On the surface such a romantic comedy has much in common with The Importance of Being Earnest. In the final reconciliation scene (it gives nothing away to say a Wodehouse tale ends happily) Tubby assures his fiancee that on top of everything else “‘I’ll never say “Yup” again.’ He had said the one thing needed to complete her happiness, removed the one obstacle that stood between them.” But such a promise is quite alien to Oscar Wilde. Wodehouse’s lovebirds’ misunderstanding had concerned a willingness to trust, and their reconciliation a willingness to change, particularly his losing habits she found painfully vulgar. It touches profoundly on matrimonial happiness, quite unlike the question of one’s Christian name.

The wit sparkles and the plot dances and Wodehouse himself claimed his stories involved “ignoring real life altogether”. But it’s not true. They give sublime pleasure by assuring us decent, resourceful people who conduct themselves with grace and wit will overcome life’s myriad difficulties and end up happy.

If you fancy such a vision, you can still book a room at Walsingford Hall. For as it turns out, the vulgar, penniless process-server was actually… well, you’ll see. And there’s no better way to spend a summer weekend.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson