Like a lot of people, I love the stories about Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves written by P. G. Wodehouse. In the period of my life when I read a lot of those political magazines, like National Review, New Republic, Weekly Standard, etc., there seemed to be an article every few months in which some political commentator would wax enthusiastic about Wodehouse. Once while standing on a New York City bus reading a collection of Jeeves novels a total stranger accosted me in order to brag that he was friends with Christopher Hitchens and alert me to the fact that Hitchens had proclaimed Code of the Woosters the best Jeeves novel. Classic science fiction fans will likely be aware that Jack Vance admired Wodehouse, and may have detected Wodehousian elements in Vance’s work.
Of course, over his long and prolific career Wodehouse wrote many stories that have little or nothing to do with Bertie Wooster or Jeeves. Even though I had been reading the Jeeves stories since my late teens in the 1980s I had never sampled any of Wodehouse’s non-Jeeves work until this week.
Stanley Featherstone Ukridge is an upper middle class goofball who attended fine schools until he was expelled and took up a life of travelling on the cheap, sponging off friends and relatives, and pursuing doomed get- rich-quick schemes and minor confidence scams. His friend, the narrator of the tales, is somewhat more responsible than Ukridge; while he also periodically faces financial difficulties, say, after a bad day at the track, he did manage to graduate from Cambridge and is in a position to help Ukridge when his chum is in dire need of clothes or a little money to tide him over.
The style of the stories includes many of the elements we all love from the Jeeves stories. Ukbridge often employs wacky slang, calling his friends “old horse,” for example, and crying out, “Upon my Sam!” in dismay or shock every page or so. The narrator slings the Biblical quotes and classical allusions with gusto, amusingly applying them to sordid or mundane situations and giving us a view into a collective culture based not on the adventures of the Simpsons, Seinfeld and Skywalker, but those of Cicero, Moses and Apollo. Neither Ukridge nor the narrator seem to have living parents, but Ukridge has a sinister Aunt Julia whom he periodically takes advantage of or must strive to appease.
"Ukridge’s Dog College": The first Ukridge story, in which we are introduced to Ukridge. In this one Ukridge tries to settle down and keep house with rich Aunt Julia. They do not get along, so Ukridge leaves, taking with him his aunt’s six dogs, his mind full of the idea of training the dogs to do tricks and then selling them to the theatrical industry. This plan falls through when the aunt catches up with him, but not before Ukridge has used the dogs in a con that bamboozles his landlord out of more than 26 pounds.
I’m no economist, but I think stealing 26 British pounds in 1924 would be like stealing over a thousand US dollars today, maybe close to $2000. As the narrator says, “There had always been something about Ukridge that dulled the moral sense” (page 262).
An entertaining story.
"Ukridge’s Accident Syndicate": This tale revolves around a bizarre advertising practice I had never heard of before: British periodicals providing accident insurance to subscribers. When a friend of Ukridge informs him that he received five pounds from The Weekly Cyclist after falling off his bike and spraining his ankle, Ukridge comes up with a plan. He convinces his friends to pool their limited funds, choose one of their number by lot, then buy many newspaper and magazine subscriptions in his name; when the lucky member of the syndicate meets an “accident” they will split the money. Of course, the young man person who draws the short straw turns out to be quite reluctant to get into a painful accident, much to the dismay of Ukridge and the narrator, who take steps to resolve this problem.
This one made me laugh quite a bit; my favorite of the five.
"A Bit of Luck for Mabel": The narrator of this story is given a name, “Corky,” and narrates only a brief frame; almost the entire story is a first person narrative from Ukridge himself. The plot of this one is good; Ukridge is in love, but must compete for the young lady’s attentions with a wealthy hero, a baronet with a commission in the Coldstream Guards. Having little money, Ukridge resorts to various thieveries and subterfuges to finance his courtship, to the detriment of all the people in the story who try to help him or treat him kindly.
I enjoyed this story, and the joke in the last line is quite clever, but the style is different from the two 1924 stories, the wacky slang and learned allusions not being much in evidence, which was a little disappointing.
"Buttercup Day": London is full of pretty girls who accost pedestrians and ask for money for charities; those who donate are given a little paper “flag” to wear in their buttonholes to show how generous they are. Ukridge hits upon the idea of hiring a pretty girl to sell flags that are for the benefit of his favorite charity – himself. With the money he makes he hopes to open up a “cat ranch” in America where he will breed cats and sell their skins for 30 cents a skin. (To feed the cats he plans to first start a rat ranch next door. The rats, of course, will be fed what is left of the skinned cats.) Aunt Julia makes an appearance in this story and suffers a terrible loss to professional conmen who put Ukridge’s amateur con to shame.
A good story.
"Ukridge and the Old Stepper": As with the Mabel story, this one is a tale of doomed love told by Ukridge himself with only slight participation from Corky. This is probably the weakest of the five stories, with the least interesting plot and the fewest laughs, though it does provide a little piece of insight into relations among the far flung members of the British Empire. Ukridge relates how a mysterious step-uncle from Australia tries to help him win the heart of a young woman named Myrtle by providing gifts for the girl and by furnishing Ukridge’s current domicile. During a birthday party for Myrtle the owners of these items, which the step-uncle has stolen, appear, ruining Ukridge’s romance; Myrtle and her family have never seen the step-uncle, and think Ukridge himself is the thief. When the step-uncle does appear, after the party has broken up, he expresses surprise at the fuss people “in the old country” make over “a little scrounging,” which he avers is normal practice in Australia. “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine – that’s our motto out there” (page 330).
These five stories were all entertaining; I’m certainly happy to have sampled some non-Jeeves Wodehouse. There are over a dozen more Ukridge stories, and I look forward to reading them in the future.