Because it's fiction written by a man with a deep understanding of Roman ways, culture, myth and history. Whether the essentially sympathetic portrait of Claudius which Graves paints is historically accurate or not, the up and coming emperor is certainly a boon companion and reliable guide through the banquets and backstreets of Early Imperial Rome.
My one regret is that as a teenager I absorbed the BBC TV series starring Derek Jacoby as Claudius, so knew ahead of time some of the more frightful or surprising plot twists. More, the series sometimes went into more graphic detail than the book ever does, Claudius being a basically decent who man spends as little time as possible delving into the seamier side of his story. Still, as a piece of writing the book stands on it's own and is very enjoyable, though toward the end the taut narrative thread seems to go somewhat slack and we are treated to a mere catalog--a long, almost endless catalog--of Caligula's misdeeds and misrule. It is a relief when finally...but you'll want to find out on your own.
Meanwhile Claudius, while sympathetic, is still a Roman who lived 2,000 years ago. So while more humane than most of the figures who surround him, he finds nothing amiss in slavery, animal fights or the conquest distant tribes. In our politically correct era this is infinitely refreshing. While acutely critical of what he sees around him, Claudius still believes in the essential soundness and superiority of the ideals of Rome--a cultural confidence we don't seem able to muster these days.
As always, Frederick Davidson is simply superb. For the recording it almost sounds like he replicates Jacoby's voice characterization of Claudius. His ability to get all the nuance or sarcasm or irony out of a sentence serves this book (and all the books he reads) very well.
We are all going to die. Just last week we were told so in no uncertain terms, even going so far as to be marked with the dust to which we will ultimately return. But most of us deal with the irrevocable fact of death in the same way the characters around Ivan Ilyich deal with it: worrying about promotions at work or whether there’s a sturgeon available for dinner or if we can get together a bridge foursome after dinner. That’s the way Ivan Ilyich dealt with the fact of death, too; at least until he realized he was dying.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a concentrated tonic. Running a little over two and a half hours, it is at once dreadful and uplifting, hopeless and hopeful. Yes, doing everything “right” is the surest way of getting it all wrong. But sincere acts of humane kindness can overcome years of sustained indifference. The thought Ivan Ilyich refuses to consider (“What if my life…has been not the right thing?”) becomes, when he accepts it as a working premise, the way to some relief from his doubts and sufferings. Though his wife only urges the Blessed Sacrament upon him because it is the “right” thing to do, it really is the right thing to do. As in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, another piece of apt Lenten listening, we leave our protagonist at the very beginning of the beginning of the right road. Binx Bolling has the rest of his life to find and follow it. Ivan Ilyich can look forward to the cleansing fires of Purgatory.
Simon Prebble, who is fast becoming one of my favorite readers, does a masterful job with a book that is profound in a way out of all proportion to its size.
It’s funny about great or wildly popular authors. Their reputations are so firmly established that, when you’re less than enchanted by their output, rather than suspect the writer is not up to his or her usual high standards you doubt your own ability to keep up with them.
It doesn’t happen that often, but in such circumstances I turn to the critics. The last time this happened was when Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot had me wondering what it was all about. To my relief, the critical consensus was that Mr. Dostoyevsky had “lost control of his material” in that outing.
Now Agatha Christie has me wondering.
In the case of Bertram’s, I get that the place is the epicenter of a crime ring. But why all the elaborate fancy dress? Why does the ring feel compelled to play-act the presence of prominent individuals—individuals who all stay at Bertram’s—at the scenes of the crimes they commit? Wouldn’t that necessarily bring suspicion on the hotel that is their GHQ?
And the ending; when I saw the TV version of this story I thought the outlandish finish was the by-product of overexcited imaginations at the BBC (but then I also thought the novel would make plain what all the fancy dress was about, too).
Turns out that, at the time the book came out (1961) the critics had the same problems:
"A.C. is seldom at her best when she goes thrillerish on you. This one is a bit wild and far-fetched, but it's got plenty of that phenomenal zest and makes a reasonably snug read." (Maurice Richardson, The Observer)
"At Bertram's Hotel is vintage Agatha Christie: an ingenious mystery that triumphantly gets away with what in lesser hands would be the most outrageous coincidences." (Robert Weaver, Toronto Daily Star)
"The plot is rather creaky…but the hotel atmosphere is very well conveyed and used… the sharp eye had not dimmed, even if the narrative grasp was becoming shaky." (Robert Barnard)
Not that I wasn’t enchanted with the story—it is, as stated above, a reasonably snug listen. And the performance by Stephanie Cole was so good that I’ll be on the lookout for her name next time I’m in the market for murder. Also, as noted above, Christie is a wonderful writer. Her descriptions and character studies are always worth a pause so they might be fully relished. But, ultimately, in spite of Christie’s undisputed powers and Cole’s flawless performance, this one fails to give the solid satisfaction one usually feels at the end of a well-wrought who-dunnit.
A completely satisfying, surprising, edifying and moving end to the long saga. If you like this kind of thing (and I do) then you will enjoy Lord of the Rings beyond all measure. There is nothing I can say to convince you otherwise if your tastes don’t lie in this direction.
I admit that I tackled it, at least in part, out of a desire to repair an omission. Back in high school The Hobbit and its sequels were all the rage; you couldn’t walk into the meanest bookstore without seeing a poster-size version of Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth. And while I read The Hobbit for a class I never embarked on the three following volumes. Laziness? Yes, in part. But also my aversion had something to do with the kind of people who were reading Lord of the Rings at that time: players of Dungeons and Dragons, geeks of the first water, fellows who would argue for hours about the respective powers of about Gandalf and Sauramon. Of course, these books deal with some very sophisticated themes (temptation and sin, redemption and renewal, the wellsprings of courage and perseverance, the choice of revenge or forgiveness) and it isn’t surprising that 16-year-olds would gravitate to the details rather than see the larger sweep of the story. For myself I’m glad I waited. What some dismiss as a quaint fairy story is in reality a profound meditation on all the themes mentioned above and more.
One practical piece of advice: make sure you have a good map. None that I found online covered every location mentioned in the story. But the one that worked best for me was drawn by Christopher Tolkien and is available at, among other places, the Tolkien Gateway (again, a little too D&D for me, but that's where the map is).
Tolkien has a disconcerting habit of mentioning places and events from the distant past that his characters are well aware of, while you are left guessing. (And, incidentally, no map I found showed every place he mentions.) A passing familiarity with Beowulf and the Norse Sagas made me realize these asides were echoes of those works, touches that made the story sound even more like old lore from a land that actually existed. For those interested, there is a long essay by Tolkien at the end of this recording that covers that lore and history; I skipped it, happy to soak in the towering power of the story without all the enthusiast's details on the different strains of pipe weed or who taught the Hobbits the art of building.
Finally, a note on Rob Inglis’ superb performance. He is a boon companion to have on such a long journey. His sonorous delivery, his unerring ability to reflect the mood of the words he reads, helped bring out the inner meaning of much of the tale.
Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge is among Wodehouse’s top-flight creations because we have all known people like him. They seem to go through life planning and scheming and failing and never really noticing. It’s an essential character trait in politics. But for you and me (the right sort of people, equipped with a conscience and an adequate supply of shame and guilt) it would make our everyday life into a waking nightmare. Knowing someone else who’s living the nightmare and seems to like it is almost as unnerving.
If, on the other hand, we’re lucky enough to watch someone like that from the safe distance of the printed page or, even better, have Jonathan Cecil read those pages to us—well, then everything is gas and gaiters. We might even start rooting for the blighter (it’s a lot easier when you’re not the one making him a long series of small loans). But most certainly we will laugh. Out loud. And often.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I misjudged this book on the first listen. I first met S. F. Ukridge in the short story collection entitled, appropriately enough, “Ukridge”. “Love” predates it by three years, and presents a slightly watered-down version of our long-suffering hero. Or at least I thought so.
My second listen showed me that Ukridge only seems diminished because in this story he has to share more of the stage with his best friend, our narrator. And, besides the vicissitudes of starting a chicken farm from scratch (no pun intended), we also follow our narrator as he woos the girl with whom he came down on the train. Finally, unlike the series of short stories in “Ukridge” that present us with a series of hare-brained schemes (managing a prize fighter, starting a dog college, bilking newspapers of prize money, etc.), “Love” centers on one gigantic hare-brained scheme. All this, I think, gives Ukridge less scope to display his particular brand of dogged perseverance, monumental confidence and breathtaking lack of scruple.
But that said, my first impression was all wrong. Taken on its own merits, “Love Among the Chickens” is a genuine laugh riot. Any author who can describe the moral disposition of a hen and make you laugh is worth a listen or two. Or even three.
As when we watch the running of the bulls at Pamplona or see someone going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, the delight here is in the spectacle of Ukridge doing the exact opposite of what any sane, rational person would do—and believing sincerely, with all his heart, that the scheme is copper-bottomed. Finding ourselves without a nickel, you or I would simply Google the want ads and find a job. But getting up every morning, working and saving a is just too staid a course for Ukridge’s gallant spirit. He always has to aim for the Napoleonic gesture, the Rockefelleresque big coup. And so his failures are Napoleonic, too. The only difference is, Napoleon knew when he was beaten. So the stories—and our delight—continue.
A note might be in order about Ukridge’s domestic arrangements. In “Love” he starts out married. Three years later “Ukridge” ends with him married. In stories that appear in later collections, he is a bachelor. Don’t try to figure it out. Enjoy it. It’s just another example of Wodehouse never letting what he’d written last week get in the way of his latest inspiration.
Again, as in The Hobbit, I am enchanted with the way Tolkien sets his characters and his listener on the road; it’s completely plausible, utterly believable, true to life. We want them to go. We know they have to go if we’re to have a story (and we want the story). But Tolkien sets it all in motion through a series of circumstances and discoveries that make it inevitable that they should go--and that we should have our story.
In spite of the fact that Bilbo, Sam and Frodo live in a world so much different than ours, their motives and emotions are utterly familiar to us. That’s probably why Tolkien succeeds so well: he creates a strange world full of Dark Riders and enchanted woods and haunted barrows, but his characters think and act as we would here in our world of minivans and weekends and laptops. True, we may not be as adventuresome or heroic. But if we were…
Since this is just the first third of the quest, it’s hard to say much more, other than that the story thus far is completely satisfying. The characters we encounter--at least, the members of the Fellowship--become our boon companions. As such, we are loathe to let them go. And the good news is, of course, we don't have to yet.
As with The Hobbit, Rob Inglis’ sonorous voice is the perfect vehicle. But to be honest, you’ll either buy or not buy according to your own lights. If you enjoy this sort of story, if you’re familiar with some of the Saxon/Icelandic/Medieval masterpieces that Tolkien was drawing from, then you will enjoy Fellowship thoroughly. More, if you’re a thoughtful Christian the story will have even more to say to you. Don’t take Tolkien at his word at the end when he says the story was written just to amuse us. (And remember Wilde’s disavowal of any moral purpose at the beginning of Dorian Grey.) Tolkien wrote to edify us, too. As a Poor Clare sister with whom I discussed the book put it, “He’s good. Even better than C. S. Lewis.”
For someone who hasn’t read The Hobbit since high school—nearly 40 autumns past—this was a journey of rediscovery. For years I’ve been reading things like Beowulf, The Mabinogion, Hrafnkel’s Saga and Audun’s Story, vaguely conscious that these were the Icelandic, Saxon and medieval wellsprings Tolkien drew upon to create his story. Now I realize this gifted medievalist really wrote the perfect vehicle to get younger readers hooked on those particular veins of Western literature. It worked for me and I’m hoping it works for our kids.
More, while every literary success in every age, from Chretien de Troyes to Bram Stoker, has bred imitators galore it is good to get back to the original tale that started all the fantasy/sci-fi conventions, the Dungeons and Dragons tournaments and the next season of Game of Thrones. The original retains its originality.
And, scholarly roots and modern imitators aside, the story is a delight. It was conceived as such and delivers in full measure. And it is made all the more delightful by Rob Inglis’ voice work. He brings the same sonorous, rolling ease to this tale that Patrick Tull lends to O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series.
And, now that I’ve (finally, after all these years) embarked on the first volume of Lord of the Rings, I can look back and say that The Hobbit, while a good story wonderfully told, is really no more than the necessary prelude to what looks to be a profoundly great saga. (Yeah, I know. Generations of Tolkien readers already knew that. But I didn’t and I added it on the off chance that you didn’t either.)
I’m also beginning to feel reconciled to the fact that Tolkien never finished most of his translations of Middle English epics and Icelandic sagas. The time was better spent with Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf.
Yes, it’s an obvious way to headline a review of Sherlock Holmes stories, but it fits.
As when I completed Dumas’ entire D’Artagnan cycle, I feel I have gained a familiarity with another cultural monument, another work more honored in the breach as it were, as most people only know it in terms of shorthand or stereotype. The Three Musketeers, Holmes and Watson, Dracula, they’re all characters we know more through spoof, parody or “serious” but necessarily skewed TV and film iterations. I know because I’m not immune from this cultural disorder either.
Back in the early 80’s I sat through through the TV series Sho-Gun and for several days after was under the curious impression that I could speak Japanese. Just so, many people sincerely believe they know Holmes and Watson because they’ve seen Disney’s Great Mouse Detective. I was wrong, of course, and so are they. That’s what makes the on-the-page Holmes and Watson so fresh, surprising and utterly satisfying.
Looking back over the entire cycle of novels and stories, Holmes is far more rude and sharp with Watson than I’ve ever seen him on the screen. Watson is far more long-suffering, patient and forbearing. His devotion is truly affecting, especially through the episodes of Holmes’ opium addiction. For someone raised on the film and TV avatars, other details are illuminating. I knew Holmes never stooped to swank about in a deerstalker, but I never suspected that Inspector LaStrade is far less of a presence in the books. Nor that Holmes disapproves of Watson’s literary career. Nor that Watson tells only a fraction of the tales he could tell.
Those tales are worth listening to even when the solution turns on a device—double identities, for instance—with which Conan Doyle’s legion of literary children have long since made us familiar. They’re worth listening to because they’re simply a delight to listen to. The prose is clear and well crafted; the plots expertly constructed, the characters distinct—helped, no doubt, by Charlton Griffin’s excellent narration. In this last set you also get a glimpse of Conan Doyle’s good sense when, as he lays his last collection of adventures before the public, he expresses a fear lest Holmes appear like “one of those popular tenors” who, though they have “outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences” It’s a kind of sensitivity few artists, especially musical ones, seem to possess these days.
He needn’t have worried, of course. It’s all, as the younger set say, good. We get one story told in Holmes’ own voice. We get the kind of details that will help if we ever make the cut for Jeopardy (Watson worked with Holmes for 17 of the detective’s 23 year career). There’s the question of whatever became of Watson’s wife, who he married at the end of A Study in Scarlet, way back at the very beginning. As P. G. Wodehouse observed, a writer has to be careful how he starts out in the “saga racket”; dates and details like marriages can pose awkward questions later on. Mrs. Watson lingers in the background for a while, is sometimes conveniently out of town, then is out of the picture altogether. One might have some fun with that: The Adventure of the Disappearing Wife, in which Watson murders her simply because she’s getting in the way of his quests for other murderers. But, on second thought, better not.
Out of all the pleasures of this third recording, I want to draw particular attention to a short piece called “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”. The pleasure is not so much in the mystery as in the story; we see Holmes acting outside his usual orbit of bloodless, rational deduction and displaying something not unlike human sympathy—a weakness he often chides Watson for possessing in too full a measure. For all his ill temper with his slower-witted friend, perhaps the doctor’s good example started rubbing off on Holmes toward the end.
The one low point is entitled, “His Last Bow” subtitled, “An epilogue of Sherlock Holmes”. Fortunately, neither moniker is true; Conan Doyle went on writing for another decade. Set at the outbreak of the First World War and told in the third person (which, after hours of the good doctor, is disconcerting), it’s a cloak-and-dagger spy-ring tale that would be far more thrilling in the hands of John Buchan. Ironically, it’s the sort of assignment—international players, nations on the brink—that Watson occasionally alludes to without giving us any details, his excuse being the sensitive nature of the case or the high-placed names involved. Then again, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” covers the same territory in high Conan Doyle style, without sounding like a pale imitation of Buchan. It would have been too bad if “Last Bow” really had been Holmes’ swan song.
The only other complaint is with the recording itself. The other two volumes of this series are divided into three reasonably sized chunks; this one is a single download, all 22 hours, 35 minutes and 32 seconds of it. A bit unwieldy, even in this era of iPods.
Professor Shutt excels at creating comprehensive, comprehensible overviews of immensely complicated subjects. Along the way he puts Great Ideas and Great Works in their appropriate cultural contexts, telling us from whence they emerged and the extent of the impact they have had since. Armed with these insights, you can go to the actual Works and be that much ahead of the game.
But while that’s all good, there’s more. You also get Professor Shutt himself. He sincerely loves what he does and it shows. He never condescends; rather, he assumes you’re as interested in the subject under discussion as he is. Even better, he’s as astonished, amazed and just plain blown-away as you are by the insights under discussion. In a way he reminds me of Julia Child when she’d step back from a perfectly prepared roast and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” She wasn’t congratulating herself; she was admiring—and inviting us to admire—what the art of cookery is capable of. In the same way, Shutt invites us to explore and admire what the West is capable of. He takes an almost palpable delight in getting at the nub of things. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he loves the Western Tradition unapologetically. For anyone familiar with the trendy trajectory of academia, that’s enough to make these lectures a must-buy. I’ll add that these lectures are eminently listenable and stand up to re-listening as well.
With the notable exception of his talks on naval warfare, all of the above is true of every course I have from Professor Shutt: Medieval Literature, Wars that Made the Western World, Dante and his Divine Comedy and now Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. In 14 lectures we trace the development of three unique, distinct cultures that answered the question, “What is the good life?” in radically different ways, and yet ultimately met and melded in a synthesis that created the West we live in today.
Along the way Shutt examines what he calls the “fruitful tensions” between, for example, the Greek ideal of individual human achievement and the Judeo-Christian call to humility and holiness. Rather than reject the one and embrace the other, the West said yes to both. It occurs to me that besides being what makes the West so complex, saying yes to both is what makes us so easy to criticize. We don’t “make sense”; we don’t “add up” in a neat, seamless package.
As a Catholic I especially appreciate Shutt’s handling of Christianity and the Medieval thought which amalgamated the ideals of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Of course, as an academic he’s not about to advocate the Faith. These are lectures, not homilies. But he’s as enthusiastic about the Gospel of John as he is about the Aeneid. As when he speaks of the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans, he keeps the focus on Christian ideas and ideals “at their best”, without any of the standard cheap shots. And, unlike most expositors of the Classical past from Gibbon onward, Shutt doesn’t view the advent of Christianity as a regrettable occurrence, a timid retreat from the rational, sunlit glories that were. I will venture to say, out of my admittedly slender knowledge, that he oversimplifies Saint Augustine's problem with Pelagianism. But he’s right about the clash between faith and works (more of that “fruitful tension”). By outlining the intellectual and cultural resonances and dissonances that created the West, Professor Shutt provides a reliable roadmap to, as he suggests at the very end, our own further and deeper reading.
At least about this. “Between Kipling and Fleming,” he said, “stands John Buchan, the father of the modern spy thriller.”
A nameless reviewer at Library Journal agrees:
“Buchan essentially invented the espionage novel with his Richard Hannay yarns.”
And a nameless officer serving on the Western Front offered this endorsement:
“It is just the kind of fiction for here. One wants something to engross the attention without tiring the mind. The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”
Finally, this bit of analysis from someone at the London Telegraph:
“[Buchan] understood that in a thriller…what matters above all is to keep the reader focused on what is going to happen next…It doesn’t matter that the reader has no clue where he is being taken or, when he gets there, how the thing happened as it did. All that matters is that once you’ve started, you can’t put the book down.”
The viewpoint that fascinates me most is from that line officer at the front. Granted, his comment was about Buchan’s first thriller, The 39 Steps. Nevertheless, it could apply the Greenmantle as well. It’s a neat trick to write about mortal danger in such a way that men who are living with it on a daily basis don’t chuck your book into No Man’s Land or, more likely, use it as necessary paper. Buchan treads a fine line when talking about the war. Yes, he and his hero are patriotic. There's a touch of Rupert Brooke here--soldiering is described as the only proper work for a man. And it's hard to remember, living as we do at the other end of the disastrous 20th Century, that soldiers cherish the camaraderie that grows out of shared dangers. Membership in a group of fighters who are also friends and the death of some of those friends makes war personal. It is a job that has to be done and there is pride in doing it well. Duty, as Ulysses Grant said, can be a beautiful word. War is hell but it isn't always hell. At the same time, Buchan and his protagonist never flinch from admitting the ghastliness of the Western Front. It's a combination of idealism and realism that may have done much to brace spirits at Ypres and the Somme--probably because it accurately reflected the general attitude in the trenches. As some of the poems quoted in Martin Gilbert's works on World War I attest, as bad as it was many believed in what they were doing in Flanders.
And our anonymous officer was right—like Dumas, the story grabs you and carries you along. So far from tiring my mind, I find Buchan (again, like Dumas) refreshes it. Unlike most who-dunnits I have in my audio collection, Buchan—along with Dorothy Sayers—will bear re-listening.
And the Telegraph makes a good point too. For all its improbabilities you accept the story and yes, you really can’t put it down. I attribute this to that same delicate mix of “real life” and spy thrills that Fleming was so adept at concocting. No doubt, as Hitchens suggested, he learned a thing or two from John Buchan.
Unlike 39 Steps, knowing a little history helps for this one. Fortunately, I recently read John Keegan's book on World War I and Gilbert's volume on the Somme offensive so when Richard Hannay met Enver Pasha or we hear that the effort at Gallipoli is being given up I wasn't completely at a loss.
I’m taking one star away from the usually superb Simon Vance (aka Richard Whitfield) for a slight tendency to trip up ever-so-slightly, every so often in the middle of sentences. I may be overly sensitive—part of my daily work is reading things aloud in phone conferences and I am a lector at church, so I know what it is to trip up ever-so-slightly. These slight catches didn’t distract my attention or detract from the tale, but they were wrinkles in an otherwise pitch-perfect performance.
Of early Wodehouse novels I have observed—and I’m sure others have, too—that they show the author moving from the then-popular, sentimental yet more “real” world of human emotions and tragedies toward his signature style of persiflage, tempests in teapots and sheer physical comedy. But even after that mature style has asserted itself, we can have relapses. And I think Summer Moonshine (1937) is one of them. Perhaps it is the only one. (Perhaps not; The Coming of Bill, 1920, also stands out as an aberration in the canon.)
I don’t mean to say that the whole book is sloppily sentimental, a sort of Rosy M. Banks saturnalia. On the whole it is the usual Wodehouse fun. There is a young mutton head who can’t say no to girls, a Kensington-educated secretary who says “quate” instead of “quite”, a shilling-less baronet whose American brother-in-law insists on addressing as “your lordship”, and an irrepressible young man named Joe Vanringham who, with his endless persiflage and unsinkable good humor, strikes you—or at least me—as a sort of two-fisted, American version of Psmith. But there are also passages—and in particular one character—that we don’t run up against in any of the other later, mature works.
Her full name is Princess Heloise von und zu Dwornitzchek. And I can’t think of anyone whom I’d rather not run up against. Richard Useborne, in his Plum Sauce, a P. G. Wodehouse Companion, agrees: “The Princess, wicked stepmother and not a bit funny, is the most un-Wodehousian character in all the books.” Her stepson, Joe concurs:
“The effortless ease with which she overrode all obstacles and went complacently through life on the crest of the wave offended his sense of dramatic construction. She was so obviously the villainess of the piece that it seemed inevitable that eventually the doom must overtake her. But it never did. Whoever had started that idea that Right in the end must always triumph over Wrong had never known the Princess Dwornitzchek.
“He watched her as she sat there smoking and smiling quietly at some thought that seemed to be amusing her, and tried to analyze the murderous feelings which she had always aroused in him. She was, as he had said, undefeatable, and he came to the conclusion that it was this impregnability of hers that caused them. She had no heart and a vast amount of money, and this enabled her to face the world encased in triple brass. He had a sense of futility, as if he were a very small wave beating up against a large complacent cliff. No doubt the officials of the United States treasury Department felt the same.”
Yes, there is the little, the very little smile (and a wry smile at that) at the end. But where else in Wodehouse have we read the word “murderous” written in earnest? What other character besides Joe Vanringham has felt this frustrated about someone this appallingly real? Earlier in the book we learn that that murderous feeling took root as Joe watched the princess “killing” his father:
“Oh, I don’t mean little-known Asiatic poisons. A resourceful woman with a sensitive subject to work on can make out quite well without the help of strychnine in the soup. Her method was just to make life hell for him.”
True, Lady Constance Keeble can menace the peace of her brothers (and I defy you to find another subject as sensitive as the ninth earl). Lady Julia Fish is capable of anything from heavy-handed irony to outright rudeness when it comes to breaking up her son, Ronald, and his chorus girl fiancée Sue Brown. And Bertie’s Aunt Agatha is always ready to marry him off to some frightful female or other. But we end up laughing at all three. After all, they are routed by, in the first two cases, the adroit staff work of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, and in the latter case by the fish-fed intellect of the best gentleman’s personal gentleman in London, Jeeves. Watching them try to make life hell for the men in their lives is fun because we know they won’t succeed. Besides, these women have a redeeming what-is-it about them. Sometimes they are even right—Lord Emsworth shouldn’t have come down with a brass paper fastener serving in place of a missing shirt stud. Lady Julia earns the grudging admiration from her brother Galley, “there are the seeds of greatness in that woman”.
But the princess is uniquely, horribly different. Unlike Mrs. Rosalinda Banks Bessemer Spottsworth, another Wodehouse female worth millions, the princess uses her wealth as a weapon. And she is what we would now call now a cougar. But what makes her truly awful is that there is no Galahad or Jeeves to slip a well-aimed stick in her spokes. Her designs are not frustrated. She “wins”.
Fittingly, her paramour Adrian Peake also reminds us uncomfortably of unpleasant, manipulative, self-centered people we have known all too well in real life.
But all this is just a long way of saying that while there are elements in this novel that diverge from the usual Wodehouse romp, Summer Moonshine is still a satisfying, reliable romp. In fact, the princess and her twerp Peake provide an interesting counterpoint to the general Wodehousian fun, making it, if anything, more piquant. It seems to stand as an alternate universe to the self-absorption and destructiveness of the princess and her slimy consort. You get the distinct feeling that neither one of them would enjoy reading or listening to the Master’s works. People who take themselves too seriously seldom do.
A final word: Jonathan Cecil is pitch-perfect on this outing. His vocal portrayal of the princess—something between a spoiled Persian cat and a roused rattlesnake—is at times a little chilling.
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