Friday, October 18, 2013

Book Review: Tales of St. Austin’s by P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse himself is decidedly not forgotten. He’s ranked as one of the greatest and most enduringly popular writers of humorous novels of all time. Outside of Jeeves and Wooster, Psmith, and the Blandings Castle stories, ol’ Plum’s books do tend to get overlooked, though. That’s too bad, considering that some of his stand-alone novels are every bit as clever as their more famous counterparts. (Laughing Gas, for example, wherein a Wooster-esque member of the Drones Club swaps bodies with a bratty child movie star, is a hoot.)
First edition of P. G. Wodehouse's Tales of St. Austin's.


Wodehouse’s career was a long one, spanning over 70 years. He produced books from 1901, when he was 20 years old, until his death in 1975, leaving an unfinished Blandings novel. In those seven decades, he wrote more than 90 novels, 20 screenplays, collaborated on 30 stage plays, and wrote lyrics for more than 250 songs for musical theatre, including the lyrics to “Bill,” one of the most famous songs in Kern & Hammerstein’s Show Boat.


It would seem then, that Wodehouse could do no wrong, or at least I didn’t think so, as a pretty die-hard fan of his novels from the ‘20s and ‘30s. His earliest stories, though, are rather hard to love, unless you happened to be a British schoolboy at the turn of the century, or obsessed with amateur cricket. Tales of St. Austins’s is a collection of stories written for a particular audience in a particular time and place, and getting through them can be a bit of a slog.

Tales of St. Austin’s was published in 1901, collecting stories and essays Wodehouse wrote for the school magazines The Captain and Public School Magazine. As the readership was almost exclusively made up of young boys, the plots are driven by student problems: petty gambling, being unprepared for tests, sneaking out of school. The tone is often moralistic, and bad deeds are generally punished.

Copy of the short-lived Public School Magazine.

Wodehouse had yet to develop his signature style when the school stories were published, which makes the subject matter even more of a snooze, especially when entire cricket matches are describe play by play. In later works, Wodehouse hones his humor so well that the subject matter becomes irrelevant. Golf? Hysterical! Hat-making? Even more hilarious! Collecting silver cow creamers? Call an ambulance, I’m dying!


It is fun to find some early glimmers of Wodehousian snark, though you’ll have to mine for it (unlike the Jeeves and Wooster novels, which I’ve always maintained are so funny that you can open a page at random and find something hilariously quotable).


When a student is trapped in a room, Wodehouse writes:


“Now, the immediate effect of telling a person that you are unable to open a door is to make him try his hand at it. Someone observes that there are three things which everyone thinks he can do better than anyone else, namely poking a fire, writing a novel, and opening a door.”


The sarcastic opening to the story “The Prize Poem” is also indicative of the later style the author would develop:


“Some quarter of a century before the date with which this story deals, a certain rich and misanthropic man was seized with a bright idea for perpetuating his memory after death, and at the same time harassing a certain section of mankind. So in his will he set aside a portion of his income to be spent on an annual prize for the best poem submitted by a member of the Sixth Form of St Martin’s College, on a subject to be selected by the Head Master. And, he added,—one seems to hear him chuckling to himself—every member of the form must compete. Then he died.”


Some fun bits in otherwise tepid stories:


“The qualities which in later years rendered Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw so conspicuous a figure in connection with the now celebrated affair of the European, African, and Asiatic Pork Pie and Ham Sandwich Supply Company frauds, were sufficiently in evidence during his school career to make his masters prophesy gloomily concerning his future.”


And:


“Bradshaw looked up from his book. He was attempting to get a general idea of Thucydides’ style by reading Pickwick.


Overall, the stories are a mixed bag, mostly mediocre, with a few real snoozers. There is one excellent standout, worth reading by itself: “The Tom Brown Question.” A spoof of theories concerning Homer (though Shakespeare also comes to mind), the humorous essay concludes that the author of the first half of Tom Brown’s School Days could not possibly have written the second half. One point of evidence involves cricket: “Tom may have been young, but would he, could he have been young enough to put his opponents in on a true wicket, when he had won the toss? Would the Tom Brown of part one have done such a thing?”


If you haven’t read any Wodehouse, Tales of St. Austin’s won’t make you a fan. If you enjoy his work, I’m fairly certain these stories will fall short for you. They are of some interest, but mainly as an insight into how his writing style developed over time.



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Written for Friday’s Forgotten Books, usually hosted by Patricia Abbott, taking place this week at George Kelley’s blog. Check out some of the other reviews of forgotten novels.

14 comments:

  1. I'm a huge fan of P. G. Wodehouse and I've been slowly reading my way through his wonderful books. I've been listening to the Berie and Jeeves books on audio CDs and really enjoy them. When someone is as prolific as Wodehouse produces so many books and stories, a few of them are bound to be clunkers.

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    1. I've read most of the well-known titles, so I thought I'd start at the beginning and fill in the gaps. In addition to these stories, I've recently read The Pothunters, The Gold Bat, and A Prefect's Uncle, and honestly, I'm anxious to get to the point where his plotting improves.

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  2. I enjoy that old cartoony cover artwork. I've never read much in the way of humor but the excerpts you present here are pretty funny and stimulate my interest to read more. I have not read any Wodehouse. I'll have to keep this author on my ever-growing list of to reads.

    Lee
    A Faraway View

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    1. Those aren't even very good examples of Wodehouse humor. You should try the Jeeves and Wooster stuff if you really want a laugh.

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  3. I'm a huge fan of PG too and yet I have never come across this collection of short stories. I wonder if these stories are part of another collection that I might have read before.

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    1. The school stories don't turn up in a lot of collections, partly because people don't seem to like them very much. They were also written for young people, so they might be out of place in a general collection.

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  4. When in high school, one of my daughters discovered that her English teacher had never heard of P. G. Wodehouse. That teacher immediately lost all credibility in my daughter's mind.

    My mother-in-law used to work for the IRS. She said her greatest day came when she processed a check written by Wodehouse. Just to see his signature was a thrill.

    As a Wodehouse fan I completely understand both of them.

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    1. I would also be thrilled to process his check. Neat story!

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  5. For my taste, there's more than enough PGW in the Jeeves and Wooster, Psmith, and the Blandings Castle stories, without going into the early stuff. Reading the fairly recent biography, I could tell that most of the earlier work was simply for experience and pay, and even his own esteem of that stuff was low. The real pity of his life was that WWII misunderstanding (on his part) and thus victimization that caused him so many problems and heartache.

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    1. I have to agree. I think it was wishful thinking that made me hope to find more in the first stories. Yes, there are some scattered jokes, but the plotting is non-existent, and some of the endings made me cringe. It was hard to write about, because I love the rest of his work so much. He was only twenty -- it's practically juvenilia.

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  6. Thanks to the public library system I think I must have read most of Wodehouse's books, apart from the very earliest ones you describe.

    Awe at his gift for language and dramatic timing remain and your post reminds me to buy some of his works now.

    You might like this article about his position in India.

    http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/mag/2002/02/17/stories/2002021700150300.htm

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    1. Thanks for the link. I've read a ton of his novels, but nowhere near all 90.

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  7. Outside of Jeeves and Wooster, Psmith, and the Blandings Castle stories, ol’ Plum’s books do tend to get overlooked

    My introduction to Wodehouse came via the Mulliner stories and the Oldest Member stories. so I know there was more to him that Jeeves et al. Still, I had never heard of this book. I have read complimentary references to Wodehouse's early school stories, though, so I may give this one a look. Thanks.

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    1. Have you read complimentary things about the school stories? I'm surprised, because I wanted to find every reason to like them, but they are in many ways extremely amateurish.

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