A correspondent has a confession and a question: "I have, shamefully, never read Wodehouse and want to read all the Bertie and Jeeves stories. But where does one start?"
There is no shame in this. Indeed there's a sense in which one might (almost) envy the Wodehouse novice; how splendid to be able to cast off the concerns of the modern world and slip into this altogether finer place for the very first time. My friend has a summer of plenty ahead of him. (Mind you, there's something to be said for reading Wodehouse in the depths of hellish winter too. Perhaps this accounts for his enormous popularity in Russia.)
Yet he is wise to proceed cautiously. Any fool can be chucked a Shakespeare anthology with the confidence that it will contain some nifty material and much the same can be said of a Wodehouse syllabus, no matter how clumsily it may be set. Yet while, as with Shakespeare, the lesser works can give pleasure to the aficionado they can have an unfortunate effect upon young, impressionable minds if they are pressed upon readers too soon, or in the wrong order.
Wodehouse published his first book, The Pothunters, in 1902 and did not stop producing "the stuff" as he called it, until Aunt's Aren't Gentlemen appeared in 1974. Even then he wasn't quite done, leaving an unfinished manuscript, appropriately entitled Sunset at Blandings, on his death, on Valentine's Day no less, in 1975. In nearly three-quarters of a century of toil he produced more than 90 books; no wonder newcomers might be unsure where to start.
Even the most devoted Wodehousian must admit that the work is uneven. I am not a completist and can't claim to have read, let alone possess, every Wodehouse book, but I suspect I must have finished about half of them and have read just about everything in the Wooster and Blandings series, as well as the lesser, but still excellent, schools of Psmith, Uncle Fred and the public school and golf stories. My knowledge of Ukridge and Mr Mulliner is more limited but still respectable. Beyond that there remain many gaps in my reading. That all being so, and with all due caveats acknowledged, I recommend this Wodehouse reading list (to which readers may and indeed are encouraged to add their own favourite volumes).
Faced with a banquet of such proportions, it is wise to begin gently...
Thus I would advise the Wodehouse novice to begin with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), a collection of 11 linked short stories that sparkle. Though Jeeves and Wooster had appeared before, this was, one may argue, their coming out parade. Here we also encounter one of Wodehouses most endearing characters, Bingo Little, as well as two stories, The Purity of the Turf, and, most especially, The Great Sermon Handicap which show Wodehouse at the top of his game. The GSH deserves a place in any All-Comer's collection of the greatest short stories ever written.
Braced by this aperitif, it is time to move on to the 1930s, the decade in which we find Wodehouse in spankingly good mid-season form. The first full-length Jeeves and Wooster novel, Thank You, Jeeves (1934) properly belongs in the second-rank; it is more than fine, but the novice is advised to return to it, and other second-tier works such as Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963) only once they have devoured the best stuff. This is not the wedding at Cena.
Of these there are, I would suggest, three that no library worth the name should be without. They should also be read in order of publication. Thus we begin with Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) before moving on to The Code of the Woosters (1938) and finishing with Joy in the Morning (1946).These are, I'd suggest, the three gospels of the Jeeves and Wooster canon. All you need is here: Madeleine Bassett, the collected Glossops, the Aunts Dahlia and, terrifyingly, Agatha, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Florence Craye and all the rest of the benighted horde that contrive, to various degrees, to cast a shadow over Bertie's sunny existence.
Right Ho, Jeeves contains arguably Wodehouse's greatest single scene: the prize-giving at Market Snodsbury Grammar School; The Code of the Woosters is probably the neatest, most well-constructed of all the Jeeves novels and, natch, also furnishes us with the monstrous spectacle of Sir Roderick Spode; while I'd hazard that Joy in the Morning may, just may, be a comparatively over-looked masterpiece.
Once these three courses have been dealt with, a change of pace and scenery may be called for. It's at this point that I would recommend retreating to the Elysian pastures of Blandings Castle for a few weeks. Whether you do so in your own name is, of course, a matter left to each visitor to decide for themselves.
Here too I would recommend skipping the first appearance of Blandings (Something Fresh, 1915) and begin instead with either Leave it to Psmith (1923) or Summer Lightning (1929). I would argue for the former, which carries the bonus of also introducing you to the delightful Psmith (the P is, as you know, silent), the rest of whose escapades you can acquaint yourself with in due course. In fact Summer Lightning and Heavy Weather (1933) should really be read as a pair. If one were to make this trio a quartet (and why wouldn't one?) I'd add Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) to the list, which, again, permits the novice to get a taste for the Earl of Ickenham whose other adventures will bring you much pleasure in due course.
As a youth I was a pretty keen partisan for the Jeeves and Wooster series but as the years pass I've begun to wonder if I actually prefer the Blandings series. If pushed, that is. Verily, this is a dilemma that would leave Solomon concluding that, to this point, everything had been a piece of cake.Not to put to fine a point on it, this would test his mettle.
But the Blandings saga also demonstrates the importance of not beginning at the beginning. When we first meet Lord Emsworth he is infatuated with pumpkins. Now these are noble or ornamental (but rarely both) vegetables but they are not pigs are they? Happily the noble Lord abandoned his pumpkins and transferred his affections, for his own and for literature's good, to the Empress of Blandings, the finest pig in Shropshire. (Whatever Gregory Parsloe says). This is not trivial: it reminds one that Wodehouse was first and foremost a craftsman, endlessly reworking and refining and polishing his work. There was perspiration behind all that seemingly effortless "musical comedy" and he didn't always get it right first time around. And when you write light verse in a prose form everything has to be in its proper place for it to work at all. No light can be permitted to intrude upon the magic. The early renditions of the Wooster and Blandings series are for adults only; they are works of promise that will pleasure the aficionado but they should not be permitted to poison immature, impressionable minds. (Nor, of course, should late Wodehouse such as the rather poor Aunts Aren't Gentlemen be foisted, wittingly or not, upon readers who just aren't ready for it.)
Still, having polished off the first-rank Wooster and Blandings novels I'd then suggest that the reader turn his attention to Psmith and Uncle Fred as well, in due course, to Ukridge and dear old Mr Mulliner. Two other schools merit a mention however: the early school stories such as The Gold Bat, The Head of Kay's, and Mike (which also, of course, features Psmith) are oft-overlooked but more than any other works in the canon they represent something that may be said to be Wodehouse's idealised version of the boy he would have liked to have been. In my own case it obviously helped that I a) love cricket and b) went to boarding school myself but neither condition seems necessary to enjoying these early works.
Nor do you need to be a golfer to enjoy the two collections of golf stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922) and The Heart of a Goof (1926). Indeed I imagine that someone who hates golf could also love these books. The golf stories constitute one of the few tricks missed by Robert McCrum in his excellent biography. They reveal Wodehouse to be rather more of a moralist than is generally imagined. Typically, of course, Wodehouse explores character and, for want of a better word, fortitude through the prism of sport, rather than anything else. But there is still a certain profundity at play amidst all the music. (Something similar may be said of the school stories in fact and, of course, Wodehouse followed the rugby and cricket scores of Dulwich College all his life).
Still, as I say, these are works the novice need not concern himself with for some time. Likewise the energy and brio - and love of American slang - in some of the other early stories written during Wodehouse's first spell in the United States. I find these less engaging, but there's pleasure to be mined there too.
So there you have it my friend: a feast awaits you. Other permutations are possible but I doubt you can go grievously wrong with this reading list.
Further reading on Wodehouse: Fry, Hitchens, Orwell. (If anyone has found an online copy of Anthony Lane's wonderful New Yorker piece on Wodehouse, would they send it to me?) I wrote about how Hillary Clinton would lose the Wodehousian vote here.