Review: Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse

Books can be the ultimate mood enhancer. When I find myself facing a tough or particularly stressful time, I tend to turn to light-hearted fiction as an appropriate means of escapism. None can provide this literary relief with quite the same efficacy as comic genius P.G. Wodehouse. I have been a big fan of Jeeves & Wooster for a long time, although purely through the medium of television. Nothing says guaranteed laughter quite like Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. But when I found myself faced with a recent bought of insomnia, I could think of nothing better to get me through the long nights than an exploration of Wodehouse’s writings. Having thoroughly enjoyed the televisation of Wodehouse’s Blandings series, it is to these works that I turned – specifically the third in the series of the Blandings novels, Summer Lightning.

“Blandings Castle slept in the sunshine. Dancing little ripples of heat-mist played across its smooth lawns and stone-flagged terraces. The air was full of the lulling drone of insects. It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, midway between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbutton its waistcoat and put its feet up.”

Summer Lightning follows the exploits of Clarence, the ninth Earl of Emsworth, and his eccentric family. Set at the illustrious Blandings castle, seat of the family, the novel presents a satirical and hilarious take on the life of the aristocracy. Dealing in the complex love affairs of the Earl’s nephew, Ronnie Fish, and his niece, Millicent Threepwood, Summer Lightning is the ultimate farce. When Ronnie decides to steal his uncle’s prize pig in an effort to secure the Earl’s approval of his marriage to the dancer Sue Brown, events take an unexpected turn. The ensuing tale is one of confused identities, subterfuge, and consistent hilarity.

This book provides exactly what you would expect from a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It is removal from reality and immersion in a world of the ridiculous and fantastic. The characters are numerous, diverse, and crafted with a comic expertise. Lord Emsworth’s relationship with his prize pig is particularly brilliant:

“Lord Emsworth’s mild eyes beamed. They always did when that noble animal, Empress of Blandings, was mentioned. The ninth Earl was a man of few and simple ambitions. He had never desired to mould the destinies of the State, to frame its laws and make speeches in the House of Lords that would bring all the peers and bishops to their feet, whooping and waving their hats. All he yearned to do, by way of ensuring admittance to England’s Hall of Fame, was to tend his prize sow, Empress of Blandings, so sedulously that for the second time in two consecutive years he would win the silver medal in the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show. And ever day, it seemed to him, the glittering prize was coming more and more within grasp.”

Wodehouse’s reputation as the ultimate comic writer is well-deserved and his skills are comprehensively demonstrated in Summer Lightning. His brilliance is a combination of caricatured characters and a willingness to indulge in stereotypes. Additionally, Wodehouse has an unmatched ability to write comic dialogue. The interchanges between the Earl, his sister, Lady Constance, and brother, Galahad, provide a consistent source of light relief and laughter. See, for example, this conversation regarding Galahad’s memoirs:

” ‘How’s the book coming along?’ ‘Magnificently, my dear. Splendidly. I had no notion writing was so easy. The stuff just pours out. Clarence, I wanted to ask you about a date. What year was it there was that terrible row between young Gregory Parsloe and Lord Burper. When Parsloe stole the old chap’s false teeth, and pawned them at a shop in the Edgware Road? ’96?…’ Lady Constance uttered a sharp cry. The sunlight had now gone quite definitely out of her life. She felt, as she so often felt in her brother Galahad’s society, as if foxes were gnawing her vitals…’Galahad! You are not proposing to print libellous stories like that about our nearest neighbour?’ ‘Certainly I am’. The Hon. Galahad snorted militantly. ‘And as for libel, let him bring an action if he wants to. I’ll fight him in the House of Lords. It’s the best documented story in my book.'” 

In short, a search for fictional relief could find no better solution than with P.G. Wodehouse and the wonders of Blandings. It is comic literature at its very best. And the perfect antidote for those sleepless nights.

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