Analysis of P. G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend

This is one of a number of Wodehouse’s stories to feature the dimwitted aristocrat Clarence Emsworth. This character—a favorite with Wodehouse fans—first appeared in “The Custody of the Pumpkin” in the Saturday Evening Post in 1924. Other stories featuring Emsworth—including “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend”—appeared intermittently through the 1920s and eventually were collected in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935). The title of the collection refers to the country house in the rural county of Shropshire where Emsworth lives. Bumbling and divorced from the events of the outside world, Lord Emsworth cares little for his immediate family. His younger son, Freddie, is always getting into scrapes, and his sister, Lady Constance Keeble, tries to domineer over him, often in alliance with McAllister, the gardener, a dour Scotsman who bullies him but whom he needs and is afraid to get rid of. Lord Emsworth realizes that “he is no longer captain of his soul; that he is to all intents and purposes ground beneath the number twelve heel of a Glaswegian head-gardener.” Emsworth, good-natured but rather blinkered and scared of human society (including women), finds consolation in caring for his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings.

In this story, Blanding’s Castle has been commandeered by Constance to play host to a garden fete, “a noisome rash of swings, roundabout, marquees, toy balloons, and paper bags”—much to Emsworth’s annoyance. As the crowds (“the peasantry”) pour in and strangers are milling around, the lonely Emsworth, who has been dressed up for the occasion, is told “to go and be genial.” He meets a young working-class girl from a London slum; this is Gladys—the girlfriend of the title. Thirteen years old, pert and unafraid, with a face of “wizened motherliness,” she wins over Emsworth when she tells him how she threw stones at the tyrannical head gardener who chased her as she tried to pick some flowers. In her willingness to challenge McAllister, this young girl is the very opposite of Lord Emsworth. Impressed, Emsworth views Gladys as “a superwoman” and, inspired by her example, begins to stand up to his sister and the gardener, wresting back control—albeit temporarily—of his own garden. The story seems to show how people from different backgrounds can interact and learn from each other.

The struggle for power between Emsworth and his gardener and sister provides much of the story’s humor. However, as in other Blandings stories, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether Wodehouse is inviting us to condemn or support his aristocratic hero. Wodehouse has been accused of being rather too bewitched by the world he describes, so that what starts out as satire ends up being a nostalgic account of harmless eccentrics and lazy summer days (“so warm, so fair, so magically a thing of sunshine and blue skies and bird-song”). The bond between the childlike Emsworth and Gladys is touching, and she brings out the chivalric instincts in the old man. In this sense the story seems to fit with Evelyn Waugh’s comment that Wodehouse’s world and characters are “idyllic” and “Edenic in their innocence.” “For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no fall of man” (cited in Leader, 49). Wodehouse, Waugh argues, wants to preserve this unspoiled world. Yet the presence of Gladys and the throwing open of Blandings to the outside world—in this case underprivileged schoolchildren—is a reminder that not all of England enjoys the same halcyon existence. Gladys and her hungry brother Ern have been “reared among the tin cans and cabbage stalks of Drury Lane,” and the flowers and food at Blandings are a vision of a world that they can only dream about. Emsworth’s distaste at the invasion of his home by the working classes can be read as quirky and amusing, and his sister Constance’s patronizing attempts to engage in social work can be seen as deserving of mockery. Attempts to make the children take tea irrevocably break down: “All civilized laws had obviously gone by the board and Anarchy reigned in the marquee.” Emsworth, who prefers to wear the clothes of a workingman rather than a collar and top hat (which keeps getting knocked off), also wants to rebel against the do-gooders. In this sense, an unusual link is established between him and his working-class guests. However, it is also possible to stress the selfishness of Emsworth: He does not really want to mix with these people and resents their annual appearance in his world; they threaten its orderly existence.

Leader, Zachery, ed. On Modern British Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Wodehouse, P. G. Blandings Castle and Elsewhere. London: Everyman, 2002.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: