The Custody of the Pumpkin, the first story of the collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, is one of the best by the master in terms of the incredible similes and metaphors. It was penned by Wodehouse approaching the very peak of his phenomenal and indefatigably polished powers.
It has the immortal lines: “Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”
And if that is not enough, a few pages down the line Plum pens the other immortal gem: “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”
But as the plot glides smoothly through the many problems of Lord Emsworth — from Angus McAllister’s resignation that is on the brink of ensuring that the prize for the best pumpkin in the Shropshire Agricultural Show will elude the Emsworth coffers still longer, to Freddie Threepwood’s propensity to enfold strange girls in passionate embraces, to being accosted by the law for absentmindedly picking tulips at the Kensington Gardens — there are quite a few insights into human life that we find scattered about with careless carefulness.
Why, there is even a rare comment about national policies and economic situations in this story.
When Mr Donaldson, the proprietor of Donaldson’s Dog Biscuits and Freddie Threepwood’s prospective father-in-law, approaches Lord Emsworth, the cloth-headed earl first tries to draw himself up with hauteur. And then he wilts on catching the other’s eye; the strong, keen, level grey eye. “With a curious forcefulness about it that made him feel strangely inferior.”
It was the eye of success, of a man who has made a fortune across the pond. Given that Donaldson is a relative of McAllister, the head gardener at Blandings, the contrast between the remnants of feudal class system in Britain and the ‘money talks’ culture of the Americans is rather neatly outlined.
Donaldson has made something between nine and ten million dollars, which makes Lord Emsworth hasten through his blessings for Freddie, and also makes Plum himself indulge the self-made millionaire into making a rather serious statement about the world conditions. Believe it or not, Donaldson talks about the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Only, he breaks it down in words of simple nature that even Lord Emsworth is able to fathom without being flummoxed.
“We have been through a tough time, a mighty tough time … but things are coming back. I am a firm believer in President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Under the New Deal, the American dog is beginning to eat more biscuits.”
The United States economic program to combat Great Depression … in a nutshell.
Apart from this, one of the most striking insight into society and culture that we find in the story is the harmless yet pointed fun Plum pokes at the self-help books and self-development courses, which promise to take people as lumps of clay and mould them into confident individuals, assertive employees, self-made millionaires, lion tamers and all that rot.
This occurs precisely when Emsworth quails on catching Donaldson’s eye. Wodehouse elaborates, “There is every reason to suppose that Mr Donaldson had subscribed for years to those personality courses advertised in the magazines which guarantee to impart to the pupil who takes ten correspondence lessons the ability to look the boss in the eye and make him wilt.”
In many of the books the master touches upon this theme of correspondence courses and self-help books. But seldom has he been this scathing in his sarcasm.
And even today if one takes a look at the shelves in the bookstores, or the ads on social media, promoting such absurd lessons through courses or books or webinars and all the rest, one can figure out how timeless the comment is.
There you have it. Great Depression, New Deal and scorching sarcasm about self-development courses … all in a story titled ‘The Custody of the Pumpkin’.
And they still say he had no message.