As I mentioned last month, I am starting to work my way through all of Wodehouse’s books in published order. It’s a bit challenging not just because there are a billion of them, but because they’ve been published on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes not at the same time, and frequently under different titles. WHY.
But I intend to persevere, and the first several are public domain and available as free ebooks, which is especially nice because it’s not always easy to get a hold of a cheap copy of some of these earlier books that weren’t published and republished like Wodehouse’s later (and more popular) novels.
The early end of Wodehouse’s prolific career definitely focuses on “schoolboy tales,” which were frequently published in boys’ magazines as serials. I skimmed most of his first book, The Pothunters. There were just too many characters, all with nicknames and other nicknames and all mixed together from different schools and different houses and different cricket teams (so much cricket) and somehow lacking enough of a story for me to want to try and keep it all straight. Also, there was a lot of cricket.
A Prefect’s Uncle is definitely a step in the right direction. The plot seems tighter and more focused, so while there were still a lot of boys and a lot of nicknames and a lot (LOT) of cricket, the story was much easier to follow, and I was actually a bit disappointed when everything ended and I had to leave them all behind.
There are a couple of threads to this tale, so here is the summary from Wikipedia:
The action of the novel takes place at the fictional “Beckford College”, a private school for boys; the title alludes to the arrival at the school of a mischievous young boy called Reginald Farnie, who turns out to be the uncle of the older “Bishop” Gethryn, a prefect, cricketer and popular figure in the school. His arrival, along with that of another youngster, Wilson, who becomes fag to Gethryn, leads to much excitement and scandal in the school, and the disruption of some important cricket matches.
And that’s pretty much it. Once I got my head around the fact that there are multiple cricket teams at the same school, and, more importantly, the same people can be on different cricket teams, the whole story began to make more sense. (Apparently, there was the team that represents the entire school, but then within the school each house at the school has its own team. Genius.) There isn’t a lot of depth to this story, and it’s quite full of slang and “I say, old thing!” and the like, but it was still actually quite a bit of fun, despite the cricket.
I’m not sure that I would have picked this out as a Wodehouse tale if I hadn’t already known he wrote it, but because I was looking for them, there are glimpses of Wodehouse’s droll humor –
He produced a letter from his pocket … “This was written by an aunt of mine. … Just look at line four. You see what she says: ‘A boy is coming to Mr Leicester’s House this term, whom I particularly wish you to befriend. He is the son of a great friend of mine, and is a nice, bright little fellow, very jolly and full of spirits. … His name is-‘ ”
“That’s the point. At this point the manuscript becomes absolutely illegible. I have conjectured Percy for the first name. It may be Richard, but I’ll plunge on Percy. It’s the surname that stumps me. Personally, I think it’s MacCow, though I trust it isn’t, for the kid’s sake. I showed the letter to my brother … he swore it was Watson, but, on being pressed, hedged with Sandys. …”
[After reflection, the friend believes the name is Duncan, and they go to ask the matron about it.]
“Miss Jones … have you on your list of new boys a sportsman of the name of MacCow or Watson? I am also prepared to accept Sandys or Duncan. The Christian name is either Richard or Percy. …”
“There’s a P.V. Wilson on the list,” said the matron. …
“That must be the man.”
I also appreciated the sentence, “There seems to be a perfect glut of aunts.” Wodehouse does indeed love an aunt!
This book is over a hundred years old (and British) so there were words and phrases that gave me pause from time to time, but for the most part I was able to read without problem. I’ve always enjoyed old books (and British ones), so I already knew some of language issues (like “fag” being the term for a younger boy in the school who does chores/runs errands for an older boy in his house). Although I will admit that there were still some that left me with some questions marks (and a little scared to look them up). My personal favorite, that is still making me giggle in that 12-year-old boy way – Bishop, trying to brace himself up for a confrontation: “Be firm, my moral pecker!” Oh dear.
On the whole, while I’m not sure that I would recommend A Prefect’s Uncle particularly (unless you like cricket a great deal), it was still a fun story with some likable characters and entertaining moments. 3/5.