Country houses played a large part in PG Wodehouses’s much-loved stories – here we consider these great literary creations
Blandings Castle, Brinkley Court, Totleigh Towers and Deverill Hall are merely the most familiar of the legion of country houses created by P. G. Wodehouse as a backdrop to his delightful stories and novels. The houses are deft fictional creations, with just enough of the believable to give weight to their portrayals. Some lend themselves to convincing identification with particular places, an approach explored by Norman Murphy in his books In Search of Blandings (1986) and A Wodehouse Handbook (2006). More certainly, they draw on Wodehouse’s actual experiences and they also present a gentle social history of these buildings across the first half of the 20th century.
Wodehouse acquired a knowledge of country houses as a child in the 1880s and 1890s. While his father worked as a magistrate in Hong Kong, he was sent ‘home’ to boarding school. During the holidays, he stayed with aunts who lived in modest country houses with servants.
He paid visits to larger establishments; one of his aunts knew the Countess of Bradford, who lived at Weston Park, in Shropshire, and his grandmother and four aunts lived at Cheney Court in Wiltshire, a house that seems to be echoed in Deverill Hall. Wodehouse also described skating on the pond at Corsham Court. Not of the idle rich class of Bertie Wooster, he was, as he said himself, ‘on the fringe of the butler belt’.
Wodehouse began writing before the First World War and continued for more than 70 years. His strength was to place his comedy within convincingly drawn households, even if the buildings themselves were lightly sketched. Reading his stories, we get a feel for the country house in action; Wodehouse creates a world of servants butler, valet, chef, cook, head gardener and so on and illustrates the way they provided both comfort and companionship (if sometimes of a strained sort) to their employers.
One of his earliest creations is Blandings Castle, a backwoodsman peer’s stately pile in Shropshire, which first appears in Something Fresh (1915). As Evelyn Waugh famously observed: ‘The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.’ The name has become a byword for the English country house in the lingering twilight of its Edwardian Indian summer.
It is a place apparently undisturbed by taxation, inflation, or even by any degree of provision for the Lord Emsworth’s 10 sisters. The scale is suggested by a run of grand rooms, including a vast hall, which doubles as an additional living room, where Lady Constance provides afternoon tea.
As first described, the house is glimpsed at night: ‘After an eternity of winding roads, darkened cottages, and black fields and hedges, the cart turned in at a massive iron gate, which stood open, giving entrance to a smooth gravel drive.’ After nearly a mile, lights appear, ‘as the shrubberies ended and the smooth lawns and terraces began, blazing down on the travellers from a score of windows, with the heartening effect of fires on a winter night’.
The house is ‘a noble pile, of Early Tudor building. Its history is recorded in England’s history books and Viollet-le-Duc has written of its architecture’. (This last reference to Viollet-le-Duc, an authority on French medieval architecture, perhaps hints at Wodehouse’s familiarity with the Lectures on Architecture, translated in 1881.) The River Severn runs through the estate and, from its battlements, the Wrekin hill can be glimpsed.
Wodehouse loved the Worcestershire/Shrophsire area and used it as a location over and over again, later worrying that this put his characters more out of reach of London than the narratives might bear. In one of Wodehouse’s early stories, A Gem Collector (1909), we learn the origins of a house called Corven Abbey: ‘In the days before the Welshman began to expend his surplus energy in playing football, he was accustomed, whenever the monotony of his everyday life began to oppress him, to collect a few friends and make raids across the border into England, to the huge discomfort of the dwellers on the other side. It was to cope with this habit that Corven Abbey, in Shropshire, came into existence.’
By the 20th century, the abbey was a ‘modern country house’, the owner a rich American who had created the ‘handsomest building in Shropshire’. This story was re-written as A Gentleman of Leisure in 1910; the building has, perhaps more convincingly, become Dreever Castle and its owner the British brother-in-law of the resident earl. The fashion for turning ruined castles into country houses was at its height in the early 1900s and it is just possible that Sir Martin Conway’s restoration of Allington Castle in Kent (funded by the inheritance of his American wife) might have caught Wodehouse’s attention. Indeed, American money usually conveyed from the bank balance of an unspeakable plutocrat father through the medium of his clever, determined and attractive daughter otherwise comes to the salvation of several impoverished English heirs and their houses (Country Life, February 25, 2015).
Wodehouse’s delight in Eden-like settings never waned, indeed, he was working on Sunset at Blandings when he died in 1975. He even created new ones in the 1930s, notably Brinkley Court, the setting for Wooster’s escapades in that decade. Its household includes the butler Seppings, chauffeur Waterbury and renowned French chef Anatole, who is responsible for the alacrity with which Wooster accepts invitations to Brinkley and whose absence causes panic. Aunt Dahlia’s husband, Tom Travers, clearly has deep pockets—French chefs were common in 19th-century country houses, but a rarity in the inter-war years.
The architecture of Brinkley is largely left to the imagination. One delicious detail occurs in a description of a bachelor being assigned the Blue Room, ‘a signal honour to be accorded to a bachelor guest, amounting to being given star billing, for at Brinkley, as at most country houses, any old nook or cranny is considered good enough for the celibate contingent’. Wooster’s room is ‘a sort of hermit’s cell’, but the furnishings of the Blue Room are described as ‘solid and Victorian… a four-poster bed, a chunky dressing table, a massive writing table, diverse chairs… [and] over at the far side a cupboard or armoire in which you could have hidden a dozen corpses’.
Yet, during the inter-war years, new houses that reflect a changing world were summoned into existence by Wodehouse’s pen. Take the hopeless and unloved Walsingford Hall in Summer Moonshine (1938), described as ‘a vast edifice constructed of glazed red brick, in some respects resembling a French chateau’. We learn that Walsingford was formerly an Elizabethan pile of some fame, which burnt down and was rebuilt to the amateur designs of the then owner.
It looks like an alarming pickle factory; ‘there were also [sic] a dome and some minarets’ and ‘from one side of it, like some unpleasant growth, there protruded a large conservatory’. The owner, Sir Buckstone Abbott, takes in paying guests, but hopes to sell the house to the Princess von und zu Dwornitzcheck, an American with an appropriately punning European title, who is delighte by the ‘celebrated eyesore’.
At least that owner just wanted to make a sale. In a Wodehouse story published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1934, a chain-smoking poet is invited to stay with the Sprockett-Sprocketts at Smattering Hall, Worcestershire.
The first sight of the mansion dashes the poet’s hopes of persuading the daughter of the house to marry him: ‘It was one of those vast edifices, so common throughout the countryside of England, whose original founders seem to have budgeted for families of twenty-five or so and a domestic staff of not less than a hundred. “Home isn’t home,” one can picture them saying to themselves, “unless you have plenty of elbow room”.’ Only later does he discover that the owners are hoping his careless chain-smoking habit will set fire to the mansion, allowing them to escape to a flat in London.
The decline of country houses continues to be charted in Wodehouse’s novels after the Second World War. Ring for Jeeves (1953) is the only Jeeves novel in which Wooster does not appear. The eponymous butler has been ‘lent’ to the Earl of Rowcester while Wooster spends time at an institution founded to train the aristocracy to fend for themselves (he is, of course, expelled).
The earl’s house, Rowcester Abbey, is no longer an asset but a liability, because, as Jeeves explains to a visiting creditor, ‘Socialistic legislation has sadly depleted the resources of England’s hereditary aristocracy’. The earl’s only hope is that a wealthy American widow with an interest in psychic communication might be tempted to buy the building ‘its architecture was thirteenth-century, fifteenth-century and Tudor, its dilapidation twentieth-cen-tury post-World War Two’ which happens to be haunted.
Rowcester Abbey is a noble dwelling of 147 rooms, which look better ‘from the outside and at a distance’, and ‘like other English houses of its size… had a number of vast state apartments which were never used’. There is also a library and Jeeves smoothly urges the young Lord Rowcester to repair to this last room to study the language used in Country Life property advertisements, ‘in which, as your lordship is possibly aware, virtually every large house which has been refused as a gift by the National Trust is offered for sale.
The language is extremely persuasive’. Clearly, Jeeves is an eager reader of the magazine and he clinches the sale by suggesting the American buyer could move the abbey, stone by stone, to California, where its perennial dampness will not be an issue. She, recalling the example of a visit to San Simeon, agrees. The abbey and its ghosts are whisked away.
But all this could never happen at Blandings. Indeed, whatever changes may befall the country house in the 21st century, to lovers of Wodehouse, this house, at least, will forever be preserved as the idyllic setting for complex affairs of the heart and attempts to put the earl’s beloved pig off her food. Staff, too, will never be in short supply and, when some desperate crisis looms, Beach, the butler, will always be on call to enter ‘in a dignified procession of one’.