Uncle Fred Flits by by P. G. Wodehouse, 1936

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by P. G. Wodehouse, 1936

Uncle Fred, Lord Ickenham, is not as pervasive in P. G. Wodehouse's fiction as are the more celebrated Jeeves, Emsworth, and Mulliner. He is, however, the central figure of one of the best of the longer books, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, where he appears as an impostor at Blandings Castle. Wodehouse occasionally allows his separate worlds to merge. In "Uncle Fred Flits By," collected in Young Men in Spats (1936), for example, both the owner of a stately home (Lord Ickenham) and his nephew (Pongo), a denizen of London clubs, find themselves in the respectable suburbia that was occasionally touched in the Psmith and Mike stories. The relation of uncle and nephew is based on the same serviceable comic reversal used in the Jeeves stories. Just as in the latter the servant has the wisdom and experience and the master most of the comedy, so here it is the young nephew who is anxious, conventional, and timid, while the uncle's youthful high spirits lead him into fantastic adventures, daring impersonations, and brilliant inventions about the lives of people he has never met. Lord Ickenham does not get nabbed by the police in the story, but we are constantly reminded of the day at the dog races when he had been arrested in the first 10 minutes. Pongo is in constant apprehension of a similar disaster here, and the brooding presence of the somber young man among the high-spirited members of the Drones is a keynote for what is to follow. This is presented with a characteristic Wodehouse ruthlessness:

"He's all broken up about his Uncle Fred."
"Dead?" "No such luck. Coming up to London again to-morrow."

This ruthlessness reminds us of many fairy stories, and it helps the happy ending and the extraordinary neatness of one of the author's best plots from making the effect oversweet.

An important presence in the background is the dominant Lady Ickenham, who only occasionally allows her husband to get up to London, doles him out pocket money, and would never have allowed him to be in possession of £100 on this occasion if he had not been instructed to spend it at her orders. Ickenham's last triumph over his doubting nephew, after misappropriating the money in an act of reckless generosity, comes when he tells him that he will explain to his wife that he spent it to save him (Pongo) from the clutches of an adventuress. The picture of a man, endlessly resourceful in London, as a domestic slave is another characteristic reversal, as is the contrast between the solid suburban background and a tale of fantastic adventure.

Lord Ickenham's sentimental view of his boyhood is suitably sharpened with a touch of crudity: "stopping at intervals like a pointing dog and saying that it must have been just about here that he plugged the gardener in the trousers with his bow and arrow, and that over there he had been sick after his first cigar."

The process by which Ickenham learns just enough of the affairs of a stream of visitors he has never met before to impose on them a totally fictitious story about their own relations is highly ingenious and could be quoted as a leading example of the author's technical mastery. And the linguistic surprises show the author at his best. As usual, there is an adroit use of cliché ("Pongo, whose system was by this time definitely down among the wines and spirits") combined with a contrasted freshness of language that, so to speak, places the cliché in quotation marks:

The thing began to look to Pongo like a touch, and he is convinced that the parrot thought so, too, for it winked and cleared its throat. But they were both wrong.

The point of view is not as simple as it looks. The main part of the story is ostensibly told from Pongo's point of view, and we get a strong impression of his distress. But the reader's feelings are with the resourceful uncle even when he is damned as "Hampshire's leading curse." Awareness of the comic shaping makes everyone sense from the first a happy ending and makes everyone admire its architect.

Ickenham himself is the master of several Wodehousian styles. He can talk like an old Times leader ("Though we applaud his judgement of form, we must surely look askance at his financial methods"). But in the same sentence we have already had the casual style of the upper class at ease: "Harry, I grant you, won five thousand of the best and never looked back afterwards."

And Ickenham later speaks the style of the expansive man of the world: "If a man can smuggle cocaine and get away with it, good luck to him, say I." Different again is the style of the cheerfully coaxing elder brother, rather than uncle, which he uses to spur his fainthearted nephew. The variety fits exactly the requirements of the story, that Ickenham should be a moral Houdini, a suburban Proteus, whom no one can keep caged.

The moment he gives away his wife's £100, in a gesture which might be a parody of Pickwick or the Cheeryble brothers, is again saved from oversweetness, not only by the farcical accompaniments but also by the renewed emphasis of Pongo's sour point of view:

The agony of realizing that the old bounder had had all that stuff on him all this time and that he hadn't touched him for so much as a tithe of it was so keen, Pongo says, that before he knew what he was doing he had let out a sharp, whinnying cry.

Similarly, the delighted embraces of the young lovers Ickenham has rescued are deflated by Pongo's awareness that everyone seemed to be kissing the girl except him. Part of the charm and skill of the story lies here, that its tone and its plot are designed not to fit. It is a daydream of wish fulfillment encapsulated in a narrative that combines pure farce with sharp satirical comment. The blending could scarcely be more successful.

—A. O. J. Cockshut