Gladys, the courageous

Posted by jlubans on November 13, 2010

Along with the previously mentioned Nodder, I often ask my management students to read another Wodehousian selection: “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend.”*

While some students can’t quite figure out why they should read this short story by the last century’s comic genius, most catch on. Lord Emsworth, the “dreamy earl” - a man who regularly flees from conflict - finally gets the courage to stand up to his overbearing gardener and to his sister’s hen-pecking. While Lord Emsworth is the master of Blandings Castle, sister Connie – when in residence – beleaguers the chumpish Lord into wearing top hats and tails, and celluloid collars. He’d rather be in his 15-year old patched shooting jacket and baggy corduroy pants pottering about the castle’s glorious beds of flowers and chirruping to his cherished Pig of pigs, the Empress of Blandings. Lord Emsworth is most comfortable and engaged when marveling at flowers and gazing, with adoring eyes, at the Empress’ snarfing up her daily 58,000 calories.

My students read about the earl just ahead of our class on conflict. The students take a conflict self-test and discover their preferred conflict behavior. Almost always the class - similar to most other groups - scores highest at avoiding, accommodating, and compromising. The low-end scores are in competing (win-lose) and (the most desirable) collaborating (win-win).

Most students come away from this lesson vowing to be more balanced in how they respond to conflict. All of us know how difficult it can be to be assertive - there are times when we should and we do; other times we choose the easy way out, slipping out the back door. Privately, we know we should have roared like a lion, instead we made mouse sounds. We flee to fight another day. Or do we?

Gladys, the little heroine in Wodehouse’s story is charmingly drawn. It includes, says biographer Robert McCrum, “one of the very rare, and lyrical, expressions of unfettered emotion in Wodehouse’s work.” (p.172**)

Gladys, one of the urban school children visitors to an open house at the castle, has serendipitously gotten to know the earl. He is bemused and charmed by her gaminish Cockney ways. It’s an adventurous day for Gladys.
When she takes two of everything in the treat tent, Sister Connie contravenes and puts her into a dark garden shed for what she grande damishly deems inappropriate behavior. Had only Connie asked, she would have learned that Gladys was not "pinching" but gathering the extra treats for her little brother, Ern, whom Connie had banished minutes from the castle for "biting 'er in the leg". Lord Emsworth, while avoiding the human hordes on the castle grounds, stumbles across and frees Gladys from her exile in the shed. He empathizes, calls for Beach, the butler, and makes sure he packs a basket of food and other treats, including a bottle of port, for Gladys and her brother.

Later, when Gladys is pursued by the castle’s gardener, McAllister, for picking "flarze" (flowers) – the earl had given her permission - Lord Emsworth finds himself in the line of fire. Gladys hides behind him. Lord Emsworth has had his moments with the gardener - a taciturn and formidable Glaswegian.

Today, facing the infuriated McAllister - with shaking knees and quivering soul - something different happens: ‘It was, in itself, quite a trivial thing, but it had an astoundingly stimulating effect on Lord Emsworth’s morale. What happened was that Gladys, seeking further protection, slipped at this moment a small, hot hand into his.” (p.157*)

The worm turns. Emboldened by Gladys’ gesture, the earl tells off his gardener.

On a roll, he ticks off the imperious Connie when she tries to brow beat him into making a speech to the assemblage on the castle grounds – something he has always detested. After meeting her “eye sternly”, he tells her with certainty: “I don’t care. I am not going to make any dashed speech….” He turns to Gladys and says that after he gets out of “these infernal clothes (into) something human … we’ll go down to the village and have a chat with Ern.”
It is, as Mr. McCrum writes, a lyrical, rare and unfettered expression of emotion not just for the earl, but for all of us.

20101113-Gladyspic.JPG.jpeg

As depicted, an all too decrepit top-hatted Lord Emsworth (he was in his 50s, not 90s!) but Gladys’ portrait amidst the flarze might just capture some of her je ne sais quoi. And, the background, (including a heroic statue of the Empress!), is said to be a close approximation of the property from which the fictional Blandings was drawn. (Illustration source: http://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk/quickones.htm. No date.)

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*McCrum, Robert. Wodehouse – A Life. Viking Books, London, 2004.

**P. G. Wodehouse, “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend” a selection from his Blandings Castle, NY: The Overlook Press (original copyright, 1935) 2002, pp.136-160.
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