Wodehouse and The Real
Empress Of Blandings

This talk was originally to have been about dogs and cats, how Wodehouse knew them in real life and how he used them in his novels. But instead - I'm going to tell vou a detective story or, at least, talk you through an investigation which has taken me some fifteen years or so to complete.

It's divided into three parts - and the first part begins with the simple question - where did 'Pig-hoo-eey' come from? In that short story James Belford tells us that in Wisconsin they call 'Poig Poig Poig'. In Illinois they use 'Burp. Burp. Burp' while in Minnesota, they shout 'Peega, Peega, Peega.' So - the next question is - how did Wodehouse know?

Well, I found the answer to that some five or six years ago, in the Wodehouse archive over in England. I was taking down a box file from a shelf when I saw behind it a piece of paper crumpled up in the corner. Being a nosy devil, I took it out, uncrumpled it and found it was the back page of a New York magazine, almost certainly Vanity Fair, from the mid-1920s. There was no name or date on it but the advertisements were clearly from that period and the typeface was remarkably like the Vanity Fairs I have seen. And I knew it was the back page because each column finished off an article elsewhere in the magazine. And the left-hand column was clearly the end of an article on hog-calling - and there it was. In Wisconsin they call ‘Poig, Poig. Poig.' In Illinois they use ‘Burp, Burp, Burp, while in Minnesota, they shout ‘Peega, Peega, Peega,' and all the rest of it. And across the page, Wodehouse had written in firm black ink: "Good. I can use this."

Now the next question is - what was an article on hog-calling doing in Vanity Fair anyway? It was a smart, sophisticated New York magazine and I do not recall ever hearing of Mrs Vanderbilt or Dorothy Parker and their pals practising their hog-calling down Fifth Avenue. So - why the sudden interest? I believe the answer lies in the man whose name I looked for very hard on that piece of paper but I couldn't find anywhere. It is a name we all know - and which had always struck me as having the ring of fact rather than fiction. The man in Pig-hoo-o-o-oey who taught James Belford the master word to call hogs: "Fred Patzel, the hog-calling champion of the Western states. ‘What a man! I've known him to bring pork chops leaping from their plates!'" Remember him now?

Over the next three years or so I discovered four things about this chap. His name was indeed Fred Patzel. He was a champion hog-caller: his call could be heard three miles away. And his call was - ‘Pig-hoo-o-o-oey' without the word ‘Pig' at the beginning.

And there the matter rested for another couple of years till I came across my notes again and realised I still had a long way to go. Now we don't have hog-calling in Britain so I had to find out the rest of the story the hard way. And the hard way meant writing off to various States across America asking about hog-calling in genera1 and Fred Patzel in particular. As you can imagine, I heard nothing at all for a long time. But I persevered and eventually the Nebraska State Tourist Board passed me down the line to Fred Patzel's home town - Madison, Nebraska. And they gave me the information I was looking for.

I don't know if Madison is the hog-calling capital of America. It might be, but in any event, they have a festival every year, on the first weekend in June, with the splendid title of ‘The Day of Swine and Roses'. And this is when they hold their famous hog-calling competition - as well as a husband-calling and wife-calling competition. There is clearly more to this than I thought because the Madison people tell me that hog-calling is judged on "honesty and sincerity, volume, clarity, harmony, heart appeal, intellectual appeal, stomach appeal and general appeal!" Now Fred was a farm labourer up in Madison and seems to have won the hog-calling competition regularly in the 1920s and nobody took much notice - apart from the hogs I suppose - till 1926 when something happened. There are two versions of the story and I'll tell you my favourite first.

In that year Fred won yet again and was presumably standing there looking modest and saying that it was nothing really, when he got a message to go along and be interviewed at the local radio station. As you will all appreciate this was big stuff in the 1920s. No television, no talkies; everybody listened to the radio. So no doubt highly flattered, Fred went along and probably told them what his favourite breakfast food was, what good books he'd read recently, and all the rest of it. And then - the interviewer made his big mistake. He asked Fred to give his call on air. And Fred did so - and blew every valve in the control room and the station went off the air till the engineers could come in and repair the damage.

The other, duller version is that in 1926 Fred won the first (?) hog-calling championship of America, getting himself a gold-medal and 700 dollars by doing so. He then went on tour round America for some years and it wasn't till 1933 that he put radio station WJAG Norfolk off the air when the producer wanted to add a little atmosphere to the feed market report. Whichever story is correct, he did put a station off the air.

Perhaps someone here today can look up that old Vanity Fair and see which version is correct. But either version, I believe, was sufficient to give Vanity Fair the idea for the article - which in its turn gave Wodehouse the basis of that splendid short story. What happened to Fred Patzel afterwards I don't know. His name is still known in Madison but not for his hog-calling. I said just now that Fred was a farm labourer. He was also apparently the local ditch-digger and grave-digger and was very good at it. And it is for that his name is kindly remembered up there in Nebraska. "No sewer ever ran backward if he dug a ditch; no water line ever had the tiniest kink. Families were consoled with the thought that their dear ones lay straight, level and true in their perfectly sculptured graves."

The second part of my talk begins with the question - if the Empress of Blandings was, well, conceived if you like in Pig - hoo-o-o-ey by way of Fred Patzel and Vanity Fair, when and how did she become the staple element of life at Blandings, the centre of every Blandings Castle story? The 'when' is easy - that's Summer Lightning or as you call it Fish Preferred, which first came out in Spring 1929. The ‘how' is much more complicated.

Now, Pig- hoo-o-o-ey was first published in July l927 but there is a letter to Townend from Wodehouse, written I recall, in late l926, in which Wodehouse says he is trying to work out a new, full-length Blandings novel, the one we now know as Fish Preferred. It is the third Blandings novel but it is a very significant book in Wodehouse's career. As he said to Townend, the first two Blandings novels, Something Fresh and Leave It To Psmith, had dealt with the adventures of outsiders visiting the castle. This time he wanted to write a novel based on the Threepwood family themselves -and he found it difficult. Very difficult. In fact, he seems to have become completely stuck. He grumbled about it in another letter to Townend in Spring 1927 and again later in 1927, though he did have other things on his mind.

It was on July 27th 1927 that he wrote: "I'm sweating blood over Money For Nothing, and have just finished 53,000 words of it. Meanwhile, I have to anglicize Oh, Kay by August 9th. attend rehearsals, adapt a French play, write a new musical comedy and do the rest of Money for Nothing, as far as I can see, by about Septernber lst. It'Il all help to pass the time."

And then, at last, in the summer of 1928, he reckoned he had Fish Preferred the way he wanted it, though he had to rewrite the first 30,000 words four times over. Now, what does Fish Preferred do? It sets the standard for every Blandings Castle novel for the next forty-five years. From Fish Preferred onwards we know that the Empress will be the calm centre of the action. She is the eye of the storm. No matter what impostors, burglars, or conmen get up to, no matter what Lord Emsworth's sisters may threaten, the Empress is always there. From Fish Preferred onwards, we know that whoever controls the pig controls Lord Emsworth's cheque book. From Fish Preferred onwards, Pigs Mean Power! So the obvious question is - where did this idea come from? What put Lord Emsworth's fixation with the Empress into Wodehouse's head? As always, we have to look at where was Wodehouse living? Whom was he meeting when he carved out the first full-length Empress of Blandings plot?

Hunstanton HallThis gracious building is Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk, the home of the LeStrange family from 1137 to l954. It is an important Wodehouse location, as important as Peacehaven down in Valley Fields. This is the house in Norfolk with the moat running round it, which as you can see, and as Wodehouse told us in at least two stories, was eventually widened on this side to make the decorative lake before you. And to those of you who have heard this before - don't go away. Like the Empress, there is a twist in the tail.

It is the home of Bingo Little in Jeeves and the Old School Chum, in which Bertie and Jeeves drove thirty miles to the Lakenham Point-to-Point races. In real life it is thirty miles to the Fakenham Point-to-Point races. This is the home of Bobby Wickham in Mr Potter Takes a Rest Cure. And the punt in which Mr Potter used to rest is based on the punt Wodehouse loved to write in, moored just under the wall over there. This is the home of Aunt Agatha in Jeeves and the Impending Doom, and the Octagon, the small building where Bertie and the Cabinet Minister took refuge from the angry swan is real enough. It is on a small island 400 yards up to the right, exactly as Wodehouse described. And if you have read Money for Nothing, you know all there is to know about Hunstanton Hall, because Wodehouse set that story here and then had to spend the first page of the book shifting the whole place 150 miles to the west to try and disguise it.

Now, we can describe Lord Emsworth as an unmarried - well, a widower, but you know what I mean - landowner with a gracious Stately Home and an obsession with breeding a prize animal. And who was the owner of Hunstanton Hall when Wodehouse stayed there in the 1920s? Charles LeStrange, an unmarried landowner with a gracious Stately Home and an obsession with breeding a prize animal. In his case, it was Jersey cows and I think it no coincidence at all that Charles LeStrange's best animal, Glenny II, won the silver medal at the Norfolk County Show in 1929, the East of England championship the following year and went on to further glory by winning the Blythwood Bowl in the national championships the year after that.

With a lead like that, it was with me the work of an instant to identify the Empress with Charles LeStrange's prize cow. And I boasted of my discovery for years. But last year, I began to have doubts. You know what doubts are like. They grow, they fester and then four factors suddenly came together. The first two may seem a little odd but you'll see their importance in a moment.

The first factor is that in the 1920s, Wodehouse had got into a fixed routine. He spent each morning at his typewriter, took long walks in the afternoon, four, six, eight miles and then a couple of hours in the evening back on his typewriter or reading a novel. And he did not like that routine being disturbed. If he couldn't get his afternoon walk, he used to get cross and tetchy.

The second factor is that, although he liked Charles LeStrange and loved staying at Hunstanton, he hated the social life and grumbled about it in letters to Bill Townend. The County insisted on making afternoon calls, all anxious to meet the famous Mr Wodehouse and the famous Mr Wodehouse hated being met. He wanted to spend his mornings typing in the punt and his afternoons in a good long walk. And if the County arrived, he couldn't escape.

The third factor is Wodehouse's anxiety over detail. He was incredibly sensitive about getting his facts right. In his late 80s, he drove fifty miles across Long Island to talk to a jeweller about false and real pearls. He described dogs and cats so well, their emotions, their hopes and dreams, because he owned dogs and cats all his adult life and knew them from soup to nuts. And just think how much we know about the Empress. We know what she looks like, the drooping ears, the mild questioning expression on her face - a feature unique to Berkshires I believe - the noise she makes when she eats, the rustle as she moves through the straw of her sty. Wodehouse would never dream of writing that from his imagination. There had to be a real pig somewhere.

The fourth factor is the clincher so far as I am concerned. In the January 1929 edition of The Strand magazine is an article by Leonora Wodehouse on her step-father. Amongst other information, she tells how he hates meeting people, has a strict routine of work in the morning, how he hates to miss his long afternoon walks - and then she says: "Sometimes I think of him as being amazingly faithful - I mean about places and things. An old pigsty, if he once knew the pig that lived there, is Heaven to him always." That is a remarkable thing to say. Not a favourite bench at a cricket ground, not a favourite seat at a Rugger pitch, not a favourite armchair in a club. But a pigsty! And the point I want to emphasise is that The Strand published that in January 1929, which meant Leonora must have written it some time in 1928. Long before Fish Preferred was published. And remember the Empress had only made one appearance, in the short story ‘Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey' in a magazine two years before.

Nowadays, we all associate Lord Emsworth with pigs, but up to January 1929 his enthusiasms also included pumpkins, star-gazing, yew alleys and Jersey cows. Only a few enthusiasts would have picked up the allusion - and most people must have thought what an odd thing it was for Leonora to say. So there was a pig and pigsty somewhere. But where?

Hunstanton Hall Let us now, in the finest tradition of detective stories, reconstruct the crime. It is lunchtime at Hunstanton Hall in the spring of 1928 and, in the dining room, Charles LeStrange has just announced to the assembled house-party that various neighbouring families are calling that afternoon. Ethel and Leonora make gratified noises and wonder what to wear. Wodehouse grunts. He has spent a long morning working and realises that if he wants any exercise at all he had to escape. He had to perform the 'Wodehouse glide' his family spoke of so often, his trick of sliding out of a room before anybody noticed. So what does he do? Well, I can tell you. He left the dining room, grabbed his cap, made sure he bad his pipe, tobacco and matches and then - concentrate on that slide. He came out of those French windows, turned to his right, crossed the moat on the left hand side by the little bridge, and then came down to this, from your angle, left-hand corner of the lake, crossed over by the bridge at the end, turned left again and came straight to the spot where I took this photograph. The reason I can say this so confidently is because I've seen the ground. If I had used a wide-angle lens, you would see that the house stands in open, rolling parkland. The drive comes in from the left and another road goes out to the right. Apart from a few oak trees scattered about, you can see for about half a mile in every direction. But, on this side of the lake, things are different. A belt of trees and shrubs runs all the way down this side of the lake. Behind that belt of trees on your side, if you understand me, is a high brick wall protecting the large kitchen garden. So, from the house, looking over the lake, all you can see are trees, shrubs and parts of the high wall.

Just where I took this picture, the path bends to the left slightly and as soon as Wodehouse had passed this spot, he was out of sight of the house. He could then wander up and down the kitchen garden or walk on through the woods to the village a mile or so away. So - just past this spot - hidden from the house, he probably paused, lit his pipe and relaxed. And he did so in the angle of the kitchen garden wall - and right beside him in that angle, was ... Well, let's have a look at what's there today.

Relics of the old Pigsty This sad crumbling piece of brickwork is all that remained in 1956 of - the Hunstanton Hall kitchen garden pig-sty! And, if you think that Wodehouse could walk past a pig-sty without making friends with the pig, then you don't know much about P.G. Wodehouse. Of course, even though I believed this was the pig-sty, the one Leonora referred to, there are still plenty of questions. Remember, I'm talking of more than 70 years ago. Was this the only pigsty at Hunstanton? Were there several pigs in here or only one? If there was only one, what sort of pig was it? Was it an ordinary white pig or a less common black pig? Well. ... earlier this year I managed to make contact with an elderly gentleman, Mr Mott. His father was Charles LeStrange's chauffeur and Mr Mott grew up at the Hall in the l920s. He remembers Wodehouse well; he once got a bag of sweets from him at Christmas. He remembers going for rides in the punt on the lake with his father. He remembers the punt being re-painted and having the name Plum put on it, because Wodehouse used it so often. He remembers this pig-sty and confirms it was the only one at Hunstanton. He confirms there was only one pig in it that was fed with the milk from the Jersey cows and the vegetables from the kitchen garden.

And then I asked the last, vital question. Was it an ordinary white pig or was it a black pig? It was a black pig. And then I got the reward that comes to all clean-living, pipe-smoking detectives. Over the phone, I heard Mr Mott say the marvellous words: "I've got a photograph of the pig somewhere!!!!!!!" It was only about two inches by three inches, taken more than 70 years ago by Mr Mott as a small boy, but my son Tim has done the best he can with it - and I should have a fanfare of trumpets sounding now or a heavenly choir but I haven't. So I shall just say with immense satisfaction and a positively sinful degree of pride "next slide please".

This picture is Copyright Mr MottNot a particularly fat pig; but it doesn't have to be. Charles LeStrange, obsessed with his Jersey cow winning the County Show, provided that element. What I was spending all that time looking for was a black pig at the right place at the right time. Now, I do not claim that this was the only pig Wodehouse knew in his long life. But I do know Wodehouse's movements at an average of every 10  or 12 days from 1920 to 1930. And I can tell you now that there was not a pig-sty at his houses in London, at his flat in New York or the house in Long Island. And I also know that Wodehouse visited only two other country houses in this period and then only for four or five days. Whereas he stayed here at Hunstanton regularly from 1924 onwards, including a two-month stay in l926, another couple of months in 1927 and another month or so in I928. Exactly when he was writing 'Pig-hoo-o-o-ey' and Fish Preferred. This is a pig, a black pig, he would have come to know very well. If ever there was a pig in the whole wide world that gave Wodehouse the inspiration for the Empress of Blandings - and when you think about it, there had to be a pig somewhere and Leonora confirmed it, - then this pig is that pig!

My third and last section begins with the question - when Fish Preferred did at last come out in 1929, why was it that the English newspapers and magazines that reviewed it, made so little mention of Lord Emsworth's obsession with his pig? And the answer is that, in England in 1929, there was nothing particularly unusual about it. Now, I raise this point deliberately because there are still people who find it hard to believe that Wodehouse's England ever existed. Well it did. He dramatised it, he made it funny. But it was there to be dramatised. It was there to be made funny. There were people all over England just as obsessed as Lord Emsworth was. Charles LeStrange and his mania for his prize Jersey cow was just one among hundreds of landowners up and down the country, all intent on growing a bigger pumpkin, a better rose, breeding a fatter pig or a larger sheep. And if we ask why so many landed gentry spent their time in pursuits more properly the job of their pigmen, cowmen or gardeners when they could have been out hunting, shooting or evicting their tenants, then we have to go back to the 1760s - to two men, Thomas Coke and Charles Townshend.

These two chaps were Norfolk landowners, and at what seems to have been about the same time they must have looked out at their rolling acres - probably in the rain - and said to themselves: I wonder if these acres could do something more than just roll. And they started farming scientifically. Draining the land, rotating the crops, selecting better strains of grass seed and corn seed, selective breeding of cows, pigs, sheep and all the rest of it. They started making money - a lot of money - and, much more important, their tenant farmers started making money too. And other landowners came along and had a look and said "Gadzooks!" or "Cor luvva duck" - whatever landowners said in those days - and they started having a crack at it. And before you could say: "English Eighteenth Century Agricultural Revolution", everybody was doing it.

Which meant that by around 1810 we had some pretty weird animals wandering about the place. There was the Durham Ox, which weighed two or three tons and the poor old thing died because its legs couldn't take the weight any more. There was the Yorkshire Hog, which was twice as big as any other pig in the country and up in Leicestershire, the new miracle sheep showed it was at last possible to provide good meat and good wool from the same animal. And in 1820, we saw the first of the County Agricultural Shows. Despite all the pious guff they give you about being founded to encourage scientific and farming skills among the rural community, I recently learned that they were really started for the reason we suspected - to settle arguments amongst landowners as to who had the biggest pumpkin, the fattest pig, the best cow and all the rest of it. It became the tradition throughout the 19th century and lasted up to 1939. You might have been Prime Minister, achieved immortal fame winning chunks of the British Empire but: if you wanted to hold your head up among your fellow landowners, you devoted your time to raising a prize daffodil, rose, pumpkin, pig or whatever. Admittedly, your pigman, cowman, gardener did all the work but you made his life a misery and took the credit. And naturally you spent much of your time trying to steal someone else's gardener or pigman if they were better than yours.

The custom was badly hit by the 1914 War and I suppose the last War killed it off, though the tradition is not quite dead. The coalminers and steel workers in the North East of England still have tremendous competitions for growing giant leeks and onions. And I am proud and happy to inform you that barefaced cheating and skullduggery of the worst sort still continues unabated. Every year there are reports in the Press of buckets of herbicide being thrown over garden fences, of prize plants being attacked with spades; and it is not unknown for anxious growers to spend the 10 days before a competition sleeping in a tent beside their prize vegetable. And the pig was at the centre of all this activity - because a pig can turn waste vegetables into good meat faster and more cheaply than any other animal.

The Black Berkshire, by the way, was reckoned to be the best of the lot in this respect. And of course, you could raise a pig as easily in the back yard of a small cottage as you could in a palatial stately home. But it mustn't be forgotten that pigs also make very good pets. In the 1870s, the Reverend Robert Hawker, whose hymns I'm sure you all know, walked to his church every morning accompanied by his three cats, two dogs and his pet pig. The animals all sat quietly at the back of the church while he read the Morning Service and then walked in procession back to the rectory with him afterwards.

In America, in the 1890s, when Newport, Rhode Island really was Newport, Rhode Island, one of the sights of the Newport season was to see one great lady, a Vanderbilt I think it was, going for her afternoon drive in her carriage with her pet pig seated beside her on a blue cushion. And recently, the Duchess of Devonshire wrote that her grandmother also used to take her pet pig to church. And before I go any further, a quick plug for the Duchess of Devonshire. I have never met the lady but I have a soft spot for any busy duchess who, in response to queries about her grandmother's pig from a complete stranger - that's me - replies by return of post and in her own hand. As some of vou will know, she is one of the famous or notorious Mitford sisters who caused so much comment in the 1930s.

The eldest was Nancy Mitford the novelist; two became ardent Fascists; one became a Communist; one was perfectly normal and the youngest, Deborah, when she was eight years old, told her family that when she grew up she was going to marry a duke and become a duchess. And she did and she is. Well, actually she married the younger son but never mind. She is about the best duchess we have around at the moment and her stately home, Chatsworth, is busy and is running as well as it was a century ago. And those of you interested in such things will need no reminding that she is connected to the highest in the land. Your land - not my land! She is related by marriage not just to the Kennedy family - but to Fred Astaire as well.

The next question to ask is - where stands the pig today -so far as the old aristocracy is concerned? And the answer is - quite well - even in these days of the Welfare State and death duties. In 1994 Country Life magazine had an article on The Stateliest Pigs in Britain. Another member of the Society (Francine Kitts) picked it up and wrote a review of it for Plum Lines but I have the advantage of the screen, so I'll show you some pictures from it.

Lucy This is Lucy, the property of the Phillipses, of Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. Mr Phillips likes talking to her and believes that Lucy talks back in - I quote - a series of contented grunts, a somewhat soporific noise, in between a snuffle and a clearing of the throat.

Glascote Dictator XVIII This fine fellow is Glascote Dictator XVIII of Bunkers Hill, Pillerton Hersey, Warwickshire, the property of Iain Whitney. Country Life magazine pointed out that unlike most animals, pigs enjoy hard alcohol. Indeed, in studies into alcoholism apparently, some pigs drank a quart of vodka a day! But then, we all knew that from Wodehouse anyway, didn't we? This chap apparently prefers the odd drop of Guinness and it didn't do him any harm because he became national champion in 1944.

Lord Lichfield's pig Many of you will have heard of the photographer, Lord Lichfield. He lives at Shugborough Hall, where they have a record of pigs kept back to 1800, which isn't really surprising since he is descended from Thomas Coke, of Norfolk, whom I mentioned just now. This is his pig, Hamlet, a Tamworth, who has learned to show off by standing up on his hind legs to greet visitors to his sty. Now, while all these pictures show the spirit of Lord Emsworth lives on, they lack a certain something. Cast your mind back to all those pictures we have seen of proud animal owners in the 18th century. They're roughly all the same. There's a man dressed like George Washington, tricorne hat, black tail-coat, breeches, and buckled shoes. He's standing there, looking incredibly smug, holding a lead with a dog or a horse or a cow or a pig at the end of it And always, always, in the background , is his Stately Home. You know the sort of thing: ‘Sir John Hawkhurst and his racehorse Eclipse at Stanborough Castle; or ‘The Earl of Middlewick and his fox-hound Ponto at Dreever Castle.' Remember them now? Well, one lady at least knows how to be photographed properly with her pig - in the old tradition.

The Duchess of Devonshire and PrimroseMay I present, as my last picture, the Duchess of Devonshire, her pig Primrose, with - of course - her Stately Home behind her. Just think how Lord Emsworth would have envied this picture. Just think how Wodehouse would have enjoyed it. I reckon this picture has everything. Fashion historians amongst you will note the hard-wearing tweed skirt, as worn by a hard-working Duchess. And when I say hard-wearing, I mean hard-wearing. That skirt will do 50 years as a skirt and then do another 50 years as a dog blanket! But there was something about this picture that puzzled me. So, as always, when I didn't know what I was trying to say or how I should say it, I went to ask Charlotte. And, as always, she knew exactly what I was trying to say and how I should say it. And it is with her words I shall end my talk, because they are also a tribute to the good old aristocracy, whose eccentricities in fact and in fiction have given us all so much pleasure over the years.

Look at the way the Duchess is patting that pig. How did I describe that weird combination of .... well, ducal condescension mingled with affection for a prized family pet? How did I put that into words? Charlotte saw it immediately. "Oh that's easy. That," she said, "that is real, hands-on duchessing!"

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