Wodehouse misremembered

(Bestsellers, by Clive Bloom)

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (2002) by Clive Bloom

In many respects, Clive Bloom’s ‘Bestsellers’ is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of publishing, reading, and the emergence of ‘the bestseller’ in the twentieth century. Happily for me, Bloom also chooses some of my favourite authors (P.G. Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, John Buchan, Agatha Christie) to illustrate his points.

Bloom tracks the development of ‘the bestseller’ alongside increasing literacy levels in Britain, showing how new literature classifications emerged (high-brow and low-brow) to keep class distinctions alive in literature (previously the lower classes had been illiterate). Bloom exposes ‘literary fiction’ as (arguably) little more than snobbery. ‘Serious literature, made purposefully unfathomable and dire, ensure that it remains the province of an expensively-educated elite. As Bloom says:

No use of literary language can claim, ab initio, an aesthetic principle that is superior per se and no such claim can avoid the acrid whiff of moral, class and personal superiority. What emerges is a test of psychic health and moral eugenics rather than literary judgement. What is left is condemnation dressed as artistic judgement, and in each condemnation the unwashed smell of the popular creeps through.

This is top stuff!

As a newcomer to Britain, I was surprised (usually bemused, but sometimes shocked) to find class distinction’ still pervades British life. Almost everything one does in Britain – where you shop, what you wear, eat and drink, how you speak, the paper you read – mark you out for approval or condemnation. I was fascinated to understand how class distinction has also been transposed to the world of literature classification and genre.

It was a freeing revelation for me as a reader. Discovering that literary elitism is rooted in class snobbery adds to my pleasure in snubbing pretentious ‘must read lists’ and reading what I enjoy. And for the same reasons, I now feel guilty for having looked down on romance fiction and ‘chick-lit’. Bloom shows (whether he intended to or not) that disparaging these genres is effectively  disparaging working and middle-class women. I have vowed to do this no longer!

As you see, I found Clive Bloom’s Bestsellers well worth reading and reflecting on, but there was one fly in the ointment that must be commented on. In the second half of the book, Bloom lists the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, along with a precis of their life and work. In his discussion of the author P.G. Wodehouse, Bloom states Wodehouse ‘broadcast for the Nazis’, but after a time ‘the public seemed to accept him’ again. To present this episode in Wodehouse’s life in such a way does great disservice to the author – and is no credit to Bloom either.

There has been a wealth of material written on the subject of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, particularly since the relevant war office archives were released*. Apologies to long-time readers and fans for reviving the matter again here, but I think it’s worth reiterating once more: repeated researchers and biographers have found, as did MI5, that Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathiser or collaborator.

Wodehouse was living in France at the outbreak of WWII, and spent part of the war in a German prison camp. After his release, he was approached by a former Hollywood acquaintance to record some humorous broadcasts to America.   There was nothing pro-German in the content of the broadcasts, which gently mocked the Nazis in the same comic style for which Wodehouse is so admired. The broadcasts were also in keeping with a British tradition for humour in the face of adversity, exemplified during the previous war by The Wipers Times (which was well received in Britain).

Few people in Britain heard the broadcasts. The denunciation of Wodehouse that followed was an orchestrated response, led by The Daily Mirror columnist William Connor (pen name ‘Cassandra’). The British public, who hadn’t heard the broadcasts for themselves, accepted ‘Cassandra’ at his word. Wodehouse’s error was in broadcasting humour  from Germany at such a time. His supporters, like Orwell, have suggested Wodehouse was politically naive. He was certainly no Nazi. Before the war, Wodehouse famously lampooned influential British fascist Oswald Mosley, in the character of Roderick Spode (in The Code of the Woosters, 1938). Wodehouse’s Spode was a ridiculous bully, amateur dictator and leader of the ‘black shorts':

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

Wodehouse’s anti-fascist credentials stand up to scrutiny far better than the newspaper responsible for denouncing him. The Daily Mirror had actively supported Mosely’s Blackshirts under Lord Rothermere, who counted Hitler and Mussolini as personal friends. The paper was presumably disinclined to write columns of scathing bile about itself, and the Wodehouse story must have seemed like a gift.

When Wodehouse made the broadcasts, he had just been released from a long period of internment where he had been isolated from the events of the war. Much had changed during that time – including the public mood in Britain. He had no cause to suspect that a gently amusing, stiff-upper-lip account of his own capture and imprisonment would be received so badly. Wodehouse intended no harm in broadcasting, and was no harm was caused – apart from the lasting damage to his own reputation.

Under such circumstances it has been easy for Wodehouse readers to not only forgive (as Bloom indicates), but to also feel aggrieved when we encounter examples which perpetuate mistaken beliefs that Wodehouse was in any way connected with Nazis or their ideology. It was disappointing to find in Bloom’s otherwise excellent book.

Don’t let this put you off reading Bestsellers by Clive Bloom. It’s a terrific book. But I think it’s important that we continue to put the record straight.

*For more on Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, try Ian Sproat’s (1981) ‘Wodehouse at War’ and Robert McCrum’s (2004) Wodehouse: A Life. You can also read the fulltext of the broadcasts online.

HP

(c) Copyright. My original writing is are subject to copyright. You are welcome to quote, with permission, acknowledging me as the author. This review was originally post at my book review blog, Honorias Notebook, which has been decommissioned.

Jeeves and Worcestershire

honoria plum:

What Ho! What Ho! What Ho! For all the budding Anatoles our there, I heartily suggest trying this recipe from ‘The Book Cook’. Her blog is terrific fun!

Originally posted on The Book Cook:

When I was a young girl, I would watch my dad laughing out loud as he read P.G. Wodehouse. Wanting to be in on the joke, I would flip through the pages of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, laughing out loud in imitation even though I didn’t understand what was going on. As I got older and both my love of literature and sense of humor developed, my enjoyment of the books became authentic. Wodehouse’s writing style is light and his character descriptions are hilarious, and because of that, Jeeves and Wooster have long been my favorite literary duo.

Hollandaise perfectly describes the relationship between Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. This sauce has so much potential to go wrong – too much heat and it can split, and too little heat and it won’t get cooking. It takes the sharp attention of the chef’s eye to keep it together. In each…

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Joyeux anniversaire à moi

hazy paris birthday

In Paris with Performing Flea (we quadragenarians are entitled to a little photoshop softening around the chins)

What Ho!  Or as we say in France, ‘Bonjour!’

Usually at this time of year, I mark my birthday by lazily by re-blogging an old piece, The desert island pickings of a quadragenarian, which is beginning to date me in a rather unflattering manner. This year, I’d like to share a few snippets from my birthday celebrations, in Paris.WP_20140828_12_23_02_Pro It’s a slight deviation from the usual Wodehouse, but the occasional binge is an essential part of the Plumtopian experience.

My present this year wperforming flea inscriptionas a copy of Wodehouse’s Performing Flea, which my eight year old traveling companion inscribed (left). We  spent the day walking along La Seine and wandering about the Latin Quarter.  It was good to visit the famous ‘Shakespeare and Company’, teeming with American college graduates, although the nearby Abbey Bookshop – quieter and quirkier – was more to my liking.  

 

One of nature’s extroverts, I also enjoyed the opportunity to practice my appalling phrasebook French. I suspect Wodehouse was being typically modest about his abilities when he wrote, in a Preface to a new edition of  French Leave:

I never succeeded in speaking French, but I learned to read it all right, which is all I need, for now that I am 92 and shall never leave my Long Island home it is improbable that I shall ever have the opportunity of kidding back and forth with a Frenchman, and my views on pencils will remain unspoken.

Pencils, owing to my instructress at Berlitz, were the only subject on which I was able to speak with authority. She taught me all I know today about pencils (or crayons as we call them in France). ‘Le crayon est jaune ‘, I learned to say. ‘Le crayon est bleu’. ‘Donnez-moi le crayon de ma tante’, and lots more on this fascinating topic. If some French manufacturer of pencils had happened along, I would have held him spellbound with my knowledge of his business, but in general society the difficulty of working pencils into the conversation was too much for me and after a while I gave it up and stuck to the normal grunts and gurgles of a foreigner who finds himself cornered by anything Gallic.

I didn’t get to chat pencils with the Parisians either, but the day was not without it’s Wodehouse sightings.

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HP

(c) Copyright. My original writing and images at Plumtopia are subject to copyright. You are welcome to quote from my writing with permission, acknowledging me as the author.

 

 

 

 

 

Delightful Characters of the Canine kind in Plumsville

honoria plum:

What Ho, What Ho! I was delighted to return from holiday to discover this piece, from fellow Wodehouse lover Ashokbhatia. Happy reading!

Originally posted on ashokbhatia:

Every dog has his day. Well, on the occasion of Dogs’ Day, it is time to pay a tribute to some characters of the canine kind who regale us with their antics in Plumsville.dog-day

Their roles are not confined to the traditional kind which involve hunting, herding or pulling loads. They are never a part of a paw patrol handled by a rozzer. Instead, they have a healthy contempt for those in the uniform. They may not be indefatigable detectives out to assist a Sherlock Holmes in sniffing out crucial leads in a mysterious murder case, but they shape the love affairs of quite a few young men who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

In Plumsville, they enjoy motherly affections of the delicately nurtured. Their misdemeanors are overlooked. Their acts of omission are energetically defended, annoying the officers of the law. If taken into custody, prompt steps are taken…

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Moments when one needs a drink (Barmy in Wonderland)

‘There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’

So says M"BarmyInWonderland" by http://www.facsimiledustjackets.com/cgi-bin/fdj455/2890.html. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Barmy in Wonderland via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BarmyInWonderland.jpg#mediaviewer/File:BarmyInWonderland.jpgervyn Potter, the Hollywood heart-throb, who leads poor Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps astray in Barmy in Wonderland (1952). But before you start quoting these sentiments as the views of the author himself, have look at what happens to the frequently pie-eyed Mervyn.

In Chapter One, he gets blotto, burns down a hotel bungalow, and induces Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (a hotel employee) to slip a frog into his employer’s bedroom. In Chapter Five, Mervyn is already soaked when Barmy arrives at his house (for a dinner he never gets).

It was plain to him that the other, fatigued no doubt after a long day’s rehearsal, had yielded to the dictates of his lower self and for some considerable time must have been mopping up the stuff like a vacuum cleaner. If not actually ossified, he was indubitably plastered, and Barmy could only hope that he would not eventually reach the truculent stage.

Mervyn Potter does indeed reach the truculent stage. First, he creates a disturbance during the cabaret performance in the Champagne Room at the Piazza Hotel. Next he takes a late taxi to the Long Island home of his fiancé, where the occupants of the house are sleeping. Mervyn insists that Barmy ‘shin up the waterpipe’ and start breaking windows. The episode ends badly for Mervyn, who is discovered by Bulstrode the butler, sitting at the foot of the drainpipe reciting Longfellow’s Excelsior.  At this point his fiancé, Hermione Brimble,  very sensibly insists that he give up drinking.

‘I wonder, Phipps,’ he said, ‘if you have the slightest conception what it means to be on the wagon. I shall go through the world a haunted man. There will be joy and mirth in that world, but not in the heart of Mervyn Potter. Everywhere around me I shall hear the happy laughter of children as they dig into their Scotch highballs, but I shall not be able to join them. I shall feel like a thirsty leper.’

This is moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. I am reminded of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking, as told by Galahad Threepwood in Heavy Weather:

…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”

“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”

His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”

Unfortunately Mervyn Potter is unable to sustain this binge-free lifestyle and Hermione cancels the fixture. He gets drunk on the opening night of his latest play (in which Phipps has invested his fortune) and refuses to perform. When ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ closes, Potter is the happy star of a hit play, but his long-term future is uncertain. Whereas Barmy, who hardly touches a drop after his initial night out with Potter, is rewarded with both riches and romance.

I’m not suggesting ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is a moral tale about the evils of drink – far from it. But it’s not quite the ringing endorsement of drinking that the original quotation (if taken as the author’s view on the subject) might suggest.  Which brings me back to my original point. Wodehouse’s characters espoused a great variety of views and opinions, often ludicrous or extreme, which makes for great comedy. We can do nothing to stop a vexatious critic from presenting these opinions as the author’s own, but we should take care not to do so ourselves.

But that’s enough from me for one day.  This blogging is thirsty business and it’s almost noon – or will be once I’ve dressed and prepared my liver for the day’s potations. I leave you with these fine sentiments from the attractive Peggy Marlowe (‘not unknown to the choruses of Broadway’) who has difficulty procuring a glass of champagne after the opening-night flop in ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ .

‘What I vote,’ said Miss Marlowe, ‘is that somebody slips me a tankard of that juice. I’m surprised you haven’t offered me any before, dreamboat,’ she went on, addressing Barmy reproachfully: ‘Who do you think I am? Volstead or someone?’

HP

(c) Copyright. My original writing at Plumtopia is subject to copyright. You are welcome to quote from my writing with permission, acknowledging me as the author.

In Search of Plumtopia

honoria plum:

It is three years today since I began this Wodehouse inspired blog, in search of Plumtopia. This was my very first piece.

Originally posted on Plumtopia: The world of P.G. Wodehouse:

What Ho!

I have started this blog as part of a lifelong quest for utopia.

Unfortunately, the quest hasn’t been going so well, ever since I took that wrong turn at Bass Strait. Tasmania is quite pretty in places, but I don’t fit in here. I feel much as Alice anticipated she might upon reaching the end of the rabbit hole.

‘How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The antipathies, I think -‘ 

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll 

It has been suggested to me by some presumably well-intentioned people that my disgruntlement with life might be due to my… err… personal issues and failure to view the world with positivity. Have you thought of counselling? The message from these smugly contented souls is a simple one – Utopia is a state of mind, so the problem is you!

I’ve…

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Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge

1919 My Man JeevesNew Wodehouse readers sometimes ask which of the Jeeves stories they should read first. Opinion on the matter seems to be divided into two camps; many people recommend ‘Carry On, Jeeves’, whereas I usually suggest ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923). Both are excellent. The difficulty is a matter of chronology.

Today’s writers and publishers make it easy for readers to progress from ‘book one’ of a series in a logical and predictable manner, through its various instalments, to the series conclusion. Many modern series are well planned in advance. Others feature recurring characters in separate stories (crime fiction leaps to mind) which can be read in any order, although the chronologically-inclined reader can read them in order of publication to avoid ‘spoilers’. And modern readers are so accustomed to ‘the novel’ that it’s the only form of fiction most of us ever read.

Many readers are surprised to discover Carry On, Jeeves and The Inimitable Jeeves are collected short stories (although some of the later Jeeves books are novels). Wodehouse was writing in the halcyon days of the short story, and he was a master of  that format.  With a terrific number of magazines publishing fiction, writers like the young Wodehouse could earn sufficient income from writing to pay the bills, while developing his craft and audience. Authors like Wodehouse (Conan-Doyle is another example) would later revise their stories for publication in book form.

Most of the early Jeeves stories were collected under the title ‘My Man Jeeves’ (1919) – some featuring a chap called Reggie Pepper. By 1923, when ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ was published, Bertie Wooster is firmly established as narrator. In the 1925 collection, ‘Carry On, Jeeves’, Wodehouse reworked some of the earlier stories into the new and improved Wooster narrative. He also included new stories that follow on from events in The Inimitable Jeeves.

Beginning with ‘Carry On, Jeeves’

1925 Carry On Jeeves (orange penguin classic)This seems the logical starting point for many people. It opens with the ‘first’ Jeeves story (‘Jeeves Takes Charge’), in which Jeeves enters Bertie’s employment, cures his hangover, and disentangles him from an engagement with the unsuitable Florence Craye.

…he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start. Meadowes had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in.

This is followed by the revised early stories from ‘My Man Jeeves’, set mainly in America.  Then Wodehouse gives us two wonderful new stories: ‘The rummy affair of old Biffy’ and ‘Without the Option’. Both feature Bertie’s ex-fiancé Honoria Glossop and her father Sir Roderick, the eminent ‘nerve specialist’.

One of the things that get this old crumb so generally disliked among the better element of the community is the fact that he has a head like the dome of St. Paul’s and eyebrows that want bobbing or shingling to reduce them to anything like reasonable size. It is a nasty experience to see this bald and bushy bloke advancing on you when you haven’t prepared the strategic railways in your rear.

These Glossops are notorious among Wodehouse readers, but unless you’ve read ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ you won’t have met them. Although Wodehouse can generally be enjoyed out of order, these particular stories are better if you’re familiar with the characters – and ‘The rummy affair of old Biffy’ gives away the plot of the earlier story.

There are similar issues with ‘Clustering around young Bingo’. This is a very successful reworking of the Reggie Pepper story, ‘Rallying round old George’. Old George has been replaced with young Bingo Little, whose love life featured heavily in ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’. If you happen to read ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ first, you’ll know all about the woman Bingo eventually marries. This may not spoil your enjoyment of ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’, but it will spoil the surprise.

Beginning with ”The Inimitable Jeeves’

1923 The Inimitable Jeeves mycopy Chronologically, the events of ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ take place sometime between the first and the sixth chapters of ‘Carry On, Jeeves.‘  But it would be pedantic and unnecessary to read the stories in that order.

The Inimitable Jeeves’ makes the best introduction to the saga, in my view, because no prior knowledge is required to enjoy and fully understand the stories. Importantly, there are no plot spoilers or references to past events. Indeed, this book introduces many of the saga’s recurring characters. Reading ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ first does nothing to diminish the enjoyment of ‘Carry On, Jeeves’, and some stories in that collection are arguably more enjoyable for being read second.

For the modern reader, less accustomed to short stories, ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ is a more seamless collection than ‘Carry On Jeeves’. The stories, mostly published during 1922 in  Cosmopolitan (US) and  The Strand (UK) magazines, are more closely interconnected than the collection in ‘Carry On, Jeeves’.

Other possible beginnings

If you have a particular mania for chronological correctness, you could begin with the aforementioned My Man Jeeves (1919). Getting your hands on a copy may not be so easy, and as Wodehouse revised most of it for ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ there really isn’t much point. This is a volume best left for the Wodehouse fanatics (the ranks of whom, you may soon be joining).

At the risk of complicating things further, a purist might scoff at the sort of slacker who begins with My Man Jeeves, when the first Jeeves story, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, was published much earlier, in 1915 (not to be confused with the other ‘first’ Jeeves story, ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’, which was not the first written, but recounts Bertie and Jeeves’ first meeting). ‘Extricating Young Gussie’  appeared in the 1917 collection ‘The Man with Two Left Feet‘. By all means read it, if you find a copy, but it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.

Perhaps the most common approach to reading Wodehouse is to start with whichever book you happen to chance across and be perfectly content to devour the rest of them in whatever order you seize upon them. Many people have read Wodehouse this way, especially those of us who collected our books second-hand in the days before internet booksellers and modern reprintings of his work.

So to the modern reader seeking advice, I recommend ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’, but it’s advice you should feel free to ignore.

HP

References and further reading
Madam Eulalie (annotations)
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

(c) Copyright. My original writing at Plumtopia is subject to copyright. You are welcome to quote from my writing with permission, acknowledging me as the author.