Imitating style: Jane Austen

Imitating authors seems quite the fashion at present. Unlike Sebastian Faulks, I haven’t the nerve to attempt Wodehouse, but I once attempted a piece in the style of the great satirist Jane Austen. As discussed previously, Austen is an author beloved by many Wodehouse fans so I’d like to share my little effort with you. It’s not Wodehouse, I know, but we’re not sticklers at Plumtopia. This is Liberty Hall!

Every Michaelmas, for some fifteen years past, Mrs Harper and her daughters were invited to visit her uncle, the Rev. James Archer, at Sandford Parsonage in Devonshire. James Archer was, like many elderly widowers, fond of children, and each year he entreated them to extend their visit for as long as Mr Harper could spare them. Mr Harper, having no similar inclination toward the company of his children, readily obliged – to the satisfaction of all, and the great relief of his wife.

Mrs Harper had not been married a twelvemonth before she discovered that the man, with whom she once fancied herself in love, was singularly fixed upon prosperity and disinclined to regard her after securing her twelve thousand pounds. Had they settled among her acquaintance in Devonshire, Louisa Harper might have borne her situation tolerably, but her husband’s partiality for Shropshire – and the society of his own relations – only increased her discontent, and for many years, her children afforded her only happiness.

But the severity of that wretchedness which so afflicted a delicate wife of nineteen, was, in time, reduced to nothing more pitiable than common dissatisfaction. George Harper was prudent with his wife’s money and, on the advice of a trusted friend, made so fortunate an investment as to double their income within six years. This improvement in situation saw the Harpers most admirably regarded by all their acquaintance; they had a fine house, kept the appropriate number of servants, and though Mr Harper did not care for a barouche, they dined in the first circles; thus, for his shortcomings as a husband, he agreeably consoled his wife.

Prosperity had so cheerful an effect on George Harper’s constitution as to remove any objections he might have made to the expense of his wife and daughters visiting Devonshire. Indeed he had long been sensible of the economy to be gained by their lengthy removal, and was now excessively glad to accommodate them. Mrs Harper therefore applied to her uncle:-

‘My dear James,

I was delighted with your account of Sophia Hall’s wedding, and I hope we shall soon have the pleasure of wishing them joy in person – for I write to tell you George has conceded to my wish of visiting Sandford once more. It should not surprise you that I am anxious to see Devonshire again and I am sure you must understand my preference for your company over the society in which I find myself. I know Margaret and Emily long to see you, for you are a great favourite with them as you know. Emily has grown so tall since we last stopped at Sandford that you will hardly know her. We can easily make our visit at Michaelmas, but it would give us so much pleasure if you might agree to have us sooner.

Yours, affectionately


The letter, so artfully composed, brought upon its reader such fond sentiments as had been its design, but it was a note enclosed from Miss Harper that produced the tenderest regard.


You did not tell us in your letter of Mrs Hall’s hat or whether the dresses were silk or muslin. If you did not notice, please ask Miss Gregson to give you the particulars for I would be monstrous glad to know. But do not trouble yourself too much as Mamma says we shall see you soon.


The arrival of Mrs Harper and her daughters before September would cause some little inconvenience to her uncle, who was also expecting a visit from his son, Edward; the parsonage could not accommodate so many, and James Archer spent a week deciding which party to put off. Edward seldom visited his father above twice a year, and James Archer had at that particular time, a most anxious desire to discuss with him a matter of some delicacy. But his good conscience could not permit his unhappy niece and her daughters turned away, and thus, he bid Mrs Harper to visit the parsonage when she chose.

With all the true affection of an uncle, James Archer looked forward to their visit, although by nature, he was disposed to prefer solitude. Even in youth, he had not entered much into society and, as a consequence, had remained unmarried until late in life. His eventual marriage, at the age of forty-two, to Miss Isabelle Thurston of Sussex, greatly astonished his acquaintance. Miss Thurston was remarkable neither by appearance nor accomplishment; her manners were regarded dull. But she had a legacy of fifteen thousand pounds to recommend her, and on this score alone, Mr Archer, whose living was less than tw0 hundred a year, could hardly be regarded her equal.

Miss Thurston’s own relations, most particularly her brother, Sir John Thurston, were not so displeased with the match as might be imagined; for her sickly appearance and nervous disposition had given them such apprehension of her, at nine-and-twenty, ever forming an attachment. Any anxiety, on Sir John’s account, was quickly allayed on his being assured of Mr Archer’s good character and connections. Had either side enquired as to the particulars of their mutual regard, they would have been well satisfied, but as neither did, they did not discover it.

Unlike his poor niece, James Archer enjoyed the felicity of a marriage of similar minds and temperament; the Archer’s were suited in every respect, and shared a tender regard so advantageous to matrimonial contentment. But after the arrival of a son, not two years later, Isabelle Archer took ill and died. Her husband, who had scarcely the spirit to endure his own grief, was unequal to the care of a child, so Edward was removed to the custody of his maternal Uncle, Sir John Thurston, and raised at Marshwood Hall with every advantage that a family of the Thurstons’ wealth and connections could provide him.

The Rev. James Archer lived so modestly within his income that, when young Edward was not ten years old, he could settle a sum of twenty thousand on the child. Though it was not his design, the gesture affected Sir John and Lady Thurston profoundly, securing him forever in their good-opinion, and Lady Thurston herself dispatched an invitation to the parsonage. Any unease on James Archer’s part, of accepting the offer, was overcome only by an earnest desire to see his son, and he made his first visit to Marshwood within a fortnight. Sir John and Lady Thurston were so well satisfied with the father, that they entreated him to visit Marshwood often; thus, James Archer was afforded that attachment, so natural between father and son, he had thought given up forever.

Five more favourite writers of Wodehouse readers

In my last piece, I revealed the top top five authors Wodehouse lovers in the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse’ Facebook community named as their favourites (when not reading Wodehouse). No doubt you’re itching to know who else our Plum chums love to read, so I’m here to share the next five most popular authors named. As these five were almost equally popular, I’ve listed them chronologically.

Pickwickclub_serialCharles Dickens (b. 1812)

‘She dotes on poetry, sir. She adores it; I may say that her whole soul and mind are wound up, and entwined with it. She has produced some delightful pieces, herself, sir. You may have met with her ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog,’ sir.” ‘

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

Dickens has both fans and detractors among our Wodehouse loving fraternity. As someone who reads for escapist pleasure, I sympathise with those who avoid Dickens. It seems Wodehouse was not a fan either. In a 1954 letter to Denis Mackail, he asked: ‘Do you hate Dickens’s stuff? I can’t read it.’ (Sophie Ratcliffe, A Life in Letters)  And yet he must have done, because Dickens references have be spotted in the Wodehouse canon.

Take this example, from an early school story Tales of St. Austin’s (see ‘The Annotated Wodehouse’ for others):

‘Bradshaw,’ I said, as I reached page 103 without having read a line, ‘do you know any likely bits?’

Bradshaw looked up from his book. He was attempting to get a general idea of Thucydides’ style by reading Pickwick.

‘What?’ he said.

I obliged with a repetition of my remark.

‘Likely bits? Oh, you mean for the Thucydides. I don’t know. Mellish never sets the bits any decent ordinary individual would set. I should take my chance if I were you.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to read Pickwick. Thicksides doesn’t come within a mile of it.’

I thought so too.

Wodehouse, Tales of St. Austin’s (1903)

The choice of ‘Pickwick’ is significant here; one can hardly imagine the boys reading  Bleak House or Barnaby Rudge with the same enthusiasm. Author Julie Berry suggests ‘Pickwick’ might have influenced Wodehouse more deeply. It’s a view I’m ill-qualified to judge without reading ‘Pickwick’ for myself, so I’ve acquired a copy and have added it to my reading list.

Saki (b. 1870)

“I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”

Saki (The Unbearable Bassington)

The stories of Hector Munro, written under the pen name Saki, are often cited as a favourite of Wodehouse readers, and if that’s not recommendation enough – Wodehouse himself was a fan. So too was the ever-reliable Christopher Hitchens:

‘At the age of 15, Noel Coward was staying in an English country house and found a copy of Beasts and Super-Beasts on a table: “I took it up to my bedroom, opened it casually and was unable to go to sleep until I had finished it.” I had a similar experience at about the same age, and I agree with Coward that H. H. Munro—or “Saki,” the author of the book in question—is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later. I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story. Begin with, say, “Sredni Vashtar” or “The Lumber-Room” or “The Open Window.” Then see whether you can put the book down.’

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic (2008)

I’ve not read any Saki, but I like what I’ve seen and plan to correct this at the earliest opportunity.

Richmal_CromptonRichmal Crompton (b. 1890)

“ Readin’ all those books makes me wonder whether anyone ever dies natural.”

Richmal Crompton

An author I’m sorry to say I’d never heard of until last week (and must also add to my reading list), Richmal Crompton was a contemporary of Wodehouse, a prolific author of over eighty titles, best remembered for her Just William books. They are school stories, a genre Wodehouse started in, but moved away from. I’d love to know what he made of them. Crompton also wrote novels and short stories for adults. I look forward learning more about her and her writing.

R.K. Narayan (b.1906)

“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”

R.K. Narayan

The choice of this Indian writer in an otherwise British ‘top ten’ line-up reflects, to some extent, Wodehouse’s large following in contemporary India. Although to be fair, R.K. Narayan is also highly regarded and deservedly popular outside his homeland. Narayan was also a Wodehouse fan, and a quick google search reveals scores of readers who are devoted readers of both – making Narayan another recommendation I’ll be adding to my list.

‘R. K. Narayan tells ordinary stories extraordinarily well… His Malgudi is like Hardy’s Wessex and P.G. Wodehouse’s Blanding (sic), far from the clamour and turmoil of urban settings, a place where life carries on at a leisurely pace and change is minimal.’

Rajdeep Bains in The Tribune, India (2004)

John Mortimer (b.1923)

“The main aim of education should be to send children out into the world with a reasonably sized anthology in their heads so that, while seated on the lavatory, waiting in doctor’s surgeries, on stationary trains or watching interviews with politicians, they have something interesting to think about.”

 John Mortimer

Through the medium of 1970s television,  I was acquainted with Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey, long before I could read. Every Sunday night, the family would sit around my Grandmother’s colour television watching Rumpole and other British comedies of the era: The Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Are You Being Served. Whatever faint chance I had of understanding these shows at such a young age was wholly shattered by my inability (or anybody else’s) to hear anything above the hysterical noise emanating from my grandmother. It hardly mattered. Her frothing and squealing delighted and fascinated me far more than any television show could have done. As an adult, I’ve read most of John Mortimer’s books several times over. His wit, easy style, and nostalgic associations always make for a pleasurable read.

Until I started researching this piece however, I’d never associated Mortimer with Wodehouse, whom I discovered much later (that’s quite a story, by the way). So I was delighted to find John Mortimer was a great Wodehouse fan. Indeed, after Mortimer’s death in 2009, Edward Cazalet (Wodehouse’s grandson) said of him:

‘He never missed an opportunity of referring to “The Master”, as he called Plum when speaking to me, in terms of the highest admiration. He wrote a thorough and scholarly assessment of Wodehouse in The Best of Wodehouse (an Everyman Anthology), starting with the theme that “It is a serious fault in our approach to literature, that we do not take comedy seriously”. Then, taking comedy seriously, he went on to rank Wodehouse as one of the best writers of the first half of the 20th century.’

Edward Cazalet (in a piece for the P G Wodehouse Society)

I can certainly recommend Mortimer to fans of Wodehouse. UK-based fans can also listen to the new BBC radio adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Rumpole. He is not Leo McKern of course, but one can hardly blame a chap for that. He is also far too young for the part, but despite my misgivings I thought he was very good.

This completes our top ten. What do you think of it? Have you discovered anything new? I look forward to sharing a third and final instalment on ‘authors Wodehouse readers also read’  very soon.  Until then, happy reading!

The Hapless Rozzers in Plumsville

honoria plum:

An excellent study of Plums’ Rozzers from the talented Ashokbhatia. Not to be missed!

Originally posted on ashokbhatia:

In quite a few memoirs of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, we are treated to an exquisite insight into the way the long arm of the law works.

One is not referring here to the stern looking beaks who sit in a Court of Law, eyeing Bertie Wooster or any of his friends censoriously over their well-polished pince-nez while dishing out sentences without the option.

Instead, one alludes here to the humble constabulary which ensures that the laws in force are rigorously implemented without a flaw on their personal reputation and character. While tracking down criminals, they spare no effort. It is their upright and proper conduct which upholds the might of the Law. They are invariably meticulous in their approach. They show due respect to the gentler sex, unless they have direct evidence to the contrary. Even defaulters of the canine kind do not escape their fury.

When it comes…

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What do Wodehouse lovers read when not reading Wodehouse?

“You are evidently fond of mystery plays.”

“I love them.”

“So do I. And mystery novels?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Have you read Blood on the Banisters?”

“Oh, yes! I thought it was much better than Severed Throats.”

“So did I,” said Cyril. “Much better. Brighter murders, subtler detectives, crisper clues … better in every way.”

The two twin souls gazed into each other’s eyes. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

P G Wodehouse (‘Strychnine in the Soup’ in Mulliner Nights)

I recently asked the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse’ Facebook community about their favourite authors – who they like to read when not curled up with Plum’s latest. The response was a staggering 370 comments (and counting) listing over 250 different authors. I’ve collated the replies and can now reveal the top 50 authors these Wodehouse lovers named as their favourites. I start today with the top 5.

Source: Agatha Christie

Christie and Wodehouse had much in common: they were contemporaries, prolific writers, and masters of their respective genres with huge audiences for their work. They both had problems with income tax, and were embroiled in personal scandals that continue to attract media speculation long after their deaths. In their lifetimes they were mutual fans, and Agatha Christie dedicated her 1969 Poirot novel  Hallowe’en Party:

“To P. G. Wodehouse — whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”

Wodehouse was an enthusiastic reader of crime stories, as Maggie Schnader discusses in her excellent piece: ‘On P.G. Wodehouse and Crime Fiction: Or, Wodehouse Writes a Thriller?’ , and Wodehouse’s plots are brimming with criminal activity – from burglary, fraud and impersonation through to assault and battery. Mickey Finns abound, and even Jeeves knows how to handle a cosh! Some of Wodehouse’s best ‘crime’ stories have been collected in a volume called Wodehouse on Crime.

With Christie and Wodehouse among the world’s most loved (and translated) writers, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see her feature so highly among Wodehouse readers.  She is certainly one of my favourites.

2. Douglas Adams

People sometimes say to me, “Do you ever aspire to write a serious book?” And my practiced glib answer to that is, “No, my aspirations are much greater than that. I aspire to write like P.G. Wodehouse.”        (Writing like P.G. Wodehouse)

Douglas Adams was open in his admiration for Wodehouse, calling him ‘the greatest comic writer ever’, and Wodehouse’s influence is clear in his wonderfully funny style. He contributed a Foreword to a modern edition of Wodehouse’s last novel, Sunset at Blandings, which was included in ‘The Salmon of Doubt.’

Master? Great genius? Oh yes. One of the most blissful joys of the English language is the fact that one of its greatest practitioners ever, one of the guys on the very top table of all, was a jokesmith. Though maybe it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Who else would be up there? Austen, of course, Dickens and Chaucer. The only one who couldn’t make a joke to save his life would be Shakespeare….

What Wodehouse writes is pure word music. It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.

Adams’ Introduction to Sunset at Blandings

Many modern readers of Wodehouse (myself included) read Douglas Adams before we discovered Wodehouse. Some have even come to Wodehouse on the strength of Adams’ recommendations – so it’s little wonder that Adams is so highly regarded among the modern Wodehouse-loving public.

Source: Terry Pratchett

‘Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.’                Terry Pratchett (Soul Music)

Susan’s feelings on ‘Literature’ are in sympathy with views expressed by many a Wodehouse hero. As a huge Terry Pratchett fan, I was delighted to discover Pratchett is a popular author among fellow Wodehouse fans – and with good reason. There is much to enjoy in Pratchett’s wit and style, and like Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett is a superb creator of strong female characters. The following exchange ( for example) would not be out of place in Wodehouse:

“The female mind is certainly a devious one, my lord.”
Vetinari looked at his secretary in surprise. “Well, of course it is. It has to deal with the male one.”

Terry Pratchett (Unseen Academicals)

Terry Pratchett has also been a fitting winner of the Bollinger Wodehouse prize, awarded to authors who best capture the ‘comic spirit’ of Wodehouse. Many Wodehouse fans would agree!

4. Jane Austen

“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.”

 Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility)

Elinor Dashwood might as easily have been speaking to Madeline Bassett, or indeed to thousands of modern females who delight in the romance of Jane Austen, but don’t ‘get’ the jokes. In a world where the commercialisation of Jane Austen has depreciated her work through ill-conceived adaptations for the soupy ‘bosoms and bonnet’ brigade, it is heart-warming to know there are still many – men and women – who read and admire Austen for her sharp, satirical humour.

Douglas Adams, in his introduction to Sunset at Blandings (cited above) also included Austen in his list of greatest writers. Oddly enough, Wodehouse wasn’t a great fan of Jane Austen. One can only presume he started with the ‘wrong’ book.

5. Jerome K. Jerome

Source:“It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at.  The heroine of a modern novel is always “divinely tall,” and she is ever “drawing herself up to her full height.”  At the “Barley Mow” she would bump her head against the ceiling each time she did this.”    Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat)

Wodehouse, who preferred his heroines pint-sized, might well have approved. He would certainly have been familiar with Jerome K. Jerome’s much-loved classic ‘Three Men and a Boat’, which was published in 1889 when young Plum was still in sailor suits. Was Wodehouse a fan? Either the record is silent on the matter, or it’s a record I couldn’t find. Experts please advise.

Three Men in a Boat is a work often cited by Wodehouse readers. I read it following a recommendation from a fellow Plum fan several years ago, and I recall attracting unwanted attention while reading it on The Tube – as my feeble attempts to suppress laughter resulted in a fit of bodily heaving and shaking. Here is a classic excerpt:

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch – hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into – some fearful, devastating scourge, I know – and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

I went to my medical man. He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, and looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather, all for nothing, when I fancy I’m ill; so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now. “What a doctor wants,” I said, “is practice. He shall have me. He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each.” So I went straight up and saw him, and he said:

“Well, what’s the matter with you?”

I said:

“I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is NOT the matter with me. I have not got housemaid’s knee. Why I have not got housemaid’s knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I HAVE got.”

These five authors were the indisputable (and deserving) favourites of our group, but if you think these choices reflect rather predictable reading tastes, think again!  The reading lists of Wodehouse fans are incredibly diverse, and I look forward to sharing more with you over the coming days and weeks.

You might also like to join the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse‘ Facebook community (which is just one of many excellent Wodehouse groups) as well our new Facebook bookclub ‘The Wood Hills Literary Society’. We look forward to meeting you.

Wodehouse and the stuffed eel-skin of Fate

Reading GalahadBertie Wooster once said:

‘I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.’ (Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest)

So it was in February; I was sitting happily at my keyboard, brow furrowed with concentration as I worked on a delightful series of blog pieces on the theme of Wodehouse and love, in anticipation of Valentine’s day – the anniversary of Wodehouse’s death. The first three chapters of my first novel had received a nod of approval from a well-established author, and Winter was drawing to a close. Life was filled with the promise of Spring larks and snails; God was in His heaven and all was right in the world of Honoria Plum. But, as Wodehouse so often tells us: “‘what is life but a series of sharp corners, round each of which Fate lies in wait for us with a stuffed eel-skin?” (Uneasy Money).

Into my quiet, uneventful life, there entered a concatenation of circumstances – wheels within wheels – that dragged me regretfully from the keyboard and into the unpleasant realities of life.  I shudder to recall those early days of ‘the crisis’ , without a Jeeves, a Psmith, or even an efficient Baxter to aid me in my darkest hour. I’ve pulled through the worst of it now, and the future looks, if not rosy, decidedly more passable than it did just two months ago.

As ever, I owe a debt of gratitude to P.G. Wodehouse. Not for the first time, I turned to the sweetness and light of his writing to lift my spirit in troubled times. Plumtopia is alive and well!


Tuppy Glossop’s One True Love…

honoria plum:

Thanks so much to Fiction Fan for this excellent study of Tuppy Glossop and his ‘true love’. I find the defendant guilty!

Originally posted on FictionFan's Book Reviews:

A Valentine’s Day Tribute to PG Wodehouse…

right ho jeevesAll dedicated Jeeves followers know that, amidst all the sundered hearts and star-crossed lovers, one thing can be counted on throughout – Tuppy Glossop’s one true love is Aunt Dahlia’s only child, Angela.

Or is she? I beg to put forward another hypothesis for your consideration. My evidence is taken from Right Ho, Jeeves – the book which lets us see the Angela/Tuppy relationship most intimately, and I think when the facts are presented to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you too will draw the conclusion that Tuppy’s heart belongs firmly to Another.

* * * * * * * * *

First let’s look at some of the things that Tuppy says about his supposedly beloved Angela.

* * * * * * * * *

The witness Bertie Wooster tells us…

…they had had their little tiffs, notably on…

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Cover Story: 5 people share their ideas about Classic Novels they’ve never read

I wrote this a few years ago at my personal blog, which I am now decommissioning. I thought I’d save this piece to share here with fellow Wodehouse lovers.

This week, I enjoyed a piece called Judging a Book by Its Cover: A 6-year-old guesses what classic novels are all about. It inspired me to conduct a similar exercise of my own. I showed the covers of 7 classic novels – one from each category of  The Guardian’s list of 1000 novels everyone must read) – to five people, of different ages, who had not read these books. I asked them to consider what, if anything, they already knew about the book, what they thought it was about, and whether they’d like to read it. I was particularly interested to compare how their responses varied.

The subjects were:

  • Amelia, a bright 6-year-old girl.
  • Ian, an intelligent 28-year-old who has struggled with reading throughout his life due to a learning disability (he can read words, but loses track of meaning in complex sentences).
  • Stephanie, a 37-year-old avid reader with eclectic tastes.
  • Bill, a 43-year-old who likes science fiction.
  • Lena, a 63-year-old who reads popular psychology and spiritual non-fiction.

Decline And Fall by Evelyn Waugh

“a bit of an odd cover for a historical book.”

AMELIA: thought this might be a P.G. Wodehouse book because “one of them looks like Jeeves.” She thought the story might about things that fall off. “Coats might fall off people or cars might fall into water.”

IAN: thinks it might be “about somebody gaining money or gaining power and then losing it.” Asked if he would be interested to read it, he wasn’t convinced it would be worth reading.

STEPHANIE: “I don’t know what it’s about, but I loved Vile Bodies and I’d love to read this. It might be about the same kind of thing – decadent living and debauchery.”

BILL: “I’ve heard of this, it’s a history of the Roman Empire. It’s a bit of an odd cover for a historical book. I would have expected Roman Emperors or statues of things. Something a bit more Roman. Have I got the right book? It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually read.” After reading the blurb Bill said, “That sounds better  – I might actually give it a read.”

LENA: “It’s probably set in the early 1900s – 1930s, perhaps a romance between people from different social stratas.” When the plot was described, Lena was surprised. “It hadn’t entered my mind that it might be a comedy. I’ve heard Evelyn Waugh is a good writer so I’d certainly give it some consideration on the basis of that – and the period in which it’s set. I quite like things of that era.”

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Not Anna Karenina

AMELIA: “It might be about “someone stealing and then they had to get in jail. It doesn’t sound very nice. It sounds a little bit mean.”

IAN:  “I have heard of this.” Ian thought the story would be “exactly what is says: steal the bread and you get your fingers cut off; do the crime, do the time.” He wouldn’t read it, but might watch the film version, “as long as it’s not subtitled.”

STEPHANIE: “I have a copy of this. I know I should read it.” She thought it might be about “Russians suffering.” When the plot was described, Stephanie said, it was “just as I suspected – grim and depressing.”

BILL: “I’m not all that hot on Russian novels”. Bill had heard of the title and author, but wasn’t really sure – or interested – in what it was about. After reading a description of the book, he was still “not really interested.” He elaborated by saying, “I tend to think of Russian authors as being a bit too depressing.”

LENA: “It’s certainly one that I’ve heard of. I’d guess that it’s set in Russia, possibly in war-time. Perhaps it’s about a captain in the Russian army – there’s a woman involved who’s married to somebody important, but she’s attracted to this dashing young officer and they have wild fling, and get caught. He’s sent to the Russian front and ‘disposed of’.” After reading the synopsis, Lena was interested in reading further” ‘I think that sounds really interesting.”

Ulysses by James Joyce

“…about a man who has no brain”

AMELIA: “It might be about a man and he has no brain and he does not know what any answer is to anything.” She thought “it might be a little bit funny, so I think I do want to read it.”

IAN:  “Is this about that over 50′s motorcycle group? Maybe he’s a blind guy who is toffee-nosed and thinks he’s better than everyone else. ” After hearing a synopsis, Ian said, “265,000 words about one day! That sounds like my Mum. She could talk for half an hour about going to the shop.”

STEPHANIE: I’ve read a biography of James Joyce and I’ve read Portrait of the Artist. I don’t find Joyce very appealing, and a lot of the people who talk about him are really pretentious. I wouldn’t mind betting half them haven’t read it (Ulysses).” After hearing a synopsis of the book, Stephanie thought it sounded “…pretty pretentious as well.”

BILL:  “It’s a bit of a classic. He named it after the Greek story by.. Homer isn’t it?” Bill doesn’t know what it’s about, but he remembers reading somewhere that it’s one of those book he ‘should’ read.” After reading the description, Bill is less keen. “I’m not really into stream-of-consciousness novels.”

LENA: “This would be a novel based loosely on the epic poem and brought into the modern era – or his era. It’s probably about a young fellow leaving the shores of his country and a fairly narrow, predictable existence – to go to war. And his whole life changes beyond what his experiences might have been if he’d never gone to war. His whole way of viewing things is challenged and he returns a very different person.” When a synopsis of the book was read to her,  Lena felt she wouldn’t want to read it. “I know people think he (Joyce) is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it doesn’t interest me. If I want stream-of-consciousness, I can listen to myself.”

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“it’s going to be a romance”

AMELIA: “It’s about a magic fence that could open by itself and someone invisible is coming into the house, and tries to steal all the kids in the house, and the children might think it’s a ghost. There might be a big adventure.” She doesn’t want to read it “because it might be too scary, but I like to hear about big adventures.”

IAN: “Stupid title for a book unless it’s a biography.” He thought it might be a thriller or a horror.  “Not my cup of tea.”

STEPHANIE: “I’ve got an old penguin paperback copy of this, and it’s always somewhere near the top of the pile so I’ll probably read it eventually. I don’t know a lot about it, apart from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock made a film of it. I’m imagining something a little bit like a Bronte novel.”

BILL: “I don’t really know anything about the book or the author. It sounds a bit like a romantic novel , or Thomas Hardy – I can’t bear Thomas Hardy! Bill was even less interested after reading the blurb.

LENA: “My mother used to read Daphne Du Maurier, but her copy of this book had a very different cover. I remember it quite vividly because it was very different from other book covers of the time – it had a picture of a very glamourous looking female on the front and it really caught my eye as a kid. I just presumed it was a romance. I guess it would be set in the 1800s. She’s either a well-to-do woman – it’s going to be a romance – who meets a guy from the wrong side of the tracks and has to leave her wealthy home behind. Or otherwise, she’s incarcerated in an insane asylum. I can’t make up my mind. Those gates seem to be symbolic of either being locked up or escaping from something.” After hearing the plot synopsis, Lena thought she probably wouldn’t read it, “but I might watch the film if it came out”.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

“mystery about a one-handed person who murders people”

AMELIA:  “There was a mountain with snow on it and even though it was a bright day, it was dark. And there was a queen who lived in the castle and whenever she saw people go past, she got a book of spells off the shelf to see if she could stop them from getting her gold and stop the white tigers from guarding the forest of darkness. At the end, when she lost, she went ‘nooooooooo!’ It might be a little be too scary for me.”

IAN:  “A murder mystery about a one-handed person who murders people with their one hand.” Ian didn’t want to read it. “I can’t really follow science fiction fantasy plots very well.”

STEPHANIE: “I’d heard of this title, but it never sounded very appealing. I really like the cover though. I have no idea what it’s about – some kind of futile struggle for meaning in the face of adversity, blah blah blah.” After hearing a synopsis of the book, she thought it was”nothing like I’d thought it was. I’d be more likely to read it, but I already have a lot of others books I want to read, so I won’t make any promises.”

BILL:  “I have heard a synopsis of the plot in past. I’ve forgotten what it was about now, but I’ve always wanted to read it.” After reading a synopsis of the book, Bill said slowly “…ahh, I think I have read that – and it was really good.” Yeah, Bill. Obviously!

LENA: “I don’t get science fiction at all. I don’t know what it could be about – some kind of time travelly, futuristicy sort of thing, set in some other dimension.” After hearing a synopsis, Lena said she was interested in reading it “on two counts because I’d be interested to see how she works that. I have got a sense of her as a name that I associate with good writing, so I’d be prepared to give it a chapter or two to see if I could get into it.”

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“Why would you call a book Bleak House?”

AMELIA:  “About a house called Bleak and a boy called Bleak, and the house could talk. And whenever the Mum called ‘Bleak!’ the boy Bleak and the House both ran to her, but she said “Bleak go away!” So she decided that she would call them ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Bleak Boy’ whenever she called out, and that solved the problem.” Amelia would read this story, “because it doesn’t sound that scary.”

IAN: “A very boring sort of house in a very boring street – the people who live there are not very nice and nobody wants to go there.” Asked if he’d read it, Ian said, “Definitely not! Why would you call a book Bleak House?”

STEPHANIE:   “I am interested in Dickens, and I know he created great characters and exposed some of the terrible conditions of his time, but… I’m depressed enough already.”

BILL:  “I’ve heard of this and I’ve heard of Dickens of course. Mainly ‘A Christmas Carol’”. It doesn’t look very cheery. Probably it’s like most Dickens – all about hardship and deprivation and incredibly depressing. I read to escape from depressing reality, not read something even more depressing.”

LENA: “Well if it’s Charles Dickens, it’s gotta be a social commentary sort of thing depicting the life of the times. He might have written it as one whole sentence. He wrote the longest sentence in history, I think. The child might be the central character, probably an orphan who has found himself in the poor house. Some rich benevolent fellow and his family might discover him, take pity on him and rescue him, and later he falls in love with the daughter of the benefactor and they go through all sorts of trials and tribulations. And Dickens covers a fair bit of territory in terms of covering the life and times of the poor and disadvantaged in England at the time. I’ve read quite a few Dickens and I really enjoyed him when I was young. A Tale of Two Cities was fantastic – really different from my life in the Australian bush. I understand what he was about, but I don’t know that I could be bothered any more.”

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad 

“wild west high shenanigans”

AMELIA: “It’s about a man who is trying to kill someone and he has a gun with five shooting holes so the girl’s in trouble. But the girl throws the cannonball back and it hits the gun. And the man turns into a prince who says, ‘How did you know I was really a prince and got transformed?” Amelia wouldn’t really like to read it “because I don’t like fighting stories.”

IAN:  “Some Spanish guy with a neat moustache hiding in the bushes? Sounds like it might be about a Mexican guy trying to sneak into America or working on a cotton or cocaine plantation in Mexico and he rises to become some head army dude like Fidel Castro. It’s probably his memoirs. Yeah! If it was a movie I might be tempted.”

STEPHANIE: “I have to confess I’ve avoided reading any Joseph Conrad because I used to go out with this guy who really loved Conrad. This guy was an awful prat, and unfortunately I’ve just associated Conrad with him and haven’t been able to touch him (Conrad). But I started reading The Secret Agent the other day and I have to say that I love his writing style. I don’t know what this one is about though. Is it the sea one?” After reading the book blurb, Stephanie wasn’t sure if she’d read it. “This doesn’t really sound like my kind of thing, but he’s such a great writer, perhaps he makes it more interesting than it sounds.”

BILL: “The name of the author rings a bell. Is he American? Nostromo is the name of the spaceship in the first Alien movie.” Looking at the cover, Bill thought it might be about “gold digging, claim jumping, wild west high shenanigans. Not really my sort of thing.” But after hearing a description, Bill thought, “it could be interesting.”

LENA: “I’ve read one of his. It’ll be in some exotic place. The book I read was something to do with the sea. He’s probably picked a country like South America or Spain, and he’s writing about this fellow Nostramo who takes a journey across the seas to South America and makes his fortunes in the gold mines. And the story will go on and on and on forever and he’ll describe eloquently and painstakingly every fly that flies past him, so it’ll be pretty hard going. It’ll be deep and meaningful, but I don’t think that I could be bothered. I might watch it as a movie and if I thought it wasn’t such a bad yarn, I might decide it was worth reading.”

Thanks again to my ‘subjects’ for their time and refreshing honesty. HP