Recently, over the morning eggs and b., I stumbled across a thoughtful piece by Alessandro Giuliani called Wodehouse Game. I was prompted to reply, but when my comments hit the 1200-word mark – and diverged substantially from the original piece, I felt the decent thing to do was post it here, rather than infest someone else’s blog with my rambling.
The premise of Alessandro Giuliani’s piece is that men are repelled by women who are smarter or physically more dominant than them. P.G. Wodehouse’s Florence Craye is provided as an example:
The root of the trouble was that she was one of those intellectual girls, steeped to the gills in serious purpose, who are unable to see a male soul without wanting to get behind it and shove.
Florence Craye is a well-chosen example that illustrates Alessandro Giuliani’s point. She is one of many characters from the world of fiction (male and female) who illustrate the adage that beauty is only skin deep. The premise gives Wodehouse some good plots involving Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones. They are the kind of chumps we can believe would idolise a woman’s exterior and find themselves entangled, without first taking due care to investigate her character.
But there are also examples from Wodehouse’s world that exemplify the opposite view – that men can and do fall in love with women who are their intellectual and physical equals, or betters.
Wodehouse created a diverse range of female characters in over 90+ published works, of whom Florence Craye is just one example. His heroines are frequently intelligent, without repulsing the men around them. Joan Valentine (Something Fresh) and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith) spring to mind as two of my favourite examples, but there are many Wodehouse heroines, sympathetically written without censure from the author for being clever or dominant characters.
In The Girl On The Boat, feeble young Eustace Hignett falls in love with the stronger and more capable Jane Hubbard, an African explorer. Their mutual adoration and romance is delightfully drawn by Wodehouse. Jane’s strength and cool headedness is exactly what Eustace needs, and Wodehouse presents them as a perfect and natural fit for each other – there is no suggestion that Eustace has been trapped, or has any cause to resents his union with a dominant female.
…Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa. Ever since he had become ill, it had been the large-hearted girl’s kindly practice to soothe him to rest with some such narrative from her energetic past.
‘And what happened then?’ asked Eustace, breathlessly.
He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient begins to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle -pump.
‘Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!’ said Jane Hubbard.
‘You know, you’re wonderful!’ cried Eustace. ‘Simply wonderful!’
Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm. He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.
‘Why, if an alligator got into my tent,’ said Eustace, ‘I simply wouldn’t know what to do! I should be nonplussed.’
Most of the criticisms I read about Wodehouse’s portrayal of women are put forward by people who haven’t read much Wodehouse beyond the Jeeves stories. These stories are written in the wonderful, half-witted narrative voice of Bertie Wooster — a unique comedic creation who cannot seriously be considered a mouthpiece for his creator’s personal views. Nor are his relationships with women the only type of male-female relationships in Wodehouse’s fictional world.
I’ve read Wodehouse’s published works several times over and I find him a great egalitarian. His cast of characters includes heroes, heroines, blighters and stinkers –of all shapes and sizes, age and genders. The behaviour and opinions of his characters can be used to exemplify a wide range of contradictory world views. Provided we don’t take it too seriously, this ‘Wodehouse Game’ can be fun and instructive to play.
The qualities which in later years rendered Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw so conspicuous a figure in connection with the now celebrated affair of the European, African, and Asiatic Pork Pie and Ham Sandwich Supply Company frauds, were sufficiently in evidence during his school career to make his masters prophesy gloomily concerning his future. The boy was in every detail the father of the man. There was the same genial unscrupulousness, upon which the judge commented so bitterly during the trial, the same readiness to seize an opportunity and make the most of it, the same brilliance of tactics.
‘Bradshaw’s Little Story’ (Tales of St. Austins)
In my last piece, I mentioned our Wodehouse experts. One place to enjoy the output of these beefy-brained birds is the wonderful website Madam Eulalie’s Rare Plums. The site is dedicated to Plum’s early work, and includes material you won’t find elsewhere. And if you’ve ever wondered what ‘bilge’ means, or the origin of ‘the blushful Hippocrene’, the annotations section will tell you this –and much more.
A recent addition to their collection is the school story, ‘A Shocking Affair’, first published in Tales of St. Austin’s (1903). If you want to read the published works of Wodehouse in chronological order, Tales of St. Austin’s is a great place to start. It’s a collection of school stories, originally published in The Captain and Public School Magazine between 1900-1903 (except ‘A Shocking Affair’, which made its print debut in Tales of St. Austin’s).
If you’ve never read Wodehouse’s writing in this genre, I recommend taking a peep at ‘A Shocking Affair’ for a taste of what to expect. Its central character is that same disreputable antagonist from ‘Bradshaw’s Little Story.’
The Bradshaw who appears in the following tale is the same youth who figures as the hero –or villain, label him as you like – of the preceding equally veracious narrative. I mention this because I should not care for you to go away with the idea that a waistcoat marked with the name of Bradshaw must of necessity cover a scheming heart. It may, however, be noticed that a good many members of the Bradshaw family posses a keen and rather sinister sense of the humorous, inherited doubtless from their great ancestor, the dry wag who wrote that monument of quiet drollery, Bradshaw’s Railway Guide.
A Shocking Affair
Two things about these stories strike me (metaphorically, thank goodness). The first is how good they are (which you can hopefully tell from the quality of the excerpts). Wodehouse often looked askance at his early writing, but there’s no cause for us to do the same. They’re excellent!
In the middle block, at the top of the building, far from the haunts of men, is the Science Museum, containing –so I have heard, I have never been near the place myself—two stuffed rats, a case of mouldering butterflies, and other objects of acute interest. The room has a staircase all to itself, and this was the reason why, directly I heard shouts proceeding from that staircase, I deduced that they came from the Museum. I am like Sherlock Holmes, I don’t mind explaining my methods
A Shocking Affair
The second point, is how early Wodehouse began writing about schemers, rotters and bounders — something he continued to do to the very end. Young Bradshaw with the screwy moral compass might well be considered ‘in every detail the father of the man’ to later characters like Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, Rupert Steggles, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and the Duke of Dunstable. I thoroughly recommend Tales of St. Austin’s, along with Wodehouse’s other works in this genre.
Once you’ve read all the published Wodehouse you can get your hands on, don’t forget to dip into the rare and early works available at Madam Eulalie’s Rare Plums, where Wodehouse experts share the fruits of their labour for our benefit — I cannot say enough good things about them.
Happy reading, all.
The Blog ‘Classically Educated’, which offers itself as ‘A Place for Global Citizens and Polymaths’, recently recommended ‘Three Unconventional Roads to Wodehouse’ – a welcome addition to this subject.
One of my great regrets in life is not having put in the necessary mental spadework to develop my potential as a polymath. My mental faculties are sound – perhaps not genius material, but my mother (like Bertie Wooster’s) thought me bright. And I’m genuinely interested in knowing, well… everything! It’s not a question of prestige, or being good at quiz nights — I just hate to be ignorant.
But life is stern and life is earnest. The necessary toil which consumes one’s fertile thinking hours, also has a tendency to sap ambition. This, along with the inevitable distractions of everyday life, have kept me from developing the old bean to any laudable extent. At this late stage, the best I can reasonably hope for is to become a unimath (if that’s a word, Jeeves), although my areas of current expertise are deplorably limited.
Even on the subject of P.G. Wodehouse, his life and work, I am an enthusiast rather than an expert. I have read (and re-read) his published works, as well as biographies and other works written about him — well over 100 volumes in total. This puts me in the excellent company of hundreds of genial souls around the globe — I am honoured and delighted to be among them. But the experts in our community take their devotion to another level, dedicating long hours to scholarly research to uncover new information (including undiscovered works) for our benefit. I tip my hat to them!
But for the Polymath – or indeed anyone else — looking to extend their reading into the realm of Wodehouse, I feel sufficiently qualified to offer informed advice without making an ass of myself. Indeed, I have already done so.
It always interests me to read others’ recommendations, and I’ve revised my own ideas on the subject many times. There is no wrong way to read Wodehouse, expect perhaps upside-down.
I’m now following this polymath blog in a last-ditch attempt to attain wisdom. Wish me luck!
Mention PG Wodehouse in a conversation and most people will immediately think of Jeeves and Wooster. That’s partly due to the success of the books and stories, but, I suspect, mostly because of the various film and TV adaptations. Of course, the one with Hugh Laurie as Wooster utterly deserves to have that notoriety.
But there is more to Wodehouse than the butler and his hapless gentleman. No less a writer (and polymath) than Isaac Asimov said that Wodehouse, on a sentence level, is one of the three greatest writers in the English language (the other two, if memory serves, being Austen and Dickens).
People often scoff at that, of course. A mere humorist upstaging countless numbers of earnest, serious writers, some of whom are even politically committed? Blasphemy. My answer to that is simple: pick up any of Wodehouse’s books, turn to a random page, and read any sentence…
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Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party, the 39th outing for Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, was first published In November 1969.
Christie dedicated it:
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.
In February 2015, many of Agatha Christie’s letters were published to mark the 125th anniversary of her birth. They included a letter from P.G.Wodehouse, thanking Christie for the dedication.
Wodehouse and Christie were mutual admirers of each other’s work, and had begun corresponding fifteen years earlier, although a 1955 letter from Wodehouse to his friend Denis Mackail shows their relationship got off to a rocky start.
…I’m seething with fury. Sir Allen Lane of Penguin was over here not long ago and told me that Agatha Christie simply loved my stuff and I must write to her and tell her how much I liked hers. So with infinite sweat I wrote her a long gushing letter, and what comes back? About three lines, the sort of thing you write to an unknown fan. ‘So glad you have enjoyed my criminal adventures’ – that sort of thing.
The really bitter part was that she said the book of mine she liked best was The Little Nugget –1908 production. And the maddening thing is that one has got to go on reading her, because she is about the only writer today who is readable.
(Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’)
But as Wodehouse himself wrote, in ‘Strychnine in the Soup’ (Mulliner Nights): “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” Despite this inauspicious beginning, Wodehouse and Christie continued corresponding until the early 1970s (Wodehouse died in 1975). As prolific and popular writers, they had much in common. They discussed their methods, their work, and in later years, their ailments.
In one letter, Wodehouse wrote to Christie:
I often wonder how you write, — I mean do you sit upright at a desk? I ask because I find these days I can’t get out of an arm chair and face my desk, and when I write in an arm chair I have the greatest difficulty in reading what I have written. This may be because I have a deckchair, a Boxer and one of our seven cats sitting on me. But oh, how I have slowed up. It’s terrible.
(Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’)
Agatha Christie’s letters to P.G. Wodehouse are contained in the Wodehouse archives, which I was privileged to view in 2016. Among the treasures I discovered during my visit, was a letter from Agatha Christie dated 15 October 1969, telling Wodehouse of her dedication of Halowe’en Party to him.
Other letters from Christie recount her pleasure on finishing a novel, frustrations with proof readers’ corrections, and her delight that their waxworks were ‘…sitting side by side in Madam Tussauds’ in 1974. These letters, many of them handwritten, were among the Wodehouse archives acquired by the British Library last year.
This will be welcome news for Wodehouse readers who are also fans of Agatha Christie – of whom there are many. A 2014 poll in the Fans of P.G. Wodehouse Facebook group suggests Agatha Christie is the Number 1 author Wodehouse lovers read when not reading Wodehouse.
I am happy to count myself among them. I started reading Agatha Christie in my early teens — a natural progression from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, which I had collected and read many times over as a child. By the time I encountered my first Wodehouse story, in my 21st year, I had a solid grounding in the culture and era in which he wrote, and the crime genre he so admired (which he often incorporated into his work). Having also read my allotted share of Shakespeare and Chaucer by this time, I was not frightened by the complexity of Wodehouse’s style, or his extensive literary, classical and biblical references.
Agatha Christie needs no endorsement from me — she is the top selling novelist of all time. But I particularly recommend her books to people wanting to prepare younger readers for enjoying Wodehouse at a later age.
Of course, I shall take it as read that some of you were child geniuses, devouring Wodehouse novels from the age of five, and that your own child began (under your expert tutelage) to read Wodehouse — and possibly Shakespeare — in the womb. Top stuff, old Bean! However, the average modern child is likely to be thoroughly put off Wodehouse, whose writing is more complex than he’s given credit for, if it’s thrust upon them too soon. I suggest these wilderness years can be productively spent reading Agatha Christie instead.
Murders are not as uncommon as you might think in the often gruesome world of Young Adult fiction. Unless your prospective younger reader is particularly sensitive, they may well appreciate the central murder in Hallowe’en Party — of a boastful thirteen year old called Joyce, during a children’s party.
Christie also created some terrific young heroines, try Cat Among the Pigeons, and The Secret Adversary. When the time comes to move on to Wodehouse, the adventures of Joan Valentine in Something Fresh, and Eve Halliday in Leave it to Psmith, will make great places to start.
In fact, I think I’ll finish with a dash of Joan Valentine and Ashe Marson now.
To set the scene for you, Ashe is struggling to come up with a plot for his new mystery story, which he has decided to call ‘The Wand of Death’, when he is interrupted by a girl (Joan Valentine).
‘I am sorry for your troubles,’ said Ashe firmly, ‘but we are wandering from the point. What is a wand of death?’
A wand of death?’
‘A wand of death.’
The girl paused reflectively.
‘Why, of course it’s the sacred ebony stick stolen from the Indian temple which is supposed to bring death to whoever possesses it. The hero gets hold of it, and the priests dog him and send him threatening messages. What else could it be?’
Ashe could not restrain his admiration.
‘This is genius. I see it all. The hero calls in Gridley Quayle, and that patronizing ass, by the aid of a series of wicked coincidences, solves the mystery, and there I am with another month’s work done.’
She looked at him with interest.
‘Are you the author of “Gridley Quayle”?’
‘Don’t tell me you read him?’
‘I do not read him. But he is published by the same firm that publishes “Home Gossip”, and I can’t help seeing his cover sometimes while I am waiting to see the editress.’
Ashe felt like one who meets a boyhood’s chum on a desert island. Here was a real bond between them.
‘Do the Mammoth publish you too? Why we are comrades in misfortune — fellow-serfs. We should be friends. Shall we be friends?’
‘I should be delighted.’
(From: Something Fresh, 1915)
May all your pumpkins be prize-winners this Halloween.
Ionicus was the pen name of illustrator Joshua Armitage, whose work featured in Punch, and almost 400 books, in the course of a long career. He is perhaps best known as the illustrator of 58 Penguin paperback editions of P.G. Wodehouse’s work. Although Ionicus and Wodehouse never met, his drawings show a genuine affinity for the Wodehouse material.
The excellent ‘Ionicus and the Art of Wodehouse’ blog delves into the Ionicus Wodehouse editions in more detail. The most recent piece looks at the covers of ‘Eggs, Beans and Crumpets’ and ‘Cocktail Time’ – both are classics. If you are particularly partial to the Ionicus editions (like me) it’s a blog I heartily recommend reading.
Last weekend, the 2017 British Silent Film Festival featured three silent film adaptations of Wodehouse stories as part of the programme. Regrettably I wasn’t there, but a kindly blogger (I thank you Arthur) has written about it in ‘Oooh, Betty!! A Sister of Six (1927) with Neil Brand, British Silent Film Festival Day Four.’
I suppose I had known, in a dim sort of way, that Wodehouse had been adapted for film from an early age, but the information that British film company Stoll Pictures made a Clicking of Cuthbert series of six short films in 1924 was news to me.
The films produced were:
- The Clicking of Cuthbert
- The Magic Plus Fours
- The Long Hole
- Rodney Fails to Qualify
- Ordeal by Golf
- Chester Forgets Himself
The films are not available online, but lucky guests at the British Silent Film Festival were shown three of them: Rodney Fails to Qualify, The Clicking of Cuthbert, and Chester Forgets Himself.
The Clicking of Cuthbert is one of Wodehouse’s best loved short stories, for good reason. The 1924 silent film adaptation starred Peter Haddon as Cuthbert, Helena Pickard as Adeline, and Moore Marriott as Vladimir Brusiloff. Harry Beasley appeared as a caddy in all six films.
What a treat it must have been to see Moore Marriott (pictured right), a well-known comic actor of the time, as Vladimir Brusiloff.
Doubtless with the best motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair, but his eyes were visible through the undergrowth, and it seemed to Cuthbert that there was an expression in them not unlike that of a cat in a strange backyard surrounded by small boys.
The Clicking of Cuthbert (1921)
The films are not strict adaptations of the original stories. Stoll Pictures introduced new characters such as the caddy, and new scenes to incorporate visual gags involving trick golf balls and the like. The stories have also been substantially modified. For example, The Clicking of Cuthbert includes a flashback scene involving bearded midgets on a snowy Siberian golf course, and a shooting.*
The following review of the series appeared in Kinematograph Weekly*
’The P.G. Wodehouse Series’ are certainly the most amusing two-reel comedies that Stoll’s has Trade shown, each one being based on golf but not limited to the golfer in their humorous appeal . . . Andrew P. Wilson has directed them fairly well. If at times they become mild and a little thin as regards humour, this is partly due to the rather uncreative adaptations, but they should entertain, especially in high class halls.
The British Silent Film Festival programme included a reading of another Wodehouse golfing story ‘A Woman is Only a Woman’. The title is borrowed from a line in Kipling’s humourous poem The Betrothed about a man whose fiancé asks him to choose between her and smoking cigars –he chooses the cigars.
Open the old cigar-box—let me consider anew—
Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you?
A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.
Light me another Cuba—I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!
(from: The Betrothed by Rudyard Kipling)
In Wodehouse’s A Woman is Only a Woman’, golf partners Peter Willard and James Todd fall in love with the same woman, putting a temporary strain on their friendship until each realises the object of their affection holds regrettable views on the subject of golf.
Miss Forrester swung her tennis racket irritably.
“Golf,” she said, “bores me pallid. I think it is the silliest game ever invented!”
The trouble about telling a story is that words are so feeble a means of depicting the supreme moments of life. That is where the artist has the advantage over the historian. Were I an artist, I should show James at this point falling backwards with his feet together and his eyes shut, with a semi-circular dotted line marking the progress of his flight and a few stars above his head to indicate moral collapse. There are no words that can adequately describe the sheer, black horror that froze the blood in his veins as this frightful speech smote his ears.
From: A Woman is Only a Woman (1919)
It’s easy to imagine an artist of the dramatic silent film genre doing justice to this scene.
The Clicking of Cuthbert film series is not readily available to Wodehouse fans online, but we can console ourselves with an excellent Wodehouse Playhouse television adaptation of Rodney Fails to Qualify (John Alderton and Pauline Collins never fail to please in this series).
We’re also fortunate that many silent films are available to view online and my “research” (cough, cough) for this piece involved viewing a substantial number of them. It’s easy to understand their appeal to festival goers. In lieu of a Wodehousian example to share, I’d like to recommend a favourite from my own country.
Australia had an outstanding early film industry and The Sentimental Bloke (1919) is one of its best-known examples. This film adaptation of South Australian poet C.J. Dennis’s verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was the collaboration of two great figures of the Australian silent film era — Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell. ‘Do yourself a favour’ as the saying goes, and have a peek.
If you’re interested to know more about Longford, Lyell and early Australian cinema, have a look at this piece by William M. Drew.
And if you’re unacquainted with P.G. Wodehouse’s golf stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert is a fine place to start.
Wodehouse lovers in three countries, and travellers from further afield, have much to look forward to over the coming weeks — with three exciting events scheduled:
- September 25 — The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) Society Evening in London
- October 7 — Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society meeting and book launch in Amsterdam
- October 19-22 — The Wodehouse Society (US) convention in Washington DC
Wodehouse lovers are (as you would expect) a joyous lot and always ready to welcome newcomers. If you’d like to join them, here’s a taste of what you can look forward to.
London — September 25 – Society Evening and AGM at The Savile Club
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) is meeting at The Savile Club, in the heart of the West End at 69 Brook Street, W1K 4ER. The evening starts with mingling at 6pm, and will include a brief history of The Savile Club and a Drones themes entertainment — as well as incorporating the Society’s AGM. This is an occasion for celebration, so please join us. Please note the dress code: No jeans or trainers; gentlemen are required to wear a jacket. New members are always welcome (and will be well looked after).
If the last Society evening is anything to go by (Wodehouse Society Confounds the Stuffed Eel Skin with Progressive Quiz ) it promises to be a corker.
Amsterdam — October 7 — Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society meeting and book launch
Time to let you in on a little secret. If I could work out the immigration logistics, I’d move to the Netherlands tomorrow. This afternoon, even — I have no distinct plans. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.
There’s certainly a dash of something special sploshing about in all that water. The cities are attractive, well-governed and a paradise for cyclists and pedestrians (like me). The citizens are bright and amusing, and they know what to do with fish! And if that isn’t inducement enough, they also boast the oldest P.G. Wodehouse Society in the world. My family and I were privileged to spend time with Dutch society members during a recent trip to Amsterdam and The Hague. Hartelijk dank!
Washington — October 19-22 — The Wodehouse Society (US) Convention
The US Society Convention is the biggest event on the Wodehouse lover’s calendar. It only comes around every two years and the next binge, in Washington D.C., is just a month away. The event attracts a diverse audience of US Society members and international visitors. I thoroughly recommend the experience — you can read my report on the Psmith in Pseattle convention for a taste of what to expect.
There’s still time to register if you’re quick.
There is nothing quite like meeting other Wodehouse lovers in person. If you’d like to spread the news about a Wodehouse related event in your area, or tell us about a gathering you’ve had, I’d love to hear from you.
But if these events are beyond your means or international borders don’t despair. The feast of reason and flow of soul continues online in the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook group.
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
(‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge)
Back in June, you may recall, I gave my father a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Ukridge. Previous attempts to introduce Dad to the joys of Wodehouse had been unsuccessful – both The Little Nugget and a Jeeves novel had failed to click. But after a decent interval of about a decade, and a good deal of musing on the Psychology of the Individual, I bunged a copy of Ukridge in the post.
I felt supremely confident in my choice. Reading Ukridge always gives me a warm inner glow, and much of my early reading was influenced by my Father’s tastes. How could it fail? But as soon as the parcel left my clutches I began to waiver, because Ukridge is Wodehouse’s most divisive character. Some fans don’t enjoy these stories at all.
A look at Goodreads reviews for the book help to explain why.
JASON: Early Wodehouse work that didn’t quite meet the mark.’ And ‘…the fact of the matter is, the titular character, Ukridge, is a jerk. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I just can’t warm to him the way I did with Bertie Wooster.’
SPIROS: Chalk this one down to the axiom that artists and writers are notoriously unreliable judges of their own work: I remember reading somewhere that Ukridge was Wodehouse’s favorite of all the characters he created. I don’t see it, myself. He has none of the flair of Uncle Fred or Galahad Threepwood, none of the lyricism of Psmith, none of the muddleheaded chivalry of Bertie Wooster. Basically, he is a slightly more resourceful, boorish version of Bingo Little, Bertie’s chum who Jeeves was constantly extricating from the soup in the early Jeeves & Wooster stories…
RACHEL: This is the first of Wodehouse’s books that i’ve read that didn’t involve Jeeves. I can’t say I was overly enamoured. The book is set out in 10 shorter stories, many of which refer back to previous episodes, and are based around Ukridge trying to make money and in most case failing miserably. The stories were quite short and I found myself reading quickly just to get to the end of them. They do not have the same kind of humour that other Wodehouse novels do. Quite disappointing and not the place to start with Wodehouse. So many better novels have been written.
Ukridge is not a novel, but a collection of short stories. Partly, it’s the central character of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge that some readers dislike. Ukridge takes brazen advantage of the bonds of family and friendship to support his money-making schemes, and Corky the narrator is repeatedly put upon in this way. No sensible reader would want a person like Ukridge in their life, and some object to him on the page too. It’s a pity, because he’s a tremendous character.
Ukridge is also sometimes dismissed on the grounds of being an ‘early’ character, having first appeared in 1906 in Love Among The Chickens (which Wodehouse later rewrote). It’s not a view I happen to share. Much of Wodehouse’s early work is outstanding (I read the school stories often) and by the time Ukridge was published in 1924, Wodehouse had classics including Something Fresh (1915), Leave it to Psmith (1923) and The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) under his belt. Most of my own favourites were written during this period.
But I suspect the main cause of disappointment for Ukridge readers is that he is not Bertie Wooster. So often, the modern reader works their way through the Jeeves and Bertie stories without exploring the wider Wodehouse world until the supply of B. and J. has given out. The poor reader, familiar with these stories and expecting more of the same, finds a chap like Ukridge a bit of a jolt.
Indeed, Corky felt much the same way whenever Ukridge made an appearance in his life.
‘I was to give you this letter, sir.’
I took it and opened the envelope with a sigh. I had recognised the handwriting of Ukridge, and for the hundredth time in our close acquaintance there smote me like a blow the sad suspicion that this man had once more gone and wished upon me some frightful thing.
MY DEAR OLD HORSE,
It’s not often I ask you to do anything for me…
I laughed hollowly.
(‘The Return of Battling Billson’ in Ukridge)
My poor Father might well have had a similar response to the book shaped package that appeared on his doorstep in June, but his review, when it came via email from the antipodes, was a good one:
DAD: I was a little hesitant about starting it, because Wooster was not one of my favourite characters, but I became hooked and had to ration myself to two stories per night otherwise I would have still been reading at midnight!
The plots were deceiving – they seemed simple but became ever more complex. I liked the way it all came together in the last few paragraphs – leaving me somewhat stunned at the Wodehouse ingenuity. Although I doubt that the moral message of the Ukridge person would sit well with today’s “correctness” in all things.
However the cover of the modern edition was a bit off the mark. It depicts Ukridge as a John Lennon look-a-like – dapper and suave – with the tattered yellow mackintosh looking more like a tailored double-breasted overcoat!
I liked Stephen Fry’s evaluation on the back cover: “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”
I’m delighted that the old boy, now in his 70th year, and Wodehouse have finally clicked. I’ve sent him Blandings Castle and Elsewhere by return post.
The enduring appeal of PG Wodehouse: If you think it’s just farcical butlers and upper-class twits, think again!
In 2015, BBC radio presenter Kirsty Lang interviewed director Rob Ashford and writer Jeremy Sams about their stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. It’s one of Wodehouse’s many transatlantic tales, and delves into the world of musical theatre. The central character is an American composer of musical show tunes, and he manages to navigate life efficiently enough without the assistance of a manservant.
KIRSTY: Now Jeremy, it’s a very engaging production, but the story’ is very much of its time. How confident were you that it would work for a 21st Century audience?
JEREMY: Well you say it’s of its time. What I love about it is, the things that attracted me and my co-writer Robbie Hudson, are absolutely how we feel now about America and England, and actually about theatre and high art, if you like. And the ideas that musicals, which I happen to love, can be thought of as beautiful deep stuff, and not just fluff. It’s a conversation I have weekly to be honest. And the idea that America and England – we need each other – they need our history and class, if you like…. We certainly need their energy and commitment. And again, those ideas don’t seem dated to me.
This thoughtful reply, the notion that Wodehouse might have something of relevance or deeper interest beyond the usual assessment that it’s all fluff and nonsense, is so out of sync with the established patter about Wodehouse, that the presenter perhaps felt obliged to add:
KIRSTY: And I suppose there are aspects of, you know, Downton Abbey and Upstairs and Downstairs that we always love to watch, aren’t there?
American director Rob Ashford agrees politely. Neither he nor Sams take up the invitation to expand on this suggestion.
Kirsty Lang asked a similar question (again with reference to Downton Abbey) of Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan, in a 2013 interview about their roles as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the original stage production Perfect Nonsense.
These are just a few examples. And, like Kirsty’s guests, I too have been subjected to questioning since arriving in Britain from my native Australia several years ago. It seems many Britons (those who haven’t read much Wodehouse) seem to have difficulty understanding his appeal to a youngish, leftish-leaning, Australian female. I’m not an anglophile, I don’t care much for Downton Abbey, and I’m not at all interested (as Ben MacIntyre suggests in the Sunday Times) in ‘a golden, admiring fantasy of upper-class life’ (in ‘Code of the Woosters has saved the upper class’).
Wodehouse’s appeal to Americans has been attributed to Anglophilia, and some have gone so far as to suggest that Wodehouse’s popularity in India stems from nostalgia for the British Empire, a view deftly handled by Shashi Tharoor.
I confess I’m slightly bothered by all the questioning and analysis, for behind this lies an assumption that Wodehouse’s appeal requires explanation. And this leads me in turn to ask why. Or more specifically:
Why is P.G. Wodehouse not more popular in his own country?
The question is not a slur on British readers. Wodehouse has a strong, intelligent and enthusiastic following here. Indeed, I’m meeting a bunch of them later this week at a gathering of the PG Wodehouse Society. They’re witty, generous people, frothing with conviviality. There just aren’t enough of them. Why?
I suspect it’s because the nation’s relationship with Wodehouse is more complex. Wodehouse’s wartime blunder, now rightly regarded as an innocent misjudgement, did incredible damage to his reputation at the time, and mud sticks. There is also a misguided but popular notion that Wodehouse’s stuff is silly, outdated nonsense written by, for and about upper-class twits. This assessment is of course grossly unfair, but we colonials (as Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy affectionately called us) should also acknowledge that it’s much easier to laugh at the British ruling class from a distance — it’s not our pay and conditions they might be cutting in the morning.
Our British friends deserve better, and I feel it would be a great service to help them rediscover one of their own national treasures. So I offer these genuine answers, from Wodehouse readers, to their oft-asked question.
Why do people love P.G. Wodehouse?
I asked members of the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook group and received over 100 comments from readers in the USA, India, Norway, France, Austria, Hungary, Indonesia, Iceland, Britain and Ireland. None of them mentioned butlers, upper class twits, or Downton Abbey. Here’s a taste of what they had to say:
NIRMALA: The pure, poetic and passionate language mixed with innocent, genuine and it’s-going-to-be-ok-in-the-end-else-it-isn’t-the-end humour. Peace and happiness even amidst struggles.
DAVID: It is escapist literature without creating some sort of weird alternative universe. Tolkien had to create a whole world; Wodehouse just tweaked an existing one. I’ve never known anyone I could begin to compare with Bilbo Baggins, but I knew a man who could compare with Galahad Threepwood.
MISKIL: Plum’s books are my happy place. They transport me into an idyllic world where everything is sunny and light hearted. On a bad day I read a story and I feel uplifted with every page.
NANCY: It’s a timeless world. A bubble. Things will always work out. Plum’s words weave a web of joy. Because really, who doesn’t like to laugh?
LATA: Heart breaks are bearable to those who have read PG Wodehouse.
FRANK: The sheer fun in the words that often have access to quite deep thoughts. ‘You can’t be a successful dictator and design women’s underwear. One or the other. Not both.’
SHOBHANA: Everybody loves a fairy tale, pieces of happy inconsequential everyday happenings that lead to the “happily ever after” ending where all the various deviations from the main story line have been successfully gathered up by a master story teller who fills our world with laughter, sunshine and the ability to even guffaw at ourselves.
ASHOK: Think of idle pursuits, of romantic escapades, of life lessons couched in delectable humour…
UMA: His eye for detail…the characters are presented in such a way that they materialise right in front of you. His ability to stay neutral in the story…not creating a bias which most authors fail at…
JOHN The way he uses words to conjure up descriptions of people, events and thoughts. And the dialogue interplay between characters. It had me laughing out loud when I first discovered it aged 13/14 in my Grandparents front room when it was too wet to go outside. 46 years later and the works have lost none of their lustre.
ABIR: Above all…the wonderful language and descriptions which make you break out into uncontrollable laughter…even in awkward places.
DEBORAH: I delight in his mastery of English grammar.
KERRY: He insults people from lords to the lowest (or should that be from politicians to the highest) and in such a gentle way that no one could take offence.
SHRAVASTI: The good clean humour, the word play, the references to the Classics (I read Marcus Aurelius because of Plum), and the terrific anti- depressant effect.
MARGARET: There’s an underlying kindness, or ethic, to Plums characters. He may have a sharp eye for human frailty and even evil, but he’s never less than charming… Wodehouse takes issues seriously, but doesn’t take himself so seriously that the issues become secondary.
DAN: Command of the language, not just a big vocabulary but every word the right word. Also always funny.
MILIND: His impeccable sense of the ridiculous, his felicity with language, his perfect sense of timing……and the gentleness of his sarcasm and satire. After all, Wodehouse did more than all the Leftist ideologues put together, to gently and humorously underline the foppishness and idiosyncratic foibles of the British aristocracy……without a trace of bitterness.
SUKANYA: I love the humour in even the most inane situation, accepting people with their foibles, there’s a silver lining in every dark cloud, …and the meta message of core values.
SUZANNE: I love Wodehouse’s writing because of his fabulous vocabulary and his unusual brand of humor. Bertie is especially funny because his humor is usually at his own expense. He puts everyone else ahead of himself, always trying to make people happy…
RANJANA: Plum is, actually, a way of life now, for some. One which believes in gentle humor, incandescent wit which glows but does not burn, core values delivered without sermons, and a magic world where despite insane events and impossibly convoluted plots, things always come right at the end. I would always trust someone who loves Plum. He is a way of life, a stamp of approval that you are, after all, a good egg.
RAJ: Because he makes you believe that all’s well with the world.
ARNAB: He makes one feel that life’s good after all
KAUSHIK: For me, he helps restores faith in humanity!
DRAISE: Wodehouse eases pain.
INDRANI: The faith that there will be Joy in the morning.
Perhaps what Wodehouse has to offer isn’t quite so irrelevant after all.
For the full (and idyllic troll-free) discussion, please join us in the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook Group.
For UK fans, PG Wodehouse Society Annual Pub Quiz is on July 12, 2017 at The Savoy Tup