Reginald Jeeves holds a firm place in the hearts of P.G. Wodehouse readers. Arguably Wodehouse’s best known character, Jeeves appeared in 11 novels and 35 short stories as Bertie Wooster’s ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’ (and Bill Rowcester’s gentleman in Ring for Jeeves). More than a century after he first appeared in print, the name Jeeves is known by millions of people around the world, many of whom have never read a Jeeves story — such has his fame permeated the crust of human consciousness.
It is therefore fitting that the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree this week in remembrance of the man who inspired the name — cricketer Percy Jeeves.
Wodehouse had seen Percy Jeeves playing for Warwickshire in a match at Cheltenham in 1913, and had admired his bowling. When Wodehouse was contemplating a name for his new character, Jeeves popped obligingly into his head.
For those with an understanding of cricket, it is easy to visualise the Jeeves we know as one of those dignified bowlers whose graceful delivery of the ball hides the full mental powers of the expert strategist.
For those without an expert knowledge of cricket, I offer this description by cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta (also a Wodehouse enthusiast) of my favourite bowler, Malcolm Marshall:
But, his craft, built on raw pace, did not end there. It was enhanced by weaponry of the sharpest kind. He could swing it both ways, with his hand rather than movement of the body. This made his swing as difficult to read as the leg-breaks and googlies of the canniest leg-spinner… When his whims willed, he could change his pace, varying between express, lightning and just fast, or even slowing down to medium.
To a mere observer of the game, it comes almost as a surprise to hear Marshall described as a fast bowler. As Sengupta says of Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz : “From far away, sitting outside the fence, he often looked a gentle medium pacer.” Similarly, Malcolm Marshall’s approach always seemed to me (admittedly a child at the time) so effortless and calm … it was almost leisurely.
He just sort of shimmered in.
Wodehouse may have consciously only claimed the Jeeves name, but the character he created exhibits all the characteristics of a fine bowler. Wodehouse was sound on cricket, and I think we can safely assume that Percy Jeeves was something special.
This week, the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree in Percy Jeeves’ honour as part of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, commemorating the centenary of his death at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. He never knew of the character Wodehouse named after him.
The full tragedy of the Somme is beyond our comprehension, particularly for those of us who have been fortunate to live through relatively peaceful times. The story of Percy Jeeves, whose promising life was cut senselessly short, is one of millions. Men were sent to their deaths en masse, buried en masse, and are now remembered en masse by subsequent generations. It is easy to lose sight of them as living, breathing, feeling people — and important to commemorate their lives individually where we can.
Well done to the PG Wodehouse Society, Percy Jeeves’ family, Cheltenham Cricket Festival and Cheltenham College for making this commemoration possible.
My pals in the society, knowing that I was chained to a desk in neighbouring Somerset and no doubt wanting to cheer me up, kindly sent me photos to share via Twitter during the day time. Some of their photos are used here, with kind permission.
More on cricket
For more on Percy Jeeves’ cricketing career, I recommend John Pennington’s recent piece in Cricketworld .
Anyone wishing to continue their cricket education (or relive memories of a golden age) I include the following footage of Malcolm Marshall’s 10 wicket haul at Lords in 1988. And in the spirit of the Jeeves, I feel obliged to observe that this match took place before the adoption of garish trousers, besmirched by branding, became widespread.
‘Do cricket trousers matter?’ you may ask.
I think we know Jeeves’ answer to that one.
‘Haven’t you ever heard of Sister Lora Luella Stott?’
‘No. Who is she?’
‘She is the woman who is leading California out of the swamp of alcohol.’
‘Good God!’ I could tell by Eggy’s voice that he was interested. ‘Is there a swamp of alcohol in these parts? What an amazing country America is. Talk about every modern convenience. Do you mean you can simply go there and lap?’
Laughing Gas (1936)
We live in troubled times, eh what? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that Evelyn Waugh chappie knew a thing or two when he said of Wodehouse: ‘He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.’ I would be failing in my duties as a modern commentator if I didn’t observe that the captivity is looking every bit as irksome as Waugh predicted, and getting irksomer all the time. Or as the aforementioned Eggy says, on page 90 of the Everyman edition:
‘I never needed a snifter more in my life.’
Lapping at the swamp of alcohol is one solution. Reading Wodehouse is another. This week I opted for a dose of Laughing Gas, courtesy of my excellent local library. If you cast your mind back to January, you may recall my 2016 Wodehouse Reading Challenge . A book from the library’ is one of the categories in the POPSUGAR Reading challenge.
Set in Hollywood, where the Wodehouses lived in 1930-31 and 1936-37, Laughing Gas follows the adventures of Reggie Swithin, who has unexpectedly become the third Earl of Havershot after the supply of eligible uncles and cousins has given out. As newly appointed head of the family, Reggie is shoved off to Hollywood to rescue Cousin ‘Eggy’ Egremont from drink fuelled debauchery and an inadvisable engagement.
Laughing Gas is a rare Wodehouse dalliance with the science-fiction genre (The Amazing Hat Mystery from ‘Young Men in Spats’ also muses briefly on the Fourth Dimension). Poor Reggie awakes from an emergency dental procedure dressed in knickerbockers and golden ringlets, and concludes that he has switched bodies with the precocious child film star Joey Cooley, also under the influence of laughing gas, in room the next door.
A bit breath-taking, the whole affair, you will agree. Of course, I had read stories where much the same sort of thing had happened, but I had never supposed that a chap had got to budget for such an eventuality as a possible feature of the programme in real life. I know they say you ought to be prepared for anything, but, I mean, dash it!
I am in complete sympathy with poor Reggie. Added to the indignity that a grown man quite rightly feels on finding himself transformed against his will back to an age which he has long outgrown, Reggie must adjust to a meagre diet of Perfecto prunes and take naps in the afternoon, tucked in by his former fiancé Ann Bannister. He must also suffer the consequences of wrongs committed previously by Joey Cooley, who is now happily running amok in Reggie’s body. Out of cash, and out of favour with his authoritarian hostess, Miss Brinkmeyer, and the neighbourhood lads, Reggie’s prospects for the future look grim.
Happily, Wodehouse always contrives a way out of the mire for his characters, and he doesn’t let poor Reggie Havershot down in his hour of need. Reggie’s ordeal as Joey Cooley is eventually undone — to the satisfaction of all parties. Restored to his mature self, Reggie is rewarded with an opportunity to renew his addresses to Ann Bannister. At first he hesitates, on account of his gorilla-like appearance, but cousin Eggy and young Joey (who has evidently spent too long in movie circles) rally around with advice and encouragement.
‘What does a fellow’s face matter anyway?’ said Joey Cooley.
‘Looks don’t mean a thing. Didn’t Frankenstein get married?’
‘Did he?’ said Eggy. ‘I don’t know. I never met him. Harrow man, I expect.’
‘It’s the strong passionate stuff that counts,’ said the Cooley child. ‘All you got to do is get tough. Walk straight up to her and grab her by the wrist and glare into her eyes and make your chest heave.’
‘And, of course, snarl,’ said Eggy. ‘Though when you say “snarl” you mean, I take it, not just make a noise like a Pekingese surprised while eating cake….’
While real-world events may not be so easily undone as Reggie’s troubles, we still have Wodehouse.
Take part in the 2016 Wodehouse Reading Challenge
Read a book by P.G. Wodehouse in 2016 and reply to the original challenge page explaining which reading challenge and category you it could be included under. You don’t have to be actively participating in any other reading challenge to enter.
It is not unreasonable to assume that, when the assorted dignitaries of Bath bunged off their application for UNESCO World Heritage listing, the fact that P.G. Wodehouse lived here as a boy was pretty high up on their list of reasons. No doubt it weighed heavily with the judges. And yet, in all the historical and literary guides to Bath I find no mention of Wodehouse. Walking tours do not pass his former residence; no miniature of his likeness can be viewed in the Jane Austen or Holbourne Museums. How can this be?
I suspect the answer lies in the rather embarrassing truth (one not so universally acknowledged) that of all the places in which P.G. Wodehouse resided, Bath appears to be the only one in which he did not write. He wrote as a school boy. He wrote in London, and in Emsworth (Hampshire). He wrote in New York and Long Island, in Hollywood and in France. He continued writing while imprisoned in a succession of German internment camps in 1940-41, and died in 1975 with an ‘unfinished manuscript beside his chair’. But in Bath, Somerset, where this prolific life-long writer lived for three years, he produced nothing at all.
By his own admission:
From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)
Over Seventy (1956)
It was in Bath, Somerset, that young P.G. Wodehouse spent these loafing years.
P.G Wodehouse was born in Guildford, in 1881 while his mother was visiting England from Hong Kong. Wodehouse’s father was in the colonial Civil Service, and the infant Plum returned to Hong Kong with his mother. In 1883, young Wodehouse returned to England to live with his brothers Peveril and Armine at number 17 Sion Hill, Bath. There the Wodehouse boys lived under the care of Nanny Roper, surrounded by their maternal relations, the Deane family, who lived next door and elsewhere in Sion Hill.
Modern day Sion Hill is part of the Cotswold Way public walking trail (from Bath to Chipping Camden), and abuts the Bath Approach Golf Course and Victoria Park , with stunning views over Bath. Bath’s iconic Lansdown and Royal Crescents are an easy downhill walk from Sion Hill.
The same cannot be said going up the hill, which I foolishly attempted on a bicycle, in the rain. It was a mad scheme, particularly when a number 700 omnibus would have sufficed. But as I huffed and puffed and cursed my way up the hill, I reflected that my chosen manner of conveyance added a dash of Wodehouse spirit to the occasion, invoking poor Bertie Wooster’s distraught eighteen-mile round trip from Brinkley Court to Kingham in Right Ho, Jeeves. Like Bertie, I too have had girlhood cycling triumphs, and inebriated nocturnal adventures behind the handlebars — but I was singularly unfitted for the Sion Hill undertaking. For I am not one of those serious-minded cyclists so often seen sipping Chai Lattes alfresco and stoically resisting the urge to giggle at their own lycra-clad reflections.
Or as Bertie put it:
… from the way he talked, you would have thought I was one of those chaps in sweaters with medals all over them, whose photographs bob up from time to time in the illustrated press on the occasion of their having ridden from Hyde Park Corner to Glasgow in three seconds under the hour, or whatever it is.
Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)
Arriving finally at Sion Hill in a dishevelled state of the kind guaranteed to raise even the most broad-minded Bath eyebrows, I abandoned my scheme of knocking at the door with an introductory ‘What Ho!’ Instead, I snapped a souvenir photograph and soaked up the quiet, genteel atmosphere of young Wodehouse’s formative surroundings. Following Sion Hill as it loops around past local allotments and the Golf Course, the city of Bath appears deceptively distant – a perfect impressionist canvas of blurred greens and highlighted stone. Here on the hill the soundscape is idyllic too, dominated by the rustle of the trees, not the bustle of town. Jane Austen (who famously disliked Bath) might have preferred it from this distance.
There is a sense of well-heeled serenity here that makes it easy to imagine the young Wodehouse boys at play, over a century ago. The possibilities for exploration are just the sort a growing lad requires, before returning home in time for tea with Nanny Roper. Some have suggested Miss Roper may have been the model for Wodehouse’s fictional nanny, Nurse Wilks in Portrait of a Disciplinarian. While this is not clear (Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy believes Wodehouse’s mother Eleanor Wodehouse is a more likely source) one can readily imagine Miss Roper having good cause to thunder at her charges to ‘WIPE YOUR BOOTS!’
As Mr Mulliner’s nephew Frederick reflected:
The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.
Portrait of a Disciplinarian (in Meet Mr Mulliner) 1927
But Frederick Mulliner’s Nurse Wilks is not quite a spent force.
The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round he perceived a different person altogether from the mild and kindly hostess of a moment back. It was plain that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
‘Theideaofyourbringingyournastydirtybootsintomynicecleanhousewithoutwipingthem!’ said Nurse Wilks
Almost 90 years later, P.G. Wodehouse introduced the television adaptation of Portrait of a Disciplinarian as part of the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse series, with Daphne Heard playing Nurse Wilks to perfection.
I left Sion Hill with a contented feeling that Wodehouse’s formative years were spent in such an appealing place, and that these loafing years were not perhaps, so entirely misspent as Wodehouse would have us believe.
The young Plum left Bath in 1886 to attend the Chalet School, in Croydon, Surrey. His literary career began shortly thereafter when, at the age of five, he composed his first poem.
My journey to Sion Hill ended, as these jaunts so often do, with a nourishing beaker at a local pub, where I was chuffed to observe that a table for two had been reserved in the name of Murphy — it provided a fitting moment to toast Norman Murphy who had kindly provided me with the Bath addresses.
Last weekend I visited the charming Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon for a bit of browsing and sluicing with fellow members of the PG Wodehouse Society — the first, we hope, of many gatherings in the South-West. Our luncheon took place at an outstanding local pub called The Longs Arms and we were unanimous in the view that, should we ever extend our activities to include compiling a Pub Guide for Wodehouse fans, the Longs Arms would make a worthy inclusion — the only obstacle being a lack of any obvious Wodehouse connection, unless you’re prepared to accept Haddock on the menu and the Mullineresque conversation of our very own ‘oldest member’, Graham.
From the moment I alighted from the train at Bradford on Avon, I was struck with Wodehouse associations (fortunately not at the base of the skull). The most obvious of these is the town’s celebration of ‘The Gudgeon’ in the title of their town newsletter, a local ale, and more. The Gudeon they’re honouring is of course the fishy variety, and not the memorable character created by P.G. Wodehouse.
Hilda Gudgeon has long held a special place in my heart, though she appears only briefly in The Mating Season as Madeline Bassett’s school friend. Bertie describes her as ‘a solid, hefty girl, of the type which plays five sets of tennis without turning a hair…’. This Gudgeon is refreshingly unlike Madeline, and Bertie is initially disposed to like her (a view he revises when she offers to boost his chances of a union with Madeline).
‘Good morning, Hilda,’ said the Basset in that soupy, treacly voice which had got her so disliked by all right-thinking men. ‘What a lovely, lovely morning.’
The solid girl said she didn’t see what was so particularly hot about it, adding that personally she found all mornings foul. She spoke morosely, and I could see that her disappointment in love had soured her, poor soul. I mourned for her distress, and had the circumstances been different, might have reached up and patted her on the head.
If being unlike Madeline Basset isn’t enough inducement, Hilda Gudgeon is also fond of cricket:
‘…Have you seen the paper this morning? It says there’s some talk of altering the leg-before-wicket rule again. Odd how your outlook changes when your heart’s broken. I can remember a time when I’d have been all excited if they altered the leg-before-wicket rule. Now I don’t give a damn. Let ‘em alter it, and I hope they have a fine day for it.’
As you may recall from a previous post, cricket was my first love before discovering Wodehouse, and I’ve always looked on Hilda Gudgeon as a kindred soul –I even made her the central character of my attempt at Wodehouse homage. Seeing The Gudgeon so revered by the good people of Wilshire filled me with joie de vivre. I purchased both their newsletter and their ale – and what’s more, I’d do it again!
Leaving Gudgeons to one side for the moment, though preferably not in the sun, there are Wodehouse connections in the area surrounding Bradford on Avon. Young Wodehouse spent boyhood holidays with relations in Wiltshire and nearby Somerset, making it probable that he would have visited the town. His mother’s family, the Deanes, excelled at the production of spinster Aunts, a gaggle of whom lived just five and half miles away in the village of Box. Deanes also pop up in the registers at Freshford village, three miles to the West, and the area known as ‘the Deverells’ is roughly twenty miles away. This combination of Aunts, Deverills, Gudgeons and Haddock can only mean one thing to a Wodehouse fan – The Mating Season.
We may never know if young Wodehouse passed the Longs Arms on a country walk, or called in for a whiskey and splash with the local raconteur, but if you’re looking for a fine lunch (with an enticing menu that changes daily) in Wodehouse territory, I heartily recommend it. Better still, why not join us next time? We’re planning further exploratory jaunts in the region so please get in touch. We look forward to meeting you, although… I can’t promise that I won’t slap you on the back and address you with offensive familiarity — in the spirit of the Gudgeons.
The solid girl, whom I had dimly heard telling the gardener he needn’t be afraid of breaking that spade by leaning on it, came back and immediately proceeded, in what I considered an offensively familiar manner, to give me a hearty slap on the back.
‘Well, Wooster, old bloke,’ she said.
‘Well, Gudgeon, old bird,’ I replied courteously.
A hearty farewell to you!
Plumtopia has been a selfish venture from the beginning. It was born from my own dissatisfaction with life, and the search for a better kind of world – that I called Plumtopia. Having never met a fellow Wodehouse fan I presumed I’d have no audience, and consequently wrote entirely to please myself. I do love the sound of my own keyboard. But then something wonderful happened. People started to read, to comment, and even identify with some of the thoughts and feelings I expressed. I may be no closer to finding Plumtopia, but there is comfort in knowing that I’m in dashed good company.
That dashed good company includes Noel Bushnell. Many of the blogs I read are rousing social and political commentaries that cause the blood pressure to rise and the soul to despair (not that I blame writers for reflecting a troubled world). So reading Noel’s aptly titled Wodehouse to the rescue felt like an application of soothing balm. I loved it!
Today, I’m sharing his terrific follow up piece, commemorating the Centenary of P.G. Wodehouse’s collaboration with Guy Bolton, and Jerome Kern. It’s a must for Wodehouse fans.
I presented the following talk to the Ferkytoodlers group of serious thinkers over lunch at the Melbourne Savage Club on Wednesday, 11 November 2015. I intended to post it here with suitable modifications and credits the following weekend but, when I awoke that Saturday morning to news of the dreadful events in Paris overnight, somehow the works of a long dead author and the peaceful world of his imagination seemed less important. It seemed in bad taste to be prattling on about trivial entertainment when people were being murdered.
Of course, the Paris massacre is by no means unique in our world – alas! – and as I brooded on this bleak topic I was reminded of a remark Wodehouse blogger Honoria Plum made in a comment on my first Wodehouse to the rescue piece. She referred to the sentiment behind her blog, Plumtopia, as “looking for snippets of…
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‘Archibald’s Benefit’ (1909) is a delightful short story, included in The Man Upstairs (1914). It relates the trials of Archibald Mealing, a keen but inept golfer, and his romance with Margaret Milsom. I say inept. Wodehouse puts it rather better:
Archibald, mark you, whose golf was a kind of blend of hockey, Swedish drill, and buck-and-wing dancing.
To get a sense of Archibald’s style, have a look at this excellent instructional video from Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz (Duke University). One can readily imagine how a dash of buck-and-wing might have impaired Archibald’s success off the tee.
‘What has golf to do with romance?’ you may ask, unless of course you’re already familiar with P.G. Wodehouse’s Oldest Member stories. If you’ve not read this particular story and don’t want to know how it ends, you may wish to buzz off at this point and read it.
We first meet Archie Mealing in his bedroom, ‘picking up the fragments of his mirror—a friend had advised him to practise the Walter J. Travis lofting shot.’
His golf may be rotten, but Archie is in good spirits, having recently become engaged to Margaret Milsom, a soulful looking girl with big blue eyes. Archie’s sentimental friend McCay, who ‘knew Ella Wheeler Wilcox by heart, and could take Browning without anaesthetics’, is concerned that Margaret will be visiting Cape Pleasant while Archie competes in a local golf championship. McCay envisages Margaret following Archie about on the links with a girlish enthusiasm that will be sorely dashed by Archie’s lamentable performance. Such an ordeal might test any romance, so McCay colludes with the other club-members to ensure Archie wins his games.
This is one of many examples in the Wodehouse canon, where friends rally around to boost the love interests of a chum. As in life, most romances are rarely a simple case of ‘A’ meets ‘B’. There is also ‘C’ to be considered, not mention ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’. These sundries to the main affair may come in the shape of interfering relations (Margaret Milsom has a couple of these) or benevolent friends, like Archie’s pal McCay. ‘A’ may also have to impersonate hens, perform tricks with a bit of string, or suffer some frightful ordeal before he and ‘B’ can dance the wedding glide.
In Archie’s case, he has feigned an interest in poetry to impress the soulful looking Margaret, but he finds the deception torturous to maintain.
Every evening he read painfully a portion of the classics. He plodded through the poetry sections of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Margaret’s devotion to the various bards was so enthusiastic, and her reading so wide, that there were times when Archibald wondered if he could endure the strain.
Once again, Wodehouse is true to life. Haven’t we all feigned interest in things beyond our expertise in the budding stages of romance? Over the years I’ve been a temporary enthusiast of heavy-metal music, rare beer coasters, painting soldiers, comic collecting and beard-care. But even I have my limits, as the chap who expected me to watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead and like it discovered. Like Archibald Mealing, I too have suffered.
Archie has hidden his passion for golf from Margaret, fearing her disapproval, which means McCay’s efforts to have Archie win the championship are wasted. Worse still, as Archie has no expectation of winning, he has confidently arranged to meet her elsewhere on the day of the final. When the appointed hour arrives, he is at the fifteenth tee, with a real chance of winning. His devotion for Margaret is tested and falls short — golf is the winner.
If Margaret broke off the engagement—well, it might be that Time would heal the wound, and that after many years he would find some other girl for whom he might come to care in a wrecked, broken sort of way. But a chance like this could never come again. What is Love compared with holing out before your opponent?
Sentimental readers may be scandalised, but Wodehouse the realist does not shirk from difficult truths. Perhaps, like Freddie Widgeon in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, who attempts to woo April Carroway with Tennyson and fails, we may feel that Archie has had a lucky escape. After all, no fair-minded girl would begrudge her lover playing in golf championships.
Archie attempts a reconciliation with Margaret, and is forced to confess that he has been playing golf. Rather than chastise him for indulging in frivolous pass-times, Margaret also confesses to suppressing a fondness for golf.
Archibald took a step forward. His voice was tense and trembling.
‘Margaret,’ he said, ‘this is no time for misunderstandings. We must be open with one another. Our happiness is at stake. Tell me honestly, do you like poetry really?’
Margaret hesitated, then answered bravely:
‘No, Archibald,’ she said, ‘it is as you suspect. I am not worthy of you. I do not like poetry. Ah, you shudder! You turn away! Your face grows hard and scornful!’
‘I don’t!’ yelled Archibald. ‘It doesn’t! It doesn’t do anything of the sort! You’ve made me another man!’
She stared, wild-eyed, astonished.
‘What! Do you mean that you, too—’
Here, Wodehouse reveals another difficult romantic truth; when love grips, there is illusion on both sides. A is too enraptured with B to suspect it. B would hotly resent any such suggestion that A is less than he appears. But if a relationship is to last, we must eventually tear off the false whiskers and take our chances. In the case of Archie and Margaret, it all works out .
Wodehouse lovers who, unlike poor Archie, can take Browning without anaesthetic, might enjoy the Wodehouse poetry associations in Pippa’s Song.
This year’s delightful Valentine tribute from Mr Ashok Bhatia.
Denizens of Plumsville are well aware of the unique traits of their guardians of peace. 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. When it comes to enforcing the rule of law, it does not matter to them whether the criminal is a human or a canine being.
Generally, what they lack in height is more than compensated by their rotundity. A stern gaze and an authoritative demeanor is their hallmark. Their ‘Ho!’s, ‘Ha!’s and snorts often carry a sinister ring, making an ordinary citizen shuffle his feet and feel diffident. To the bold and the beautiful amongst the citizenry, their shining helmets provide an allure which is often irresistible. Unless they have evidence to the contrary, they show due respect to the delicately nurtured.
The rozzers in the…
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Each February at Plumtopia I take a break from my usual pontifications to celebrate some of the ‘Great Romances’ from P.G. Wodehouse’s work, to mark the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day, 1975. This year, I’d like to break with the formula a little by touching on the great romance of Wodehouse’s own life — his wife Ethel.
Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson wraps up their courtship in a sentence: ‘They met on 3 August 1914 and on 30 September they were married.’ They met on one of Wodehouse’s frequent visits to New York, and were married at The Little Church Round The Corner. Ethel Wayman (nee Newton) was a young widow, also visiting New York from England. Like so many of his fictional heroines, she was a woman of spirit, energy and determination. An extrovert and unlike her husband in character, Ethel nonetheless understood his needs and protected him from the practical demands of life, so that Wodehouse was free to write, walk and engage with the world as it suited him.
They seem to have lived in perfect sympathy with one another. Wodehouse said, in an interview with Gerald Clarke ( P. G. Wodehouse, The Art of Fiction No. 60 in the PARIS REVIEW ):
‘I think a writer’s life is the ideal life’.
It was Ethel who made this life possible, and Wodehouse depended on her. It’s tempting to see their relationship reflected, in typically self-depreciating style, throughout Wodehouse’s writing.
“… she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
The Adventures of Sally (1922)
Wodehouse’s love for Ethel was genuine and life-long. Writing to her on the occasion of their 59th wedding anniversary, Wodehouse pays tribute to the Great Romance of his own life.
My precious angel Bunny whom I love so dear.
Another anniversary! Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!
It was a miracle finding one another. I know I could never have been happy with anybody else. What a lucky day for me when you agreed with me when I said ‘Let’s get married’!
The only thing that makes me sad is your health. How I wish there was something I could do. What is so extraordinary is that you come to me in pain and not having slept and you look just as beautiful as you did fifty-nine years ago. But how I wish that you could get a good sleep.
I wish I could say all the things I would like to say, but really they can all be said in one sentence – I LOVE YOU.
(P. G. Wodehouse. A Life In Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe)
Wishing you all very Happy Ever Afters of your own.
Today’s reading comes from the blog of ZanyZigZag, Clinical Psychologist in training and P.G. Wodehouse lover. Her post today touches on subjects close to my heart.
I’m not opposed to a bit of positive thinking. Some of my best friends are optimists. My concern is that ‘positivity’ has become a socially desirable behaviour, helped along by claims that it’s good for you. We are encouraged to distance ourselves from ‘negative people’ and ‘negativity’ has been demonised as behaviour to overcome (or at least hush up in society and the workplace). Under the guise of negativity, some very useful and important behaviours — like criticism and complaint — have been demonised too. It’s hardly surprising that these ideas gain traction. They are a gift to governments, employers, and maladjusted spouses the world over.
Yes, a world without criticism and complaint would be lovely. But until our world is also free of its problems — violence, injustice and inequality — criticism and complaint remain necessary forces for change. If you’re concerned about wealth or gender inequality, for example, just imagine how things might be if nobody complained. One can hardly be blamed for bouts of pessimism in such a world, and I’m deeply suspicious of the idea that a life of sustained positivity, unbalanced by ‘negative’ thoughts, is a healthy goal to aspire to.
As someone who is not one of nature’s optimists, this isn’t something I’m likely to suffer from. I worry and I brood. I fail to spot the bluebird. I feel that until the world is put right, I’m somehow failing in my responsibilities as a human being. For me, and I suspect for many people, P.G. Wodehouse is more than a great writer. His writing has a transformative power –providing bluebirds when bluebirds are in short supply. As I said in my recent talk in Seattle on the Psychology of the Individual: for some people, reading Wodehouse is the icing on the cake of a happy life. For others, he is a lifeline.
I have been meaning to write a new blogpost for months now, but due to the demands of my clinical psychology course I have been struggling to find the time. The evidence for my plea that this course seems to have taken over my life is clearly illustrated by the fact that even this blogpost has a psychology-related theme to it. It also, however, mentions Harry Potter and Wodehouse, so all is not lost just yet.
In case any of you have eyed the title of this post with scepticism and are concerned that it will in some way be celebrating the “power” of positive thinking, let me reassure you that this is absolutely not the case. I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to affirmations, mantras and “inspirational” quotes – and feel vindicated by studies like this (hyperlink), which demonstrate that positive thinking can actually be harmful rather…
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One of my favourite Wodehouse stories and excellent Valentine’s reading.
He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not decend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.
From ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’
This firm opinion belongs to mystery writer James Rodman, a cousin of Mr Mulliner. But then he inherits Honeysuckle Cottage from his Aunt, the romance novelist Leila J. Pinckney , and her house begins to exert a sinister romantic influence over him.
First, he inserts an unwelcome female into the novel he is writing: ‘…the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faerie.’
James stared at the paper dumbly. He was utterly perplexed. He had not had the slightest intention of writing anything like this. To begin with, it…
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