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.
Charles 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.’
I’ve not read any Saki, but I like what I’ve seen and plan to correct this at the earliest opportunity.
Richmal Crompton (b. 1890)
“ Readin’ all those books makes me wonder whether anyone ever dies natural.”
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.”
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.’
“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.”
Through the medium of 1970s television, I was acquainted with Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey, long before I was old enough to read Mortimer’s original. 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.’
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!