For some years now, I’ve been pushing the idea, aided and abetted by a gang of like-minded eggs, that Valentine’s Day should be commemorated as the anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s death in 1975. I’m a persistent sort of blighter, so here we are again in 2020.
This year, I was curious to take a look at Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of love and see how it might have developed over the course of his 75-year writing career. I quickly discovered (as ever with Wodehouse) that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So until some generous bird comes across with the necessary oof for full-time study, it’s a mere snippet.
It’s unsurprising to find that love doesn’t feature in Wodehouse’s early school stories. The fact that it takes centre stage in his first grown-up novel, Love Among the Chickens (1906) is more curious. Wodehouse’s lifelong love of detective fiction was already evident in his early writing, and would seem the logical next step. I’m dashed if I can see how he suddenly branched out into romances. Unless…
It would be interesting to know to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs. If life is flowing smoothly for them, are the novels they write in that period of content coloured with optimism? And if things are running crosswise, do they work off the resultant gloom on their faithful public? If, for instance, Mr. W. W. Jacobs had toothache, would he write like Mr. Hall Caine? If Maxim Gorky were invited to lunch by the Czar, would he sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Mr. Dooley? Probably great authors have the power of detaching their writing self from their living, workaday self. For my own part, the frame of mind in which I now found myself completely altered the scheme of my novel. I had designed it as a light-comedy effort. Here and there a page or two to steady the reader, and show him what I could do in the way of pathos if I cared to try; but in the main a thing of sunshine and laughter. But now great slabs of gloom began to work themselves into the scheme of it. Characters whom I had hitherto looked upon as altogether robust developed fatal illnesses. A magnificent despondency became the keynote of the book. Instead of marrying, my hero and heroine had a big scene in the last chapter, at the end of which she informed him that she was already secretly wedded to another, a man with whom she had not even a sporting chance of being happy. I could see myself correcting proofs made pulpy by the tears of emotional printers.Love Among the Chickens (1906)
The passage appears at a point in the novel when our hero, an author called Jeremy Garnet, is thwarted in his wooing of Phyllis Derrick. Wodehouse frequently draws from personal experience in his early works and there are autobiographical touches to Garnet’s character. It’s not unreasonable (however impertinent) to wonder: could Wodehouse have been in love?
My love had grown with the days. Mr. J. Holt Schooling, or somebody else with a taste for juggling with figures, might write a very readable page or so of statistics in connection with the growth of love in the heart of a man. In some cases it is, I believe, slow. In my own I can only say that Jack’s beanstalk was a backward plant in comparison.Love Among The Chickens (1906)
If Wodehouse was in love in 1906 — or somewhere on the spectrum — no business resulted. The chief suspect, for my money, is Ella King-Hall. The King-Hall family believed Wodehouse was ‘half in love with her’* and he dedicated books to her in 1907 and 1908. The 1907 dedication appeared in a book called Not George Washington, which Wodehouse had written with a chap called Herbert Westbrook (or at least Westbrook’s name appears on the title).
Wodehouse dedicated books to him too.
To That Prince of Slackers, Herbert WestbrookThe Gold Bat (1904)
To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the timeA Gentleman of Leisure (1910)
Sophie Ratcliffe describes Westbrook as ‘handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke’* and Wodehouse credited him as an inspiration for the character Ukridge, Jeremy Garnet’s scoundrel friend and chief trouble maker in Love Among the Chickens.
Ukridge was the sort of man who asks you out to dinner, borrows the money from you to pay the bill, and winds up the evening by embroiling you in a fight with a cabman. I have gone to Covent Garden balls with Ukridge, and found myself legging it down Henrietta Street in the grey dawn, pursued by infuriated costermongers.Love Among the Chickens (1920 edition)
Ella King-Hall and Herbert Westbrook were married in 1912.
There was no love rivalry between Garnet and Ukridge in Love Among the Chickens. Jerry yearns for Phyllis. Ukridge is recently married to the long-suffering Millie (the long-suffering being ahead of her). Ella King-Hall, who was older than Wodehouse and Westbrook by fifteen years, and worked with them on various plays, doesn’t seem to have much in common with either of them.
Nor are there any ‘great slabs of gloom’ in the book, although readers are left wondering about poor Mrs Ukridge’s future.
Looking back at the affair after the lapse of years, Garnet was accustomed to come to the conclusion that she was the one pathetic figure in the farce. Under what circumstances she had married Ukridge he did not learn till later. He was also uncertain whether at any moment in her career she regretted it. But it was certainly pathetic to witness her growing bewilderment during the weeks that followed, as the working of Ukridge’s giant mind was unfolded to her little by little. Life, as Ukridge understood the word, must have struck her as a shade too full of incident to be really comfortable. Garnet was wont to console himself by the hope that her very genuine love for her husband, and his equally genuine love for her, was sufficient to smooth out the rough places of life.Love Among The Chickens (1906)
This passage was omitted from the revised 1920 edition if Love Among the Chickens, by which time any real-life concerns about Mrs Westbrook had been at least partially smoothed by Wodehouse himself.
He [Wodehouse] continued to play a role in Westbrook’s life as the unacknowledged breadwinner. After her marriage, Ella King-Hall became his literary agent for all his British contracts and remained so until her retirement through ill-health in 1935.Robert McCrum: Wodehouse: A Life (2005)
Wodehouse was thoroughly business-like when it came to this sort of thing and there is no reason to doubt Ella Westbook’s capacity for managing the task, but he might just as easily have placed his affairs with somebody else.
In quality terms, the period following Love Among the Chickens (1906) is arguably the least impressive in Wodehouse’s otherwise brilliant career. With the exception of a superb finale in the school story genre (Mike and Psmith), most of his works from this period (The Luck Stone, The Swoop , The Prince and Betty, Death at the Excelsior) have been forgotten, and are of interest only to Wodehouse enthusiasts.
“Jimmy, we were practically boys together. Tell me about this girl–the girl you loved, and were idiot enough to lose.”
Jimmy drew a deep breath.
“Very well,” said Mifflin complacently, “sigh if you like; it’s better than nothing.”A Gentleman of Leisure (1910)
It would be fanciful to suggest that Wodehouse’s art had suffered from a disappointment in love – there’s no hint of it in his published letters. Rather, it was a period of creative experimentation with voice, style and genre. Wodehouse had left the school story genre behind him, but was yet to find his place in adult fiction.** Unlike his fictional Drones, Wodehouse did not have the luxury of a private income to sustain him, which meant writing for a living — dashing off whatever the magazines would take – until he found his niche.
But love may well have contributed to Wodehouse’s breakthrough. In 1914, he met and married Ethel Wayman in New York. The first Jeeves and Blandings stories appeared in print the following year (My Man Jeeves and Something Fresh). The real-life romance between Wodehouse and his wife is incredibly touching, and Wodehouse fans owe her a debt of gratitude for smoothing away the troubles of life so that he could write.
We may never know more about Wodehouse’s early experiences of love and romance, but we don’t really need to know. Wodehouse never wasted good material – so I feel sure we’ve read about them.
Have you ever been turned down by a girl who afterwards married and then been introduced to her husband? If so you’ll understand how I felt when Clarence burst on me. You know the feeling. First of all, when you hear about the marriage, you say to yourself, “I wonder what he’s like.” Then you meet him, and think, “There must be some mistake. She can’t have preferred this to me!” That’s what I thought, when I set eyes on Clarence.Doing Clarence A Bit Of Good in My Man Jeeves (1915)
Better to have loved and lost, and bunged the thing down on paper, than never to have loved at all.
Happy Wodehouse Day!
*From: Sophie Ratcliffe, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters.
**Read Paul Kent’s Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Volume 1: “This is jolly old Fame” for more on this subject.
Image of Emsworth, Hampshire (where Wodehouse, Herbert Westbrook and Ella King-Hall all lived for a time) taken on a visit by Honoria Plum