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An idea by Victoria Madden.
Sometimes the hardest part for screen writers is finding the premise – here’s an idea for a Jeeves and Wooster update you might like to have.
As readers, dedicated and accidental, of this blog will know, most of my creative output takes the form of writing screenplays. I am never sure how worthwhile it really is to try and pursue this as a writing career as, lets face it, you can’t throw a stirrer in any Los Angeles coffee shop without hitting a screenwriter of some sort.
The competition is pretty stiff. And let’s hurriedly gloss over the fact that, even if you were to get your screenplay accepted and paid for, the chances are it will spend years in development before it actually gets made. If it gets made at all.
The problem is I’m good at it: coming up with plot ideas, scenarios, dialogue and characters…
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“Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”
“But, dash it all…”
“Yes! You should be breeding children to…”
“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking-room.”
The Inimitable Jeeves
Once again, Plumtopia is celebrating the romances of P.G. Wodehouse to commemorate the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day 1975.
This year’s topic is the romances of Bertie Wooster. It’s a potentially controversial subject because Bertie is best known — celebrated even– as one of literature’s bachelors. Despite numerous engagements and entanglements, he always manages to slip the wedding knot.
Bertie’s romances, if we can call them that, are mostly unwanted entanglements brought about by Aunt Agatha’s efforts to marry him off, and his own chivalric code.
In Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie makes it clear that “…the thought of being engaged to a girl who talked openly about fairies being born because stars blew their noses, or whatever it was, frankly appalled me.” But when Madeline Bassett offers to marry him, Bertie is helpless to refuse her.
“ … I can never forget Augustus, but my love for him is dead. I will be your wife.”
Well, one has to be civil.
“Right ho,” I said. “Thanks awfully.”
Right Ho, Jeeves
Wodehouse was playing with a well-established romantic tradition, just as the great romantic satirist Jane Austen had done a century earlier.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)
Like Bertie Wooster, Jane Austen’s leading men had their difficulties with unwanted entanglements. In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars’ sense of chivalric obligation prevents him from breaking his engagement to the conniving Lucy Steele, and it takes an accident to save Captain Wentworth from an entanglement with Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion.
Austen also served up a smorgasbord of revolting relations. Mr Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is every bit as scaly and intimidating as Bertie’s Aunt Agatha.
“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet: I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”
Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)
Jane Austen’s heroes have more to lose from an unsuitable marriage than Bertie because they have true love loitering in the wings. Wodehouse also used reluctant love-triangle plots of this kind in his Blandings stories and novels. But Wodehouse could never have allowed Bertie Wooster to marry. The introduction of a Mrs Wooster to the home would have broken up the winning Jeeves and Wooster double act. So Bertie remained a bachelor, with an inexhaustible supply of chums to play romantic lead.
Without the inducement of ‘true love’ to motivate Bertie, Wodehouse set about making his prospective spouses as ghastly as possible. They had to be — the reader (unless a misogynist) could hardly sympathise with Bertie’s predicament otherwise. Wodehouse thrived in the creation of ghastly characters and Bertie suffered more than his fair share of narrow escapes.
Bertie’s prospective wives were not always repulsive. He willingly proposed to Pauline Stoker (in Thank You, Jeeves) and was as mad as a wet hen when Pop Stoker cancelled their engagement under advisement from Sir Roderick Glossop. After Pauline’s affections transferred to Bertie’s pal “Chuffy” Chuffnell, the pair remained on terms of sufficient chumminess as to give Chuffy and Pop Stoker the distinct impression that the old love-light lingered.
“I am assuming that you wish to marry my daughter?”
Well, of course … I mean, dash it … I mean, there isn’t much you can say to an observation like that. I just weighed in with a mild “Oh, ah’.
Thank You, Jeeves
We know Bertie was not opposed to marriage, or the opposite sex. He willingly proposed to Florence Craye (albeit inadvisably) and intended to propose to Roberta Wickham — before the infamous episode of the water bottle and the poker changed his mind. But he never seemed to find the right girl.
When I asked fellow Wodehouse readers on Facebook and Twitter, which of the women in Bertie’s life would have made the best marriage partner, Pauline Stoker and Roberta Wickham ranked clear favourites. But a substantial portion objected to the idea of Bertie marrying at all. It seems his creator’s determination to continue writing about Bertie’s bachelor days have led many fans to consider Bertie a confirmed bachelor for life – with the inimitable Jeeves by his side.
We wish them well.
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) wants to know which three short stories you would include in a Wodehouse Pick-Me-Up edition.
In the latest edition of Wooster Sauce, Quarterly Journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK), the Society is offering members who answer this question the chance to win copies of Random House’s new ‘Pick-Me-Up’ editions. For anyone not already ‘in the know’, the article describes this collection as follows:
Punningly termed ‘pick-me-up’s’ to reflect both their expected sales position near the tills and the expressed belief that Wodehouse writing offers a pick-me-up for any reader, no matter what their problems may be, they each contain three of his best stories.
Members are invited to submit their response and explain, ‘in not more than 50 words why you believe they would have the desired effect on the reader.’
How would you attempt such a selection?
Would you stick to indisputable classics like Uncle Fred Flits By? Would you aim for a representative sample from three different series? Or a ‘best of’ selection featuring a particular character? What about three stories on a common theme? The possibilities and permutations are mind-boggling.
I set my mind boggling to the challenge, and this is what I came up with.
Honoria’s Wodehouse Pick-Me-Up
As the challenge set by the Society is a personal one (they ask which stories you would choose to boost the well-being of the reader), I have selected three stories that meet the following criteria:
– I laughed out loud the first time I read them, uncontrollably and from the belly, until I was in tears.
– I attempted to read each of them aloud to someone else, but failed, because I couldn’t control my laughter.
– The joy of each story remains undiminished after multiple readings – the belly laughs may be controlled, but the stories still induce beaming and general contentment.
I offer my personal Pick-Me Up collection as follows.
1. The Reverent Wooing of Archibald
From: Mr Mulliner Speaking
The speech to which he had been listening was unusually lucid and simple for a Baconian, yet Archibald, his eye catching a battle-axe that hung on the wall, could not but stifle a wistful sigh. How simple it would have been, had he not been a Mulliner and a gentleman, to remove the weapon from its hook, spit on his hands, and haul off and dot this doddering old ruin one just above the imitation pearl necklace.
Herein lies one of the problems with quoting Wodehouse. It’s good stuff to be sure, but a quotation can never do justice to the joys of coming across such lines in their proper context. When I first encountered them, I laughed for fully ten minutes. Unable to compose myself sufficiently to read the story aloud, I played an audio recording by Jonathan Cecil to my family instead.
This proved to be the stuff to give the troops. My 11 year-old daughter has since played the recording over 50 times – it is daily bedtime listening in our house. She knows it better than I do and frequently drops quotes into conversation. ‘The Reverent Wooing of Archibald’ will always hold a special place in my heart as the story that converted her from the child of a Wodehouse reader, to a budding enthusiast in her own right.
The ramblings of Aurelia Cammarleigh’s Baconian aunt, and Archibald’s imitation of a hen laying an egg are priceless.
2. The Clicking of Cuthbert
His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best of 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.
So good it has already given its name to a collection of golf stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert is indisputably among Wodehouse’s best. As a mere golfer, Cuthbert Banks is an outside chance in the race for Adeline Smethurst’s affections – all the smart money is on aspiring novelist Raymond Parsloe Devine. Wodehouse expertly manoeuvres the odds in Cuthbert’s favour, while poking terrific fun at the snobs of the Wood Hills Literary and Debating Society.
But it’s the great Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff who really steals the show.
It is too much to say that there was a dead silence. There could never be that in any room in which Vladimir Brusiloff was eating cake.
3. Tried in the Furnace
From: Young Men in Spats
The human cargo, as I say, had started out in a spirit of demureness and docility. But it was amazing what a difference a mere fifty yards of the high road made to these Mothers. No sooner were they out of sight of the Vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent. The first intimation Barmy had that the binge was going to be run on lines other than those which he had anticipated was when a very stout mother in a pink bonnet and a dress covered with bugles suddenly picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which, all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell, and it was plain that they considered that the proceedings had now been formally opened.
Tried in the Furnace would be the title for my collection – it neatly encapsulates the feeling that so often prompts readers to select a Wodehouse book from the shelf and apply it to their soul like a healing balm.
This story, set in in Maiden Eggesford, recounts the trials of Cyril (‘Barmy’) Fotheringay-Phipps and Reginald (‘Pongo’) Twistleton- Twistleton, who each undertake some act of good works in the parish, in an effort to impress Angelica Briscoe, daughter of the Rev P.P. Briscoe. Pongo oversees the School Treat, while Barmy is entrusted with the village Mothers’ Annual Outing.
Wodehouse also touches briefly on the trials of these village mother’s.
When you are shut up all the year round in a place like Maiden Eggesford, with nothing to do but wash underclothing and attend Divine Service, you naturally let yourself go a bit at times of festival and holidays.
Much like Pongo’s Uncle Fred, when permitted to roam at large in the metropolis, Wodehouse gives these Maiden Eggesford mothers the toot of a lifetime – and as a hard-working mother myself, I appreciate it. For a brief moment, I am that stout mother in a pink bonnet, picking off cyclists with tomatoes, and my burdens seem a little lighter when I’m done.
How to enter
The competition ends 15 January and is open to all members of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK). See page 3 of the December Wooster Sauce for details on how to enter.
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.
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
An excellent piece from Nourishncherish, who is always sound on Wodehouse.
I was reading a short story by P.G.Wodehouse on the train. These are the times when I most mistaken for a lunatic. My seat shudders with unconcealed mirth. I giggle, laugh and sometimes wipe away tears of laughter, while the world is going about the stern business of earning a living. He is one of my favorite authors, and after every few books that makes me mope around the world pondering on the wretchedness and seriousness of life, I turn to a P.G.W book to remind myself that tomfoolery is a virtue to be exalted and celebrated. His turn of phrase, his romping joy, is enough to set me straight.
When I read his autobiography ‘Over Seventy’ a few years ago, I could see that the septuagenarian viewed his own life pretty much the same way he came across in his writing: Sunny and delightful. In his own words, he…
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George Orwell was born on this day 1903.
Best known as the author of dystopian classics 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell also wrote a 1946 essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’.
The background to this story has been covered in much detail elsewhere.*
Before the start of the Second World War, P.G. Wodehouse was living in France. When the German Army invaded, he was among those captured and interned — in a succession of prison camps, from Belgium to Upper Silesia. He continued to write throughout his internment, and read his light-hearted camp diary aloud for the amusement of his fellow internees.
The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-Four at Loos was one of those fine, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young smells which stand on both feet and look the world in the eye.
We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.
(Wodehouse’s Second Berlin Broadcast)
Wodehouse was released in June 1941, shortly before his 60th birthday, and deposited at the Albion hotel in Berlin. While staying there, he met an old acquaintance, Werner Plack, whom he’d known during his stint as a writer in Hollywood. It was Plack who encouraged Wodehouse to make a series of broadcasts to fans in America (which had not yet entered the war) about his recent experience.
It seemed like a good idea to Wodehouse at the time. The talks made light of his experiences, in keeping with the British tradition of humour in the face of adversity.
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me “How can I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
At the time of their arrival, I would have been just as pleased if they had not rolled up. But they did not see it that way, and on May the twenty-second along they came – some on motor cycles, some on foot, but all evidently prepared to spend a long weekend.
(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)
Few people in Britain ever heard the broadcasts, but the ferocious public condemnation that followed was sufficient to convince many people that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser and traitor.
After the war, MI5 and British Foreign Office officials investigated the matter and agreed that Wodehouse had no case to answer. One British Foreign Office official noted:
I do not think that anyone would seriously deny that ‘L’affaire Wodehouse’ was very much a storm in a teacup. It is perfectly plain to any unbiased observer that Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent. He is reported to be of an entirely apolitical cast of mind; much of the furore of course was the result of literary jealousies.
Sadly, the facts surrounding the broadcasts and findings of the MI5 investigation were never made public during Wodehouse’s lifetime, and even today some people find it difficult to shake their mistaken ideas about Wodehouse, or to report the matter with accuracy.
Writing in 1946, Orwell was certainly unaware of the full facts, and he had not heard or seen a transcript of the broadcasts. He unwittingly relies on misrepresented accounts of Wodehouse’s experience. For example, Orwell refers to “German officers in the neighbourhood frequently ‘dropping in for a bath or a party’” in the period immediately before Wodehouse’s internment.
With the full transcripts available to us, we can read Wodehouse’s remarks in context and understand there was no such party:
One’s reactions on suddenly finding oneself surrounded by the armed strength of a hostile power are rather interesting. There is a sense of strain. The first time you see a German soldier over your garden fence, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. About a week later, you find that you are only jumping five feet. And then, after you have been living with him in a small village for two months, you inevitably begin to fraternise and to wish that you had learned German at school instead of Latin and Greek. All the German I know is “Es ist schönes Wetter”, I was a spent force, and we used to take out the rest of the interview in beaming at one another.
I had a great opportunity of brushing up my beaming during those two months. My villa stands in the centre of a circle of houses, each of which was occupied by German officers, who would come around at intervals to take a look at things, and the garden next door was full of Labour Corps boys. It was with these that one really got together. There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them did not drop in for a bath at my house and a beaming party on the porch afterwards
(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)
Orwell may have been misled on some of the details, and I don’t agree with all of the points he makes, but his analysis demonstrates a sound knowledge of Wodehouse’s work, along with Orwell’s usual political astuteness.
In the desperate circumstances of the time, it was excusable to be angry at what Wodehouse did, but to go on denouncing him three or four years later – and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery – is not excusable. Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats – police officials, penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers – are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape. In England the fiercest tirades against quislings are uttered by Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940. I have striven to show how the wretched Wodehouse – just because success and expatriation had allowed him to remain mentally in the Edwardian age – became the corpus vile in a propaganda experiment, and I suggest that it is now time to regard the incident as closed.
The following references / further reading are highly recommended to anyone wishing to better understand this chapter in P.G. Wodehouse’s life.
First broadcast: 26 October 1958
Starting with footage of PG Wodehouse at home in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island, this interview shows the author at his genial and self-deprecating best. Wodehouse cheerfully discusses his long writing career, his eschewal of ‘serious’ fiction and the lack of sex in his books.
During a recent rummage through the BBC website for a dash of Wodehouse related light-relief, I happened across this interview with the author himself. It also includes footage of Wodehouse at home on Long Island. In the interview, Wodehouse answers questions about the Berlin Broadcasts, and the absence of sex in his stories.
These remain topics of interest and speculation among Wodehouse readers today, so it’s well worth listening to Wodehouse’s own thoughts on the subject.