At last week’s Hay Festival, Alexander McCall Smith was announced winner of the 2015 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, for his book Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party. The prize is awarded ‘in the spirit of P.G. Wodehouse’. I’ve enjoyed many of the previous winners and shortlisted entries, but Wodehouse fans should not to expect great similarities between Wodehouse’s writing and these examples of modern genre.
With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at the 2015 shortlist.
How to Build a Girl by Cailtin Moran
“My life is basically The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole.”
Described as semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story, How to Build a Girl follows 1990s teenager Johanna Morrigan’s efforts to recreate herself as ‘Dolly Wilde’. Author Caitlin Moran is a well-known UK columnist and celebrity, and reviewers have found much to like in her witty narrative style. Wodehouse fans be warned that it’s also heaving with sex and ‘bad language’, so it won’t appeal to everyone.
How to Build a Girl isn’t the sort of book I normally read — as someone who reads for escapist pleasure, the parallels between this story and my life may be a little too close for comfort. The legs on the cover are even wearing my shoes! Like Morrigan/Moran I’ve come from humble beginnings, and reinvented myself as Honoria Plum. Unlike Moran, success didn’t follow. On wrong side of forty, underpaid administrator and exhausted parent, my time and soul are not my own. I’m keeping the dream alive as best I can, writing daily at 5am and on the bus to work, but I’d find it easier to laugh at the mistakes of my youth if I was reading from a more comfortable chair.
In contrast, one of the many things I love about Wodehouse is that he doesn’t challenge me with my own mistakes or confront me with gritty realism. When I want those things, I’ll put my book down and look in the mirror. But I will read How to Build a Girl because it’s already struck a chord. And like all good things, even escapism needs to be enjoyed in moderation.
Losing It by Helen Lederer
It’s great to see women are writing comedy and being shortlisted for this prize. Like Moran, Lederer is well-known in the UK for her work in film and television comedy, and there are clear parallels between Lederer and Millie, the central character in Losing It . Millie is a middle aged, divorced TV star who accepts an offer to advertise diet pills to help resolve her financial difficulties. This isn’t a book I’d normally read (despite a personal resemblance to its fat, skint and middle aged heroine).
There’s a promising Wodehousian element to Lederer’s plot. Millie owes money to loan sharks, but spends her advance from the diet pill company on a holiday. Having spent the cash, she’s committed to losing weight in three months — by whatever means she can. I could see Wodehouse using this plot very well with a male central character, but not a woman.
Wodehouse created many plus-sized, middle-aged females. He usually describes them as ‘handsome’ and portrays them with personality and self-assurance. The tightness of arm-chairs upon hips is mentioned as a matter-of-fact, not censure (although some readers will certainly add that for themselves). In Wodehouse’s world, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and women are alright just as they are. This is something former Wodehouse Prize winner, the late Sir Terry Pratchett also excelled at. Pratchett created interesting heroines for all ages, shapes and sizes.
Among modern female writers there is a tendency to create neurotic heroines consumed with aesthetic self-judgement. As a reader, this doesn’t interest me any more than modern moralising about weight and beauty interests me in ‘real-life’. I prefer the Wodehouse-Pratchett view of women as worthy of our interest (and approval) just as they are. But Helen Lederer’s novel sounds like an authentic and funny variation on an otherwise tiresome theme, so I may well give this one a try.
Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
This novella tells the story of wealthy American tourist, ‘Fatty’ O’Leary’s, visit to Ireland — home of his ancestors. It’s a holiday in which just about everything that could go wrong, does.
I’ve done the dutiful thing and purchased this prize-winning book, but with reservations. I didn’t enjoy the previous McCall Smith I tried — The Sunday Philosophy Club. A great title, but I found the central character, Isabel Dalhousie, a terrible snob. She dislikes one character and tries to ruin his relationship because she doesn’t approve of the university he attended or the colour of his trousers. Wodehouse himself created many snobbish characters for us to laugh at, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether McCall Smith’s heroine was intentionally flawed, or if her judgmental views reflected those of the author.
Putting this experience aside, I will approach Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party with an open mind, in knowledge that this book impressed the Wodehouse Prize judges. McCall Smith is certainly the most established and prolific author in the shortlist, with a large international audience (that includes my own mother). So I’m hopeful of finding much to like in Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party.
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
Another semi-autobiographical novel from a female writer (should I be rethinking my own comic writing along similar lines?). Man at the Helm follows Nina Stibbe’s highly regarded first book ‘Love, Nina’, memoirs of the author’s days as a nanny for London editor Mary Kay-Wilmers. Man at the Helm is a tale of two sisters trying to find a man for their mother. In a glowing review for The Guardian, Kate Kellaway describes Stibbe’s ‘eye and ear for the absurd’ — something very much in the Wodehouse tradition.
Like everything else on the list so far, this isn’t something I would gravitate towards in a bookstore. I don’t tell you this to pooh-pooh the books, but rather to make you aware this isn’t a sub-genre I’m familiar with — so you can assess my response accordingly. It would be wonderful to discover a shortlisted book that fits my tastes perfectly, but I am just as happy to read beyond my usual preferences and perhaps discover new favorites. Nina Stibbe could well prove to be one of them.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
“I was like the dog with the empty bladder that nonetheless goes from tree to tree, stopping at each one to cock his leg in vain”.
For Joseph O’Neill’s sake, I hope The Dog is not semi- autobiographical, although similarities with his previous novel Netherland might cause people to wonder. The Dog‘s unnamed narrator is a Swiss-American lawyer working in Dubai for an obscenely rich family. He’s a keen observer of social media, but his Linked In profile probably doesn’t tell you that his hobbies include frequenting prostitutes and bemoaning the failure of his last relationship. It’s a long way from Wodehouse, and definitely involves humour of another kind.
Max Liu, in a review for The Independent , says:
“He articulates a kind of business class existentialism, which is difficult to get excited about, and The Dog is composed of deliberately convoluted sentences which thwart the reader’s absorption.”
But one man’s idea of ‘convoluted’ signals ‘literary merit’ to another, and by that measure, The Dog is the most literary entrant in this year’s shortlist, being long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It’s also the hardest to understand without reading the dashed thing (which, on balance, I’m not inclined to do). Some reviewers find it eye-gougingly dull. The Times review quoted on the cover calls it ‘brutal’ and ‘witty’. Comparisons are made with Kafka, Bret Easton Ellis and Nick Hornby. Others consider O’Neill among a modern literary elite, too high for appreciation by the common reader. It may be all those things, but I’m as common as muck so I’ll be giving this one a miss.
A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh
Wodehouse famously never wrote about sex, but A Decent Ride is the third shortlisted book to come with a warning to Wodehouse fans about sexually explicit content. And I don’t just mean a bit of bedroom hanky-panky. Modern comedy writing has indeed moved on in this respect, but it may well have gone backwards when it comes to quality — if Stuart Kelly’s review in The Guardian is anything to go by. Entitled ‘A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh review –poor writing and penis jokes’, Kelly begins:
Given that it features incest, rape, grave desecration, necrophilia and one character filling a terminally ill man’s saline drip with urine and semen, it is curious that the most shocking thing about Irvine Welsh’s new novel, A Decent Ride, is that it was published at all.
This will be enough for many Wodehouse readers to know that A Decent Ride is not for them. I’m reasonably broadminded, and I don’t mind the judges challenging our ideas of comedy writing. The first unfamiliar Wodehouse Prize winning author I ever read was Christopher Brookmyre, who is a long way from the Wodehouse tradition, but I was glad to have read Brookmyre. A Decent Ride definitely isn’t for me.
What do you think?
It’s a thought provoking, thoroughly modern short-list. There is no escapist or comic fantasy, with the death of Terry Pratchett leaving a gaping hole in that area. As good as some of these shortlisted novels undoubtedly are, there’s nothing much to remind the modern Wodehouse reader of Wodehouse. Is the Wodehouse tradition at an end? I hope not.
If you’ve read any of the shortlisted books or, like me, have the temerity (if that’s the word I want, Jeeves) to discuss them without having bothered — I’d love to know what you think.
My reviews of Wodehouse Prize winning and shortlisted authors occasionally appear at Plumtopia. I’d be happy to share yours here too.
A treat from the desk of Victoria Madden at Moulders Lane. In my imagination, this is a perfect writing haven, and Victoria is sound on Wodehouse too. Enjoy!
I recently found a series of fascinating interviews in The Paris Review, with half a century of famous writers discussing How They Wrote: a treasure trove of advice and inspiration for the aspiring author. The one that most struck a chord, though, was the interview with our beloved Plum in 1975 by Gerald Clarke.
Wodehouse returned to America in 1914, following earlier, brief visits – payment for his short stories being considerably more than that by KinGaCCouPoon” href=”#”>offered in England – and it was there that he found success in the musical comedies that would stylistically define the rest of his writing career. He’d first contributed a lyric to a London show in 1904, but his first substantial contribution, in 1914, had been a flop. Over in New York, Miss Springtime, his first outing with dream team Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, was a success; a year later…
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‘What’s up with you today?’ he asked.
He could hardly have chosen a worse formula. The question has on most people precisely the same effect as that which the query, ‘Do you know where you lost it?’ has on one who is engaged in looking for mislaid property.
‘Nothing,’ said Reade. Probably at the same moment hundreds of other people were making the same reply, in the same tone of voice, to the same question.
I started reading The Pothunters yesterday. It’s a habit of mine, every so often, to set about re-reading the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse in order of publication, starting with The Pothunters (1902) — his first published novel. Invariably I get distracted from my purpose, somewhere between A Prefect’s Uncle and Love Among the Chickens. Sometimes, it’s the distractions of life. ‘Life!’ as Douglas Adams’ paranoid android Marvin says — ‘Don’t talk to me about life.’
More often it is Wodehouse who distracts me. I pick up The Mating Season or Pigs Have Wings, or possibly Mulliner Nights, in search of a quotation and end up reading the whole thing. Life goes on, time passes, until one day I begin with The Pothunters all over again. Fortunately, it’s a dashed enjoyable book.
I picked it up yesterday in an odd sort of mood. Life has been a bit of strain lately and I’ve been identifying with the aforementioned Marvin more than ever.
‘The first ten million years were the worst,’ said Marvin, ‘and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million years I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.’
Douglas Adams (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
So I turned to Wodehouse, as I often do, as a soothing balm in troubled times.The therapeutic power of great comic writing has long been undervalued by self-appointed literary elites, who look down their noses at ‘light’ fiction, and sneer at those who read for pleasure. Even sensible reviewers and book bloggers often struggle when it comes to reviewing Wodehouse, and other comic writing. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Wodehouse novels ‘reviewed’ with a few sentences along the lines of — ‘I enjoyed it, but as a light comic novel, there isn’t much I can say about it.’ Others stick like glue to Stephen Fry’s view that ‘you don’t analyse such sunlit perfection.’
Is it any wonder that I have these odd moods? There is plenty to be gained from analysing Wodehouse. Why does his writing make us happy? What is is about his world and characters that appeal to us? Are there lessons we can take from his writing to make the world a better place? What can emerging writers learn from Wodehouse — so that his legacy extends to include future generations of writers who bring sunshine into our souls?
It’s all part of the Plumtopian vision — to inhabit a world where the healing balm of Wodehouse is liberally applied.
She melted quite perceptibly. She did not cease to look like a basilisk, but she began to look like a basilisk who has had a good lunch.
The Girl on the Boat
‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendor.’
Most Wodehouse readers will be familiar with this quotation, printed on thousands of new editions, and quoted ad nauseam by reviewers and fans alike. Unfortunately it is sometimes bandied about to support the argument that Wodehouse and his work ought not be discussed — that Mr Fry has spoken and we, mere readers, should restrict ourselves to spouting quotations (or better, dignified silence). As someone who blogs about Wodehouse, I naturally take a different view. Nor am I convinced that this is what Stephen Fry meant.
The quotation comes from Fry’s introduction to What Ho! The best of P.G. Wodehouse (republished in The Independent). Fry suggests the ‘miraculous verbal felicities’ of Wodehouse’s writing are best experienced by reading his work. No attempt to explain or analyse the mechanics of Wodehouse’s prose style can ever do justice to the real thing, and Fry does not attempt it himself, offering instead some well chosen quotations, including this favourite:
Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.
It is in this context that Fry says: ‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection…’ His point is that Wodehouse’s writing ought not be clinically dissected — or taken apart to see how it ticks. And unless you are a writer, looking to learn your craft from Wodehouse’s example, this is sound advice. The rest of Fry’s piece is ripe with discussion on the subject of Wodehouse, his life and contribution to our happiness. This includes, I’m sorry to say, further condemnation of those who seek to delve deeper into Wodehouse’s world.
Many have sought to “explain” Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of modern literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like “taking a spade to a soufflé”. His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanently pre-pubescent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary, magical and blessed miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that dispels doubt much as sunlight dispels shadows, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.
If we agree with Stephen Fry on this point, it puts many of us on shakier group. Indeed, there are devoted fans happily psychoanalysing Wodehouse aunts, drones and sporty young girls at this very moment in an active Facebook group boasting nearly 10,000 members. And what of the various Wodehouse societies around the world that produce more scholarly work, and unite people with a shared love of Wodehouse? Is the otherwise genial Mr Fry really attempting to dictate terms and deny small pleasures to fellow Wodehouse-lovers? Perhaps his reference to ‘the microscope of modern literary criticism’ indicates a more specific, academic target. The late Christopher Hitchens left no room for doubt in his condemnation:
Indeed, if anything could ever put one off being a Wodehouse fan, it would be the somewhat cultish element among his admirers and biographers. Such people have a tendency to allude to him as “The Master.” They publish monographs about the exact geographical location of Blandings Castle, or the Drones Club. They hold dinners at which breadstuffs are thrown. Their English branch publishes the quarterly Wooster Sauce, and their American branch publishes the quarterly Plum Lines: two painfully unfunny titles.
Censuring fellow Wodehouse lovers for such harmless pleasures is grossly unkind. It also smacks of hypocrisy, for Hitchens and Fry have both enjoyed the privilege of sharing their love of Wodehouse in their own way. Each has written at length about Wodehouse and the influence of his work on their lives. Both men have also had the privilege of writing introductions to modern editions and collected works. Christopher Buckley reported in a piece about Hitchens:
When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?
This is a privilege denied to the ordinary reader, but our capacity to enjoy Wodehouse is equal to that of Hitchens and Fry. Perhaps more so, for neither man could understand the joy of being momentarily lifted from the drudgery, poverty and despair of a working-class life into Wodehouse’s world. Appreciating Wodehouse is not a science, nor a competitive sport. There are no rules, and we should resist any attempts to impose such limitations. For too long, I have worried about overstepping the boundaries laid out by Fry and others, when really this censure is surely as silly as the activities they sneer at. Ordinarily I am an admirer of both Fry and Hitchens, and I know there are Wodehouse fans who agree with their views. Happily there is room for friendly disagreement between fans of such a genial writer as Wodehouse. But when it comes to quotable dust-jacket endorsements, I can’t help wishing the new editions had stuck with the more generous sentiments of Evelyn Waugh, quoted on the old Penguin paperback editions.
Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in — ‘
Evelyn Waugh in a B.B.C. broadcast
This is the stuff to give the troops! Waugh doesn’t claim Wodehouse for himself — instead he shows the sort of pull-together spirit that Ukridge and I like to see. His words are prophetic too, as the captivity of modern life looks pretty dashed irksome from where I’m sitting. In addition to my daily dose of Wodehouse, writing this blog is one of my few pleasures, and if anyone finds my output silly I shall be delighted. I also plan to attend my first Wodehouse Society Convention later this year (Psmith in Pseattle). If breadstuffs are thrown, I shall be well pleased.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pop off to the local Garden Centre before it closes. We’re having souffle for dinner and I need to purchase the appropriate cutlery.
In December, I had the delightful privilege of seeing Perfect Nonsense on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For anyone not already aware, Perfect Nonsense is a stage adaptation (by David and Robert Goodale) of The Code of the Woosters. It’s been well received by West End audiences since opening in 2013, and is now touring the UK until mid-2015 (see the official site for details). If you’re planning to see the show and don’t want to read my review, look away now.
The Goodale brothers’ clever adaptation sticks closely to Wodehouse’s original story and delicious dialogue, ensuring a production that is pure Wodehouse. But Perfect Nonsense is not a mere staging of the book. The Goodales have added their own comic twist by having all the characters played by just three actors.
The play opens with Bertie Wooster reclining in a favourite armchair. He begins to tell us the sorry tale of his recent entanglement with Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, old pop Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode and an eighteenth-century cow-creamer. Wodehouse fans in the audience will know where this is going. To assist in the retelling, Bertie enlists the help of Jeeves, and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) to ‘play’ the other characters in his narrative.
This ingenious strategy adds something new for Wodehouse fans, without detracting from Wodehouse’s original work — it is also great fun. Jeeves and Seppings undergo an exhausting repertoire of inventive costume changes, in which lampshades become hats and curtains become dresses. The hard-working Seppings is, at one point, dressed as Aunt Dahlia inside a giant Spode suit. John Gordon Sinclair and Robert Goodale were utterly entertaining and memorable as Jeeves and Seppings (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield in the original cast).
Bertie’s role is physically less demanding, with no elaborate costume or character changes to contend with, but requires a delicate balance of jovial stupidity. It’s not an exact science, but Wodehouse fans can be unforgiving when actors get it wrong. Stephen Mangan was well received in the original cast, and I thought Joel Sams did a sound job (as cover for James Lance) in Bath.
Inventive sets were a highlight of this production, with two revolving interiors that cunningly transformed from Bertie’s London flat into an antique shop in the Brompton Road, various locations around Totleigh Towers, and even accommodated a thrilling drive in Bertie’s two-seater. Set changes were comically incorporated into the theatrics: Jeeves twiddles a handle on the wall to change the painting over the fireplace, while Bertie jiggles paper flames at the end of two sticks. The dog Bartholomew also makes notable appearances. These small details added to the joy of the performance, without detracting from the complicated storyline or Wodehouse’s original dialogue.
No doubt a Wodehouse purist, for such creatures I regret to say exist, would find something in this adaptation to pick on. It is often argued that Wodehouse ought not be adapted at all – that it somehow sullies the perfection of his art. But while comic prose was certainly his forte, Wodehouse’s versatility as a writer included a long association with the theatre, predominantly as a lyricist, but also as a writer and critic. As an added bonus, a reminder of Wodehouse’s theatrical career is provided by Tony Ring in the Perfect Nonsense programme.
During his lifetime, P.G. Wodehouse demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different forms and genres, and to collaborate with others. Intelligent adaptations like Perfect Nonsense remind us of this wider legacy, and remain welcome by fans who simply cannot get enough of his stuff.
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Thanks to regular readers who contacted me during my recent absence from Plumtopia. Awfully decent of you! Results of the Wodehouse Survey are currently being collated into a paper for the 2015 convention and will be shared here in due course.
‘There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’
So says Mervyn Potter, Hollywood heart-throb, who leads poor Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps astray in Barmy in Wonderland (1952). But before you start quoting these sentiments as the views of the author himself, have look at what happens to the frequently pie-eyed Mervyn. In Chapter One, he gets blotto, burns down a hotel bungalow, and induces Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (a hotel employee) to slip a frog into his employer’s bedroom. In Chapter Five, Mervyn is already soaked when Barmy arrives at his house (for a dinner he never gets).
It was plain to him that the other, fatigued no doubt after a long day’s rehearsal, had yielded to the dictates of his lower self and for some considerable time must have been mopping up the stuff like a vacuum cleaner. If not actually ossified, he was indubitably plastered, and Barmy could only hope that he would not eventually reach the truculent stage.
Mervyn Potter does indeed reach the truculent stage. First, he creates a disturbance during the cabaret performance in the Champagne Room at the Piazza Hotel. Next he takes a late taxi to the Long Island home of his fiancé, where the occupants of the house are sleeping. Mervyn insists that Barmy ‘shin up the waterpipe’ and start breaking windows. The episode ends badly for Mervyn, who is discovered by Bulstrode the butler, sitting at the foot of the drainpipe reciting Longfellow’s Excelsior. At this point his fiancé, Hermione Brimble, very sensibly insists that he give up drinking.
‘I wonder, Phipps,’ he said, ‘if you have the slightest conception what it means to be on the wagon. I shall go through the world a haunted man. There will be joy and mirth in that world, but not in the heart of Mervyn Potter. Everywhere around me I shall hear the happy laughter of children as they dig into their Scotch highballs, but I shall not be able to join them. I shall feel like a thirsty leper.’
This is moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. I am reminded of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking, as told by Galahad Threepwood in Heavy Weather:
…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”
“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”
His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”
Unfortunately Mervyn Potter is unable to sustain this binge-free lifestyle and Hermione cancels the fixture. He gets drunk on the opening night of his latest play (in which Phipps has invested his fortune) and refuses to perform. When ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ closes, Potter is the happy star of a hit play, but his long-term future is uncertain. Whereas Barmy, who hardly touches a drop after his initial night out with Potter, is rewarded with both riches and romance.
I’m not suggesting ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is a moral tale about the evils of drink – far from it. But it’s not quite the ringing endorsement of drinking that the original quotation (if taken as the author’s view on the subject) might suggest. Which brings me back to my original point. Wodehouse’s characters espoused a great variety of views and opinions, often ludicrous or extreme, which makes for great comedy. We can do nothing to stop a vexatious critic from presenting these opinions as the author’s own, but we should take care not to do so ourselves.
But that’s enough from me for one day. This blogging is thirsty business and it’s almost noon – or will be once I’ve dressed and prepared my liver for the day’s potations. I leave you with these fine sentiments from the attractive Peggy Marlowe (‘not unknown to the choruses of Broadway’) who has difficulty procuring a glass of champagne after the opening-night flop in ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ .
‘What I vote,’ said Miss Marlowe, ‘is that somebody slips me a tankard of that juice. I’m surprised you haven’t offered me any before, dreamboat,’ she went on, addressing Barmy reproachfully: ‘Who do you think I am? Volstead or someone?’
(c) Copyright. My original writing at Plumtopia is subject to copyright. You are welcome to quote from my writing with permission, acknowledging me as the author.
The Old Reliable Ashokbhatia has written yet another pippin on the subject of Plum – this time offering a chap’s perspective on the issue of Wodehouse’s female characters. Your thoughts?
The delicately nurtured amongst us occasionally bemoan the way they have been treated by the Master Wordsmith of our times – P G Wodehouse. Admittedly, his narratives are replete with somewhat jaundiced references to the fairer sex. We could readily jump to the conclusion that his works have been written only for an exclusive boys’ club.
Consider these samples from ‘Jeeves in the Offing’:
‘It just shows you what women are like. A frightful sex, Bertie. There ought to be a law. I hope to live to see the day when women are no longer allowed.’
‘That would rather put a stopper on keeping the human race going, wouldn’t it?’
‘Well, who wants to keep the human race going?’
‘I see what you mean. Yes, something in that, of course.’
‘Why? You were crazy about the girl once.’
‘But no longer. The fever has…
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Last month, as you may know if you follow the goings-on at Plumtopia, I purchased a copy of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastain Faulks. Finally, after two abortive attempts, which degenerated into rants on other matters, I have finally set about reviewing it. Or at least, it’s a review of sorts. I’m very much a novice reviewer, and although I ‘read as a writer’, it’s as an unpublished writer whose bottom drawer is full of bilge that couldn’t, even at its best, be described as literary.
But as every amateur modern writer knows — anyone who has attended a writing course, weekend workshop, or flicked through a book on writing — ‘good writing’ must grip and sustain the reader, and involve all the senses. The modern writer’s mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’, and Faulks is very much a modern writer. By page two of ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’ Faulks (or rather, Bertie) has described:
- ‘twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock…’
- ‘hot water came from a geyser in a boiling trickle over the bath…’
- ‘the back staircase, which gave off a powerful whiff of lime wood.’
By page three, we’ve had details of Bertie being woken by an alarm clock, walking to the bathroom, bathing, dressing, and walking to the kitchen. Faulks draws us into Bertie’s multi-sensory experience, showing and not telling, and does the best he can along these lines without sounding too un-Bertie like. It would presumably go against all Faulks modern writerly instincts (or his editor’s) to do otherwise. However, I found these introductory pages jarring, and by page four, I was close to despair. Bertie Wooster is not a modern writer. This is not his voice.
Then, two-thirds of the way down page five, Faulks give us the goods:
But hold on a minute. I see I’ve done it again: set off like the electric hare at the local dog track while the paying customers have only the foggiest idea of what’s going on. Steady on, Wooster, they’re saying: no prize for finishing first. What’s this buttling business, and why the assumed names?’
A Bertie-like voice has finally broken through, and once he takes over, Faulks never looks back. I had few complaints from here on, and frequently found myself enjoying the ride. In terms of the plot, all the elements we expect from a Bertie and Jeeves story are there:
- Old school chum in love turns to B. Wooster (or rather, Jeeves) for advice;
- Bertram visits rural outpost, first taking a country cottage, then moving to the local ancestral pile.
- Owner of ancestral pile is a stubborn old egg with an attractive daughter and financial problems, which Jeeves resolves to ensure Bertie’s pal can marry said daughter.
- Jeeves contrives for Bertie to make ass of himself as usual, before his chum’s romantic affairs are brought to satisfactory conclusion.
Faulks also bungs in many of the optional extras, including a burglary (with Bertie cast as the unwilling burglar), a village concert, a sporting match, and at least one scaly Aunt who is well drawn in the Wodehouse style.
‘I have received intelligence from the Hall, sir, that a further house guest is expected this afternoon.’
‘Right ho. Who is he?’
‘She, sir. Dame Judith Puxley.’
Even on such a sunny morning I felt a shudder run through the lower vertebrae. ‘What on earth brings that preying cannibal to Dorsetshire?’
‘It appears she is an old school friend of Lady Hackwood, sir.’
I found the mind boggling a bit. ‘It’s hard to imagine that particular schoolroom, isn’t it Jeeves?”
It does lie, sir, at the extremity of one’s power to conjecture.’
‘Had old Isaac Newton done his stuff by then do you suppose?’
It is here, in the dialogue that Faulks does his best work in capturing the Wodehouse style. In terms of plot, Faulks is far kinder to Bertie than Wodehouse ever was; there are no threatening entanglements with unsuitable females; no Spodes or Stiltons waiting to scoop out his insides. The main danger Bertie faces is being unmasked as an imposter at Melbury Hall, where he is passing himself off below-stairs as a Mr Wilberforce, Lord Etringham’s man. Unusually, it is Jeeves who takes the risk, assuming the part of Lord Etringham and accepting Sir Henry Hackwood’s invitation at the hall. This requires a leap of faith from seasoned Wodehouse readers, who are accustomed to Jeeves contriving for all the risk to be taken by Bertie.
When Bertie and Jeeves are finally unmasked, there is no scene. All the rough stuff happens off stage. The real Lord Etringham is unexpectedly announced at dinner, and Bertie dashes off to his lair below stairs until the housekeeper Mrs Tilman informs him the crisis has passed. When Bertie greets Sir Henry Hackwood again, his host has nothing more cutting to say than ‘Ah, Wooster, glad to meet you properly,’ making Sir Henry one of the few imposing patriarchs in Bertie’s life to express pleasure in his presence. These are minor complaints however.
The big departure from the traditional Wodehouse plot is the romance between Bertie and Georgiana Meadowes. It starts on the Côte d’Azur, but unlike Bertie’s holiday romance with Pauline Stoker, it does not end with a hasty proposal. Bertie confides in the reader that he feels unworthy of her, although it is increasingly clear to us (if not Bertie) that both Jeeves and Georgiana are in favour of a union. The story concludes with their engagement happily settled, in a manner that suits Jeeves’ own matrimonial plans.
Bertie Wooster was never in danger of being married while Wodehouse was at the helm. Having married off earlier creations Psmith and Ukridge, Wodehouse knew marriage would irrevocably alter the Jeeves and Wooster adventures (although he did handle the married life of Bingo Little exceptionally well in a number of short stories). With Wodehouse now departed and Faulks presumably not intending further installments, Bertie is finally at liberty to settle down. But the idea still seems strange to us and I, like Aunt Dahlia, won’t believe it until he has donned the sponge-bag trousers and collected the fish-slice in person.
There are other criticisms one might make. Faulks never quite shakes the habit of attempting rich, literary description, poor chap, and however hard he tries, he’s not Wodehouse. Indeed, he has been criticised by purists in our ranks for writing the book at all, and many fans refuse to read it. From my perspective, as someone who has read every word of Wodehouse I could get my hands on until the supply has given out, I am grateful for something new. It may not be Wodehouse, but Faulks has made a fair attempt in the right spirit, and it brought a smile to the lips.
(c) Copyright. My original writing and photographs are subject to copyright. You are welcome to copy them with permission, acknowledging me as the author.
“I am no stranger to butterfly belly. A man who has had to pass himself off as Gussie Fink-Nottle to four aunts in a chilly Hampshire dining room with only orange juice in the carburettor knows the meaning of fear.”
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
Sebastian Faulks presumably knows the feeling pretty well too. As the author of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Faulks has risked the ire of Wodehouse fans (already disgrunted after the BBC Blandings fiasco) and potentially his own reputation as a writer. For one of the problems with imitating Wodehouse in the 21st Century is that his style runs somewhat contrary to prevailing ideas about ‘good writing’. For an idea of the depths to which modern writing has sunk, consider these Ten rules for writing fiction:
If Wodehouse were starting out today, he could expect to have a fair portion of his work flung back at him on these grounds alone. The busy modern publisher would read no further than: “The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town” (Something Fresh). Or “Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London” (Heavy Weather). I can hear the clicking tongues already. Today, entire novels are rejected due to opening lines like these. We have to be instantly gripped.
2 “Avoid prologue.”
Specifically, writers are advised to avoid beginning with too much backstory. This must be lobbed in later, and in small doses. The rationale for this is unclear, but it is widely accepted to be good writing. We writers must strive to keep our readers in the dark, only revealing snippets of information as required. Apparently this keeps them interested. We must show, not tell. And we would never dream of writing, as Wodehouse does on page one of The Mating Season:
“But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. you whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.
Let me get into reverse and put you abreast.”
According to the rules of modern writing, telling a backstory ‘takes the story backwards’. It is apparently a ‘blunder’ typical of new writers and one that must be corrected. A 21st Century Wodehouse would almost certainly have his manuscript returned for rework. He would be advised to get rid of the backstory and start with some action as a ‘hook’ to get the reader interested. Any explanation of what’s actually going on is, at this point, considered undesirable. I don’t know what Wodehouse would make of this advice, but I am reminded of Psmith’s comments in Psmith Journalist:
“Your narratives, Comrade Maloney, always seem to me to suffer from a certain lack of construction. You start at the end, and then you go back to any portion of the story which happens to appeal to you at the moment, eventually winding up at the beginning.”
3 “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”
Wodehouse fares very well on this score. Indeed, his dialogue is so snappy that he writes long passages without so much as a ‘said’ in sight, perhaps a legacy of his time in the theatre.
” ‘I say, Bertie,’ he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.
‘Do you like the name Mabel?’
‘You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?’
He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.
‘Of course, you wouldn’t. You always were a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?’ ”
The Inimitable Jeeves
Wodehouse does break the rule of never using alternatives to said: “‘Croquet!’ He gulped” in The Clicking of Cuthbert; “ ‘Am I a serf?’ demanded Evangeline” in Mulliner Nights; ” ‘Go away, boy!’ he boomed” (the Duke of Dunstable) in Service with a Smile. But such transgressions are rare.
4 “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.”
According to the rules for writing fiction: ‘”To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Again, Wodehouse breaks the rule of never using an adverb in his dialogue, but examples are hard to come by:”‘I suppose you know who did it, hey?’ he said satirically” (Service with a Smile). This is the Duke of Dunstable again. What was it about Dunstable, arguably Wodehouse’s foulest creation, that caused such reckless use of verbs and adverbs?
5 “Keep your exclamation points under control.”
The incorrect use of exclamation marks is a modern misdemeanour that we would not expect Wodehouse to commit. Nor does he. Mostly we find them in his dialogue: an occasional ‘Darling!’ here, a justified ‘What ho!’ there. Every so often, he throws caution to the wind and has a character exclaim: ‘Am I mortified! I’m as mad as a wet hen.’ Or: ‘Lord-love-a-duck!’ (both from Money in the Bank).
Regarding the use of exclamation marks, the rule is: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Wodehouse certainly exceeds this quota. It’s only natural that, when his plots reach their feverish high points, his characters feel the urge to exclaim things. But Wodehouse never misuses or overuses exclamations, and they fit seamlessly into the text. How sad that this perfectly useful punctuation mark has come to be considered a hallmark of poor writing.
6 “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.”
Of course Wodehouse breaks this rule. As a writer of over ninety published works, I would be exceedingly surprised if he had never employed this useful word on occasion. Consider this example, from one of the finest short stories ever written in the English language:
“As Cuthbert, for it was he who had so nearly reduced the muster-roll of rising novelists by one, hopped down from the table after his stroke, he was suddenly aware that a beautiful girl was looking at him intently. As a matter of fact, everyone in the room was looking at him intently, none more so than Raymond Parsloe Devine, but none of the others were beautiful girls. Long as the members of Wood Hills Literary Society were on brain, they were short on looks, and, to Cuthbert’s excited eye, Adeline Smethurst stood out like a jewel in a pile of coke.”
The Clicking of Cuthbert
Does the word suddenly leap out at you in that passage? Does it make the editor in you itch for your red pen? Is it poor writing? I’ve no doubt the many commas and sub-clauses will make our more sluggish-minded readers’ eyes water. It’s just lack of practice. Too much Hemingway in your diet. Not enough Wodehouse.
7 “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”
Wodehouse breaks this rule often, from the slang of the Drones Club to his gangs of New York. Some of these attempts are more successful than others.
“Why, den dis kid’s in bad for fair, ‘cos der ain’t nobody to pungle de bones.”
“Pungle de what, Comrade Maloney?”
“De bones. De stuff. Dat’s right. De dollars. He’s all alone, dis kid, so when de rent-guy blows in, who’s to slip him over de simoleons?”
Wodehouse’s technique develops from this early effort, in 1909, and by the time he writes Picadilly Jim (1917), the patois is a little more refined:
“Chicago Ed’s my monaker.”
“I don’t remember any Chicago Ed.”
“Well, you will after dis!” said Mr. Crocker, happily inspired.
Ogden was eyeing him with sudden suspicion.
“Take that mask off and let’s have a look at you.”
Wodehouse continues to use this particular dialect throughout his writing career, and many of the examples defy ‘the rules’.
8 “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
This is a rule inspired by Hemingway, who apparently felt it only necessary to mention whether or not his character wore a hat. Why Hemingway’s preference should be considered a rule for all writers is unclear. Wodehouse frequently devotes a sentence or two in drawing up the external specifications of his characters, especially when there is comedic value in it. In The Mating Season, for example, he describes the Rev. Sidney Pirbright as:
“A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…”
His central characters usually get a few more inches of description. In The Mating Season, he devotes a paragraph to the beautiful ‘Corky’ Pirbright: “The general effect is of an angel who eats lots of yeast.” Her love interest, Esmond Haddock, gets a full two paragraphs:
“He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean – broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe , though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic. He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.”
None of these are detailed descriptions – Wodehouse drew his characters lightly – but it’s fair to say that he goes beyond the cursory mention of head-wear, so admired by the Hemingway school.
9 “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
Avoid description. Avoid adverbs. Is this advice for novel-writers or twitter users? According to ‘the rules’: “You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.” It’s all about action. I pity the reader who turns to modern literature as an escape from the stress and anxiety of modern life, when we writers seem intent on keeping them in this state of tension.
Wodehouse doesn’t avoid description. Nor does he encumber us with dull pages of the stuff. His descriptive passages are, as we’d expect from a humourous writer, entertaining. The opening paragraph from Picadilly Jim is a good example:
“The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted by it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.”
A fine beginning, an enjoyable description – no mention of the weather. It isn’t clear from ‘the rules’ how much description is too much, but Wodehouse judges this for himself and gets it just right for his audience and purpose.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Which reader would that be? ‘The rules’ say: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”
In my case, I would begin by skipping the complete works of Hemingway.
But where does this leave our assessment of Wodehouse, according to the modern rules? The answer is, of course, that it hardly matters. Wodehouse is an acknowledged master of his craft and has nothing to prove, in spite of changing fashions about what constitutes ‘good writing’.
On reflection, my argument has is less to do with Wodehouse than ‘the rules’ themselves. If Wodehouse, one of our great writers who remains well-loved more than a century after he began writing, doesn’t fit the modern rule book, are editors, publishers and critics closing their minds to other potentially great writers who don’t fit them either?
I’m not talking about myself, but… as it happens I am working on a novel at present and it does happen to begin with the weather, followed by quite a lot of backstory. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me. At the very least I shall have to scrap that first sentence:
“My parents died in a thunderstorm!” she cried suddenly.
(c) Copyright. My original writing is subject to copyright. You are welcome to copy, with permission, acknowledging me as the author.
This piece began as a story about my search for Sebastian Faulks’ new book ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’ in my local bookshop. With the giddy excitement of a school girl, I had rushed forth to purchase my copy, but found things less straightforward than expected. The book was not filed under ‘F’ for Faulks as is, I believe, customary. Nor was it among the new releases. But after some first rate detective work, and much tut-tutting under the breath, I discovered the bally thing in the ‘humour section’, under ‘W’, next to Wodehouse.
I greatly dislike finding Wodehouse in the ‘humour section’, filed among the joke books, cartoons, mediocre comedy memoirs, and other bilge produced purely as a money-making exercise. P.G. Wodehouse was an exceptional writer, widely acknowledged as one of the best, who more than earns his place on the shelf between Winton and Wolfe. I’ve never read anything else by Faulks, but I believe he deserves the same courtesy.
Sebastian Faulks is a living – even youngish – modern writer. In his thoughtful introduction, Faulks tells us he is a Wodehouse fan and explains his reasons for not attempting ‘too close an imitation’ of the original. He also echoes the view of many Wodehouse’s enthusiasts in wanting to introduce Wodehouse to a younger audience. These comments gave me cause for great anxiety about the work to follow, because I had heard them before, not so long ago….
Cast your mind back, if you will, to January 2013. I was giddyish with excitement yet again, leaping about in my chair like a breaching whale, as the long-awaited first episode of the BBC’s Blandings series went to air. There was every reason be hopeful, after two excellent Wodehouse adaptations in the 1990s (Fry and Laurie’s ‘Jeeves and Wooster‘ series, and the 1995 BBC telemovie Heavy Weather), as well as the much-loved 1970s Wodehouse Playhouse with John Alderton and Pauline Collins. When you have such great original material as Wodehouse to work with, it’s surely hard to go wrong.
Unless, of course, you decide that Wodehouse needs a bit of ‘freshening up’ for a younger, modern audience.
I’m not sure who this modern target audience includes, but if the 2013 Blandings series is an indication, it doesn’t include Wodehouse fans. Within five minutes, my hopes were shattered. After ten minutes, I turned off (actually, I popped the 1995 Heavy Weather television movie on instead). Over the coming weeks, the Wodehouse forum I frequent online was inundated by the similarly disappointed. Blandings wasn’t Wodehouse – it fell flat, and has unfortunately confirmed some people’s erroneous impressions of Wodehouse as a trivial writer of upper class twits. I’m yet to come across anyone who has discovered the joy of reading Wodehouse through this series.
It pains me to disagree with Faulks or Wodehouse’s family, but I believe this policy of adapting Wodehouse for a younger audiences is misguided.
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Wodehouse has a healthy following among young readers. They may not be as visible or as well known as the more eminent members of our fraternity, but they’re out there, raiding the bookshelves of friends, relations, libraries and booksellers, and quietly getting on with the job of reading them.
In researching this piece, I posted a question to members of the very active Wodehouse fan group in Facebook. Within the first half hour, I received more than twenty enthusiastic replies from young Wodehouse fans. Many had been introduced to Wodehouse early in life by their Wodehouse loving families. The thread quickly expanded, with replies from more young readers, as well as wonderful reminiscences from older readers, recalling how their love of Wodehouse began at a tender age – although nothing beats the delight of an older person discovering Wodehouse for the first time. The Facebook fan page is a terrific forum, connecting readers of all ages from around the globe. Age is irrelevant. We are all joined in happy union by our love of Plum.
But perhaps my biggest objection to this mania for young audiences is the personal slight. It implies there is something slightly amiss with us – Wodehouse’s dedicated, but slightly crustier fans. The ‘oldest members’ among our ranks are critically important and should not be passed over. Many give generously of their time to help other readers understand Wodehouse’s many references, quotations and cultural elements that would otherwise be lost to us. Projects such as the Wodehouse annotations are critically important.
There is nothing to be gained – and much to lose – by continuing to overlook, disappoint and take for granted P.G. Wodehouse’s loyal readers in the quest for finding new ones.
If the stories coming through to me on Facebook tonight (almost 50 of them now) are any indication, when it comes to introducing Wodehouse to new readers, it is the fans who are putting in the bulk of the spadework, spreading largess to friends and family in our wake. We deserve better than Blandings – and so do potential new readers.
But we Plum lovers are also an obliging sort, always happy to indulge the next effort with an open mind, which brings me back to where I started – with Faulks’ introductory remarks. It is time to stop speculating, and start enjoying Jeeves And The Wedding Bells. I’ve taken a blow, but my hopes are not dashed.
(c) Copyright. My original writing and photographs are subject to copyright. You are welcome to copy them with permission, acknowledging me as the author.
- Wodehouse By the Way (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
- The women of Wodehouse (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
- A PG Wodehouse expert on Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense (theguardian.com)
- Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks, review (telegraph.co.uk)