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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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P.G. Wodehouse offers us so much as readers, but he’s an inspiration for writers too. I asked Auriel Roe, author of A Blindfellows Chronicle, about Wodehouse’s influence on her writing.
How did you discover Wodehouse? Probably the Richard Briers and Michael Hordern radio version of Jeeves and Wooster. Dickens always intended his work to be read aloud and Wodehouse has just the right rhythms for this too, so that led me to read Wodehouse. Coming from a background in drama, I could tell instantly that Wodehouse’s characters and scenarios were theatrical.
Do you have a favourite Wodehouse novel or story? Probably Right Ho, Jeeves as it contains that supreme episode of the humour of embarrassment that Wodehouse does so well with Fink-Nottle presiding over a school prize giving ceremony. I’ve sat through a number of similar cringe-making efforts at these end-of-year offerings, one in which the guest speaker hadn’t prepared a speech and intoned “You’re all so lucky” probably about every thirty seconds; (she was quite famous too and we suspected she’d been at the juice).
Which character from Wodehouse’s world would you most like to be (or most identity with) and why ? I’m torn between wanting to be Wooster who takes such delight in the simple things in life such as a cooked breakfast and Jeeves who has a solution to every mishap, however unlikely it is to succeed.
How long have you been writing? In a proper sense, for the last two years, but it fits around a full time job, which is an asset to a writer as being in solitude for me would mean no ideas, and no little jottings in the writer’s notebook when you overhear something quirky or witness something bizarre. Writing for me all happened by accident a couple of summers ago when I had a peculiar little notion that swelled into a novel… What if a man in his sixties suddenly has his first crush? This became my novel A Blindefellows Chronicle which has recently been published.
How has Wodehouse influenced your work? I think my main character Sedgewick is something of a Jeeves/Wooster hybrid actually – Sedgewick is an awkward chap who often finds outlandish solutions to the predicaments that arise. Like Wooster, Sedgewick avoids romantic entanglements, and is most downhearted when a possible marriage looms. My novel is composite, the same set of characters in thirteen chronological stories, a structure Wodehouse favoured, each chapter/story able to stand alone.
Some people claim Wodehouse’s writing is too much a product ‘of his time ‘ to appeal to a modern audience. What do you think Wodehouse has to offer the 21st Century reader? Wodehouse continues to make people laugh so perhaps this humour contributes to making it timeless, but perhaps it’s only a brand of humour that the British have a feel for. Having said that, Wodehouse has never gone out of vogue in India; it’s sold next to the best sellers in airports and there was outrage when it was dramatized into Hindi. For years, the actor Martin Jarvis has held packed houses mesmerized with his readings of Wodehouse, which demonstrates an enduring appeal. As for what Wodehouse offers us today well, there’s just not enough comic literary fiction today. Comedy is not often written skilfully and Wodehouse is an example of how to do it which I’ve learned from.
I’m passionate about supporting writers who’ve been influenced by Wodehouse — please tell me about your book. Regarding style, I feel like I’ve written the novel I always wanted to read, which pays homage to my favourite writing… Wodehouse, Wind in the Willows, Cold Comfort Farm to name a few. Regarding content, I am a head of art and I wanted to base my story in a school which is probably what I know best. My first job was in a somewhat archaic boarding school so little aspects of those years have been used, albeit manipulated to almost unrecognisable proportions. Here’s the blurb to pop it into a nutshell…
“It was midday on 31 August and the new History master had arrived at Blindefellows, former charity school for poor, blind boys, now a second division private school for anyone who could pay.”– Thus commences the unlikely friendship between Sedgewick, the naive newcomer, and the rumbustious, Japes, Master of Physics, his worldly-wise mentor.
A Blindefellows Chronicle follows the adventures of a handful of unmarried faculty at an obscure West Country boarding school in a series of interlinked tales characterized by absurd, chortle-out-loud humour, punctuated by moments of unexpected poignancy.
Thanks Auriel and best of luck with your book. I’m looking forward to reading it
The next convention of The Wodehouse Society (US) is being held in Washington D.C on the 19th-22nd of October 2017.
It is difficult to imagine a more genial occasion than one which brings together fans of an author once described by Stephen Fry (in his introduction to the anthology What Ho!) as:
‘…the finest and funniest writer the past century ever knew’
In 2015, some of you may recall, I had great pleasure in attending my first convention, Psmith in PSeattle. These fabulous binges occur just once every two years, and in 2017 the event is being held in Washington D.C. on 19-22 October.
Regular convention goers enjoy these events as an opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones through a shared love of Wodehouse.
Young Tuppy had the unmistakable air of a man who has recently been round to the Jug and Bottle. A few cheery cries of welcome, presumably from some of his backgammon-playing pals who felt that blood was thicker than water , had the effect of causing the genial smile on his face to widen till it nearly met at the back. He was plainly feeling about as good as a man can feel and still remain on his feet.
(from ‘Jeeves and the Song of Songs’ in Very Good Jeeves)
The 2017 convention, arranged by The Wodehouse Society’s Washington Chapter, offers an array of Wodehouse-related entertainments –from ‘serious-minded’ talks to music and theatrical performances. The keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Dirda and the programme will include music performed by Maria Jette & Dan Chouinard. Maria and Dan have performed at previous conventions, featuring songs with lyrics by Wodehouse, as well as songs referenced in Wodehouse’s writing.
The Wodehouse Society conventions attract attendees from all over the world, and offer a welcoming haven for like-minded souls to meet and forge friendships.
As Stephen Fry goes on to say:
Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today – whatever that may be. In my teenage years the writings of P.G. Wodehouse awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me. But more than that he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind. He mocked himself sometimes because he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn’t it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?
Many of us have been similarly restored and improved by reading Wodehouse –and if you are thinking of attending your first convention this year, you are assured of a warm welcome.
Visit the Wodehouse Society website for more details, including a programme and registration form.
And if you see me, say hello! I’ll be in the lobby of the Crown Plaza Hamilton Hotel, wearing their best armchair fashionably tight about the hips. If you approach with a pink chrysanthemum in your buttonhole and start rambling about rain in Northumberland, I shall know what to do about it.
Another treat for Wodehouse lovers is taking place at the British Library, this time as part of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. A panel, involving MP and Author Shashi Tharoor, MP and journalist Swapan Dasgupta, business writer Mihir S. Sharma, and Wodehouse expert Tony Ring will be discussing:
It’s an intriguing subject, and one that provokes a good deal of discussion amongst the chaps and chapettes in our little Wodehouse community. (Yes, chapettes! Don’t let the all-male panel or misguided notions about Wodehouse appealing mainly to men mislead you — he has a large and enthusiastic following among Indian women).
Many people have tried to explain the reasons for Wodehouse’s popularity in India, including Shashi Tharoor in a 2012 article How the Woosters Captured Delhi. In particular, he highlights Wodehouse’s wonderful use of English language.
English was undoubtedly Britain’s most valuable and abiding legacy to India, and educated Indians, a famously polyglot people, rapidly learned and delighted in it – both for itself, and as a means to various ends. These ends were both political (for Indians turned the language of the imperialists into the language of nationalism) and pleasureable (for the language granted access to a wider world of ideas and entertainments). It was only natural that Indians would enjoy a writer who used language as Wodehouse did – playing with its rich storehouse of classical precedents, mockingly subverting the very canons colonialism had taught Indians they were supposed to venerate.
There’s something in this theory, which might also help to explain why Wodehouse is popular in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Norway, whose inhabitants are often gifted bi-linguists (if that’s the word I want, Jeeves).
As an outsider looking in, I feel ill-qualified to comment, but I’m looking forward to hearing the panel’s theories on the subject. Yours too! Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.
Follow the link below for more details about the event, and to register.
Post script 13 June 2017:
This event was recorded and has now been shared via You Tube.
The name Tony Ring is familiar to many P.G. Wodehouse enthusiasts — it pops up often and in an surprising variety of places: from journal articles and forewords of new editions, to theatre programmes. Tony’s books on Wodehouse’s life and work line many of our shelves, and his sparkling presence has enlivened Wodehouse society events around the world. It is an honour and a pleasure to add Plumtopia to his long list of appearances.
Another Centenary to Celebrate
The Sunday Times Magazine for 9 April this year included a four-page article saluting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extraordinary achievement in having four shows in performance simultaneously on Broadway, though two of them are revivals. It suggests he shares this record with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and states that it hasn’t been done for 60 years.
Well, Rodgers, like Lloyd Webber, was a composer. Hammerstein was a lyricist. The paper overlooked Lloyd Webber’s one-time lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote this in his Introduction to the booklet contained in the 2001 CD The Land Where the Good Songs Go:
I am, I hope, a fairly modest cove, but I must admit I felt fairly gruntled when, in 2000, I could briefly brag about having my lyrics on Broadway in no less than four shows at the same time [including one revival]. Surely this must be a record, I reckoned – certainly for a British lyricist.
So the errors the Sunday Times made are stacking up. First, as they refer to Hammerstein as one of the previous record-holders, they clearly mean to include lyricists. Therefore, Lloyd Webber’s achievement, though amazing, also only equals that of Tim Rice. And when earlier this year his fourth show opened, it was only 17 years since Tim Rice’s achievement, not 60.
But that is not all. Tim Rice went on to add in his remarks that he had mentioned his achievement only because of its relevance to the CD – which was full of songs by one of his literary heroes, P G Wodehouse.
For in 1917 the mighty Plum, lyricist and British to boot, had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. That achievement reaches its Centenary on November 7, this year.
It is only fair to admit that some of the shows were far less successful than the typical Lloyd Webber and Rice offerings, and that in one in particular he was not the only lyricist. Nevertheless, it is an achievement which should not be overlooked.
In all, Wodehouse contributed lyrics to 25 musicals in one or both of the UK and the USA, and the changes in style and approach which he and Jerome Kern in particular brought to the format of musical comedies smoothed the way for the next major revolution, with the production of such shows as Show Boat. Along with Guy Bolton, who was generally responsible for the first drafts at least of the libretti, they introduced the idea of simpler plots relating to subjects more in keeping with the experience of theatre-goers.
Whereas one of their earliest efforts, Miss Springtime, paid lip-service to the earlier traditions of comic opera, the setting for their first 1917 hit, Have a Heart, was the life of a salesgirl in a retail clothing store. This was followed by Oh, Boy!, which encompassed a modern take on romance, with newlyweds, misunderstandings and a lecherous old judge; and Leave It To Jane, based around American football.Wodehouse absorbed this policy in future collaborations with other composers – the 1926 show Oh, Kay!, written with the Gershwins, had the theme of bootlegging during the prohibition era; while Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s 1934 perpetually popular show, featured escaped criminals. Porter, who had written the lyrics for all the songs in the Broadway production, invited Wodehouse to anglicise a couple of them for London, and he pulled no punches in satirising the greed of certain classes even in times of economic difficulty.
Do the following examples sound like Wodehouse? They were.
The Duke who owns a moated castle
Takes lodgers and makes a parcel
Because he knows
It’s grab and smash today
We want cash today
Get rich quick today
That’s the trick today
And the Great today
Don’t hesitate today
But keep right on their toes
And lend their names, if paid to do it
To anyone’s soap or suet
Or baby clo’s
If you enjoy Wodehouse but have not heard – knowingly – any of his lyrics (the one EVERYBODY has heard without realising it is Bill, originally written for Oh, Lady! Lady!! in 1918, dropped from that show but added, with a little tweaking by Oscar Hammerstein II, to Show Boat in 1926, where it has resided ever since), I recommend that you try to get one of the three CD’s, each with a variety of his lyrics, recorded since 2000.
The Land Where the Good Songs Go
Singers: Hal Cazalet, Sylvia McNair, Lara Cazalet; Pianist: Steven Blier
2001 Harbinger Records HCD 1901
In Our Little Paradise
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2011 Woleseley Recordings
The Siren’s Song
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2004 Woleseley Recordings
For a relatively modern recording of a complete show, try Sitting Pretty (1926), recorded on a double CD in 1990 under the direction of John McGlinn. It was published by New World Records (80387-2).
But let your mind wander a little further. You may not have been aware that Wodehouse was quite such an important lyricist. Perhaps you have not realised that he was an accomplished playwright, as well. He never reached quite the same prominence as with his other activities but, while mentioning impressive achievements, we should not overlook that in December 1928 he had three new plays on the West End stage simultaneously – and that is something not many of even our greatest playwrights can boast.
Perhaps you could suggest some names of those who have matched this achievement – either on the West End or on Broadway?
On 28 January, the British Library celebrated their recent acquisition of the Wodehouse archives with P.G. Wodehouse: A musical celebration. As the title suggests, the event celebrated Wodehouse’s lesser known but important contribution as a musical theatre lyricist, working in collaboration with Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and others (including George and Ira Gershwin).
I felt privileged to be among those present as singer Hal Cazalet and actress Lara Cazalet (Wodehouse’s great grandchildren) and pianist Stephen Higgins performed songs from the Wodehouse songbook, including: ‘Put Me in My Little Cell’, ‘You Never Knew About Me’, ‘The Enchanted Train’, ‘Oh Gee Oh Joy’, ‘Bill’, and ‘Anything Goes’.
Hal Cazalet also provided a rapt audience with some professional insights into his grandfather’s methods as a lyricist, and his influence on later developments in musical theatre. Hal put forward a convincing argument that Wodehouse’s work as a lyricist not only influenced, but improved Wodehouse’s writing.
A highlight of the day was listening to Sir Edward Cazalet, one of the few people living today who knew ‘Plum’ and Ethel Wodehouse well. Edward’s reminiscences about his grandfather were affectionate and deeply moving – and fans will be touched to learn that Edward still has the pencil his grandfather was holding when he died.
The proceedings were further enhanced by observations from assembled experts, including Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum (Wodehouse: A Life), Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters) and Tony Ring, whose extensive research and numerous works on Wodehouse include the multi-volume Wodehouse Concordances.
After the formal proceedings, came the infinite pleasures of meeting other Wodehouse lovers – both old friends and new ones. It was wonderful to meet members of the Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society, who had travelled to London especially for the event, online friends from the Facebook Fans of P.G. Wodehouse group, U.K. Society members, and even a few celebrities. A socially inclined gaggle of us, reluctant for the festivities to end, moved on to a local hostelry where the feast of reason and flow of soul continued long into a splendid Winter evening.
I recommend that you also read Mike Swaddling’s account of the event at the UK Wodehouse Society website (with pictures by Dutch Wodehouse Society President Peter Nieuwenhuizen) via British Library Celebrates Plum the Lyricist (Wodehouse Society report)
‘Oh, Great Scott!’ I said. ‘Don’t tell me you’re in love again.’
He seemed aggrieved.
‘What do you mean– again?’
‘Well, to my certain knowledge you’ve been in love with at least half a dozen girls since the spring, and it’s only July now. There was that waitress and Honoria Glossop and–‘
‘Oh, tush! Not to say pish! Those girls? Mere passing fancies. This is the real thing.’
‘Where did you meet her?’
‘On top of a bus. Her name is Charlotte Corday Rowbotham. ‘
‘It’s not her fault, poor child. Her father had her christened that because he’s all for the Revolution, and it seems that the original Charlotte Corday used to go about stabbing oppressors in their baths, which entitles her to consideration and respect. You must meet old Rowbotham, Bertie. A delightful chap. Wants to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane, and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy. Well, nothing could be fairer than that, what?’
from ‘Comrade Bingo’ (The Inimitable Jeeves)
Bingo Little’s third documented love affair is one of the most interesting chapters in his romantic adventures. The warm-hearted Bingo, as we’ve established in previous instalments (see: Honoria Glossop and a waitress named Mabel), has the capacity to love all womankind without prejudice, making him one of Wodehouse’s most endearing characters. The story is also an example of Wodehouse at the top of his form, making it a ‘must read’ for fans.
But that’s enough from me. Now it’s over to Ken Clevenger for more …
The romance of Bingo Little and Charlotte Corday Rowbotham
An appreciation by Ken Clevenger
While I remain convinced that Lord Emsworth and Gladys are the ultimate, or at least penultimate to Bertie and Jeeves, great lovers in Wodehouse, I think these highly charged political times call for some reconsideration.
Hence this appreciation of a new set of contenders: that ever-in-the-ring lover, Bingo Little (at least before he married the celebrated female novelist, Rosie M. Banks) and Mlle. Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, in ‘Comrade Bingo’.
I suppose, given the vagaries of modern education, a bit of background on this femme fatale, Charlotte, is due for some readers. She murdered a man in his bath as a means to advance a more moderate agenda in the course of the French Revolution in 1793. Not Bingo’s girlfriend, I mean her historical name-sake. Our Charlotte took rather a different view of life and revolution. She was, indeed, a Herald of the Red Dawn.
Bingo’s perhaps requited passion leads him to speak feelingly for the Masses at Hyde Park Corner in a false beard and to utter a public denunciation of his uncle, Lord Bittlesham. Readers of Wodehouse may know him better as “old Mortimer Little” of “Little’s Liniment (It Limbers Up the Legs).” He was a plutocrat before Pluto was down-sized. And the fellow who married Miss Watson, his cook, who was formerly engaged to Jeeves. This released Jeeves to pursue Mabel, a waitress in a “tea-and-bun shop” near the Ritz in the Metrop. Yes, the very same Mabel whom Bingo had loved to distraction, before Jeeves intervened in the Springtime, albeit without first revealing his inherent conflict of interest.
So, all straight so far? A) Bingo, who loves B) Charlotte, who would massacre C) Mortimer, uncle of A, who married D) Miss Watson. Naturally in a Wodehouse love story there are also wheels within wheels and here Comrade Butt, who “looks like a haddock with lung-trouble”, plays the primary cog.
Bingo’s love for Charlotte (“Billowy curves. Well-nourished perhaps expresses it best.” Plus “a heart of gold” and “a tooth of gold” withal) is as boundless as, well, Charlotte. His need, however, is for the wherewithal with which to finally engage her affections, and its acquisition stumps Bingo (“Work? said young Bingo, surprised. What, me?”).
However, if love fails to conquer all, it unfailingly assays the attempt. But radical political rhetoric, as is so often the case, especially when mixed with personal vituperation and discrediting revelations of a personal nature, produces public violence and the inevitable reactionary police response.
But here, in Wodehouse, in this romance, the kibosh was triggered by the hand of Jeeves, who knew (“Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don’t know?”) that Bingo and Charlotte were not meant to be. Scion of the upper-crust, nephew to a Lord, educated with Bertie in English public schools (they would have learned of Charlotte Corday), Bingo was set apart by Fate from Charlotte’s love and her vision of blood running in the gutters of Park Lane.
But nonetheless it was a grand passion, and held forth for a season, and only expired with the Ocean Breeze, which blew Charlotte out of Bingo’s life. What memories linger? (For the answer to that, please read ‘The Metropolitan Touch’).
Plumtopia’s annual celebration of the romances of P.G. Wodehouse (to mark the anniversary of the author’s death on St Valentine’s day 1975) would not be complete without a contribution from Mr Ashok Bhatia. One of the things I particularly enjoy about Mr Bhatia’s musings on the subject is his choice of ‘seasoned’ couples, well beyond the first blooms of youth. For nobody in Wodehouse’s world is too old, too irascible, or too wide of girth, to find love. And that’s just as it should be.
Ashok Bhatia’s latest instalment delves into the romantic adventures of the widow Mrs Rosalinda Banks Bessemer Spottsworth and big game hunter Captain Cuthbert Gervase Brabazon-Biggar (from Ring for Jeeves).
You can read it here: Of Mrs. Spottsworth and the Biggar Code of White Men | ashokbhatia
John Lagrue’s timely review of P.G. Wodehouse’s Money in the Bank (1942) touches on another great Wodehouse romance –that of Anne Benedick and Jeff Miller.
John also proposes Anne Benedick as Wodehouse’s finest heroine. It’s a proposal worth taking seriously from a Wodehouse lover of John’s calibre. I certainly recall Anne being a good egg, but I’ve never ranked her among my own favourites. Have I missed something? It has been a while since I’ve read Money in the Bank, but it’s one of Wodehouse’s hidden gem and I look forward to re-reading and pondering John’s suggestion.
As I said in my post last year announcing this project of reading a book a week for a year, some of the books involved would be ones I’d read before. Money In the Bank by PG Wodehouse is such a volume. Wodehouse is probably best known for the Jeeves and Wooster stories and the […]