It is not unreasonable to assume that, when the assorted dignitaries of Bath bunged off their application for UNESCO World Heritage listing, the fact that P.G. Wodehouse lived here as a boy was pretty high up on their list of reasons. No doubt it weighed heavily with the judges. And yet, in all the historical and literary guides to Bath I find no mention of Wodehouse. Walking tours do not pass his former residence. No miniature of his likeness can be viewed in the Jane Austen or Holbourne Museums. How can this be?
I suspect the answer lies in the rather embarrassing truth (one not so universally acknowledged) that of all the places in which P.G. Wodehouse resided, Bath appears to be the only one in which he did not write. He wrote as a school boy. He wrote in London, and in Emsworth (Hampshire). He wrote in New York and Long Island, in Hollywood and in France. He even continued writing while imprisoned in a succession of German prison camps in 1940-41. When he died in 1975, there was an ‘unfinished manuscript beside his chair’. But in Bath, Somerset, where this prolific life-long writer lived for three years, he produced nothing at all.
By his own admission:
From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)
Over Seventy (1956)
It was in Bath, Somerset, that P.G. Wodehouse spent these loafing years.
P.G Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881 while his mother was visiting England from Hong Kong. Wodehouse’s father was in the colonial Civil Service, and the infant Plum returned to Hong Kong with his mother. In 1883, young Wodehouse returned to England to live with his brothers Peveril and Armine at number 17 Sion Hill, Bath. There the Wodehouse boys lived under the care of Nanny Roper, surrounded by maternal relations (the Deane family) who lived next door and elsewhere in Sion Hill.
Modern day Sion Hill is part of the Cotswold Way public walking trail from Bath to Chipping Camden. It abuts the Bath Approach Golf Course and Victoria Park , with stunning views over the city. Bath’s iconic Lansdown and Royal Crescents are an easy downhill walk away.
The same cannot be said going up the hill, which I foolishly attempted on a bicycle in the rain. It was a mad scheme, particularly when a number 700 omnibus would have sufficed. But as I huffed and puffed and cursed my way up the hill, I reflected that my chosen method of conveyance added a dash of Wodehouse spirit to the occasion, invoking poor Bertie Wooster’s distraught eighteen-mile round trip from Brinkley Court to Kingham in Right Ho, Jeeves.
Arriving at Sion Hill in a dishevelled state of the kind guaranteed to raise even the most broad-minded Bath eyebrows, I abandoned my scheme of knocking on doors with an introductory ‘What Ho!’ Instead, I snapped a few souvenir photographs and soaked up the genteel atmosphere of young Wodehouse’s formative surroundings.
Following Sion Hill as it loops around past local allotments and the Golf Course, the city of Bath appears deceptively distant, an impressionist canvas of blurred green and sun-flecked stone. Here on the hill the soundscape is idyllic too, dominated by the rustle of the trees, not the bustle of town. Jane Austen, who famously disliked Bath, might have preferred it from this distance.
There is a sense of well-heeled serenity here that makes it easy to imagine the young Wodehouse boys at play, over a century ago. The possibilities for exploration are just the sort a growing lad requires before returning home for tea with Nanny Roper.
Some have suggested Miss Roper may have been the model for Wodehouse’s fictional nanny, Nurse Wilks in Portrait of a Disciplinarian. One can readily imagine Miss Roper having good cause to thunder at her charges to ‘WIPE YOUR BOOTS!’
As Mr Mulliner’s nephew Frederick reflected:
The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.
Portrait of a Disciplinarian (in Meet Mr Mulliner) 1927
Frederick Mulliner’s Nurse Wilks is not quite a spent force.
The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round he perceived a different person altogether from the mild and kindly hostess of a moment back. It was plain that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
‘Theideaofyourbringingyournastydirtybootsintomynicecleanhousewithoutwipingthem!’ said Nurse Wilks
Almost 90 years later, P.G. Wodehouse introduced the television adaptation of Portrait of a Disciplinarian as part of the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse series, with Daphne Heard playing Nurse Wilks to perfection.
I left Sion Hill with a contented feeling that Wodehouse’s formative years were spent in such an appealing place, and that these loafing years were not perhaps, so entirely misspent as Wodehouse would have us believe.
The young Plum left Bath in 1886 to attend the Chalet School, in Croydon, Surrey. His literary career began shortly thereafter when, at the age of five, he composed his first poem.
My journey to Sion Hill ended, as these jaunts so often do, with a nourishing beaker at a local pub, where I was chuffed to observe that a table for two had been reserved in the name of Murphy — it provided a fitting moment to toast Norman Murphy who had kindly provided me with the Bath addresses.
The beautiful spring weather we’ve been enjoying in Somerset, reminded me that it is nearly always spring or summer in Wodehouse’s world. Yesterday was a day so fine, it could have been written to order by Wodehouse himself.
It was a glorious morning of blue and gold, of fleecy clouds and insects droning in the sunshine. What the weather-bulletin announcer of the British Broadcasting Corporation, who can turn a phrase as well as the next man, had called the ridge of high pressure extending over the greater part of the United Kingdom south of the Shetland Isles still functioned unabated. Rabbits frisked in the hedgerows. Cows mused is the meadows. Water voles sported along the river-banks. And moving a step higher in the animal kingdom, the paying guests at Sir Buckstone Abbott’s country seat, Walsingford Hall in the county of Berkshire, were all up and about, taking the air and enjoying themselves according to their various tastes and dispositions.
You can read more about the four seasons of Wodehouse here.
Added to the meteorological delights of yesterday, Robert Webb, who plays Bertie Wooster in the current tour of Perfect Nonsense, appeared on BBC Radio 4 to help commemorate the completion of Everyman’s 15 year project to make the complete works of PG Wodehouse available — for the first time. A great day for Wodehouse fans indeed!
This summer I visited the Hampshire town of Emsworth, where P.G Wodehouse once lived. He first arrived at the invitation of Herbert Westbrook, who was teaching at Emsworth House School. Westbrook is described in Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse, A Life in Letters’ as “handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke.” He is forever associated in my mind with the character Ukridge and, for some unfathomable reason, the novel I most associate with Emsworth is Love Among the Chickens (1906).
Wodehouse lived for a time at Emsworth House School, run by Baldwin King-Hall and his sister Ella. The school is mentioned in Mike (1909) and provided the setting for The Little Nugget (1913). Sadly the building no longer exists. Wodehouse dedicated the Indiscretions of Archie (1921) to Baldwin King-Hall:
My Dear Buddy
We have been friends for eighteen years. A considerable
proportion of my books were written under your hospitable
roof. And I have never dedicated one to you. What will
be the verdict of Posterity on this? The fact is, I have
become rather superstitious about dedications. No sooner
do you label a book with the legend :
MY BEST FRIEND
Then X cuts you in Piccadilly, or you bring a lawsuit
against him. There is a fatality about it. However I can’t
imagine anyone quarrelling with you, and I am getting more
attractive all the time, so let’s take a chance.
Ella King Hall married Westbrook and there is some suggestion that he may have been Wodehouse’s rival for her affection. She later became Wodehouse’s literary agent in the UK.
Wodehouse moved from his lodgings at the school and rented a house nearby called ‘Threepwood’ (which he later bought). The blue plaque is faintly visible from the road. The name Threepwood should be familiar to fans of Wodehouse’s Blandings series, along with ‘Emsworth’ itself. Indeed the signs around town are almost a Blandings Who’s Who.
Wodehouse also had family in Emsworth, in the shape of his Uncle Walter and Aunt. They lived for a time in Havant Road and presumably ensured that young Plum lived up to familial expectations. This may well have extended to churchgoing. Which of Plum’s many ecclesiastical stories, I wonder, were inspired by his time on the pews here?
Wodehouse was a keen sportsman in his youth, and maintained an exercise regime throughout his life that included ‘Daily Dozen’ exercises and regular walking. So I particularly enjoyed strolling the coastal path (at the end of Beach Road) into town, knowing that Plum had ambled this way before me.
My tour of Emsworth was guided by notes graciously supplied by N.T.P Murphy, who mentions that George Bevan from A Damsel in Distress stays at the Crown Hotel. Although I was unable to get a decent photograph of its exterior, I spent several very pleasant hours at The Crown and look forward to returning there on future visits. A Damsel in Distress is set in the fictional fishing and oyster town of Belpher, which is clearly based on Emsworth.
And I certainly shall be returning – I want to visit the highly recommended Emsworth Museum, which was closed on the day of my visit. The town also celebrates its association with Wodehouse, hosting a P.G Wodehouse Festival that should attract Plumtopians for years to come.
More details about Wodehouse’s life and associations with Emsworth can be found in Christine Hewitt’s lovely article for the P G Wodehouse Society (UK) . There is also a Wodehouse page at Emsworth Online.
(c) All images are my own. Please send a request for permission to reproduce.
As an immigrant, rather than a tourist, my Wodehouse pilgrimage has to be managed in small stages, juggled alongside work, parenting and family commitments. Earlier this year I wangled a drive through Guildford, Surrey where P.G. Wodehouse was born. To my delight, I also discovered a few towns of interest in the surrounding area. It was a quick ‘drive by’ photo shoot so photo quality is not the best. Rest assured that I’ll be returning and filing further reports in the fullness of time.
It was impossible to get closer on this occasion, but according to Open Plaques the sign above the door reads: ‘Author and humourist P.G. Wodehouse was born here on October 15th 1881.’ The great Wodehouse expert N.T.P Murphy explained to me that Wodehouse was born here ‘early and by accident’. His mother Eleanor Wodehouse was staying with a sister in Bramley, a nearby village about 3 miles south of Guildford. She was paying a social to an Army friend in Epsom Road when PG arrived unexpectedly.
St Nicholas is hardly the small parish church of ‘Great Sermon Handicap’ fame, but might have been mid-career home to one of the distinguished Mulliner clergy.
Admittedly, this photo will do nothing for my reputation as a bulb squeezer, or as a driver. But I felt justified holding up traffic on the road from Guildford to capture this unexpectedly glorious set of options.
Indeed I did drive slowly through this village, hoping to spot an illustrious Pigman or two.
Alas the illustrious pile behind the sign, and any resident Aunts, were not visible from the road. And I did not get to Aldershot, which gets recurring mentions in the Wodehouse school stories.
My short drive in this region was a teaser of what is yet to come in my Plumtopian pilgrimage The next exciting step will occur next weekend, when I take a walk in London well-known Wodehouse enthusiast and author, Colonel N.T.P. Murphy.
It is commonly understood that, far from representing a bygone age, P.G. Wodehouse created an idealised England that never really existed. Personally, I remain determined to find fragments of Wodehouse in reallife, and last October I immigrated to England in search of Plumtopia.
I arrived in time for a glorious Autumn – my favourite season. Surprisingly, Wodehouse sets only one novel in Autumn (that I can recall).
I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.
‘Good evening, Jeeves,’
‘Good morning, sir’
This surprised me.
‘Is it morning?’
‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’
‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Season of what?’
‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’
The Code of the Woosters (1938)
After a stunning Autumn – mellow and fruitful as advertised – the English Spring of 2013 has been disappointing by comparison, especially when Wodehouse’s Spring promises so much:
‘In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnish’d dove.’
So says Bertie Wooster, with a little help from Tennyson, in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) in a story originally published in The Strand magazine as Jeeves in the Springtime (1921). It is among his finest and best loved.
‘I don’t know if you know that sort of feeling you get on these days around the end of April and the beginning of May, when the sky’s a light blue, with cotton-wool clouds, and there’s a bit of a breeze blowing from the west? Kind of uplifted feeling. Romantic, if you know what I mean. I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something.’
Earlier, Wodehouse had contributed lyrics for the Broadway musical Miss Springtime (1916) and continued the spring motif with novels Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) and Spring Fever (1948). In his other work,Spring is arguably the default climate.
The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town. Out in Piccadily its heartening warmth seemed to infuse into traffic and pedestrians alike a novel jauntiness, so that bus-drivers jested and even the lips of chauffeurs uncurled into not unkindly smiles. Policemen whistled at their posts, clerks on their way to work, beggars approached the task of trying to persuade perfect strangers to bear the burden of their maintenance with that optimistic vim which makes all the difference. It was one of those happy mornings.
Something Fresh (1915)
This passage neatly expresses a kind of shared joviality that I’ve witnessed in England, when the sun blesses us unexpectedly on a Spring morning.
In Blandings it’s always Spring – with the Shropshire Agricultural Show keenly anticipated – or else it’s Summer. Leave it to Psmith (1923) begins precisely on ‘…June the thirtieth, which is the very high-tide time of summer flowers’, and the cast return (without Psmith) in Summer Lightning (1929). In Pigs Have Wings (1952) the ‘sultry summer’ heat prevents Maudie Stubbs from walking over to Matchingham Hall to settle a grievance with Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe.
Beyond Blandings, Wodehouse gave us Summer Moonshine (1937), and in Right-Ho Jeeves (1934) Bertie tells us it is ‘July twenty-fifth’ when he returns from a trip to Cannes ‘looking bronzed and fit’. Although we can’t always be sure of the season it’s clear that Wodehouse, unlike the great Russian novelists, prefers to bask his characters in sunshine and light.
In The Mating Season (1949) for example, Bertie must catch a 2.45am Milk Train and hides in the shrubbery outside The Larches, Wimbledon Common to intercept the morning post. He complains bitterly about his experience, not least the beetles down his back, but his author resists the literary tradition of meteorological symbolism.
Though howling hurricanes and driving rainstorms would have been a more suitable accompaniment to the run of the action, the morning – or morn , if you prefer to string along with Aunt Charlotte – was bright and fair. My nervous system was seriously disordered, and one of God’s less likeable creatures with about a hundred and fourteen legs had crawled down the back of my neck and was doing its daily dozen on the sensitive skin, but did Nature care? Not a hoot. The sky continued blue, and the fat-headed sun which I have mentioned shone smilingly throughout.
Even in trying of circumstances, the V-shaped depressions are usually metaphorical.
If somebody had told Frederick Fitch-Fitch at that moment that even now a V-shaped depression was coming along which would shortly blacken the skies and lower the general temperature to freezing-point, he would not have believed him.
Romance at Droitgate Spa (1937) published in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (1940)
Of winter, I can find very little. There is Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit (December 1927), and a poem The Cricketer in Winter:
Now, as incessantly it pours,
And each succeeding day seems bleaker,
The cricketer remains indoors,
And quaffs mayhap the warming beaker.
Without, the scrummage heaves and slips;
Not his to play the muddied oaf. A
Well-seasoned pipe between his lips,
He reads his Wisden on the sofa.
Perhaps this last extract best explains Plum’s fondness for the warmer, sporting months when school is out and there’s cricket, tennis and golf to be played. So many of Wodehouse’s best scenes occur outside – it’s little wonder he chose not to limit his characters to rainy days indoors.
But how wonderful it would be to have a peep into Wodehouse’s world all year round.