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
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.
You may not have noticed, amongst the hullabaloo of 2016, that this year marked the 500th anniversary of Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia. As the year draws to a close (and good riddance to it) I wanted to spend a few moments reflecting on Plumtopia, which celebrates a more humble fifth anniversary this year.
Sir Thomas Moore invented the word Utopia as a name for the fictional world he created in 1516. The word is derived ‘from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place‘*. Few people today have read Moore’s original work, but the term he created has evolved to acquire meaning of its own.
Oxford Dictionaries Online give as their definition:
…an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect: The opposite of dystopia.
It’s not a definition I’m happy with, although it expresses the thoroughness with which any form of ideal or idealism is dismissed in the modern age. It insists that Utopia can only be imagined. And as few people (certainly nobody credible) would argue that perfection is possible, it discredits ‘Utopian’ thinkers before they’ve even opened their mouths.
This is not so ‘off topic’ as you might think. Returning to my first piece in August 2011, I began this blog in Search of Plumtopia:
Wodehouse, affectionately known as Plum, sets such pleasingly lofty standards for humanity that perhaps what I’m really seeking is Plumtopia..
The decision to blend Utopia with Wodehouse’s Plum (the name by which he was known throughout his life) was a conscious decision that reflected my purpose exactly. I was disgruntled with the world** and found the one Wodehouse created to be a better one. Five years later, I’ve seen more of the world, but I’m no more gruntled than I was in 2011. And I continue to hold with the unfashionable notion that Utopia is worth striving for.
Plumtopia has not fulfilled the serious-minded promise of this first post, thank goodness, but the 500th anniversary of Utopia provides a fitting occasion to revisit my original idea of Wodehouse’s world as a Utopian ideal. This may cause some of you to click your tongues.
He then said something about modern enlightened thought which I cannot repeat.
Joy in the Morning (1946)
Rest assured I shall resume my usual hearty ‘what ho-ing’ in due course, and in the meantime hope that you’ll indulge me.
The world Wodehouse created doesn’t quite fit the given definition of Utopia. As the product of fiction it is part-imagined, but it’s a world with firm roots in the Edwardian era of Wodehouse’s early life. Wodehouse experts, including the late Norman Murphy, have made countless connections between characters and locations in Wodehouse’s fiction and real-life examples. Wodehouse himself, discussing the world of Bertie Wooster in a Preface to Joy in the Morning (1946), said:
The world of which I have been writing every since I was so high, the world of the Drones Club and the lads who congregate there was always a small world –one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie Wooster would say. It was bounded on the east by St. James’s Street. on the west by Hyde park Corner, by Oxford Street on the north and by Piccadilly on the south. And now it is not even small, it is non-existent.
The world Wodehouse depicted is recognisably and authentically of its time and, reading beyond the Drones stories, takes in much wider territory than the boys of London SW1. And yet his world is widely considered to have never existed. How can this be?
Perhaps it’s the things he left out – war, violence, poverty, injustice, death and disease are, with rare exceptions, absent from his writing. It’s not my place to speculate on Wodehouse’s reasons, but none of these subjects are intrinsically funny, and it’s not unreasonable that a writer of humour should give them a wide berth. The result is a world that perhaps appears more fictional than real.
But it is not a perfect world. There is still great wealth inequality (though not poverty). Nor has the power of the upper classes to exercise snobbery and prejudice been eliminated, although in practice their unsavoury plans are usually thwarted. At the other end of the spectrum, Wodehouse’s less pecunious characters survive on limited incomes, employed in positions not entirely to their liking. Crime is present, although predominantly non-violent. Thieves tend to restrict their activities along the lines dictated by Robin Hood — stealing from the rich (who are frequently the perpetrators also) and giving to the poor, although defining ‘poor’ for redistribution purposes varies wildly between individuals.
While falling short of perfection in many respects, Wodehouse undoubtedly improves upon reality. His characters employed in menial positions are respected in their roles, treated fairly, and live comfortably free from want. At the upper end of the spectrum, his aristocrats and wealthy business magnates are ‘mostly harmless’ (to borrow from Douglas Adams). While they may not demonstrate the high moral standards we like to see in persons of stature, they do not abuse their servants, or take yachting tours of favourite tax havens with friends from the arms-trade.
The opportunities for women in Wodehouse’s world are least as good as Wodehouse’s contemporaries, often better. Women from different social backgrounds take part and succeed in a broad range of careers and activities; they need not be young or beautiful, and finding love is not their only purpose. There isn’t a single preferred model of man or womanhood that must be conformed to. The sun is almost always shining. And the ideal ratio of village pubs per inhabitant is 1:1.
Put simply, there’s a lot to like!
Wodehouse’s idyllic creation also has its critics, who object (as far as I can understand the argument) on the grounds that he presents an idealised view of Britain that brushes socio-economic issues under the carpet and romanticises the aristocracy. As George Orwell (who enjoyed Wodehouse’s work and defended him after the Berlin Broadcasts) put it:
…Wodehouse’s real sin has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are.
George Orwell In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse (1946)
There is some truth in the assertion, but it’s a blinkered one, because Wodehouse presents people from all walks of life as our better, brighter selves. He avoids unpleasant, difficult truths and softens the edges of human folly so we may laugh at them. He doesn’t just idealise the aristocracy, as so often claimed– Wodehouse idealises us all.
It has long been my view that the messages we take from Wodehouse’s work are generally the ones we bring to it ourselves. P.G. Wodehouse didn’t set out to create a Utopian ideal. This is something I have divined from the world he created which, free from the worst excesses of human behaviour, seems a great improvement on our own.
To give Wodehouse the penultimate word:
I suppose one thing that makes these drones of mine seem creatures of a dead past is that with the exception of Oofy Prosser, the club millionaire, they are genial and good tempered friends of all the world. In these days when everybody hates everybody else, anyone who is not snarling at something – or at everything – is an anachronism.
Preface to Joy in the Morning
I may be silly (although in 2016, who could tell) but I think Wodehouse’s world is one worth striving for.
Cheers and best wishes to you all for a happy, hearty new year, and much Joy in the Morning !
Footnotes & Further Reading
* Source: Notes on Utopia from the British Library online
** Thomas Moore’s dissatisfaction with English society, 500 years ago, still strike a chord in 2016:
…for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure, and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.
from Utopia (1516)
On a beautiful autumn day, I left London’s Victoria Station for the glorious Sussex countryside to visit the home of Sir Edward Cazalet, P.G. Wodehouse’s step-grandson. I had met Edward and his wife Camilla, Lady Cazalet, in London during the summer, and they generously invited me to visit their home to view the family’s archive of Wodehouse materials.
The train journey was a pleasant, uneventful affair, which did not seem, to me, to be in quite the proper Wodehouse spirit. I ought to have been playing ‘Persian Monarchs’ with a genial stranger, or thumbing through a volume of poems by Ralston McTodd. But the closest approximation I could muster was an affinity for Lord Emsworth.
Lord Emsworth, in a train moving in the direction of home, was behaving like a horse heading for his stable. He snorted eagerly, and spoke at length and with emotion of roses and herbaceous borders.
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
It did seem a pity to be traveling merely as myself, and not an imposter. There is a lot to be said for adopting an alias, particularly when your own persona is as dull as my own. Polly Pott managed to pass herself off at Blandings as Gwendolyne Glossop, daughter of the eminent nerve specialist Sir Roderick Glossop (in Uncle Fred in the Springtime). With a bit of forethought, I might have presented myself as his other daughter. But forethought was never my strong suit, and I arrived with a sheepish sense of having let the side down.
I needn’t have worried. Edward Cazalet’s deep affection for his grandfather and enthusiasm for his work ensured a mutual understanding from the start. I spent the day giddy with joy as we looked through Edward’s impressive archive of Plum’s letters and personal materials, including notes for stories and draft manuscripts in various stages of devolvement.
Wodehouse’s letters include correspondence with well-known figures of the day, including Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, and Richard Burton. Reading his personal correspondence with family and friends (a tremendous privilege) left a lingering impression of Plum, the man. The impression is a good one. His private letters (many of them published in Sophie Ratcliffe’s P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters) are imbued with the same qualities as his fictional work, displaying sharp wit tempered by a generous spirit.
The other night, having run out of ‘Murine’, Ethel squirted some stuff into her eyes which the vet prescribed for Wonder, and a quarter of an hour later complained of violent pains in the head and said that the room was all dark and she couldn’t read the print of her Saturday Evening Post. Instead of regarding this as a bit of luck, as anyone who knows the present Saturday Evening Post, she got very alarmed and remained so till next morning, when all was clear again. It just shows what a dog has to endure. Though, as a matter of fact, I believe dogs’ eyes are absolutely insensitive. I don’t think dogs bother about their eyes at all, relying mostly on their noses.
Letter to Denis Mackail (March 28, 1946)
P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
There is also a good deal of love in them.
My darling Angel Bunny.
Gosh, how I am missing my loved one! The house is a morgue without you. Do you realise that – except for two nights I spent in NY and the time you were in the hospital – we haven’t been separated for a night for twenty years!! This morning Jed waddled into my room at about nine, and I said to myself ‘My Bunny’s awake early’ and was just starting for your room when I remembered. It’s too awful being separated like this.
Letter to Ethel Wodehouse (July 6, 1967)
P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
In the afternoon, Edward took me on a walking tour of the family farm and shared memories of afternoon walks with Plum, during visits to his grandfather’s home in Remsenburg (Long Island, New York). Nature had pulled up her socks and ordered us an exceptionally fine day to compliment the rolling farmland views, and I found myself pondering as Rogers, or possibly Hammerstein, once pondered, whether somewhere in my youth or childhood I had done something good.
This joyous feeling reached a crescendo shortly before the cocktail hour, when I visited the cosy attic in which Plum’s treasured possessions have been lovingly preserved by Edward and his family. It contains Plum’s reading chair, his hat and pipe, golf clubs — even his personal statue of the infant Samuel at Prayer. The room is lined with bookshelves containing books from Wodehouse’s own library. The remaining walls are adorned with family photographs and sporting memorabilia.
Never a brilliant conversationalist, I was unequal to expressing this pleasure to my hosts at the time. I simply alternated between gaping and grinning for the remainder of my visit.
I don’t recall doing ‘something good’ in my youth or childhood. Or since, for that matter. But I did spend five years in Van Diemen’s Land without the usual preliminaries of having committed a crime. Perhaps my visit to the Cazalets was Fate’s way of evening out the ledger.
Yesterday I received the Doctor’s diagnosis of an ailment that has been troubling me for some time. I have dyspepsia!
I don’t suppose a doctor ever received such a joyous response to this news as mine did. I practically whooped around the surgery. For now, I can read my favourite poem, by Lancelot Mulliner in ‘Came the Dawn’, with the added poignancy of personal suffering.
DARKLING (A Threnody)
By L. BASSINGTON MULLINER
(Copyright in all languages, including the Scandinavian)
Like a corpse’s withered hands,
Waving against the blacker sky:
Bitter like the tang of half-remembered sins;
Bats wheeling mournfully through the air,
And on the ground
And nameless creeping things;
And all around
I am a bat that wheels through the air of Fate;
I am a worm that wriggles in a swamp of Disillusionment ;
I am a despairing toad;
I have got dyspepsia.
from: Came the Dawn (Meet Mr Mulliner )
The physician stopped short of prescribing Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo, but I suppose one can’t have everything.
Plumtopia has been a selfish venture from the beginning. It was born from my own dissatisfaction with life, and the search for a better kind of world – that I called Plumtopia. Having never met a fellow Wodehouse fan I presumed I’d have no audience, and consequently wrote entirely to please myself. I do love the sound of my own keyboard. But then something wonderful happened. People started to read, to comment, and even identify with some of the thoughts and feelings I expressed. I may be no closer to finding Plumtopia, but there is comfort in knowing that I’m in dashed good company.
That dashed good company includes Noel Bushnell. Many of the blogs I read are rousing social and political commentaries that cause the blood pressure to rise and the soul to despair (not that I blame writers for reflecting a troubled world). So reading Noel’s aptly titled Wodehouse to the rescue felt like an application of soothing balm. I loved it!
Today, I’m sharing his terrific follow up piece, commemorating the Centenary of P.G. Wodehouse’s collaboration with Guy Bolton, and Jerome Kern. It’s a must for Wodehouse fans.
I presented the following talk to the Ferkytoodlers group of serious thinkers over lunch at the Melbourne Savage Club on Wednesday, 11 November 2015. I intended to post it here with suitable modifications and credits the following weekend but, when I awoke that Saturday morning to news of the dreadful events in Paris overnight, somehow the works of a long dead author and the peaceful world of his imagination seemed less important. It seemed in bad taste to be prattling on about trivial entertainment when people were being murdered.
Of course, the Paris massacre is by no means unique in our world – alas! – and as I brooded on this bleak topic I was reminded of a remark Wodehouse blogger Honoria Plum made in a comment on my first Wodehouse to the rescue piece. She referred to the sentiment behind her blog, Plumtopia, as “looking for snippets of…
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Each February at Plumtopia I take a break from my usual pontifications to celebrate some of the ‘Great Romances’ from P.G. Wodehouse’s work, to mark the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day, 1975. This year, I’d like to break with the formula a little by touching on the great romance of Wodehouse’s own life — his wife Ethel.
Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson wraps up their courtship in a sentence: ‘They met on 3 August 1914 and on 30 September they were married.’ They met on one of Wodehouse’s frequent visits to New York, and were married at The Little Church Round The Corner. Ethel Wayman (nee Newton) was a young widow, also visiting New York from England. Like so many of his fictional heroines, she was a woman of spirit, energy and determination. An extrovert and unlike her husband in character, Ethel nonetheless understood his needs and protected him from the practical demands of life, so that Wodehouse was free to write, walk and engage with the world as it suited him.
They seem to have lived in perfect sympathy with one another. Wodehouse said, in an interview with Gerald Clarke ( P. G. Wodehouse, The Art of Fiction No. 60 in the PARIS REVIEW ):
‘I think a writer’s life is the ideal life’.
It was Ethel who made this life possible, and Wodehouse depended on her. It’s tempting to see their relationship reflected, in typically self-depreciating style, throughout Wodehouse’s writing.
“… she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
The Adventures of Sally (1922)
Wodehouse’s love for Ethel was genuine and life-long. Writing to her on the occasion of their 59th wedding anniversary, Wodehouse pays tribute to the Great Romance of his own life.
My precious angel Bunny whom I love so dear.
Another anniversary! Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!
It was a miracle finding one another. I know I could never have been happy with anybody else. What a lucky day for me when you agreed with me when I said ‘Let’s get married’!
The only thing that makes me sad is your health. How I wish there was something I could do. What is so extraordinary is that you come to me in pain and not having slept and you look just as beautiful as you did fifty-nine years ago. But how I wish that you could get a good sleep.
I wish I could say all the things I would like to say, but really they can all be said in one sentence – I LOVE YOU.
(P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe)
Wishing you all very Happy Ever Afters of your own.
Today’s reading comes from the blog of ZanyZigZag, Clinical Psychologist in training and P.G. Wodehouse lover. Her post today touches on subjects close to my heart.
I’m not opposed to a bit of positive thinking. Some of my best friends are optimists. My concern is that ‘positivity’ has become a socially desirable behaviour, helped along by claims that it’s good for you. We are encouraged to distance ourselves from ‘negative people’ and ‘negativity’ has been demonised as behaviour to overcome (or at least hush up in society and the workplace). Under the guise of negativity, some very useful and important behaviours — like criticism and complaint — have been demonised too. It’s hardly surprising that these ideas gain traction. They are a gift to governments, employers, and maladjusted spouses the world over.
Yes, a world without criticism and complaint would be lovely. But until our world is also free of its problems — violence, injustice and inequality — criticism and complaint remain necessary forces for change. If you’re concerned about wealth or gender inequality, for example, just imagine how things might be if nobody complained. One can hardly be blamed for bouts of pessimism in such a world, and I’m deeply suspicious of the idea that a life of sustained positivity, unbalanced by ‘negative’ thoughts, is a healthy goal to aspire to.
As someone who is not one of nature’s optimists, this isn’t something I’m likely to suffer from. I worry and I brood. I fail to spot the bluebird. I feel that until the world is put right, I’m somehow failing in my responsibilities as a human being. For me, and I suspect for many people, P.G. Wodehouse is more than a great writer. His writing has a transformative power –providing bluebirds when bluebirds are in short supply. As I said in my recent talk in Seattle on the Psychology of the Individual: for some people, reading Wodehouse is the icing on the cake of a happy life. For others, he is a lifeline.
I have been meaning to write a new blogpost for months now, but due to the demands of my clinical psychology course I have been struggling to find the time. The evidence for my plea that this course seems to have taken over my life is clearly illustrated by the fact that even this blogpost has a psychology-related theme to it. It also, however, mentions Harry Potter and Wodehouse, so all is not lost just yet.
In case any of you have eyed the title of this post with scepticism and are concerned that it will in some way be celebrating the “power” of positive thinking, let me reassure you that this is absolutely not the case. I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to affirmations, mantras and “inspirational” quotes – and feel vindicated by studies like this (hyperlink), which demonstrate that positive thinking can actually be harmful rather…
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What Ho, old beans!
Last week I attended an excellent binge at The Wodehouse Society’s (TWS) 18th convention, Psmith in Pseattle. It was my first TWS convention, and even more psensational than anticipated. So, climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy, and I’ll tell you about it.
As a TWS first timer, I entered the lobby of the impressive Fairmont Olympic Hotel under a cloud –not one of Seattle’s famous v-shaped depressions, but a personal one. Having lived almost exclusively behind a keyboard for the last few years, my people skills are not what they once were. Nor are my trousers, which are let out far more often than I am. So it’s fair to say I was not at my confident best, and beginning to wish I’d stayed under my little rock in Somerset UK. Added to this, I had recklessly agreed to appear as a speaker and was feeling a strong affinity with Bertie Wooster ahead of his infamous talk at Miss Tomlinson’s school for girls.
“Girls,” said Miss Tomlinson, “some of you have already met Mr. Wooster — Mr. Bertram Wooster, and you all, I hope, know him by reputation.” Here, I regret to say, Mr. Wooster gave a hideous, gurgling laugh and, catching Miss Tomlinson’s eye, turned bright scarlet.
in ‘Bertie Changes his Mind’
All that began to change, very quickly. As I traipsed across the lobby, I spied the familiar, well-groomed head of TWS president Karen Shotting rising on the escalator. Recognising her from her photograph, and forgetting that we had never met, I buzzed over to say ‘What Ho’ like a long lost friend. A short while later, I was on back-slapping terms with a substantial gang of Wodehouse experts and enthusiasts, including Tom Smith, Barbara (the dream rabbit) Combs, Elliot Milstein, Bob Raines (soon to be TWS president), Ken Clevenger, and Tony and Elaine Ring. The name Tony Ring is familiar to most Wodehouse enthusiasts and I’d been daunted by the prospect of meeting him, but his effervescent personality put me immediately at ease, and the sparkle in his eye told me that this shindig was going to be fun.
The following morning, I encountered Elin Woodger Murphy (Wooster Sauce editor and all round good egg) sploshing about in the hotel pool. Having already provided me with guidance and support from afar, Elin took me under her wing and, with the fabulous Jean Tilson, we forked our way through some very decent breakfasts at Seattle’s Pike Place market. Later in the lobby of the Fairmont Olympic, I got to meet online friends for the first time — like Vikas Sonak, and David and Katy McGrann — and make new ones, like Katherine Jordan, Eileen Jones and Ninad Wagle (Alpine Joe). From my strategic position by the bar, I was also well-placed to spot debonair newcomers sporting chrysanthemums their in buttonholes [enter John Dawson].
Wodehouse in song
The formalities began on Friday evening with soprano Maria Jette and pianist Dan Chouinard, who performed songs from Wodehouse’s Broadway career and songs mentioned in his work, like My Hero and The Yeoman’s Wedding Song.
A minion came on the stage carrying a table. On this table he placed a framed photograph, and I knew that we were for it. Show Bertram Wooster a table and a framed photograph, and you don’t have to tell him what the upshot is going to be. Muriel Kegley-Bassington stood revealed as a ‘My Hero’ from The Chocolate Soldier addict.
I thought the boys behind the back row behaved with extraordinary dignity and restraint, and their suavity gave me the first faint hope I had had that when my turn came to face the firing quad I might be spared the excesses which I had been anticipating. I would rank ‘My Hero’ next after ‘The ‘Yeoman’s Wedding Song’ as a standee rouser…
in ‘The Mating Season‘
Maria sparkles on the stage like a Wodehouse heroine leapt from the page, and it was a great privilege to hear these songs performed by musicians of such calibre. If you missed out, Maria and Dan’s two CDs of Wodehouse music are available online. Mixing it with the professionals, an enthusiastic Tom Smith (one of our Pseattle hosts) and his associate ‘Percy Pilbeam’ treated us to a rendition of Sonny Boy. No CD recording of this memorable performance has yet been released.
The joy continued on Saturday with riveting talks. If you missed them, they’ll be published in forthcoming editions of Plum Lines, quarterly journal of The Wodehouse Society (US) , not to be confused with Wooster Sauce, quarterly journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) — if you join both societies you get eight lovely journals in the post every year. Each talk was worthy of further discussion, and I took plenty of notes, but for now you’ll have to be content with a summary.
I was riveted from the moment Elliot Milstein drew his first breath, on the subject of Wodehouse’s opening lines, and listening to Ken Clevenger let himself go on the subject of fish was a long-awaited pleasure. During the luncheon break, I made a Skype call to my family in England to gloat that I’d been educated on the difference between orphreys and chasubles by William Scrivener, who was once a pale young curate. Peter Nieuwenhuizen’s talk on Wodehouse in the comics covered new ground (for me at least). Graphic novels are incredibly popular with young readers and the potential for introducing them to Wodehouse in this way is very exciting. Tad Boehmer’s talk on researching Wodehouse took us into the world of special collection libraries (I wanted more!) and Elin Woodger’s topic ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’ was a topic close to my heart (as readers of Plumtopia will know). For anyone still in doubt about Wodehouse’s appeal to women, Elin confirmed that more women had registered for the convention than men.
John Dawson spoke about the exciting Globe Reclamation Project , an international gang of Wodehouse lovers (Dawson, Ananth Kaitharam, Neil Midkiff, Ian Michaud, Arthur Robinson, Raja Srinivasan and Karen Shotting) who have spent the last two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper (1901-1909?), aided and abetted by Wodehouse experts Norman Murphy and Tony Ring. John spoke passionately about his personal quest to find everything Wodehouse wrote, and the hard working collaboration that has provided so much ‘new’ material for all Wodehouse readers to enjoy. The product of their labours is available to read — in two handsomely bound volumes: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking, with funds raised used for ongoing research (any surplus will be spent making Wodehouse books available in school libraries). A discount is available to Wodehouse Society members.
Closing the day, and well worth the wait, was Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum. As someone who has delved so deeply into Wodehouse’s life, it was moving to hear him speak of Wodehouse’s withdrawal from his painful war-time experiences into the ‘wonderland’ he created. As McCrum put it, ‘Wodehouse was, in fact, happiest in a kind of artistic solitary confinement.’
In my talk on the modern Wodehouse reader, I commented that many of us read Wodehouse to escape the irksome captivity of modern life, just as Evelyn Waugh predicted.
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 —
Listening to Robert McCrum, it became clear to me that Wodehouse needed the world he created as much as we do. It was his ‘Plumtopia’. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to Wodehouse than I did at that moment.
McCrum has shared his own impressions of Pseattle in this little piece for The Guardian: Americans celebrate PG Wodehouse in Seattle .
Tony Ring entertained us between talks with something cryptically listed on the programme as ‘Mr. Punch’s Spectral Analyses’. These proved to be a selection of ghost stories written by Wodehouse for Punch magazine (1903-1904) — a fitting selection to mark the occasion of Halloween. Here’s a taste:
A groan and a weird phosphorescent gleam at the foot of the bed told that the spectre had arrived, right on the scheduled time as usual. I took no notice. I wished to make the ghost speak first. A ghost hates to have to begin a conversation.
“You might speak to a chap,” said a plaintive voice, at last.
“Ah, you there?” I said. “The family ghost, I presume?”
“The same,” said the Spectre, courteously, seating himself on the bed. “Frightened?”
“Not in the least.”
“Hair not turned white, I suppose?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Then you are the man I have been wanting to meet for the last hundred years. Reasonable; that’s what you are. I tell you, Sir, it hurts a fellow when people gibber at him, as most of your human beings do. Rational conversation becomes impossible.”
MR. PUNCH’S SPECTRAL ANALYSES II.— The Ghost with Social Tastes.
Punch, August 12, 1903
A handsomely printed set of these stories was provided to conference goers, but if you missed out you can read them online at Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums .
Rummage and Revels
There is still much to be said– about the masked ball, the costumes, the auction, and NEWTS skit — but I have other things to do, and presumably you do too. The one thing I must mention is the rummage sale. Just imagine for a moment that you are in a shop devoted to Wodehouse. There are Wodehouse books, and books about Wodehouse. You can also pick up sheet music, costumes, cow creamers, pictures, bookmarks, badges, bags and all manner of merchandise. No shop of this kind exists, but for two days in October the TWS rummage sale comes close to this Plumtopian ideal.
Added to these pleasures, I continued to make new friends, too many to list, but sitting with Donna Myers for the talks, and between Anita Avery and Tim Richards at dinner were highlights. There was an awkward moment when I met long-time Facebook friend Michael Sheldon in person — as he recognised me, but I couldn’t place him because he looked nothing like his Facebook photo (for all the wrong reasons). He won the ‘Scary Enough to Put a Golfer Off His Stroke’ award for his impersonation of Bill Lister (from Full Moon).
How to join the next binge
The next convention will be in Washington DC — Capital! Capital! — in October 2017. Dates will be confirmed shortly.
It’s an experience I highly recommend. I was welcomed with great kindness, in spite of my expansive trousers and questionable character because, as Anita Avery put it, ‘We Wodehouse fans look after our own.’ And she’s right. After many years spent searching for Plumtopia, I may not have found a place that feels like home, but I have found my people. As Wodehouse put it:
There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
in ‘Strychnine in the Soup’
This post on Wodehouse’s portrait of an ideal man struck a chord with me. Hope it strikes you too… in a thoughtful sort of way that is, not roughly, like a stuffed eelskin from behind.