Unlike the male codfish which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.
from: Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935)
So too, my own father has looked with a somewhat jaundiced eye on my enthusiasm for Wodehouse. For I made the mistake, many years ago, of introducing him to Wodehouse without first taking the time to consider what Jeeves refers to as the ‘Psychology of the individual’. I simply grabbed a book from my shelf at random and shoved it at him with hearty confidence.
The book in question was The Little Nugget (1913). It’s one of Wodehouse’s earlier novels and few people would rank it among his best, but I’m fond of it and had no inkling that it would fail to grip dear old Pa. But grip it didn’t. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t touched Wodehouse again, but with this experience now in the distant past, I feel the time is ripe to try again.
With well over 100 books by or about Wodehouse to choose from, if you’re looking for a Father’s Day gift for your Dad, whether he’s new to Wodehouse or already a fan, there’s plenty to choose from.
Here are five suggestions to get you started.
1. The Clicking of Cuthbert
Sporting gifts for Dad is one of the commercialised world’s biggest clichés, but if your sports-loving Dad has a sense of humour, this collection of golf stories is a terrific choice. Wodehouse enjoyed golf and his affection for the game shines through in these stories, which are among the best he ever wrote. No understanding of golf is required.
George Perkins, as he addressed the ball for the vital stroke, manifestly wobbled. He was scared to the depths of his craven soul. He tried to pray, but all he could remember was the hymn for those in peril on the deep, into which category, he feared, his ball would shortly fall. Breathing a few bars of this, he swung.
From: The Rough Stuff in The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922)
2. The Inimitable Jeeves
The Inimitable Jeeves makes a great introduction to Wodehouse and the Jeeves and Wooster stories. It’s a collection of connected stories rather than a traditional novel, making it a good choice for busy Dads, or those with a short attention span. I particularly recommend the short stories to commuters – they’re an ideal length and will put a spring your step for the rest of the day.
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. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
From: The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)
3. Uncle Fred in the Springtime
If your Dad is a genial old soul who enjoys reminiscing about his youth with a twinkle in his eye, try a dash of Uncle Fred. But be warned, Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred doesn’t just reminisce. He acts on his impulses, especially when Pongo’s Aunt Jane isn’t looking. In Uncle Fred in the Springtime, he and his long-suffering nephew visit Blandings Castle as imposters (there are wheels within wheels). And while being Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham, might save our hero from prosecution if his identity is revealed, it won’t save him from Aunt Jane.
‘Don’t blame me, Pongo,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘if Lady Constance takes her lorgnette to you. God bless my soul, though, you can’t compare the lorgnettes of to-day with the ones I used to know as a boy. I remember walking one day in Grosvenor Square with my aunt Brenda and her pug dog Jabberwocky, and a policeman came up and said the latter ought to be wearing a muzzle. My aunt made no verbal reply. She merely whipped her lorgnette from its holster and looked at the man, who gave one choking gasp and fell back against the railings, without a mark on him but with an awful look of horror in his staring eyes, as if he had seen some dreadful sight. A doctor was sent for, and they managed to bring him round, but he was never the same again. He had to leave the Force, and eventually drifted into the grocery business. And that is how Sir Thomas Lipton got his start.
From: Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939)
4. Bring on the Girls
If your Dad enjoys Wodehouse’s fiction, I strongly recommend this biographical volume by Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, Bring on the Girls: The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy, with Pictures to Prove it. The Broadway musicals of Wodehouse, Bolton and Jerome Kern were enormously successful (2017 marks the centenary of Wodehouse having five original productions on Broadway) and Wodehouse and Bolton became lifelong friends. Bring on the Girls is a highly entertaining account of their career, written with the same panache you’d expect of any Wodehouse work.
At the outset it would have seemed that conditions for an early meeting were just right. Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, England, and almost simultaneously Bolton was added to the strength of Broxbourne, Herts. As the crow flies, Guildford and Broxbourne are not much more than twenty miles apart, and it is quite possible that the two infants, destined to collaborate for forty years, may often have seen the same crow engaged in checking the distance.
From: Bring On The Girls (1953)
For my own Dad, I’ve selected Ukridge. It’s a controversial choice perhaps, as Ukridge is one of Wodehouse’s most divisive characters. He is certainly a scoundrel who abuses the bonds of family and friendship, but he goes about his business with a hearty, almost infectious optimism – the big, broad, flexible outlook, he calls it. And Wodehouse’s joyous narration may appeal to anyone who has been repeatedly ‘touched for a fiver’ by an acquaintance lacking in both shame and moral compass. Wodehouse knew the feeling I suspect (Ukridge was inspired by a real person). He presumably made good on his ‘investment’ in the creation of Ukridge.
If the leading incidents of S.F. Ukridge’s disreputable career are to be given to the public – and not, as some might suggest, decently hushed up – I suppose I am the man to write them.
Finally, for the Wodehouse-loving Father who has almost everything, the Wodehouse expert and collector Tony Ring has recently parted with some rare gems from his collection, and these are available for sale from Noel Pearson’s Rare Books.
These are a few of my suggestions. What about yours?
Dads — please tell us what’s on your Wodehouse wish-list.
Happy reading and cheers to all Fathers, including my own!
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.
‘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
This piece is the second in a series of guides for readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of Wodehouse ‘hidden gems’. The previous post provided reading suggestions for new Wodehouse readers.
Today’s piece offers a suggested reading order for the Jeeves and Wooster stories, followed by some general notes and guidance for readers.
If you particularly dislike short stories and want to skip straight to the novels, I suggest starting your reading from Right Ho, Jeeves.
Jeeves and Wooster Reading List
- The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)*
- Carry On, Jeeves (1925)*
- Very Good Jeeves (1930)*
- Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor)
- The Code of the Woosters (1938)
- Joy in the Morning (1946)
- The Mating Season (1949)
- Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1955; US title Bertie Wooster Sees it Through)
- Jeeves in the Offing (1960; US title How Right You Are, Jeeves)
- Thank You, Jeeves (1934)
- Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963)
- Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971; US title Jeeves and the Ties that Bind)
- Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974; US title The Cat-Nappers)
*The World of Jeeves, currently available in print for around £8, covers the Inimitable Jeeves, Carry On, Jeeves, and Very Good Jeeves. It also makes a great gift for introducing new readers to the series.
The Short Stories
The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say `When’.
Very Good, Jeeves
Bertie Wooster and his resourceful manservant Jeeves appeared in over thirty short stories between 1915 and the publication of their first novel, Thank You, Jeeves, in 1934. Wodehouse was a master of the short story format, and the stories include some of Bertie’s most memorable adventures. They offer the best possible introduction to the series and its characters. Reading them first will avoid plot spoilers, and ensure you appreciate all the ‘in jokes’ throughout the series.
The short stories first appeared in magazine format before they were published in three volumes as The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), Carry On, Jeeves (1925) and Very Good Jeeves (1930). Their order of appearance in these volumes differs from their original magazine publication order, and some titles were changed. Additional stories were also included, as Wodehouse reworked some earlier stories featuring a character called Reggie Pepper.
These three volumes were later collated in a 1967 Omnibus, The World of Jeeves (introduction by P.G. Wodehouse) and appear in an order that better resembles their original publication order. Some of the stories are listed under their original titles.
The World of Jeeves also includes two later Jeeves short stories, ‘Jeeves Makes an Omelette’ and ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’, included in the short story collections A Few Quick Ones (1959) and Plum Pie (1966). The stories refer to characters and events from the later novels, so if you can exercise an iron will and leave off reading them until later, you’ll avoid spoilers and understand the references better. But no great harm will befall you by reading them first.
The first Jeeves and Bertie story, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ (1915) is not included in any of these volumes. Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, it appeared in the 1917 short story collection The Man with Two Left Feet. It’s currently out of print, but second-hand and e-book editions are readily available. There is some debate about whether the Bertie in this story should be rightfully considered Bertie Wooster, or some other Bertie of the Mannering-Phipps variety. These are the sorts of debates you may find yourself entering if you become hooked on the series.
The early collection My Man Jeeves (1919) was rewritten and incorporated into the later stories. This will be of interest to enthusiasts and collectors only.
He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
The Code of the Woosters.
The novels introduce memorable new characters to the Jeeves and Wooster cast, including Augustus Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode, the Stoker girls (Pauline and Emerald), ‘Catsmeat’ Potter-Pirbright, and his sister Cora.
Many people start their Wodehouse reading with The Code of the Woosters. As a highly-regarded classic, it’s a volume most booksellers tend to stock. The Code of the Woosters is also a favourite with many fans, who recommend it to new readers with enthusiasm. No great harm will befall you by reading this, or any other book, out of order. But to avoid spoilers the novels are best read after the short stories, in order of publication. This will also ensure you appreciate occasional ‘in-jokes’ that reference previous instalments.
The suggested reading order above makes one exception; based on advice from reader Doug S, I’ve included Thank You, Jeeves later in the list. It’s a terrific story, but Wodehouse’s use of black and white minstrels and ‘blackface’ makeup as a comic device may be discomforting for modern readers. It should be noted that Wodehouse was reflecting a popular entertainment, using language in common use at the time; there is no indication in Wodehouse’s writing, personal letters or biographies to suppose that his use of black-faced minstrels in Thank You, Jeeves was intentionally demeaning, or that he held racist views.
Thank You, Jeeves features peppy Pauline Stoker, her ghastly brother Dwight, and even ghastlier father, the millionaire J. Washburn Stoker. Unless you plan to skip Thank You, Jeeves entirely (I wouldn’t advise it) it should ideally be read before the next Stoker, Pauline’s sister Emerald, pops up in Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.
Finally, if this reading list leaves you wanting more, there’s also the 1953 novel Ring for Jeeves featuring Jeeves without Bertie Wooster.
People often come to Plumtopia looking for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular. It’s a good question.
The short answer, is that there is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse –and if you ask the question in one of the many online Wodehouse forums, you’ll get at least a dozen answers. Picking up the first book you come across is often as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.
But the short answer isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for practical advice. This post, and the short series to follow, offers a guide to readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.
A suggested reading list for getting started is provided below, followed by some general guidance for new readers.
Reading suggestions for getting started
Jeeves and Wooster: Start with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) short stories or the novel Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor). See my second piece in this series for a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list.
Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea.
The Inimitable Jeeves
Blandings: Avoid plot spoilers by starting with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New). Or get acquainted with the (later) classic Blandings short stories in Blandings Castle (1935).
‘I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?’
Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervour. Mr Simmonds, eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children.
Psmith: Start with the brilliant school story, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you’re not a fan of the genre, try Leave it to Psmith (1923), the last Psmith novel. Reading it first shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the earlier stories.
Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”
(Mike and Psmith)
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
(‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge)
Uncle Fred: Start with Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), a short story from the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save it for later.
I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means, but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.
(‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ in Young Men in Spats)
Short Stories: Start the Mulliner stories with Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927); and the Oldest Member golf stories with The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required to enjoy them.
Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.
The Clicking of Cuthbert
The novels: Plot spoilers are less of a problem with the ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some of them are connected by recurring characters. Try Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) or The Small Bachelor (1927) to start.
The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you.
Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse, but they should be able to order them for you –and if your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.
Links to books currently in print and available for purchase online have been included in the text. Out of print books are frequently available second-hand at reasonable prices. Don’t be alarmed by the price of expensive first and collectable editions you see advertised, which are aimed at collectors. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks and don’t mind which editions you buy. Most titles are also available as Ebooks, including those which are out of print.
Understanding the chronological challenge
Many of Wodehouse’s stories first appeared in magazines such as The Strand (UK) and The Saturday Evening Post (US), but weren’t always published in book form in the same order – or under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of publication you will encounter ‘spoilers’, particularly in the Blandings series. Wodehouse also rewrote some of his early stories, so the beginning isn’t always the best place to start. And it’s helpful to know that Wodehouse’s books were often published under different titles in the UK and US.
In putting this series together, I’ve referred to many excellent online resources that exist for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefitted from the invaluable advice of Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.
The next piece in the series provides a reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories.
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)
Highballs for Breakfast is a new compilation of P.G. Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of liquor, drinking, Dutch Courage and mornings after, compiled and edited by Richard T. Kelly. It’s a well-researched collection that delves widely into the Wodehouse canon, unearthing plenty of treasures on the subject.
‘…Have you ever tasted a mint-julep, Beach?’
‘Not to my recollection, sir.’
‘Oh, you’d remember all right if you had. Insidious things. They creep up on you like a baby sister and slide their little hands into yours and the next thing you know the judge is telling you to pay the clerk of the court fifty dollars…’
Summer Lightning (1929)
The classic scenes you’d expect to find are here, including Gussie Fink Nottle’s presentation of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School in Right Ho, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster’s ‘a-hunting-we-will-go’ with the port decanter in The Mating Season. But if you’re unfamiliar with Wodehouse’s world beyond the Jeeves stories, this book should also whet your appetite to discover hidden gems like Cocktail Time, Doctor Sally, Uncle Dynamite, Ukridge, and the Mulliner stories.
‘Suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another, what in your view would best meet the case?’
The gentlemanly bar-tender pondered for some moments.
‘Well,’ he replied at length, ‘I advance it, you understand, as a purely personal opinion, and I shall not be in the least offended if you decide not to act upon it; but my suggestion – for what it is worth – is that you try a Dynamite Dew Drop.’
One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.
‘Much better give him a Dreamland Special.’
A second man, in a sweater and a cloth cap, had yet another theory.
‘You can’t beat an Undertaker’s Joy.’
‘The Story of William’ in Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927)
Few good books are without controversy; Wodehouse has always attracted his share and Highballs for Breakfast is no exception. The hot topic of discussion among the troops on this occasion is the assessment of Wodehouse’s non-drinkers as ‘puritans and bores’. Richard T Kelly introduces this chapter, noting:
Given the affection Wodehouse reserves for cheery serial tipplers, you can well imagine the rough treatment he dishes out to characters who make a terrific show of never touching a drop. A degree of moderation, at times, is commendable, perhaps – but someone who abstains entirely simply cannot be serious.
Richard T. Kelly in Highballs for Breakfast
The teetotallers in our ranks object. Wodehouse certainly created some memorably foul examples of the puritanical temperance advocate. Having lived through prohibition, he would have had a decent supply of real-life examples to work from, adding them to his diverse cast of ridiculous extremists. But Wodehouse’s most degenerate drinkers are not always such affectionate portraits.
Richard T Kelly offers Mervyn Potter’s fiancé as an example of the puritanical type; she insists that Mervyn give up drink and threatens to cancel the fixture if he fails. Anyone reading Barmy in Wonderland (as discussed previously at Plumtopia) can see that she has a point. Mervyn is habitually plastered — he gets truculent, creates disturbances and burns down hotels. Wodehouse gets full comedy value from these scenes, but it’s clear that Mervyn Potter is a menace who gives Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps hell. The reader’s sympathies are with Barmy and Potter’s fiancé, on this occasion.
Another character who overdoes his snifters is Reggie Swithin’s Cousin ‘Eggy’ in Laughing Gas. Wodehouse gets good comedic mileage from Eggy, who thinks he is having alcohol induced hallucinations and is persuaded to give up drinking by a temperance group called the Temple of the New Dawn. The female responsible for saving Eggy is a girl called Mabel, and, while undeniably one of the puritans, she is not without her charms. There is no suggestion that Mabel is a bore, or that Eggy is anything but better off when he decides to marry her.
Gussie Fink-Nottle, Wodehouse’s most famous abstainer, may have restricted himself to orange juice, but I don’t recall him ever forcing the subject on his friends. Between a puritanical temperance advocate and a quiet, unassuming teetotaller there is a wide and substantial difference —neither Wodehouse nor Richard T Kelly is really ‘having a go’ at the latter.
A little controversy is good for us –it keeps the mental faculties sharp — but the inclination to analyse or search for deeper meaning in Wodehouse quickly reaches a point where it makes us (well, me usually) look ridiculous. It causes pure minded jaws to clench. ‘Leave Plum alone!’ they cry. ‘He is to be enjoyed, not dissected.’ Spades and soufflés are mentioned. Richard T Kelly, quite rightly, does not take things too far. He applies an informed, but light touch to the material and lets Wodehouse’s magic do the rest.
I drink high-balls for breakfast. I am saved.
My Battle with Drink (1915)
I would like to thank Penguin Random House for providing my copy of Highballs for Breakfast. If the producers of fine wine and porter ales would do likewise, Plumtopia would be a far, far brighter place.
Win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast
To win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House, visit the competition page and and reply by comment before 15 December 2016.
Noel Bushnell contemplates what might have been, if Wodehouse had gone to see Lancs v. Worcs instead of Warwickshire play at Cheltenham.
I was basking in the autumn sunshine, mellowing fruitlessly, when an unbidden thought drifted into my cerebellum: what if Jeeves had not been called Jeeves? What if another cricketer’s name had caught P.G. Wodehouse’s ear and the gentleman’s personal gentleman who made his entrance on 18 September 1915 had been called something else? Would Jeeves now be a metaphor for members of the butlerine genus everywhere, or for sources of infallible information on any topic, but most especially in matters of correct dress for all occasions? I mean to say, what?
These be deep waters and, before I stick my toe in, perhaps I should recap the story so far.
It all started when the By The Way newsletter of The P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK) marked the centenary of Jeeves’ premiere with the lengthy and detailed opinion of Wodehouse authority Tony Ring that the un-surnamed Bertie in the first “Jeeves…
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Reginald Jeeves holds a firm place in the hearts of P.G. Wodehouse readers. Arguably Wodehouse’s best known character, Jeeves appeared in 11 novels and 35 short stories as Bertie Wooster’s ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’, and Bill Rowcester’s gentleman in Ring for Jeeves. More than a century after he first appeared in print, the name Jeeves is known by millions of people around the world, many of whom have never read a Jeeves story — such has his fame permeated the crust of human consciousness.
It is therefore fitting that the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree this week in remembrance of the man who inspired the name — cricketer Percy Jeeves.
Wodehouse had seen Percy Jeeves playing for Warwickshire in a match at Cheltenham in 1913, and had admired his bowling. When Wodehouse was contemplating a name for his new character, Jeeves popped obligingly into his head.
For those with an understanding of cricket, it is easy to visualise the Jeeves we know as one of those dignified bowlers whose graceful delivery of the ball hides the full mental powers of the expert strategist.
For those without an expert knowledge of cricket, I offer this description by cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta (also a Wodehouse enthusiast) of my favourite bowler, Malcolm Marshall:
But, his craft, built on raw pace, did not end there. It was enhanced by weaponry of the sharpest kind. He could swing it both ways, with his hand rather than movement of the body. This made his swing as difficult to read as the leg-breaks and googlies of the canniest leg-spinner… When his whims willed, he could change his pace, varying between express, lightning and just fast, or even slowing down to medium.
To a mere observer of the game, it comes almost as a surprise to hear Marshall described as a fast bowler. As Sengupta says of Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz : “From far away, sitting outside the fence, he often looked a gentle medium pacer.” Similarly, Malcolm Marshall’s approach always seemed to me (admittedly a child at the time) so effortless and calm that it was almost leisurely.
He just sort of shimmered in.
Wodehouse may have consciously only claimed the Jeeves name, but the character he created exhibits all the characteristics of a fine bowler. Wodehouse was sound on cricket, and I think we can safely assume that Percy Jeeves was something special.
This week, the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree in Percy Jeeves’ honour as part of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, commemorating the centenary of his death at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. He never knew of the character Wodehouse named after him.
The full tragedy of the Somme is beyond our comprehension, particularly for those of us who have been fortunate to live through relatively peaceful times. The story of Percy Jeeves, whose promising life was cut senselessly short, is one of millions. Men were sent to their deaths en masse, buried en masse, and are now remembered en masse by subsequent generations. It is easy to lose sight of them as living, breathing, feeling people — and important to commemorate their lives individually where we can.
Well done to the PG Wodehouse Society, Percy Jeeves’ family, Cheltenham Cricket Festival and Cheltenham College for making this commemoration possible.
My pals in the society, knowing that I was chained to a desk in neighbouring Somerset and no doubt wanting to cheer me up, kindly sent me photos to share via Twitter during the day time. Some of their photos are used here, with kind permission.
More on cricket
For more on Percy Jeeves’ cricketing career, I recommend John Pennington’s recent piece in Cricketworld .
For anyone wishing to continue their cricket education, or simply relive memories of a golden age, I offer the following footage of Malcolm Marshall’s 10 wicket haul at Lords in 1988. In the spirit of the Jeeves, I feel obliged to observe that this match took place before the adoption of garish trousers, besmirched by branding, became widespread.
‘Do cricket trousers matter?’ you may ask.
I think we know Jeeves’ answer to that one.