For some time I’ve been threatening to write a fictional homage to P.G. Wodehouse – a statement that will induce some of you to sadly shake your heads, for there is a school of thought among Wodehouse lovers that such homages ought not be attempted. Stern words have been written on the subject. Alexandra Petri leaps to mind. She makes a sound case for the prosecution in her review of Sebastian Faulks’ homage, ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is worse than bad fanfiction’ (Washington Post), in which she helpfully outlines the world of fanfiction (yes, it’s one word apparently).
I would submit that three kinds of fanfiction [exist]: the sanctioned published kind (spin-off Bonds, Star Wars sequels, many of these aimed at men), the kind you forget is fanfiction (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost) and the kind the word evokes, written on the Internet largely for and by women between 14 and the designated demographic of “50 Shades of Grey.”
However much I might fancy that my own homage might be classed with Paradise Lost, there’s no escaping the fact that I fit smack-bang in the middle of the latter derided demographic. And if that’s not enough to make the self-respecting female writer of homages think twice (or at least get herself a decent set of false whiskers), here’s what La Petri has to say about the motivation and content of fanfiction:
Fanfiction is motivated by the sense that there is something missing. Generally, what is missing is that not enough of the characters are having explicit sex, or that two of the characters that you wish were having sex with one another are not doing so, although in Wodehouse fanfiction this is not always the case. It’s a tribute, but it’s also about filling in the gaps.
The mind boggles! This was certainly not the sort of homage I had mind.
So, not only is fanfiction frowned on by some Wodehouse fans, it seems the last thing the internet needs is another sad old frump churning out homages. What was I thinking? Presumably I ought to be doing something more age and gender appropriate — whatever that might be. Shoe shopping? Planning a diet and skin care regime to address the signs of aging? Reading the aforementioned 50 Shades of Grey? Well, sneer if you will, but writing Wodehouse homages sounds like a much better way to spend my time.
And I am in good company, with at least two dedicated Wodehouse communities at fanfiction.net: a World of Wodehouse’. group and one dedicated to Jeeves stories. Enjoyable tributes to Wodehouse spring up here at WordPress too: try Wooster and Jeeves, ‘Purloined Snuff Box Retrievers’ by Shashi Kadapa, or Tom Travers’ Travails at Totleigh Towers (an homage to P.G.Wodehouse) from the Chronicles of an Orange-Haired Woman! In published form, I highly recommend The Reminiscences of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood by Wodehouse expert N.T.P Murphy, which combines Murphy’s enjoyable prose style with his research into the period of Gally’s days as a young man about town. And I can’t write this piece without mentioning the latest novel by Wodehouse lover, writer and cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta: Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes. It’s not a Wodehouse pastiche, but a great example of the possibilities of quality homage.
Respectful imitation (the sincerest form of flattery), and homage have long been part of literary tradition, just as they are in other art-forms. Many gifted painters have learned their craft by copying old masters; musicians and composers practice their art by replicating music conceived by others. Many pop stars make a substantial living by imitation alone. Unlike these art-forms, it is not possible for writers to earn a living in this way, but there is much that a developing writer can learn from imitating a beloved author. It is also possible for gifted writers with a strong, original idea to successfully and legitimately appropriate another writer’s characters. My favourite example of this is George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.
If we want Wodehouse’s legacy to extend beyond his own work, as an influence on future writers, we must not close our minds to imitation, adaptation and appropriation — as a starting point. This is particularly important given the lack of an emerging ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in current fiction. As the shortlist for the last Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize demonstrates, between Wodehouse and modern comic writing there is a wide and substantial difference. This isn’t censure — I usually enjoy the books shortlisted. But there is little on offer for Wodehouse fans looking for something new and original in the Wodehouse vein. It’s worth remembering that many modern readers have discovered Wodehouse through later authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, both sadly no longer with us. A continuing ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in comic fiction would provide ‘an entry’ to Wodehouse for future readers.
This brings us back to the matter of Sebastian Faulks and his homage. It hasn’t been a universal hit with Wodehouse fans (although we’re not all as scathing as Alexandra Petri). I don’t know that it has brought many new readers to Wodehouse either — certainly no one has cropped up in our Facebook group or any other forum that I follow, claiming to have found Wodehouse through Faulks. But as homages go, it’s a sound effort and I have no objection to Faulks attempting it (you’ll find my review of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells here.), particularly if it makes homages more acceptable — or at least gets the conversation going.
My own homage-in-progress has been an exercise in developing my skills as comic writer by imitating the style of a master. I’ve adopted a similar approach to N.T.P Murphy and G.M Fraser, writing an original piece that avoids Wodehouse’s central characters and settings (there are no Jeeves or Woosters, Psmiths or Emsworths). I think this is where Faulks made his bloomer. We are simply too close to these characters. As imitation Wodehouse, my story has many faults, but as a stepping stone from imitation to original fiction, I have high hopes for it.
I look forward to sharing it with you here in due course, once I’ve finished reading Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes.
Imitating authors seems quite the fashion at present. Unlike Sebastian Faulks, I haven’t the nerve to attempt Wodehouse, but I once attempted a piece in the style of the great satirist Jane Austen. As discussed previously, Austen is an author beloved by many Wodehouse fans so I’d like to share my little effort with you. It’s not Wodehouse, I know, but we’re not sticklers at Plumtopia. This is Liberty Hall!
Every Michaelmas, for some fifteen years past, Mrs Harper and her daughters were invited to visit her uncle, the Rev. James Archer, at Sandford Parsonage in Devonshire. James Archer was, like many elderly widowers, fond of children, and each year he entreated them to extend their visit for as long as Mr Harper could spare them. Mr Harper, having no similar inclination toward the company of his children, readily obliged – to the satisfaction of all, and the great relief of his wife.
Mrs Harper had not been married a twelvemonth before she discovered that the man, with whom she once fancied herself in love, was singularly fixed upon prosperity and disinclined to regard her after securing her twelve thousand pounds. Had they settled among her acquaintance in Devonshire, Louisa Harper might have borne her situation tolerably, but her husband’s partiality for Shropshire – and the society of his own relations – only increased her discontent, and for many years, her children afforded her only happiness.
But the severity of that wretchedness which so afflicted a delicate wife of nineteen, was, in time, reduced to nothing more pitiable than common dissatisfaction. George Harper was prudent with his wife’s money and, on the advice of a trusted friend, made so fortunate an investment as to double their income within six years. This improvement in situation saw the Harpers most admirably regarded by all their acquaintance; they had a fine house, kept the appropriate number of servants, and though Mr Harper did not care for a barouche, they dined in the first circles; thus, for his shortcomings as a husband, he agreeably consoled his wife.
Prosperity had so cheerful an effect on George Harper’s constitution as to remove any objections he might have made to the expense of his wife and daughters visiting Devonshire. Indeed he had long been sensible of the economy to be gained by their lengthy removal, and was now excessively glad to accommodate them. Mrs Harper therefore applied to her uncle:-
‘My dear James,
I was delighted with your account of Sophia Hall’s wedding, and I hope we shall soon have the pleasure of wishing them joy in person – for I write to tell you George has conceded to my wish of visiting Sandford once more. It should not surprise you that I am anxious to see Devonshire again and I am sure you must understand my preference for your company over the society in which I find myself. I know Margaret and Emily long to see you, for you are a great favourite with them as you know. Emily has grown so tall since we last stopped at Sandford that you will hardly know her. We can easily make our visit at Michaelmas, but it would give us so much pleasure if you might agree to have us sooner.
The letter, so artfully composed, brought upon its reader such fond sentiments as had been its design, but it was a note enclosed from Miss Harper that produced the tenderest regard.
You did not tell us in your letter of Mrs Hall’s hat or whether the dresses were silk or muslin. If you did not notice, please ask Miss Gregson to give you the particulars for I would be monstrous glad to know. But do not trouble yourself too much as Mamma says we shall see you soon.
The arrival of Mrs Harper and her daughters before September would cause some little inconvenience to her uncle, who was also expecting a visit from his son, Edward; the parsonage could not accommodate so many, and James Archer spent a week deciding which party to put off. Edward seldom visited his father above twice a year, and James Archer had at that particular time, a most anxious desire to discuss with him a matter of some delicacy. But his good conscience could not permit his unhappy niece and her daughters turned away, and thus, he bid Mrs Harper to visit the parsonage when she chose.
With all the true affection of an uncle, James Archer looked forward to their visit, although by nature, he was disposed to prefer solitude. Even in youth, he had not entered much into society and, as a consequence, had remained unmarried until late in life. His eventual marriage, at the age of forty-two, to Miss Isabelle Thurston of Sussex, greatly astonished his acquaintance. Miss Thurston was remarkable neither by appearance nor accomplishment; her manners were regarded dull. But she had a legacy of fifteen thousand pounds to recommend her, and on this score alone, Mr Archer, whose living was less than tw0 hundred a year, could hardly be regarded her equal.
Miss Thurston’s own relations, most particularly her brother, Sir John Thurston, were not so displeased with the match as might be imagined; for her sickly appearance and nervous disposition had given them such apprehension of her, at nine-and-twenty, ever forming an attachment. Any anxiety, on Sir John’s account, was quickly allayed on his being assured of Mr Archer’s good character and connections. Had either side enquired as to the particulars of their mutual regard, they would have been well satisfied, but as neither did, they did not discover it.
Unlike his poor niece, James Archer enjoyed the felicity of a marriage of similar minds and temperament; the Archer’s were suited in every respect, and shared a tender regard so advantageous to matrimonial contentment. But after the arrival of a son, not two years later, Isabelle Archer took ill and died. Her husband, who had scarcely the spirit to endure his own grief, was unequal to the care of a child, so Edward was removed to the custody of his maternal Uncle, Sir John Thurston, and raised at Marshwood Hall with every advantage that a family of the Thurstons’ wealth and connections could provide him.
The Rev. James Archer lived so modestly within his income that, when young Edward was not ten years old, he could settle a sum of twenty thousand on the child. Though it was not his design, the gesture affected Sir John and Lady Thurston profoundly, securing him forever in their good-opinion, and Lady Thurston herself dispatched an invitation to the parsonage. Any unease on James Archer’s part, of accepting the offer, was overcome only by an earnest desire to see his son, and he made his first visit to Marshwood within a fortnight. Sir John and Lady Thurston were so well satisfied with the father, that they entreated him to visit Marshwood often; thus, James Archer was afforded that attachment, so natural between father and son, he had thought given up forever.