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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.
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.
It’s a pretty special week for P.G. Wodehouse fans. June 26th will mark 100 years since the first Blandings story, Something Fresh, was serialised in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’. It was published in book form later that year (in the U.S. as Something New).
If Wodehouse had not gone on to write more Blandings stories, Something Fresh would be highly-regarded as a fine comic novel. Aside from the memorable central romance between detective fiction writer Ashe Marson and the enterprising Joan Valentine, Wodehouse gives us all the subplots and subterfuge we expect from a Blandings adventure.
And as the work that introduced characters like Lord Emsworth, Freddie Threepwood, Rupert Baxter, and Beach, Something Fresh holds a special place in many Wodehouse lovers’ hearts. It’s one of the books I often return to. The title Something Fresh seems particularly apt because the story leaps from the page, as fresh to me as when I first read it over twenty years ago.
To say that Baxter’s heart stood still would be medically inexact. The heart does not stand still. Whatever the emotions of its owner, it goes on beating. It would be more accurate to say that Baxter felt like a man taking his first ride in an express elevator who has outstripped his vital organs by several floors and sees no immediate prospect of their ever catching up with him again.
It might equally have been titled ‘Something Special’ because there is an extra ‘something’ in this novel that arguably marked a turning point in his work. Perhaps there’s an added injection of happiness in there too — it was while writing Something Fresh that P.G. Wodehouse met and married Ethel Wayman.
He recalls this time in his Preface to a later penguin edition:
Half-way through it I got married (and have been ever since) to an angel in human form who had seventy-five dollars. As I had managed to save fifty, we were fairly well fixed financially, but we felt we could do with a bit more, and by what I have always looked on as a major miracle we got it. My agent, who must have been an optimist to end all optimists, sent the story to the Saturday Evening Post and George Horace Lorimer, its world famous editor, bought it as a serial and paid me the stupefying sum of $3,500 for it, at that time the equivalent of seven hundred gleaming golden sovereigns. I was stunned. I had always known in a vague sort of way that there was money like $3,500 in the world, but I had never expected to touch it. If I was a hundred bucks ahead of the game in those days, I thought I was doing well.
After an already impressive early career, P.G. Wodehouse had arrived!
For a full and informed review of Something Fresh, I recommend the excellent Bully — one of the first and best Wodehouse related blogs. It contains plot-spoilers, so you may prefer to read Something Fresh first.
Finally, a reminder.
It’s not too late to enter my fabulous competition: win a copy of 2015 Wodehouse prize winner ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ by Alexander McCall Smith.
To enter, just read my previous post respond with your answer to the question: Who is your favourite large/fat/generously proportioned Wodehouse character and why?
Competition closes July 12th 2015
Yesterday, I pondered the rather baffling discovery that some of Wodehouse’s male characters have been named literary sex symbols. This subject can hardly be taken seriously. As the critic Emsworth notes, sex was never allowed to creep into Wodehouse’s world.
- Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off. Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.
Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950) characters use…
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The struggle between Prater’s cat and Prater’s cat’s conscience was short, and ended in the hollowest of victories for the former. The conscience really had no sort of chance from the beginning.
The Tabby Terror (1902) published in Tales of St Austin’s (1903)
P.G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were devoted animal lovers who donated generously to establish the Long Island Bide-a-Wee animal sanctuary. But Wodehouse was not above casting the occasional cat as chief miscreant when it suited him.
His black heart was hidden by a sleek coat of tabby fur, which rendered stroking a luxury. His scheming brain was out of sight in a shapely head.
The Tabby Terror
I was attacked in my own kitchen by a not dissimilar animal, this very a.m – a large, Churchillian beast with a decidedly high opinion of himself. He insisted upon the best chair from the moment of his arrival, and I expect will soon take to smoking cigars. Mr Mulliner outlines the attitude nicely in The Story of Webster:
Cats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods.
The Story of Webster inMulliner Nights (1933)
My nominee for Most Fiendish Exhibit in the Wodehouse Cat Show must surely be Percy, from the stable of Mrs Pulteney-Banks. He appears in another story from the same volume, which leads one to wonder if Wodehouse had some cat troubles of his own at the time.
(H)e was pure poison. Orange of body and inky black of soul, he lay stretched out on the rug, exuding arrogance and hate… One could picture him stealing milk from a sick tabby.
Cats Will Be Cats in Mulliner Nights (1933)
Fortunately for the Mulliners, the cat Webster is on hand to dispose of Percy, for it is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Few mortals succeed in their efforts to outwit a Wodehousian cat, though many fools have tried:
At tea on the following evening the first really serious engagement of the campaign took place. The cat strolled into the team room in the patronising way characteristic of his kind, but was heavily shelled with lump sugar, and beat a rapid retreat… From that moment its paw was against every man, and the tale of the things it stole is too terrible to relate in detail. Like Death in the poem, it knocked at the doors of the highest and the lowest alike. Or rather, it did not exactly knock. It came in without knocking.
The Tabby Terror
A friendly war between species is one thing. Almost natural you might say, especially when careless authors start throwing cats, boys and sardines together. But Wodehouse takes a firm stance on anyone who oversteps the mark. Our sympathies can never rest easily with The Man Who Disliked Cats, who begins by flinging them about hotels, and works his way up to having them destroyed. He fails, loses the girl, and becomes a mere shadow of his former self.
He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle; of one whom the clenched fist of Fate has smitten beneath the temperamental third waistcoat button.
The Man Who Disliked Cats in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories (1914)
And on that note, I must go. The malevolent feline of my household, of whom I spoke earlier, has returned and is giving me a meaningful eye. I’m sitting in his chair – and the consequences of thwarting this dictatorial example of his species are more than I can bare.
This piece is dedicated to my beloved cat Terry who recently passed away, leaving a huge hole in our hearts – and a cold spot on my pillow where a little cat used to be.