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This February’s Great Wodehouse romances series continues with another guest author, K.V.K. Murthy, known to Facebook friends as James Joyce. His piece takes us on a walk through romantic literary history with Psmith and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith).
A note on the Psmith-Halliday romance
by K.V.K. Murthy
The question of favourites is mostly subjective, and Wodehouse’s vast canvas of miniature romances doubtless provides for each taste. The Gussie-Bassett, Tuppy-Angela, Bingo-Banks and others too numerous to mention are all miniatures :a concatenation (to use Jeeves’ word) of comical situation, Edwardian silly-assness and a bit of fat-headedness thrown in for seasoning. They are the staple of drawing-room one-act plays of a certain generation, given occasional revivals in schools to round off the Annual Day shindig. Barring minor changes in detail, they are all more or less cast from the same block. Wodehouse’s success with that block – or formula – lay in the plasticity of his language: in anybody else’s hands it would have spelt tedium, a tiresomely unfunny business.
But the Psmith-Halliday romance stands out, a class apart, with little in common with the other country-house capers. To begin with, this is not a miniature sketch: it is an epic, a work conceived on classical lines working on classical allusions (‘the fruit of an expensive education,’ as Psmith himself would say). If the whole comedy of errors is Bardic, Psmith’s first encounter with Eve, and his first act of devotion is pleasingly (and appropriately) Elizabethan: Eve’s hat, the rain, the hastily produced umbrella are nothing if not throwbacks to Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous act with his cloak for his Queen(Psmith indeed mentions this parallel to the unfortunate Walderwick).
Psmith’s courting is a stately progress, like a gavotte or apas-de-deux – matched perfectly by a languid stateliness of Wodehousian idiom absent from the miniature romances, which again underscores the Master’s fine ear for symphonic form (the book can actually be visualised as a symphony in four movements: a brief adagio, followed by an allegro ma non troppo, a longish andante, and a final presto).
If the romance begins on an Elizabethan note, it also seems to advance through epochs. In his initial moves to Eve, Psmith’s demeanour has faint courtly echoes of Andrew Marvell, although without the fatalistic overtones (in a bizarre coincidence there is even a Cynthia in one of his poems) – and with this we have stepped quietly and seamlessly into the Restoration. But we don’t linger long here.
Soon, Psmith and Eve decant us, seamlessly again, and charmingly – into the Regency. It doesn’t require too overwrought an imagination to see Psmith as a latter-day Beau Brummell – his fastidious appearance alone would have earned a hat doff from that laced and cravated dandy, to say nothing of his manner of speech- and Eve as a fine Belgravia belle (even if her origins in the book, though genteel, are decidedly not West End).
Whether Wodehouse saw these associations, much less intended them to be seen is a moot point. In any case it is only critics who look for them and find them, as this one did. And I’m sure the Master wouldn’t complain. But there is one other aspect which sets the Psmith-Halliday chronicle apart from all the others: its is a complete novel in the classical sense, in the elegant Jane Austen mould, a perfect marriage of form and content.
It is not unreasonable to assume that, when the assorted dignitaries of Bath bunged off their application for UNESCO World Heritage listing, the fact that P.G. Wodehouse lived here as a boy was pretty high up on their list of reasons. No doubt it weighed heavily with the judges. And yet, in all the historical and literary guides to Bath I find no mention of Wodehouse. Walking tours do not pass his former residence. No miniature of his likeness can be viewed in the Jane Austen or Holbourne Museums. How can this be?
I suspect the answer lies in the rather embarrassing truth (one not so universally acknowledged) that of all the places in which P.G. Wodehouse resided, Bath appears to be the only one in which he did not write. He wrote as a school boy. He wrote in London, and in Emsworth (Hampshire). He wrote in New York and Long Island, in Hollywood and in France. He even continued writing while imprisoned in a succession of German prison camps in 1940-41. When he died in 1975, there was an ‘unfinished manuscript beside his chair’. But in Bath, Somerset, where this prolific life-long writer lived for three years, he produced nothing at all.
By his own admission:
From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)
Over Seventy (1956)
It was in Bath, Somerset, that P.G. Wodehouse spent these loafing years.
P.G Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881 while his mother was visiting England from Hong Kong. Wodehouse’s father was in the colonial Civil Service, and the infant Plum returned to Hong Kong with his mother. In 1883, young Wodehouse returned to England to live with his brothers Peveril and Armine at number 17 Sion Hill, Bath. There the Wodehouse boys lived under the care of Nanny Roper, surrounded by maternal relations (the Deane family) who lived next door and elsewhere in Sion Hill.
Modern day Sion Hill is part of the Cotswold Way public walking trail from Bath to Chipping Camden. It abuts the Bath Approach Golf Course and Victoria Park , with stunning views over the city. Bath’s iconic Lansdown and Royal Crescents are an easy downhill walk away.
The same cannot be said going up the hill, which I foolishly attempted on a bicycle in the rain. It was a mad scheme, particularly when a number 700 omnibus would have sufficed. But as I huffed and puffed and cursed my way up the hill, I reflected that my chosen method of conveyance added a dash of Wodehouse spirit to the occasion, invoking poor Bertie Wooster’s distraught eighteen-mile round trip from Brinkley Court to Kingham in Right Ho, Jeeves.
Arriving at Sion Hill in a dishevelled state of the kind guaranteed to raise even the most broad-minded Bath eyebrows, I abandoned my scheme of knocking on doors with an introductory ‘What Ho!’ Instead, I snapped a few souvenir photographs and soaked up the genteel atmosphere of young Wodehouse’s formative surroundings.
Following Sion Hill as it loops around past local allotments and the Golf Course, the city of Bath appears deceptively distant, an impressionist canvas of blurred green and sun-flecked stone. Here on the hill the soundscape is idyllic too, dominated by the rustle of the trees, not the bustle of town. Jane Austen, who famously disliked Bath, might have preferred it from this distance.
There is a sense of well-heeled serenity here that makes it easy to imagine the young Wodehouse boys at play, over a century ago. The possibilities for exploration are just the sort a growing lad requires before returning home for tea with Nanny Roper.
Some have suggested Miss Roper may have been the model for Wodehouse’s fictional nanny, Nurse Wilks in Portrait of a Disciplinarian. One can readily imagine Miss Roper having good cause to thunder at her charges to ‘WIPE YOUR BOOTS!’
As Mr Mulliner’s nephew Frederick reflected:
The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.
Portrait of a Disciplinarian (in Meet Mr Mulliner) 1927
Frederick Mulliner’s Nurse Wilks is not quite a spent force.
The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round he perceived a different person altogether from the mild and kindly hostess of a moment back. It was plain that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
‘Theideaofyourbringingyournastydirtybootsintomynicecleanhousewithoutwipingthem!’ said Nurse Wilks
Almost 90 years later, P.G. Wodehouse introduced the television adaptation of Portrait of a Disciplinarian as part of the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse series, with Daphne Heard playing Nurse Wilks to perfection.
I left Sion Hill with a contented feeling that Wodehouse’s formative years were spent in such an appealing place, and that these loafing years were not perhaps, so entirely misspent as Wodehouse would have us believe.
The young Plum left Bath in 1886 to attend the Chalet School, in Croydon, Surrey. His literary career began shortly thereafter when, at the age of five, he composed his first poem.
My journey to Sion Hill ended, as these jaunts so often do, with a nourishing beaker at a local pub, where I was chuffed to observe that a table for two had been reserved in the name of Murphy — it provided a fitting moment to toast Norman Murphy who had kindly provided me with the Bath addresses.
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.
“You are evidently fond of mystery plays.”
“I love them.”
“So do I. And mystery novels?”
“Have you read Blood on the Banisters?”
“Oh, yes! I thought it was much better than Severed Throats.”
“So did I,” said Cyril. “Much better. Brighter murders, subtler detectives, crisper clues … better in every way.”
The two twin souls gazed into each other’s eyes. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
P G Wodehouse (‘Strychnine in the Soup’ in Mulliner Nights)
I recently asked the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse’ Facebook community about their favourite authors – who they like to read when not curled up with Plum’s latest. The response was a staggering 370 comments (and counting) listing over 250 different authors. I’ve collated the replies and can now reveal the top 50 authors these Wodehouse lovers named as their favourites. I start today with the top 5.1. Agatha Christie
Christie and Wodehouse had much in common: they were contemporaries, prolific writers, and masters of their respective genres with huge audiences for their work. They both had problems with income tax, and were embroiled in personal scandals that continue to attract media speculation long after their deaths. In their lifetimes they were mutual fans, and Agatha Christie dedicated her 1969 Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party:
“To P. G. Wodehouse — whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”
Wodehouse was an enthusiastic reader of crime stories, as Maggie Schnader discusses in her excellent piece: ‘On P.G. Wodehouse and Crime Fiction: Or, Wodehouse Writes a Thriller?’ , and Wodehouse’s plots are brimming with criminal activity – from burglary, fraud and impersonation through to assault and battery. Mickey Finns abound, and even Jeeves knows how to handle a cosh! Some of Wodehouse’s best ‘crime’ stories have been collected in a volume called Wodehouse on Crime.
With Christie and Wodehouse among the world’s most loved (and translated) writers, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see her feature so highly among Wodehouse readers. She is certainly one of my favourites.
2. Douglas Adams
People sometimes say to me, “Do you ever aspire to write a serious book?” And my practiced glib answer to that is, “No, my aspirations are much greater than that. I aspire to write like P.G. Wodehouse.” (Writing like P.G. Wodehouse)
Douglas Adams was open in his admiration for Wodehouse, calling him ‘the greatest comic writer ever’, and Wodehouse’s influence is clear in his wonderfully funny style. He contributed a Foreword to a modern edition of Wodehouse’s last novel, Sunset at Blandings, which was included in ‘The Salmon of Doubt.’
Master? Great genius? Oh yes. One of the most blissful joys of the English language is the fact that one of its greatest practitioners ever, one of the guys on the very top table of all, was a jokesmith. Though maybe it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Who else would be up there? Austen, of course, Dickens and Chaucer. The only one who couldn’t make a joke to save his life would be Shakespeare….
What Wodehouse writes is pure word music. It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.
Adams’ Introduction to Sunset at Blandings
Many modern readers of Wodehouse (myself included) read Douglas Adams before we discovered Wodehouse. Some have even come to Wodehouse on the strength of Adams’ recommendations – so it’s little wonder that Adams is so highly regarded among the modern Wodehouse-loving public.
3. Terry Pratchett
‘Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.’
Terry Pratchett (Soul Music)
Susan’s feelings on ‘Literature’ are in sympathy with views expressed by many a Wodehouse hero. As a huge Terry Pratchett fan, I was delighted to discover Pratchett is a popular author among fellow Wodehouse fans – and with good reason. There is much to enjoy in Pratchett’s wit and style, and like Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett is a superb creator of strong female characters. The following exchange ( for example) would not be out of place in Wodehouse:
“The female mind is certainly a devious one, my lord.”
Vetinari looked at his secretary in surprise. “Well, of course it is. It has to deal with the male one.”
Terry Pratchett (Unseen Academicals)
Terry Pratchett has also been a fitting winner of the Bollinger Wodehouse prize, awarded to authors who best capture the ‘comic spirit’ of Wodehouse. Many Wodehouse fans would agree!
4. Jane Austen
“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.”
Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility)
Elinor Dashwood might as easily have been speaking to Madeline Bassett, or indeed to thousands of modern females who delight in the romance of Jane Austen, but don’t ‘get’ the jokes. In a world where the commercialisation of Jane Austen has depreciated her work through ill-conceived adaptations for the soupy ‘bosoms and bonnet’ brigade, it is heart-warming to know there are still many – men and women – who read and admire Austen for her sharp, satirical humour.
Douglas Adams, in his introduction to Sunset at Blandings (cited above) also included Austen in his list of greatest writers. Oddly enough, Wodehouse wasn’t a great fan of Jane Austen. One can only presume he started with the ‘wrong’ book.
5. Jerome K. Jerome
“It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at. The heroine of a modern novel is always “divinely tall,” and she is ever “drawing herself up to her full height.” At the “Barley Mow” she would bump her head against the ceiling each time she did this.” Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat)
Wodehouse, who preferred his heroines pint-sized, might well have approved. He would certainly have been familiar with Jerome K. Jerome’s much-loved classic ‘Three Men and a Boat’, which was published in 1889 when young Plum was still in sailor suits. Was Wodehouse a fan? Either the record is silent on the matter, or it’s a record I couldn’t find. Experts please advise.
Three Men in a Boat is a work often cited by Wodehouse readers. I read it following a recommendation from a fellow Plum fan several years ago, and I recall attracting unwanted attention while reading it on The Tube – as my feeble attempts to suppress laughter resulted in a fit of bodily heaving and shaking. Here is a classic excerpt:
I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch – hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into – some fearful, devastating scourge, I know – and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee….I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.
I went to my medical man. He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, and looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather, all for nothing, when I fancy I’m ill; so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now. “What a doctor wants,” I said, “is practice. He shall have me. He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each.” So I went straight up and saw him, and he said:
“Well, what’s the matter with you?”
“I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is NOT the matter with me. I have not got housemaid’s knee. Why I have not got housemaid’s knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I HAVE got.”
These five authors were the indisputable (and deserving) favourites of our group, but if you think these choices reflect rather predictable reading tastes, think again! The reading lists of Wodehouse fans are incredibly diverse, and I look forward to sharing more with you over the coming days and weeks.
You might also like to join the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse‘ Facebook community (which is just one of many excellent Wodehouse groups) as well our new Facebook bookclub ‘The Wood Hills Literary Society’. We look forward to meeting you.
All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.
The world of literature is blessed with many brilliantly conceived and well-remembered beginnings, celebrated in fitting tributes across the blogoshpere. Inspired by Albert Camus’s appreciation of the ridiculous, I have been contemplating great beginnings in humorous fiction.
Terry Pratchett, the modern master of intelligent ridiculousness, begins Hogfather on a similar theme.
Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.
The story so far:
In the beginning the universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
One of my favourite beginnings comes from P.G Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith.
At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.
Wodehouse was a true master of the ridiculous and, despite what you may may have heard, dished out the treatment to all classes and political persuasions in equal measure. In Pigs Have Wings, he begins below stairs.
Beach the butler, wheezing a little after navigating the stairs, for he was not the streamlined young under-footman he had been thirty years ago, entered the library of Blandings Castle, a salver piled with letters in his hand.
One of the most famous first line of all time, and another favourite, comes from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
A provocatively ridiculous beginning from another author who delighted in the absurdity of human society. Jane Austen is shamefully regarded by too many as a mere romance novelist when she deserves pride of place among satirists. Perhaps this is because audiences are more familiar with (some) film and television adaptations that replace much of the humour with cleavage and bonnets.
So ends my beginning. In quoting the beginnings of others, I’m conscious that I have offered very little in the way of original thought, but I think it’s important to always begin with respect for what has gone before.