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Wodehouse and the melancholy beard

P.G.Wodehouse, creator of dapper drones like Bertie Wooster (who once wrote an article for Milady’s Boudoir on ‘What the What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing’) was not a beard lover. His leading men were clean shaven, taking to false beards only in times of crisis.

Writing of his own experiences in a German internment camp during WWII, Wodehouse said:

A lot of us grew beards. Not me. What I felt was that there is surely enough sadness in life without going out of one’s way to increase it by sprouting a spade-shaped beard. I found it a melancholy experience to watch the loved features of some familiar friend becoming day by day less recognizable behind the undergrowth. A few fungus-fanciers looked about as repulsive as it is possible to look, and one felt a gentle pity for the corporal whose duty is was to wake them in the morning. What a way to start one’s day!

O’Brien, one of the sailors, had a long Assyrian beard, falling like a cataract down his chest, and it gave me quite a start when at the beginning of the summer he suddenly shaved, revealing himself as a spruce young fellow in the early twenties. I had been looking on him all the time as about twenty years my senior, and only my natural breeding had kept me from addressing him as ‘Grandpop’.

  Wodehouse in a letter to Bill Townend, printed in Performing Flea

"PerformingFlea" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PerformingFlea.jpg#mediaviewer/File:PerformingFlea.jpgThe origin of Wodehouse’s anti-beard prejudice is unclear. None of his biographers have, to my knowledge, produced a hirsute Aunt or bewhiskered school-master who might be held responsible. And while Wodehouse might not have been an actual pagonophobe, his views on the subject are remarkably consistent.

Wodehouse returns to melancholia of the beard in his masterly short story, ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert.

His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair, but his eyes were visible through the undergrowth, and it seemed to Cuthbert that there was an expression in them not unlike that of a cat in a strange backyard surrounded by small boys. The man looked forlorn and hopeless, and Cuthbert wondered whether he had had bad news from home.

Looking at a photo of that other Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, one begins to understand Wodehouse’s point.

The memorably bearded Leo Tolstoy.                                     Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love Tolstoy — Anna Karenina is one of my favourite novels — so it’s some consolation to know that this depressed looking soul may have read Wodehouse! I was thrilled to find Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy’s account of Ian Spoat’s discovery that Tolstoy had a copy of The Captain (magazine in which Wodehouse’s early stories were published) on his bedside table.

For Wodehouse on the moustache, revisit one of my first posts at Plumtopia: Movember, and the psychology of the upper lip.
HP

Perfect Nonsense

In December, I had the delightful privilege of seeing Perfect Nonsense on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For anyone not already aware, Perfect Nonsense is a stage adaptation (by David and Robert Goodale) of The Code of the Woosters. It’s been well received by West End audiences since opening in 2013, and is now touring the UK until mid-2015 (see the official site for details). If you’re planning to see the show and don’t want to read my review, look away now.  

The Goodale brothers’ clever adaptation sticks closely to Wodehouse’s original story and delicious dialogue, ensuring a production that is pure Wodehouse. But Perfect Nonsense is not a mere staging of the book. The Goodales have added their own comic twist by having all the characters played by just three actors.

CodeOfTheWoostersThe play opens with Bertie Wooster reclining in a favourite armchair. He begins to tell us the sorry tale of his recent entanglement with Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, old pop Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode and an eighteenth-century cow-creamer. Wodehouse fans in the audience will know where this is going. To assist in the retelling, Bertie enlists the help of Jeeves, and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) to ‘play’ the other characters in his narrative.

This ingenious strategy adds something new for Wodehouse fans, without detracting from Wodehouse’s original work it is also great fun. Jeeves and Seppings undergo an exhausting repertoire of inventive costume changes, in which lampshades become hats and curtains become dresses. The hard-working Seppings is, at one point, dressed as Aunt Dahlia inside a giant Spode suit. John Gordon Sinclair and Robert Goodale were utterly entertaining and memorable as Jeeves and Seppings (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield in the original cast).

Bertie’s role is physically less demanding, with no elaborate costume or character changes to contend with, but requires a delicate balance of jovial stupidity. It’s not an exact science, but Wodehouse fans can be unforgiving when actors get it wrong. Stephen Mangan was well received in the original cast, and I thought Joel Sams did a sound job (as cover for James Lance) in Bath.

Inventive sets were a highlight of this production, with two revolving interiors that cunningly transformed from Bertie’s London flat into an antique shop in the Brompton Road, various locations around Totleigh Towers, and even accommodated a thrilling drive in Bertie’s two-seater. Set changes were comically incorporated into the theatrics: Jeeves twiddles a handle on the wall to change the painting over the fireplace, while Bertie jiggles paper flames at the end of two sticks. The dog Bartholomew also makes notable appearances. These small details added to the joy of the performance, without detracting from the complicated storyline or Wodehouse’s original dialogue.  

No doubt a Wodehouse purist, for such creatures I regret to say exist, would find something in this adaptation to pick on. It is often argued that Wodehouse ought not be adapted at all – that it somehow sullies the perfection of his art. But while comic prose was certainly his forte, Wodehouse’s versatility as a writer included a long association with the theatre, predominantly as a lyricist, but also as a writer and critic. As an added bonus, a reminder of Wodehouse’s theatrical career is provided by Tony Ring in the Perfect Nonsense programme.

During his lifetime, P.G. Wodehouse demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different forms and genres, and to collaborate with others. Intelligent adaptations like Perfect Nonsense remind us of this wider legacy, and remain welcome by fans who simply cannot get enough of his stuff.

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Thanks to regular readers who contacted me during my recent absence from Plumtopia. Awfully decent of you!  Results of the Wodehouse Survey are currently being collated into a paper for the 2015 convention and will be shared here in due course.

Pip Pip!

Honoria

Jeeves and the Aspiring Novelist

VeryGoodJeevesI’m an aspiring novelist myself. In between posts here, I bash away at the keyboard, developing my own half-baked comedy adventures. I’ve not attempted Wodehouse (yet), but I was delighted and impressed with this piece by ‘SloopJonB’. He captures the tone of Wodehouse very well, and his Jeeves makes some astute observations about modern writing. Enjoy!

Jeeves and Worcestershire

PGW RingForJeevesWhat Ho! What Ho! What Ho! For all the budding Anatoles our there, I heartily suggest trying this recipe from ‘The Book Cook’. Her blog is terrific fun!

When I was a young girl, I would watch my dad laughing out loud as he read P.G. Wodehouse. Wanting to be in on the joke, I would flip through the pages of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, laughing out loud in imitation even though I didn’t understand what was going on. As I got older and both my love of literature and sense of humor developed, my enjoyment of the books became authentic. Wodehouse’s writing style is light and his character descriptions are hilarious, and because of that, Jeeves and Wooster have long been my favorite literary duo.

Hollandaise perfectly describes the relationship between Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. This sauce has so much potential to go wrong – too much heat and it can split, and too little heat and it won’t get cooking. It takes the sharp attention of the chef’s eye to keep it together. In each…

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Delightful Characters of the Canine kind in Plumsville

By Walescot (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What Ho, What Ho! I was delighted to return from holiday to discover this piece, from fellow Wodehouse lover Ashokbhatia. Happy reading!

ashokbhatia

Every dog has his day. Well, on the occasion of Dogs’ Day, it is time to pay a tribute to some characters of the canine kind who regale us with their antics in Plumsville.dog-day

Their roles are not confined to the traditional kind which involve hunting, herding or pulling loads. They are never a part of a paw patrol handled by a rozzer. Instead, they have a healthy contempt for those in the uniform. They may not be indefatigable detectives out to assist a Sherlock Holmes in sniffing out crucial leads in a mysterious murder case, but they shape the love affairs of quite a few young men who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

In Plumsville, they enjoy motherly affections of the delicately nurtured. Their misdemeanors are overlooked. Their acts of omission are energetically defended, annoying the officers of the law. If taken into custody, prompt steps are taken…

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‘Goodbye to All Cats’

Wodehouse with catI am looking forward to reading George Simmers’ chapter on Wodehouse and the Great War. For now though, here is what he has to say on the subject of cats.

Great War Fiction

I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection of critical essays on P. G. Wodehouse. (I’ll be sure to relay full information here when there is firm news about publication date and details.)

My piece is on Wodehouse and the Great War – which might sound to some people like one of those thesis subjects imagined by parodists of academia, like ‘Jane Austen and the French Revolution’ , but looking at Wodehouse in relation to the War really does reveal some quite interesting things about his early work, and his attitude to his writing . I think so, anyway.

The publisher’s reader seems fairly happy with my chapter, too, but sent one little note. Did I know ‘Goodbye to All Cats?’

I didn’t, but the echo of Graves in the title had me interested. A bit of quick research revealed that this was a story in the 1936 collection Young…

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The four seasons of Wodehouse

Reading this marvellous line in Carry on Jeeves:

‘It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away.’ (in Jeeves Takes Charge)

reminded me of this previous piece on Wodehouse through the seasons.

Plumtopia

1939 Uncle Fred in the SpringtimeIt is commonly understood that, far from representing a bygone age, P.G. Wodehouse created an  idealised England that never really existed. Personally, I remain determined to find fragments of Wodehouse in reallife, and last October I immigrated to England in search of Plumtopia.

I arrived in time for a glorious Autumn –  my favourite season. Surprisingly, Wodehouse sets only one novel in Autumn (that I can recall).

I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.
‘Good evening, Jeeves,’
‘Good morning, sir’
This surprised me.
‘Is it morning?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’
‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Season of what?’
‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’

The Code of the Woosters (1938)

Autumn 2012 in Berskhire

After a stunning Autumn – mellow and…

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The Wipers Times (and Wodehouse?)

In my earlier piece, ‘Suffering from Cheerfulness’, I suggested that Wodehouse’s infamous radio broadcasts should be considered as part of a wider tradition of British humour in the face of adversity, particularly during wartime. My inspiration for writing was a volume of selected pieces from The Wipers Times. So I was delighted to discover another piece on this subject at the excellent blog: ‘Great War Fiction’. This one considers the possible influence of Wodehouse on the Wipers Times.

HP

Great War Fiction

Next week on BBC TV there’s a promising-looking film about The Wipers Times. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are the authors.

It will tell the story of how they found a printing press under the blasted ramparts of Ypres, and put it to use to create a very witty paper.  I Like Newman’s comments on the aim of the film:

I imagine viewers might be expecting to see a tragic tale of lives lost in a futile war, and we’ve had a lot of films like that and some of them are very, very good. But this is another side to this story of the First World War, and I think it’s a particularly British thing that we tend to laugh in adversity and this is about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. It shows how a group of men managed to survive the First World War…

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Wodehouse and Wittgenstein

The philosopher most often associated with Wodehouse is surely Spinoza. We know Jeeves preferred him to Nietzsche, whom he famously proclaimed to be ‘fundamentally unsound’ (Carry On, Jeeves). Jeeves’ views on the philosopher Wittgenstein are less clear, but it seems Wittgenstein was fundamentally sound in his appreciation for P.G. Wodehouse – as discussed in this lovely piece by George Simmers. My thanks to George Simmers for his kind permission to reblog here.

HP

Great War Fiction

During my Dornford Yates talk at the Newcastle Great War and Popular Culture conference earlier this year, I got an unexpected laugh (as well as some chuckles I’d planned for). It was when I quoted Wittgenstein saying:

I couldn’t understand the humour in Journey’s End.… I wouldn’t want to joke about a situation like that.”

I suppose people thought I was having a dig at humourless Teutons, or over-serious philosophers, but I didn’t intend this, actually.

In fact, Wittgenstein seems to have had a serviceable enough sense of humour when not in his most intellectually savage moods, and was a fan of P.G.Wodehouse (full details can be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein : Personal Recollections, ed. Rhees, Rush, Oxford 1981).

According to the memoir, Wittgenstein named Wodehouse’s Honeysuckle Cottage as the funniest thing he’d ever read. Not perhaps one of P.G.’s most famous works, it’s one of the…

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NOT SO FUNNY

the true life romance of a Wodehouse lover

In keeping with the current Plumtopia theme of Wodehouse and romance, I am delighted to share this piece by ‘wiseguy from the east ‘. It is the touching, true story of his own romance, and how P.G. Wodehouse helped his wooing.

I am keen to share as many stories from Wodehouse readers as possible in this series. Please see my introductory piece on the Great Wodehouse Romances for details.

HP

Idyll Dreams of an Idle Fellow

Recently at a friend’s house I met a stand up comic, who strongly resembled the laughing Buddha figurines. He was brilliant in his repartees and had all of us in tears with his quips. He was accompanied by a very attractive young woman, obviously in love with him, and we learnt that she was defying family pressures to be his muse and life mate.

I offered them a piece of unasked advice, sharing a warning that my wife has been giving my daughters.

To explain this shared wisdom, I have to tell a story.

In my teens I was a dark skinny bespectacled gangly boy, shy and nerdy, enthusiastic but indifferent at games, and absolutely addicted to reading. This did not make me popular among the boys of my peer group, and the girls I liked were all fictional. For self preservation amongst the denizens of the jungle that is…

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