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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.
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 your adventure with Wodehouse’s best known characters in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). It’s not a novel, but a fine collection of short stories –many of them classics– from the very start of the saga. If you prefer to start with a novel, try 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: Blandings Castle is arguably literature’s finest Utopia. Or as Evelyn Waugh put it: ‘the gardens of Blandings Castle are the original gardens of Eden from which we are all exiled.’ Dip your toe into Paradise with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New), or the classic short story collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935).
“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.”
‘The Custody of the Pumpkin’ in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere
Psmith: Rupert or Ronald Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp) is a favourite among Wodehouse lovers. Start with his first appearance in the brilliant school stories, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you prefer an adult novel, his final outing in Leave it to Psmith (1923) is wonderful (and won’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
Ukridge: He’s the character Wodehouse readers love to hate — a blighter and a scoundrel to be sure, but his adventures are comedy gold. Start with the short story collection Ukridge (1924) or the novel Love Among the Chickens (revised in 1921).
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: Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred is a dapper old gent with a twinkle in his eye, and a penchant for adventure — a man who can adopt an alias at the drop of a hat, and frequently does. Start with his first appearance in the short story, Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), in the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save this treat for later if you can.
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: Wodehouse was a master of the short story format, and would be classed alongside greats like Chekhov if he hadn’t been a humourist. The Mulliner stories are outstanding. Start anywhere you like, but Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927) is the first. The Oldest Member golf stories are also terrific –try 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 Wodehouse’s ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some are connected by recurring characters. There are plenty of novels to choose from, but if you’re chronologically inclined, some good examples from his early period include Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) and The Small Bachelor (1927).
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 (or know where to start, unless you’re lucky), but they should be able to order books for you. 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. 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. It’s also 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.
N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.
‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’
Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.
The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.
The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.
There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.
(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)
Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.
There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.
We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.
My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.
Best wishes to you all for 2016!
Psmith in the City
One of the minor curses of my day-to-day existence is being habitually late for work — not through personal tardiness, I hasten to add. Mine is not the life of Joss Weatherby (Quick Service), who oversleeps after late nights at the gambling table, or Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (Barmy in Wonderland) who goes on toots with Mervyn Potter. No, I go to bed at an early hour and rise regularly at 5.00am to write.
Dragging myself away from writing is a struggle — I sympathise with Nicholas Jules St Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne (French Leave) who cannot drag himself from cafes to attend his work at the bureau —
What happens? I wake. I rise. I shave. I bathe. I breakfast. I take my hat and cane. I say to myself ‘And now for the bureau.’ I go out into the street, and at once I am in a world of sunshine and laughter and happiness, a world in which it seems ridiculous to be shut up in a stuffy office with the senile Soupe and the homicidal Letondu. And all of a sudden. . . how it happens I couldn’t tell you . . . I find myself in a chair on the boulevard, a cigarette between my lips, coffee and a cognac in front of me. It’s a most mysterious state of affairs.’
Unlike ‘Old Nick’, who cuts an ‘…elegant figure dressed in the extreme of fashion’, my outer crust is not my priority. The best I can manage is a hasty approximation of office wear, with hair and face presented pretty much as God intended them –presumably as some sort of joke. I may never be admired as a testament to English womanhood, but the plus side of maintaining this sort of public image is that it requires very little upkeep. A simple donning of shirt, trousers and shoes is all it takes. In a former workplace, I was known as ‘the girl with wet hair’. I’ve even been known to throw a dress over my writing clothes to save time. But I am always ready to leave home at the required hour.
It is at this point in the morning routine that I wake the half-portion and complete an exercise known to parents everywhere as ‘the school run’. My daughter gets herself ready without a fuss (most of the time). We walk to school together and wait at the gates amongst a sea of families, ready to storm the Bastille when the gate keeper arrives.
At precisely 8:31am, or possibly 8:32 if the gatekeeper has been on a a toot with Mervyn Potter, I am ready to begin my commute. I dash to the bus stop with an earnest vigour that would make Psmith proud.
Whose is that form sitting on the steps of the bank in the morning, waiting eagerly for the place to open? It is the form of Psmith, the Worker. Whose is that haggard, drawn face which bends over a ledger long after the other toilers have sped blithely westwards to dine at Lyons’ Popular Cafe? It is the face of Psmith, the Worker.’
Psmith in the City
This keenness on my part goes unseen in the workplace. What colleagues notice is the empty desk at 9:00am. There is no martyred p. (as Archibald Mulliner puts it) where the martyred p. should be. When I open the door to the cosy little crypt we like to call our office, I am met by the dazed expressions of workers who began their toil beneath the artificial light a good deal earlier. I offer an embarrassed “Sorry, I’m late,” but it sounds hollow even to my ears after the 635th consecutive occasion.
The disciplinarians among you will no doubt be tutting to yourselves, feeling that it’s time I changed my attitude.”Martyred ‘p.’s due to toil in crypts at 9.00am should begin to toil at 9.00am,” you say, –no doubt from force of habit. Mr. Duff, Ham magnate and Managing Director of Duff and Trotter, felt the same way about Joss Weatherby in Quick Service. Old Nick’s director at the troisieme bureau of the Ministry de Dons et Legs in French Leave would agree. J.G. Anderson, employer of Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps in Barmy in Wonderland would be banging the desk by now. I suggest you do it too –it’ll make you feel better, and the exercise is no doubt beneficial for someone in your position.
There is little I can do about my morning routine, but re-reading Quick Service (and what a fantastic book that is) has prompted me to revise my attitude instead. As so often happens when reading Wodehouse, I stumbled across a passage so ripe with wisdom and good example that I was encouraged to change my ways almost immediately. The passage pertains to a disagreement between the aforementioned Mr. Duff and his employee Joss Weatherby, who has breezed into the offices of Duff and Trotter several hours later than expected.
“You’re late!” he boomed,
“Not really,” said Joss.
“What the devil do you mean, not really?”
“A man like me always seems to be later than he is. That is because people sit yearning for him. They get all tense, listening for his footstep, and every minute seems an hour…”
Wodehouse does it again! A mere four lines of instructive prose and I am a new woman. No more feeling like a worm uttering pathetic apologies, if indeed that’s what worms do. Henceforth, I shall breeze into the office with a benevolent smile, in the hope that my arrival injects a dash of sunshine into the lives of others. I expect this new attitude will bring me a sort of warm, inner glow that will last, oh, at least an hour I should think.
Thanks again, P.G. Wodehouse!
Reginald, mark you, whose normal batting style was a sort of cross between hop-scotch, diabolo, and a man with gout in one leg trying to dance the Salomé Dance.
Reginald’s Record Knock
‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in 1909. When I encountered the story in Murray Hedgcock’s excellent collection Wodehouse at the Wicket (1997), it instantly struck a chord. You see, my first love, long before I discovered P.G. Wodehouse, was cricket. When I was young, my parents would drop me at the Adelaide Oval (they having no interest in the game) where I would spend the day watching cricket and keeping score in a little notebook. My greatest wish was to play professional cricket, but tragically, like Reginald Humby, I was an indifferent cricketer:
‘When a boy at school he once made nine not out in a house match, but after that he went all to pieces. His adult cricket career was on the one-match one-ball principle. Whether it was that Reginald hit too soon at them or did not hit soon enough, whether it was that his bat deviated from the dotted line which joined the two points A and B in the illustrated plate of the man making the forward stroke in the ‘Hints on Cricket’ book, or whether it was that each ball swerved both ways at once and broke a yard and a quarter, I do not know. Reginald rather favoured the last theory.’
Unlike Reginald, who we shall return to anon, my story is a painful one. As a young girl in 1970s Australia, finding an opportunity to play cricket was challenge enough. I joined the school team of course, but was never allowed to bat or bowl in the nets at practice. My duties were restricted to fetching wayward balls. My name was usually omitted when the weekly team notice was posted, although occasionally I was named 12th and my parents would drop me at some far-flung suburban ground to spend a day watching others play.
I was named in the first eleven once, when an outbreak of cholera or dengue fever gave the coach no other choice. He put me at the bottom of the batting order and sent me to field in the car park, where I could not adequately return the ball. To my lasting shame, I also dropped a catch. Wodehouse knew this feeling, which he described in the poem ‘Missed’:
Oh ne’er, if I live to a million,
Shall I feel such a terrible pang.
From the seats in the far-off pavilion
A loud yell of ecstasy rang.
By the handful my hair (which is auburn)
I tore with a wrench from my thatch,
And my heart was seared deep with a raw burn
At the thought that I’d foozled that catch.
Missed (1903) (Full text at www.madameulalie.org)
Batting last, I made four not out in the last two desperate overs of our innings, but my poor showing in the field reinforced the coach’s prejudices and I was never picked again.
As a young woman, no longer dependent on the benevolence of adults, I worked hard to learn the game with the assistance of talented cricketing friends. When no friend was to hand, I spent hours alone in the local nets, bowling at an empty wicket. I played indoor cricket several times a week, wrote match reports for a newsletter, and enjoyed every opportunity for a social game. As a bowler, I developed a knack for ousting over-confident batsmen. Their faces would light up like a child’s at Christmas when I came on to bowl, for in addition to being a girl, I was also short, pudgy and wobble-breasted. The decent players would pretend not to have noticed, but more ordinary batsmen looked on me as their big chance – like Wodehouse’s Reginald when he discovers Blagdon is bowling.
The sight sent a thrill through Reginald. He had seen Blagdon bowl at the nets, but he had never dared to hope that he might bat against him in a match. Exigencies of space forbid a detailed description of Blagdon’s bowling. Suffice to say that it was a shade inferior as bowling to Reginald’s batting as batting.
And later, when Reginald faces Westaway:
Scarcely had Reginald recovered from the pleasurable shock of finding Blagdon bowling at one end when he was amazed to find that Westaway was bowling at the other. Critics had often wrangled warmly as to the comparative merits of Blagdon and Westaway as bowlers; some thought that Blagdon had it, others that Westaway was the more putrid of the two; a third party called it a dead heat.
The prospect of my bowling evoked similar joy in opposing batsmen. Even before my first ball, hitherto unpromising players would be seen scoping-out gaps in the field and practicing hook shots in the air. By the time I waddled up to release my ball (which I insisted was medium pace, however slow the act of delivery appeared) the batsman would have invariably run out of patience and danced up the pitch to meet the anticipated long-hop or full toss he had mentally prepared to score off. I was wise to this and never pitched short. The over-confident amateur would find himself stranded a long way from home with no time to make alternative plans for unexpected deliveries. Every wicket claimed felt like a great triumph.
In describing Reginald Humby’s emotions on the occasion of his unexpected century, Wodehouse shows us the depth of human feeling he was capable of bunging into his art.
The ordinary batsman, whose average always pans out at the end of the season between the twenties and the thirties, does not understand the whirl of mixed sensations which the really incompetent cricketer experiences on the rare occasions when he does notch a few. As ball follows ball, and he does not get out, a wild exhilaration surges through him, followed by a sort of awe as if he were doing something wrong, even irreligious. Then all these yeasty emotions subside, and are blended into one glorious sensation of grandeur and majesty, as of a giant among pygmies.
Buoyed by minor successes with the ball, I decided to join a cricket club, where I was permitted to carry the drinks and keep score for F Grade (or perhaps it was Q grade). It was a starting point, and the players welcomed me, a 19 year old girl with limited cricketing experience, more warmly than I expected. A little too warmly in fact. It became quickly and painfully clear that they did not take my interest in playing cricket seriously — I was considered something of a groupie, ‘hanging around’ the team presumably in order to bed them.
The team in question were arguably the most unattractive assortment of male specimens ever gathered together on a field; lecherous gout-ridden has-beens, beer swilling could-have-beens, and arrogant thought-they-weres. The only player whose personality would not make his own grandmother wince was the wicket-keeper, who was permanently stoned. Their collective lack of hygiene and inability to keep whites white (members opting instead for a shade of fungal yellow to match their teeth) would have repelled even the staunchest admirer. The idea that I would set my heart on bedding a team of cricketers is insulting; that I would then proceed to select this bunch of degenerates, is astonishing. And yet, this deluded idea they undoubtedly had.
Encountered on the field, they would have given Wodehouse’s Psmith, always sensitive to vulgarity, a shock from which he might not have recovered. As he confessed to Mike:
The last time I played in a village cricket team match I was caught at point by a man in braces. It would have been madness to risk another such shock to my system. My nerves are so exquisitely balanced that a thing of that sort takes years off my life.
Mike and Psmith (1909)
If our team had contained a man in braces, it would have raised the tone considerably and helped draw the eye away from the fungal yellows.
It has now been over twenty years since I played the game and reading Wodehouse on cricket is the closest I get to capturing the enthusiasm I once held for it. Every so often I grow wistful and think about returning to the game, but if the chaps couldn’t accommodate me in my prime, they’re unlikely to indulge me in flabby middle-age. Women do play cricket these days – and good luck to them – but women’s cricket is highly competitive, for skilled and serious athletes. There is no tradition of laid-back social cricket, where women of advanced years and limited ability can combine their love for the game with a long lunch break and a few pints — like Reginald Humby’s club, The Hearty Lunchers.
They belong to the school of thought which holds that the beauty of cricket is that, above all other games, it offers such magnificent opportunities for a long drink and a smoke in the shade. The Hearty Lunchers do not take their cricket in that spirit of deadly and business-like earnest which so many people consider is spoiling the game.
A Hearty Luncher who has been given out caught at the wicket does not explain on arriving at the pavilion that he was nowhere near the ball, and that the umpire has had a personal grudge against him since boyhood. No, he sinks into a deck chair, removes his pads, and remarks that if anyone was thinking of buying him a stone ginger with the merest dash of gin in it, now is his time.
The Hearty Lunchers don’t mind that Reginald can’t bat, they make room for him anyway, giving ‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ a special place in my heart.
In a wonderful twist, Reginald’s betrothed Margaret Melville is also revealed as a cricket lover who plays in ladies matches. Wodehouse depicts her enthusiasm for the game as genuine, perfectly natural – even admirable. Nothing sordid or unseemly is suggested when we learn Margaret regularly attends the Chigley Heath matches, with a crowd ‘…mainly composed of small boys and octogenarians…’ The fact that Margaret plays in ladies matches also suggests the presence of other lady cricketers — some 17 years before England had a Women’s Cricket Association. Once again it’s worth observing that Wodehouse’s ‘treatment’ of women betters not only his contemporaries, but often our own.
While writing this piece has brought back some painful memories, Wodehouse provides balm for such wounds. Returning to the poem ‘Missed’:
Ah, the bowler’s low, querulous mutter
Points loud, unforgettable scoff!
Oh, give me my driver and putter!
Henceforward my game shall be golf.
If I’m asked to play cricket hereafter,
I am wholly determined to scratch.
Life’s void of all pleasure and laughter;
I bungled the easiest catch.
The world of cricket may have lost me, but perhaps it’s not too late to try my hand at golf.
When Bertie Wooster is brimming with joy on a fine spring morning in The Inimitable Jeeves, he says:
‘In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.’
It is one of many Wodehouse references to the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (from the poem Locksley Hall). In Right Ho, Jeeves, Aunt Dahlia finds a bound volume of Tennyson just the thing for flinging at nephews, and although Bertie claims not to read Tennyson by choice, he is familiar enough with Tennyson’s stuff to quote him often. The following lines from Tennyson’s In memoriam, for example, will be familiar to all who have followed Bertie’s adventures:
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
Being of a non-poetic sort of disposition, I’m not qualified to speak at length on the merits of Tennyson or make comparisons between the writers. I must leave the heavy spade work to others, such as Inge Leimberg, who has written a detailed comparison of Plum’s A Damsel in Distress and Tennyson’s Maud in an excellent piece entitled: Across the pale parabola of Joy: Wodehouse Parodist.
My own favourite Wodehouse ‘tribute’ to Tennyson is ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’ (in Young Men In Spats), in which Freddie Widgeon attempts to impress the beautiful April Carroway by brushing up on his Tennyson. The story is littered with Tennyson references, which have been helpfully documented in the ever-brilliant Madam Eulalie annotations. The story was delightfully adapted for television as part of the Wodehouse Playhouse series (further evidence that Wodehouse can be successfully adapted for screen) with John Alderton giving a memorable performance of Freddie Widgeon quoting Tennyson: ‘de-da de-da, de-da de-da, the Lady of Shallott’ .
Returning to our original quotation, a closer look at Tennyson’s Locksley Hall rings a few more bells for Wodehouse readers. The poem opens as follows:
Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet ‘t is early morn:
Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn.
The first line is reminiscent of both Psmith (who addresses everyone ‘comrade’) and Aunt Charlotte’s rousing ‘A-hunting-we-will-go’ in The Mating Season.
But tempted though I am to wade deeper into Tennyson’s work in search of Wodehouse, I find my eyes glaze over and my pulse grows weak. Upon discovering a ‘jaundiced eye’, in about the two-hundred and thirty eighth stanza of Locksley Hall, I am a mere shadow of my former self, incapable of even a whispered ‘Ho!’ Now, more than ever, I feel the pathos of Freddie Widgeon’s ordeal in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, traversing that fine line between comedy and tragedy.
Rupert (or Ronald) Psmith was one of Wodehouse’s earliest heroes. He made his memorable first appearance in 1908 in a school story serialised in The Captain as ‘The Lost Lambs’, better known to many readers under the 1953 title Mike and Psmith. Alongside his bosom school chum Mike Jackson, Psmith (the P is silent as in pshrimp) made a successful transition from school stories to adult fiction in two further novels, Psmith in the City (1910) and Psmith Journalist (1915), before his final appearance in Leave it to Psmith (1923).
It is clear from comments in the growing Wodehouse Facebook community that my own love for this character is shared by many others, so it seems apt that when Wodehouse cast him as a romantic lead, he created Eve.
She was a girl of medium height, very straight and slim; and her fair hair , her cheerful smile, and the boyish suppleness of her body all contributed to a general effect of valiant gaiety, a sort of golden sunniness – accentuated by the fact that, like all girls who looked to Paris for inspiration in their dress that season, she was wearing black.
Leave it to Psmith
Aside from her outward charms, Eve Halliday is also an attractive character. She is one of Plum’s independent heroines, with no stern father or serious minded aunt to misguide her. The prospect of pinching Lady Constance Keeble’s necklace (in aid of a good cause) does not faze her. She also shows herself to be a loyal friend, with an intelligent mind and an elegance of manner that make her a fitting mate for one of Plum’s most beloved characters.
“This,” said Psmith, “is becoming more and more gratifying every moment. It seems that you and I were made for each other. I am your best friend’s best friend and we both have a taste for stealing other people’s jewellery. I cannot see how you can very well resist the conclusion that we are twin-souls.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“We shall get into that series of ‘Husbands and Wives Who Work Together’.”
At the end of Leave it to Psmith, the couple are engaged and Psmith is hired to replace The Efficient Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Although Wodehouse later adapted the story (with Ian Hay) for the stage, he never revisited the Psmiths after their marriage. One possible explanation for this, given by Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson, is that Wodehouse could not envisage Psmith without a substantial income. Donaldson also suggests that Leave it to Psmith was written ‘only after much badgering’ by Plum’s daughter Leonora, to whom the book is also dedicated.
Another explanation has been given, by some brainy cove whose name escapes me for the moment (I have a feeling it was Plum himself, but cannot find the reference), is that Wodehouse found it difficult to envisage suitable plots for Psmith after his marriage. Having found his niche as a writer of romantic comedies, Wodehouse had little use for a married hero (Bertie Wooster was kept notably single). Although we are treated to a few short stories centred on the married life of Bingo and Rosie Little, these are exceptions.
The fate of the Psmiths after marriage continues to be a topic for speculation among Wodehouse readers. We want more of them! I have often thought of writing a little homage myself – along the lines of Sebastain Faulks, but without the advance.
Perhaps like the Molloys (Dolly and Soapy, to their friends) the Psmiths might build on their early forays in the necklace pinching business and turn their capable minds to crime. They would excel I am sure, provided they could overcome any moral objections. I see their criminal activities confined to pinching only from those who have the stuff in piles, coupled with a propensity to share their ill-gotten gains with the needy, combining the debonair style of Raffles with the generosity of Robin Hood.
Perhaps more plausibly, I can also imagine the Psmiths entering the crime detection business. From almost the first moment, when Psmith meets Mike Jackson in the common room at Sedleigh, there is something Holmesian about him. Wodehouse was a great fan of Arthur Conan-Doyle, and it is Psmith, not Sherlock Holmes, who first utters the phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (in Psmith Journalist). Psmith has the perfect partner in Eve, who promises to be every bit as capable as Agatha Christie’s delightful Tuppence Beresford.
Plotting out the next few chapters in their lives, I see Psmith becoming the unexpected recipient of a modest inheritance (a distant Aunt, or perhaps a rich Uncle in Australia) that would enable the Psmiths to purchase a detective agency. They would excel in the detection business, although they may have to fight off some underhanded skulduggery from a competing agency run by Percy Pilbeam.
Great wealth may never be theirs, unless the Psmiths have the good fortune to recover a Maharaja’s ruby, or compromising letters for a wealthy heiress. But they would have enough to secure a modicum of comfort and keep the wolves at bay. Even in tough times, one suspects the enterprising Psmiths have the necessary wherewithal to succeed in life without ever having to fall back on the fish business.
This Valentine’s Day, it will be 39 years since the death of P.G. Wodehouse. To mark the occasion, I am hoping to post a series of pieces on love and romance in the world of P. G. Wodehouse. It’s an ambitious task and I’m eager for other Wodehouse lovers to get involved.
Specifically, I’m keen to receive pieces on the theme of Wodehouse and love. I’m especially interested in covering the great romances of Wodehouse. Who are your favourite Wodehouse couples? What makes them special? I asked Fans of P G Wodehouse on Facebook – their favourites include:
- Psmith and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith)
- Bingo Little and Rosie M Banks (The Inimitable Jeeves)
- Dolly and Soapy Molloy
- Madeline Bassett and Gussie Fink Nottle*
- Madeline Bassett and Roderick Spode
- Gussie Fink Nottle and Emerald Stoker
- Stiffy Bing and Stinker Pinker
- Archie and Lucille Moffam
- Aunt Dahlia & Uncle Tom
- Sally Fairmile and Joss Weatherby
- Sally Nicholas and Lancelot ‘Ginger’ Kemp (The Adventures of Sally)
- Ashe Marson & Joan Valentine
- Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown
- Anne Benedick & Jeff Miller
- Pongo Twistleton and Sally Painter
- Aunt Constance and Jimmy Schoonmaker
- Lord Emsworth and the girlfriend
- Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings
* A contentious vote, as both end up with other mates.
What do you think?
Like many of you, Eve and Psmith are a favourite of mine. I also have a soft spot for Eustace Highnet and Jane Hubbard from The Girl on the Boat (1922).
If you would like to contribute a tribute to your favourite couple, or some other aspect of the theme of Wodehouse and love, please do send it to me. By all means write at length, but even a few paragraphs would suffice. You will naturally be attributed as the author, with much thanks and gratitude. Alternatively you could write on the theme at your own blog or webpage, and paste a link in the comments so I can reblog it here at Plumtopia.
This is an ambitious undertaking, but I think even a modest response will be a wonderful way to celebrate Plum this Valentine’s Day.
I’d like to take a short break from my series exploring Wodehouse on Women to share a remarkable piece entitled 111 Male Characters Of British Literature, In Order Of Bangability by Carrie Frye, in which Ms Frye lists 111 fictional characters she finds sexually desirable enough to take to her bed. Almost as astonishing as her stamina, is the fact that she includes not one, but three Wodehouse characters in her list of male sex objects. These are, in order of appearance:
– Gussie Fink Nottle (at 106)
– Bertram Wooster (at 87)
– Jeeves (at 65)
Gussie’s inclusion in the list defies belief, as does Jeeves, who at 65 ranks above the virile and irresistible Flashman. Ms Frye gives her source for these appearances, as Right-Ho Jeeves and the story Extricating Young Gussie. I’ve read both, but confess I’ve never felt these characters casting quite the same kind of spell over me.
It would not be in quite the Wodehouse spirit for me to devise a list of my own, but if I may take the liberty, I would like to offer some alternative suggestions for the benefit of any other impressionable romantics considering a mate from the world of Wodehouse:
Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, would make an excellent companion for any woman who is looking to curl up happily with a book in her spacious ancestral boudoir, unbothered by the attentions of a human octopus, or indeed any attention at all. If your idea of romance is watching the sun set over the Empress of Blandings as she enjoys a late supper (of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes and separated buttermilk) in her sty, then Clarence is the man for you.
Monty Bodkin is a romantic soul who will make considerable personal sacrifices (like working for Lord Tilbury) to win the girl he loves. Unlike many of his fellow Drones, he is financially solvent and won’t ‘touch’ you for a fiver or pawn your jewellery to placate a wrathful bookie. He is handsome, charming and honourable, but – it must be said – not an intellectual giant.
Galahad Threepwood is a debonair man-about-town who can be relied upon to show you a good time, taking in the best restaurants and night spots of London. You’ll be enthralled by his conversation too, particularly his reminiscences. You may not replace the women he loved and lost (Dolly Henderson) in his affections, or persuade this old bachelor to don the sponge-bag trousers and gardenia button-hole, but his gallant conduct is unlikely to bring about a breach-of-promise case either.
Esmond Haddock has the kind of rugged good looks and self-effacing charm that enticed actress Cora Star to give up Hollywood in favour of Kings Deverill, Hampshire. He is the popular local squire, loved by one and all. But this handsome, likeable fellow may need your help to prevent his five scaly Aunts (including the domineering Dame Daphne Winkworth) from dominating the proceedings at Deverill Hall.
Rupert Psmith is my personal ideal, an appealing Dorian Gray of comedy, without all that fuss in the attic. He is witty, adventurous, original and terrific fun. (If he takes you to dinner, don’t order the fish.) Life will never be dull with Psmith around, but you may have to get used to living in the shadow of his remarkable personality.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to retire to bed with a good book.
Henry glanced hastily at the mirror. Yes, he did look rather old. He must have overdone some of the lines on his forehead. He looked something between a youngish centenarian and a nonagenarian who had seen a good deal of trouble.
The Man with Two Left Feet (1917)
I feel much like Henry did, as I glance in the mirror to inspect the remains of my former self on the eve of what I’ll just call a ‘significant’ birthday. But I shall resist the urge to impersonate the great Russian novelists, and reflect instead upon some of my favourite Wodehouse moments. I have selected five favourite novels to share, representing one for each completed decade, and one for the future. I do hope you will indulge me.
My first selection is a school story, published in magazine (The Captain) and book format under various aliases including Mike, The Lost Lambs and Enter Psmith. My copy is entitled Mike and Psmith and despite my disinclination for the genre, I’ve read it over 20 times and it never fails to grip. It also introduces my favourite of all Wodehouse heroes – a specimen so close to my ideal man it’s as though I’d drawn up the specifications myself. His comrades call him Psmith. The P is silent, as in Pshrimp.
A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.
“Hullo,” he said. He spoke in a tired voice.
Mike and Psmith (1908)
If forced at knifepoint to select my favourite Wodehouse work, I would chose Leave it to Psmith. Most critics would agree that, in 1923, Wodehouse’s greatest writing was still ahead of him, but Leave it to Psmith holds a special place in my heart for delivering Psmith (in his last appearance) to Blandings Castle – under an alias of course – to match wits with The Efficient Baxter.
“I don’t like poets as a rule. But this fellow’s so different from the other poets I’ve met. Different altogether. And,” said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, “I strongly object to Baxter throwing flower-pots at him. I won’t have Baxter throwing flower-pots at my guests,” he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
It is impossible to overlook the priceless characters and concatenations of Jeeves and Wooster, but making a choice is very difficult. The Inimitable Jeeves well deserves its place as a classic, and I recommend it as an excellent starting place for anyone looking to discover Wodehouse. With much difficulty, I have opted for The Mating Season, which sees Bertie impersonating Gussie Fink-Nottle at Deverill Hall, home of Esmond Haddock and his five aunts.
On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter but the courage which one brings to them, I pulled myself together.
The Mating Season (1940)
Every line of the Mating Season is a perfect slice of Wodehouse, every scene as fresh and snappy as the first time read. I have attempted several times to read aloud the chapter describing the village concert, but it always reduces me to an inaudible hysteria. The concert begins with the Rev. Sidney Pirbright, Uncle to Corky and Catsmeat, who is described as “(a) tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…” Every act that follows is sheer delight.
Unlike her sister Muriel, who had resembled a Criterion barmaid of the old school, Poppy Kegley-Bassington was long and dark and supple, with a sinuous figure suggestive of a snake with hips; one of those girls who do rhythmic dances at the drop of a hat and can be dissuaded from doing them only with a meat-axe.
The Mating Season
And there are few things in this life that please me as much as the Pat and Mike knockabout cross-talk act of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. As well as the book, I can thoroughly recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil, a consummate professional who reads without hysterics.
I have not touched upon the delights of Ukridge, Mulliner or the Oldest Member, but they are not forgotten; The Clicking of Cuthbert is surely one of the finest short stories in our language. But I am compelled to select, as my fourth choice, The Girl on the Boat. It opens with the strong-willed theosophist author Mrs Horace Hignett, who pinches her son’s trousers to prevent his elopement with Wilhelmina Bennett. And a good thing too, for it frees young Eustace to be wooed by the admirable Jane Hubbard (my favourite of all Wodehouse heroines).
…Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa…
“And what happened then?” Asked Eustace, breathlessly.
He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient began to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle pump.
“Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!” said Jane Hubbard.
“You know, you’re wonderful!” cried Eustace. “Simply wonderful!”
Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm. He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.
“Why, if an alligator got into my tent,” said Eustace, “I simply wouldn’t know what to do! I should be nonplussed.”
“Oh, it’s just a knack,” said Jane, carelessly. “You soon pick it up.”
“It ruined them unfortunately. They were never any use again. For the rest of the trip I had to manicure myself with a hunting spear.”
The Girl on The Boat (1921)
Although the romance of Eustace and Jane is not the central affair of The Girl on the Boat, theirs is perhaps my favourite of all Wodehouse couplings. They were marvelously portrayed by Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in a 1962 film adaptation in which they were (as in the book) far more interesting than the leading lovers. The film itself is worth watching, despite some inexcusable departures from the original – much funnier – plot.
To close, we return to my spiritual fictional home of Blandings Castle. I love every word of the Blandings saga and choosing a favourite is impossible, but I offer Heavy Weather for inclusion here because the 1995 television adaptation is my favourite Wodehouse adaptation (with Richard Briers again, this time as Galahad). I shall entertain no criticisms of Peter O’Toole’s performance of Lord Emsworth.
As Heavy Weather closes, we share with the Empress in a state of simple, wholesome contentment that epitomises the Plumtopian ideal – and kind of relaxed mental state I would do well to emulate on the eve of my ‘significant’ birthday.
Empress of Blandings stirred in her sleep and opened an eye. She thought she had heard the rustle of a cabbage-leaf, and she was always ready for cabbage-leaves, no matter how advanced the hour. Something came bowling across the straw, driven by the night breeze.
It was not a cabbage-leaf, only a sheet of paper with writing on it, but she ate it with no sense of disappointment. She was a philosopher and could take things as they came. Tomorrow was another day, and there would be cabbage-leaves in the morning.
Heavy Weather (1933)
In selecting just five works, I am committing the unpardonable sin of overlooking 90 or so others. It has been said, by a very wise bird in Facebook’s Wodehouse community, that choosing one’s favourite Wodehouse is like choosing between your children. But let me assure you that, like the male codfish, I love them all.