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Bertie Wooster once said:
I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.
Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest
So it was in February; I was sitting happily at my keyboard, brow furrowed with concentration as I worked on a delightful series of blog pieces on the theme of Wodehouse and love, in anticipation of Valentine’s day – the anniversary of Wodehouse’s death. The first three chapters of my first novel had received a nod of approval from a well-established author, and Winter was drawing to a close. Life was filled with the promise of Spring larks and snails; God was in His heaven and all was right in the world of Honoria Plum. But, as Wodehouse so often tells us:
..what is life but a series of sharp corners, round each of which Fate lies in wait for us with a stuffed eel-skin?
Into my quiet, uneventful life, there entered a concatenation of circumstances – wheels within wheels – that dragged me regretfully from the keyboard and into the unpleasant realities of life. I shudder to recall those early days of ‘the crisis’ , without a Jeeves, a Psmith, or even an efficient Baxter to aid me in my darkest hour. I’ve pulled through the worst of it now, and the future looks, if not rosy, decidedly more passable than it did just two months ago.
As ever, I owe a debt of gratitude to P.G. Wodehouse. Not for the first time, I turned to the sweetness and light of his writing to lift my spirit in troubled times. Plumtopia is alive and well!
Wodehouse discusses his treatment of Shakespeare’s ‘exit pursued by bear’ wheeze.
I suppose the fundamental distinction between Shakespeare and myself is one of treatment. We get our effects differently. Take the familiar farcical situation of someone who suddenly discovers that something unpleasant is standing behind them. Here is how Shakespeare handles it in “The Winter’s Tale,” Act 3, Scene 3:
ANTIGONUS: Farewell! A lullaby too rough. I never saw the heavens so dim by day. A savage clamour! Well may I get aboard! This is the chase: I am gone for ever.
And then comes literature’s most famous stage direction:
“Exit pursued by a bear.”
All well and good, but here’s the way I would handle it:
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Yesterday, I pondered the rather baffling discovery that some of Wodehouse’s male characters have been named literary sex symbols. This subject can hardly be taken seriously. As the critic Emsworth notes, sex was never allowed to creep into Wodehouse’s world.
- Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off. Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.
Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at racetracks and casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950)…
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A wonderful piece from the excellent critic, Emsworth, reblogged with his kind permission.
It would be a joy to read Wodehouse even if his stories didn’t have more ingenious poetic allusions than there are stars in the sky. On the latest of our many happy passes through The Code of the Woosters — perhaps the very best of the Jeeves and Wooster novels — we started taking inventory.
Wodehouse starts with a taste of Keats on the very first page, as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” A few pages later, Sir Watkyn Bassett, a country magistrate who has it in for Bertie, assures Roderick Spode that time in prison won’t prevent a man from “rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things.” That’s from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
Bertie Wooster doesn’t know as much poetry as his friends, so his allusions are…
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I have started this blog as part of a lifelong quest for Utopia.
Unfortunately, the quest hasn’t been going so well, ever since I took that wrong turn at Bass Strait. Tasmania is pretty in places, but I don’t fit in here. I feel much as Alice anticipated she might upon reaching the end of the rabbit hole.
‘How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The antipathies, I think -‘
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
It has been suggested to me by some presumably well-intentioned people that my disgruntlement with life might be due to … err… personal issues and failure to view the world with positivity. Have you thought of counselling? The message from these smugly contented souls is a simple one – Utopia is a state of mind, so the problem is you!
I’ve long been envious of those lucky individuals with the capacity to view the glass as half full, without ever stopping to wonder about what’s in the water, but it doesn’t come naturally to us all. Further, I’d argue that societies need critical thinkers to affect social change.
My Utopian quest is a personal one, but it’s inspired by other thinkers, writers and philosophers. In particular, I’m guided by the work of P G Wodehouse, who created the greatest model for Utopia in western literature. Evelyn Waugh’s praise of it is often cited on Wodehouse dust jackets:
‘Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.’
Wodehouse himself was a model optimist, who maintained a doggedly sunny disposish through a long life, not without it’s turmoil. While interned in a Nazi prison camp, he continued to write comic novels and caught up on the complete works of Shakespeare. On his release, he controversially broadcast from Berlin, a series of humourous accounts of his imprisonment – the act of an optimist, not a political agitator.
Wodehouse, affectionately known as Plum, sets such pleasingly lofty standards for humanity that perhaps what I’m really seeking is Plumtopia.
Here’s hoping I find it.