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A fabulous tale of discovering Wodehouse from Bill De Herder.
Norman Murphy’s credentials as the finest writer on Wodehouse since the sad death of Richard Usborne need no affirmation from me. This, dash it, is the man who found out exactly where Blandings Castle is. Such an act of benevolent scholarship assures his immortality. A new book from him is always a treat.
Stephen Fry (Foreword)
As Stephen Fry so aptly puts it in his Forword to The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany (Literary Miscellany), a new book from N.T.P Murphy is always a treat for Wodehouse fans. My copy of this latest release arrived in last Friday’s post and I’ve had a happy week devouring it.
For anyone unfamiliar with N.T.P. Murphy, the dust jacket to this volume says:
A lifelong Wodehouse fan, in 1981 he published his first book on Wodehouse that showed how many of his characters and settings were based on real people and places. Since then he has published three more Wodehouse-based books. He was also the founding chairman of The P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK).
Murphy is also the (UK) Wodehouse Society ‘Remembrancer’, conjuring in my mind an image that is part chronicler, part raconteur — part Galahad Threepwood, part ‘Oldest Member’. I was privileged to meet Norman Murphy in 2013 when I attended one of his legendary guided ‘Wodehouse walks’ in London. I vividly recall his uniquely engaging manner and expert-knowledge holding our group enthralled on a hot summer’s day. The ‘Miscellany’ is written in the same agreeable style, and Murphy’s voice resounds clearly in my head while reading it.
Like it’s author, The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany (Literary Miscellany) is a treasure. For those of us from generations and cultures vastly different from Wodehouse’s own, this book helps bridge the gap between our world and the one Wodehouse and his characters inhabited. Murphy has dedicated years of research to filling this gap — visiting far flung locations and interviewing scores of people — and answering the important questions we Wodehouse readers ask. Where is Blandings Castle? Was Aunt Agatha modeled on anybody? Did the Drones club really exist? Was there a Junior Ganymede? Murphy reveals all in the Literary Miscellany. The service he has rendered us (and future generations), in doing so ought not be underestimated.
The book includes a well-chosen selection of quotations, extending beyond the familiar lines so often quoted in this ‘information age’. I was pleased to find this favourite:
She melted quite perceptibly. She did not cease to look like a basilisk, but she began to look like a basilisk who has had a good lunch.
(The Girl on the Boat)
In addition to providing an excellent summary of Wodehouse’s life and work, this Miscellany is sure to become the definitive geographical tour guide for readers who (like me) enjoy visiting Wodehouse locations. Let us hope it also becomes the authoritative source for journalists and other commentators, so that we can look forward to fewer errors of fact or ill-informed opinions on the infamous Berlin broadcasts.
Hats off to N.T.P Murphy and The History Press for making this volume available. You can order a copy directly from The History Press or Amazon (where you’ll also find Murphy’s other Wodehouse works).
On a personal note, I would like to thank Norman Murphy for including this blog — Plumtopia — in his list of Recommended Wodehouse Websites. I feel greatly honoured to be included (but I would have said all these lovely things about the book anyway).
‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendor.’
Most Wodehouse readers will be familiar with this quotation, printed on thousands of new editions, and quoted ad nauseam by reviewers and fans alike. Unfortunately it is sometimes bandied about to support the argument that Wodehouse and his work ought not be discussed — that Mr Fry has spoken and we, mere readers, should restrict ourselves to spouting quotations (or better, dignified silence). As someone who blogs about Wodehouse, I naturally take a different view. Nor am I convinced that this is what Stephen Fry meant.
The quotation comes from Fry’s introduction to What Ho! The best of P.G. Wodehouse (republished in The Independent). Fry suggests the ‘miraculous verbal felicities’ of Wodehouse’s writing are best experienced by reading his work. No attempt to explain or analyse the mechanics of Wodehouse’s prose style can ever do justice to the real thing, and Fry does not attempt it himself, offering instead some well chosen quotations, including this favourite:
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.
It is in this context that Fry says: ‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection…’ His point is that Wodehouse’s writing ought not be clinically dissected — or taken apart to see how it ticks. And unless you are a writer, looking to learn your craft from Wodehouse’s example, this is sound advice. The rest of Fry’s piece is ripe with discussion on the subject of Wodehouse, his life and contribution to our happiness. This includes, I’m sorry to say, further condemnation of those who seek to delve deeper into Wodehouse’s world.
Many have sought to “explain” Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of modern literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like “taking a spade to a soufflé”. His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanently pre-pubescent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary, magical and blessed miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that dispels doubt much as sunlight dispels shadows, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.
If we agree with Stephen Fry on this point, it puts many of us on shakier ground. Indeed, there are devoted fans happily psychoanalysing Wodehouse aunts, drones and sporty young girls at this very moment in an active Facebook group boasting nearly 10,000 members. And what of the various Wodehouse societies around the world that produce more scholarly work, and unite people with a shared love of Wodehouse? Is the otherwise genial Mr Fry really attempting to dictate terms and deny small pleasures to fellow Wodehouse-lovers? Perhaps his reference to ‘the microscope of modern literary criticism’ indicates a more specific, academic target.
The late Christopher Hitchens left no room for doubt in his condemnation:
Indeed, if anything could ever put one off being a Wodehouse fan, it would be the somewhat cultish element among his admirers and biographers. Such people have a tendency to allude to him as “The Master.” They publish monographs about the exact geographical location of Blandings Castle, or the Drones Club. They hold dinners at which breadstuffs are thrown. Their English branch publishes the quarterly Wooster Sauce, and their American branch publishes the quarterly Plum Lines: two painfully unfunny titles.
Censuring fellow Wodehouse lovers for such harmless pleasures is grossly unkind. It also smacks of hypocrisy, for Hitchens and Fry have both enjoyed the privilege of sharing their love of Wodehouse in their own way. Each has written at length about Wodehouse and the influence of his work on their lives. Both men have also had the privilege of writing introductions to modern editions and collected works.
Christopher Buckley reported in a piece about Hitchens:
When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?
This is a privilege denied to the ordinary reader, but our capacity to enjoy Wodehouse is equal to that of Hitchens and Fry. Perhaps more so, for neither man could understand the joy of being momentarily lifted from the drudgery, poverty and despair of a working-class life into Wodehouse’s world. Appreciating Wodehouse is not a science, nor a competitive sport. There are no rules, and we should resist any attempts to impose limitations.
For too long, I have worried about overstepping the boundaries laid out by Fry and others, when really this censure is surely as silly as the activities they sneer at. Ordinarily I am an admirer of both Fry and Hitchens, and I know there are Wodehouse fans who agree with their views. Happily there is room for friendly disagreement between fans of such a genial writer as Wodehouse. But when it comes to quotable dust-jacket endorsements, I can’t help wishing the new editions had stuck with the more generous sentiments of Evelyn Waugh, quoted on the old Penguin paperback editions.
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 — ‘
Evelyn Waugh in a B.B.C. broadcast
This is the stuff to give the troops! Waugh doesn’t claim Wodehouse for himself — instead he shows the sort of pull-together spirit that Ukridge and I like to see. His words are prophetic too, as the captivity of modern life looks pretty dashed irksome from where I’m sitting. In addition to my daily dose of Wodehouse, writing this blog is one of my few pleasures, and if anyone finds my output silly I shall be delighted. I also plan to attend my first Wodehouse Society Convention later this year (Psmith in Pseattle). If breadstuffs are thrown, I shall be well pleased.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pop off to the local Garden Centre before it closes. We’re having souffle for dinner and I need to purchase the appropriate cutlery.
I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
The Inimitable Jeeves was one of the first Wodehouse books I encountered, and one I recommend to new readers as a great place to start. It has been included in several lists of ‘classic books you must read’, but don’t let that put you off – it’s terrific! The Inimitable Jeeves is a great introduction to Wodehouse’s best known characters, Bertie Wooster and his valet (or gentleman’s gentleman) Jeeves. It’s not the first Jeeves and Wooster instalment – that honour goes to the short story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ but The Inimitable Jeeves is one of the earliest and best collections in the saga. It is also where we meet key personnel including Bingo Little, Honoria Glossop, her father Sir Roderick Glossop, and the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks.
A collection of connected stories rather than a conventional novel, The Inimitable Jeeves is a book Wodehouse fans return to, dipping into favourite chapters when our troubled souls require soothing. The thirteenth chapter, The Great Sermon Handicap, is particularly revered by readers, and compulsory inclusion in any ‘Best of Wodehouse’ collection.
In The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie goes through a series of personal ordeals, as well as acting as confidant in the affairs of his pal, Bingo Little.
‘Is Mr Little in trouble, sir?’
‘Well, you might call it that. He’s in love. For about the fifty-third time. I ask you, Jeeves, as man to man, did you ever see such a chap?’
‘Mr Little is certainly warm-hearted, sir.’
‘Warm-hearted! I should think he has to wear asbestos vests….’
An alternative title for The Inimitable Jeeves might have been ‘The Romances of Bingo Little’. Although Bingo does not feature in all of the episodes, his quest for a soul mate is a recurring theme throughout the book. Wodehouse opens proceedings with Bingo’s ill-fated romance with a waitress named Mabel and, after further disappointments, closes with his eventual happy union.
Bertie has matrimonial problems of his own in The Inimitable Jeeves, thanks to the interference of Aunt Agatha, who feels her nephew requires improvement. Aunt Agatha had appeared previously in ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ and she remains a force throughout the saga as one of Wodehouses’s most serious-minded characters.
‘It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in idle selfishness a life which might have been made useful, helpful and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.’
‘But, dash it all . . .’
‘Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .’
‘No, really, I say, please!’ I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.
Aunt Agatha first selects Aline Hemmingway, a curate’s sister she meets while on holiday in France. Her next candidate for the future Mrs Wooster is the formidable Honoria Glossop, who proves more difficult to shake off. During their brief engagement, Bertie is fed on a diet of serious art and literature until his eyes bubble.
…She looked at me in a proprietary sort of way. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie. It is true yours has been a wasted life up to the present, but you are still young , and there is a lot of good in you.’
‘No, really there isn’t.’
‘Oh, yes, there is. It simply wants bringing out…’
Jeeves finds a way to disentangle Bertie from these affairs. In the case of Honoria Glossop, he convinces Honoria’s father, Sir Roderick Glossop (the noted nerve specialist), that Bertie is mentally unhinged. This particular story was one of the best adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster television series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Although the series created additional scenes, characters (there is no Lady Glossop in the book) and dialogue (often erroneously attributed to Wodehouse), their adaptation was in keeping with the original, and expertly handled by Fry and Laurie.
Not all Wodehouse adaptations have been so well made, causing some people to feel that Wodehouse simply cannot be adapted. I disagree, although I appreciate the difficulty of adapting a humourist whose prose style is so integral to his comedy. Take, for example, this much quoted passage from The Inimitable Jeeves:
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me.
How do you translate the joy of reading this passage on the screen? In the case of Jeeves and Wooster, they had a distinct advantage in that Bertie’s narrative could be turned into authentic dialogue. Adapting Wodehouse’s other works, predominantly written in the third-person, is more challenging and a delicate touch is required. Certainly nothing brings greater despair to the optimistic Wodehouse lover than a misguided adaptation, but we can’t expect Wodehouse adaptations to match the pleasure of reading the original. Nonetheless, it is possible to adapt Wodehouse’s marvellous plots and dialogue very successfully.
Similar problems are faced when quoting Wodehouse. A joyful passage or witty one-liner shoved out into the online universe falls pitifully short of the joy of reading the words in situ. I often struggle to select quotations to include in this blog, because a passage I love on the page often seems to lose a little of its sparkle in isolation. It seems a shame to quote a mere three sentences when the preceding seven paragraphs are full of ripping stuff. Where does one draw the line? It’s rather like hacking off a piece of Michelangelo‘s David and plopping it on the table for inspection – without the rest of him.
But quote and adapt we do, because of the joy Wodehouse brings us.
I’ve digressed rather a lot, as usual. There’s much more to The Inimitable Jeeves that I haven’t mentioned, like Bertie’s period of exile in America, and Comrade Bingo’s brief membership of the Heralds of the Red Dawn.
‘Hospitality?’ snorted the man Butt, going off in my ear like a depth-charge. He was scowling in a morose sort of manner at young Bingo and the girl, who were giggling together by the window. ‘I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!’
‘Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!’
‘I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,’ said old Rowbotham. ‘And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.’
Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.
And then there’s the incomparable ‘Purity of the Turf’, but… I’m not going to do all the heavy spade work for you. If you haven’t read about them, you’ll just have to buzz off and read The Inimitable Jeeves for yourself. And if you have already done so, I can do no better than leave you to reflect on happy memories.
My grateful thanks to Zanyzigzag for permission to reblog this excellent piece.
Pelham Grenville (Plum) Wodehouse was a comic writer and lyricist, who, in the words of Hugh Laurie, “was quite simply the funniest man ever to put words to paper”.
I remember the first time I ever read Wodehouse. A year or so ago I bought a copy of “Thank You Jeeves” and it is not too much to say that my world of reading was transformed by it. On finishing the book I recall being staggered, absolutely flabbergasted, by the thought that if I hadn’t read Moab and found out that Stephen Fry liked Wodehouse, I would never have discovered him for myself – a thought that still sends shivers up my spine even now. How, HOW had no one told me about this?? I suddenly felt as though I understood how born-again Christians feel when they first discover Jesus. I wanted to stand in the town square brandishing my…
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