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Each February at Plumtopia I take a break from my usual pontifications to celebrate some of the ‘Great Romances’ from P.G. Wodehouse’s work, to mark the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day, 1975. This year, I’d like to break with the formula a little by touching on the great romance of Wodehouse’s own life — his wife Ethel.
Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson wraps up their courtship in a sentence: ‘They met on 3 August 1914 and on 30 September they were married.’ They met on one of Wodehouse’s frequent visits to New York, and were married at The Little Church Round The Corner. Ethel Wayman (nee Newton) was a young widow, also visiting New York from England. Like so many of his fictional heroines, she was a woman of spirit, energy and determination. An extrovert and unlike her husband in character, Ethel nonetheless understood his needs and protected him from the practical demands of life, so that Wodehouse was free to write, walk and engage with the world as it suited him.
They seem to have lived in perfect sympathy with one another. Wodehouse said, in an interview with Gerald Clarke ( P. G. Wodehouse, The Art of Fiction No. 60 in the PARIS REVIEW ):
‘I think a writer’s life is the ideal life’.
It was Ethel who made this life possible, and Wodehouse depended on her. It’s tempting to see their relationship reflected, in typically self-depreciating style, throughout Wodehouse’s writing.
“… she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
The Adventures of Sally (1922)
Wodehouse’s love for Ethel was genuine and life-long. Writing to her on the occasion of their 59th wedding anniversary, Wodehouse pays tribute to the Great Romance of his own life.
My precious angel Bunny whom I love so dear.
Another anniversary! Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!
It was a miracle finding one another. I know I could never have been happy with anybody else. What a lucky day for me when you agreed with me when I said ‘Let’s get married’!
The only thing that makes me sad is your health. How I wish there was something I could do. What is so extraordinary is that you come to me in pain and not having slept and you look just as beautiful as you did fifty-nine years ago. But how I wish that you could get a good sleep.
I wish I could say all the things I would like to say, but really they can all be said in one sentence – I LOVE YOU.
(P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe)
Wishing you all very Happy Ever Afters of your own.
He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not decend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.
From ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’
This firm opinion belongs to mystery writer James Rodman, a cousin of Mr Mulliner. But then he inherits Honeysuckle Cottage from his Aunt, the romance novelist Leila J. Pinckney , and her house begins to exert a sinister romantic influence over him.
First, he inserts an unwelcome female into the novel he is writing: ‘…the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faerie.’
James stared at the paper dumbly. He was utterly perplexed. He had not had the slightest intention of writing anything like this. To begin with, it was a rule with him, and one which he never broke, to allow no girls to appear in his stories. Sinister landladies, yes, and naturally any amount of adventuresses with foreign accents, but never under any pretext what may be broadly described as girls. A detective story, he maintained, should have no heroine. Heroines only held up the action and tried to flirt with the hero when he should have been busy looking for clues, and then went and let the villain kidnap them by some childishly simple trick.
It’s important (as always) not to attribute the views of the character to his creator — P. G. Wodehouse allowed plenty of girls in his stories, often as the central character.
The situation at Honeysuckle Cottage deteriorates further when a girl arrives:
She was an extraordinarily pretty girl. Very sweet and fragile she looked as she stood there under the honeysuckle with the breeze ruffling a tendril of golden hair that strayed from beneath her coquettish little hat. Her eyes were very big and very blue, her rose-tinted face becmingly flushed. All wasted on James though. He disliked all girls, and particularly the sweet, droopy type.
This sickly-sweet specimen of femininity is struck by a passing car and must be nursed back to health at Honeysuckle Cottage.
In some of his stories (Bachelors Anonymous being a notable example) Wodehouse often shows avowed bachelors the error of their ways — converting them to the kind of fellows who slap other fellows’ backs and urge them to marry. James Rodman is made of stern stuff, but he is sorely tested.
Now that the girl was well enough to leave her bed, she spent her time sitting in a chair on the sun-sprinkled porch, and James had to read to her — and poetry, at that; and not the jolly, wholesome sort of poetry the boys are turning out nowadays, either — good, honest stuff about sin and decaying corpses — but the old-fashioned kind with rhymes in it, dealing almost exclusively with love.
Tempted though I am to tell you what happens, this story’s too good to spoil for those of you who might not have read it. All I will say is that it makes excellent Valentine’s reading for anyone who shares James Rodman’s distaste for romantic slush.
One of the curses of being female is the assumption, made by almost everyone, that we are inherently wired to enjoy romance novels (and what passes for romantic comedy at the movies). Weak female characters, in need of a decent meal and a shot of gumption abound. Heroines are painfully self conscious or smugly self-reliant, always beautiful, with a tendency to take themselves far too seriously.
Happily, Wodehouse offers us a third way — where the romance can coexist with intelligence and humour.
P.G Wodehouse had double citizenship, British and American. He became Sir Pelham Wodehouse at the age of ninety-three, receiving a knighthood in the 1975 New Year’s Honours list. A month and a half later he died, of a heart attack, in a hospital on Long Island, near his home in Remsenburg. He was sitting in a chair, with a three-quarters-finished new Blandings novel in typescript and autograph notes around him. He had gone into hospital for tests to establish a cause, and indicate a cure, for a troublesome skin rash. He had been working right to the end.
Richard Usborne in Wodehouse at Work to the End (1976)
Some forty years later, P.G. Wodehouse is remembered and revered by readers around the world. The anniversary of his death each Valentine’s Day always seems a fitting occasion to celebrate the life and work of an author who gave us so much to love.
2015 also marks one hundred years since the publication of the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh (published in the US as Something New). It’s a firm favourite of mine. I also wonder if Wodehouse’s writer-hero Ashe Marson is semi-autobiographical, for apart from being a writer, Ashe’s daily routine includes a series of fitness exercises (much like Plum’s own ‘daily dozen’).
The Larsen Exercises, invented by a certain Lieutenant Larsen, of the Swedish Army, have almost every sort of merit. They make a man strong, supple, and slender. But they are not dignified. Indeed, to one seeing them suddenly and without warning for the first time, they are markedly humorous. The only reason why King Henry, of England, whose son sank with the White Ship, never smiled again, was because Lieutenant Larsen had not then invented his admirable exercises.
So complacent, so insolently unselfconscious had Ashe become in the course of three months, owing to his success in inducing the populace to look on anything he did with the indulgent eye of understanding, that it simply did not occur to him, when he abruptly twisted his body into the shape of a corkscrew, in accordance with the directions in the lieutenant’s book for the consummation of Exercise One, that he was doing anything funny.
At the start of Something Fresh Ashe is observed, mid-contortion, by an attractive onlooker called Joan Valentine. Joan is one of my favourite Wodehouse heroines — a gossip column writer with a varied career history including shop work, typewriting, the stage, working as a governess and lady’s maid (anyone who tells you Wodehouse only wrote about upper class twits is talking through their hat). In the course of the novel, she makes a fine attempt at scarab stealing. Although she was much admired by the Hon Freddie Threepwood, it’s Ashe who wins her heart in the end.
‘…What are you doing?’
Ashe paused for a moment to reply.
‘I am kissing you,’ he said.
‘But you mustn’t. There’s a scullery-maid or something looking out of the kitchen window. She will see us.’
Ashe drew her to him.’Scullery-maids have few pleasures,’ he said. ‘Theirs is a dull life. Let her see us.’
Being one of the world’s workers myself, I find this consideration for the scullery-maid commendable.
This steamy-stuff is as close as Wodehouse gets to sex in his writing, which some commentators seem to feel requires explanation. I don’t. The kiss is a time-honoured way for authors, playwrights and filmmakers to mark the happy conclusion of a romantic plot. One doesn’t need to be prudish to see that dabbling in the erotic would have alienated part of his audience, without adding anything of value to his work. It is also mistaken to assume that the absence of sex makes Wodehouse’s work sexless.
Take this example from ‘Rodney Fails to Qualify’, a golfing story contained in The Heart of a Goof :
“Have you ever read The Love that Scorches, by Luella Periton Phipps? ” she asked.
I said I had not.
“I got it out of the library yesterday,” said Jane, dreamily, “and finished it at three this morning in bed. It is a very, very beautiful book. It is all about the desert and people riding on camels and a wonderful Arab chief with stern, yet tender eyes, and a girl called Angela, and oases and dates and mirages, and all like that. There is a chapter where the Arab chief seizes the girl and clasps her in his arms and she feels his hot breath searing her face and he flings her on his horse and they ride off and all around was sand and night, and the mysterious stars. And somehow — oh, I don’t know ”
She gazed yearningly at the chandelier.
“I wish mother would take me to Algiers next winter,” she murmured, absently. “It would do her rheumatism so much good.”
In this example, Wodehouse expertly handles both sex and humour with a light touch, in keeping with his established style and the reserved Englishness of his characters. But it is certainly not sexless.
Happy Valentine’s reading everyone!
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it seemed fitting to revisit this 2013 piece, ‘Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire’ — looking at the men in Wodehouse’s world in search of a mate.
Who is your Wodehouse dream date?
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
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This Valentine’s Day will mark the 40th anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s death — a fitting date to commemorate the great romantic-comedy writer.
Last February, Plumtopia marked the 39th anniversary by hosting a February theme of ‘the Great Romances of P.G. Wodehouse’. If you missed it last year, we had some wonderful contributions from various Wodehouse lovers:
A good time was had by all, but this merely scratches the surface of Wodehouse’s romantic world, so I’m returning to the theme again this February. If you would like join in by sharing a few words on your favourite Wodehouse romances, I would be delighted to post them, reblog or link to them here.
My heartfelt thanks to the inimitable Ken Clevenger for contributing a wonderful and very fitting first piece in this Valentine’s series dedicated to the Great Wodehouse Romances.
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Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend
by Ken Clevenger
“Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend” is the great Wodehousian romance, most worthy of a special Valentine. My starting point is the very nature of great romances. Love must blossom, however improbably. It will be heroic, idyllic, and set in the beauty of nature, but not without the odd nettle. In the end love conquers all, as someone once noted; Jeeves, perhaps?
The easy part is to recognize in this “perfect short story” that Blandings and its gardens are the bounty of nature. The nettle, perhaps I should have said thistle, as le mot juste, is A. McAllister. The hero, was ever a hero more beset by constant woes? is Clarence. His faithful companion and supporter: Beach. His opening ire, directed at “a blameless kippered herring,” makes the appearance of love seem unlikely. But as Clarence begins his wandering (pottering seems more apt but unlyrical), love appears as the heroine saves the hero from a dog-toothed fate, but not The Fete, with a commanding “Hoy!” Was ever love introduced so startlingly? And can one recall many other Wodehousian nods to mother as sweet as merely “wizened motherliness” as Gladys, the heroine, is described?
The hero’s trials include the foreign speech of the heroine, her protective bother, Ern, the usurping, ruling goddess of the castle, Connie, and the grim beast who guards these gardens and flarze. The hero’s path is stoney, not moss covered. Indeed, in his despair and struggles, at times “[h]e feels like a man who in error has kicked a favorite dog.” But in the end there is a welcome refuge, albeit normally a humble “lounge or retiring room for cattle.” And there the hero and heroine share their grim fates. Then love, and the courage to face the world unafraid in a high summer wonderland, emerge triumphant.
There is a feast, of course. The carnal nature of love is hinted at by wanton hand-holding and the greatest gift in the hero’s power is bestowed. There are classical references to Achillea, Euphorbia, Gypsophilia, Helianthus, and Thalictrum. The ancient ancestors of the hero appear to spur his courage for the final, fateful conflict. The ogre is dashed with a departing, defeated “Hphm.” The malevolent goddess is dashed too. It is, to steal a phrase, “all sweetness and light.”
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More submissions on this theme are wanted. More details on the series and how to respond can be found at my original post on the Great Wodehouse Romances.
(c) The above piece was penned by Ken Clevenger and copied here with his kind permission.
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.