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P.G. Wodehouse received his knighthood in the 1975 New Year’s Honours List. His letters from that time, published in Sophie Ratcliffe’s P.G.Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, reveal that he had a busy time with press interviews, as well filming introductions for a new BBC Television Series called Wodehouse Playhouse.
Reflecting on his first month of knighthood, Wodehouse wrote:
I am still trying to decide whether I would advise a young man to become a knight. The warm feeling it gives one in the pit of the stomach is fine, but oh God those interviewers. They came around like flies, and practically all of them half-wits. I was asked by one of them what my latest book was about. ‘It’s a Jeeves novel’, I said. ‘And what is a Jeeves novel?’ he enquired.
Jan 29. 1975
On February 3rd, 1975, he wrote a letter to Ernestine Bowes-Lyon:
Everything is more or less calm now, except that hundreds of fan letters keep coming in. One of them was addressed to ‘His Royal Highness PGW.’
Feb 3. 1975
This is the last of his published letters. P.G Wodehouse died on Valentine’s Day, aged 93.
A dash of Wodehouse is always a great gift idea. This timely piece offers a few ideas to help you choose something special for the Wodehouse lover in your life — or for those poor souls of your acquaintance who have yet to discover his healing prose.
Wodehouse for first timers
I often give Wodehouse books to new readers, with mixed results. The trick is to tailor your choice to what Jeeves calls ‘the psychology of the individual’. If you want to start your intended reader on the Jeeves stories, my recommendation (discussed in a previous post ) is The Inimitable Jeeves.
But with the Everyman (Overlook) Library editions making Wodehouse’s lesser known works widely available, you needn’t start with Jeeves. If your intended recipient is a fan of detective stories, Wodehouse’s world is full of shady activities, from impersonation through to pig-napping. Why not start them off with Sam the Sudden, or Piccadilly Jim? Or the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh — it’s a particular favourite of mine, now available in a special 100th Anniversary edition. For romance with a female central character, try The Adventures of Sally or French Leave. For sports enthusiasts, try Wodehouse on golf in The Clicking of Cuthbert, or cricket in Wodehouse at the Wicket (compiled by Murray Hedgcock).
Wodehouse for enthusiasts
The task of collecting and reading your way through the published works of Wodehouse has never been easier, thanks to the aforementioned Everyman’s Library. If money is no object you can complete the set very quickly, but it’s a bit like eating a box of chocolates in one sitting. Acquiring Wodehouse in smaller bites over a longer period allows readers to savour the pleasures of anticipating and enjoying each book on its own merits. It also allows friends and family to contribute with gifts they know will be appreciated. To avoid duplication, keep a list of the titles you already have. Try this list of the Everyman editions as a starting point.
For serious enthusiasts, including those who have collected all the Wodehouse they can get their hands on, there are other ways to bring sweetness and light into their lives. Here are a few suggestions.
Recent releases on the subject of Wodehouse
John Dawson and the Globe Reclamation Project team have spent two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper. John spoke passionately at the Seattle convention about his quest to uncover more of Wodehouse’s work, and the result is this wealth of ‘new’ Wodehouse material, made available to us all in: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking with a discount available to Wodehouse Society members.
2015 also saw the release of N.T.P. Murphy’s The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany . It’s available in Kindle and Hardcover from Amazon or Kobo ebook (more details below). I’ve found this nifty little volume to be a valuable reference in the few short months since its release, and expect it will quickly establish itself as a ‘must have’ for Wodehouse enthusiasts.
Volume 1 of Murphy’s highly regarded A Wodehouse Handbook has been revised and rereleased as an ebook, available from Kobo Books . You or your gift recipient will need the Kobo’s e-reader software, which is free to download from their website.
Wodehouse Society Membership.
Why not give the gift of membership? For a modest annual fee, members can attend society gatherings and receive a quarterly journal to keep them up to date on all things Wodehouse. Find out more from:
- The Wodehouse Society (US) Membership costs $25. Have a look at their Regional Chapters page to find your nearest group.
- The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) Membership costs £22 for a full year (£11 for 6 months if you join between December-February). The society holds meetings and social evenings in London, as well as occasional outings in the other locations.
- A list of other Wodehouse Societies is available from the UK Society website.
For younger readers who may not be ready for their first Wodehouse, I recommend The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (recommended age 10+) or Guards! Guards! for adult readers. Terry Pratchett was a fitting winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and I’d recommend his books generally to Wodehouse fans.
My daughter enjoys the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens (Puffin Books recommend for ages 7-12). Set in a 1930s English girls’ boarding school, each book involves the girls in solving a murder. They’re written in an engaging style that doesn’t underestimate young readers’ intelligence, and they provide a good introduction to the period. This should help when your youngster is ready for Wodehouse. The fourth book in the series, Jolly Foul Play, is due out in March 2016.
Film, Television and Audiobook adaptations
Not all Wodehouse lovers enjoy seeing his work adapted. For those of us who do, some adaptations are difficult to find (the BBC telemovie Heavy Weather is not available on DVD) and others are best avoided. I don’t think you can go wrong with the Wodehouse Playhouse series. P.G. Wodehouse introduces several episodes himself. Another popular adaptation is the Jeeves and Wooster television series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. This series introduced many people to the joys of Wodehouse, making it a good choice for Wodehouse fans and new readers alike.
I’d also highly recommend adding Wodehouse audiobooks to your collection, or giving them as a gift. There have been various narrators – all of them good in my view. A Wodehouse audiobook would make a wonderful gift for someone who may be incapacitated, ‘getting on’ in years or for people with reading difficulties.
Miscellaneous gift ideas
I had many more ideas to share, but Christmas will have come and gone before a full list could be completed (if you’ve already done your shopping, you’ll at least be in time for the January sales). Here are a few more suggestions for the Wodehouse lover in your life:
- A silver cow creamer
- Spats and a Homburg hat, or a well-fitted Topper
- A tightly rolled umbrella
- Dahlias or Chrysanthemums
- A Berkshire sow
- Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire
- A statue of the Infant Samuel at Prayer
In the spirit of Plumtopia, I end with another Wodehouse wishlist, from Mr Ashok Bhatia -– A Plum Wish List for Santa this Christmas! — as a reminder of the joy Wodehouse brings to readers all year round.
In the case of Wodehouse, that cliché about gifts that keep on giving, really does apply.
Happy Christmas everyone!
I asked my eight year old daughter to share her favourite Wodehouse romance and, after much umming and ahhhhing, she chose ‘The Truth About George’. In this short story (from Meet Mr. Mulliner) Mr Mulliner recounts the ordeal of his nephew George Mulliner, who must overcome his stammer in order to declare his love for Susan Blake.
Many Wodehouse couples are brought together through a common interest — it might be golf, Tennyson’s poems, or a shared love of mystery novels, for ‘there is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature’ (‘Strychnine in the Soup’). In the case of avid cruciverbalists George Mulliner and Susan Blake, it is a love of crossword puzzles.
…George was always looking in at the vicarage to ask her if she knew a word of seven letters meaning ‘appertaining to the profession of plumbing’, and Susan was just as constant a caller at George’s cosy little cottage, being frequently stumped, as girls will be, by words of eight letters signifying ‘largely used in the manufacture of poppet-valves’. The consequence was that one evening, just after she had helped him out of a tight place with the word disestablishmentarianism, the boy suddenly awoke to the truth and realised that she was all the world to him — or, as he put it to himself from force of habit, precious, beloved, darling, much-loved, highly esteemed or valued.
In an effort to cure his stammer, George consults a specialist —‘…a kindly man with moth-eaten whiskers and an eye like a meditative cod-fish’ — who advises him to speak to three complete strangers a day. I won’t spoil the fun by recounting George Mulliner’s disastrous pursuit of this advice. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you have a treat in store (the text is available free online from Internet Archive).
Instead, I will skip straight to the part where George asks:
“Will you be my wife, married woman, matron, spouse, help-meet, consort, partner or better half ?”
To which Susan replies:
“Oh, George!” said Susan. “Yes, yea, ay, aye ! Decidedly, unquestionably, indubitably, incontrovertibly, and past all dispute!”
The reader is left with the happy impression of a well-suited couple looking forward to a congenial married life with barely a cross word between them.
For more on the theme of Wodehouse and crosswords, see Alan Connor’s excellent piece — Top 10 crosswords in fiction, no 9: PG Wodehouse’s The Truth About George — for The Guardian’s Crossword Blog. I also understand (courtesy of The Wodehouse Society mailing list) that Connor’s recent book “The Crossword Century” also includes a chapter on this subject.
Connor’s blog piece features an image of John Alderton, who played George Mulliner in the BBC Wodehouse Playhouse television series. It is a fine adaptation, recorded shortly before Wodehouse’s death, and includes an introduction from the author himself. You can watch it via You Tube.
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.
This piece began as a story about my search for Sebastian Faulks’ new book ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’ in my local bookshop. With the giddy excitement of a school girl, I had rushed forth to purchase my copy, but found things less straightforward than expected. The book was not filed under ‘F’ for Faulks as is, I believe, customary. Nor was it among the new releases. But after some first rate detective work, and much tut-tutting under the breath, I discovered the bally thing in the ‘humour section’, under ‘W’, next to Wodehouse.
I greatly dislike finding Wodehouse in the ‘humour section’, filed among the joke books, cartoons, mediocre comedy memoirs, and other bilge produced purely as a money-making exercise. P.G. Wodehouse was an exceptional writer, widely acknowledged as one of the best, who more than earns his place on the shelf between Winton and Wolfe. I’ve never read anything else by Faulks, but I believe he deserves the same courtesy.
Sebastian Faulks is a living – even youngish – modern writer. In his thoughtful introduction, Faulks tells us he is a Wodehouse fan and explains his reasons for not attempting ‘too close an imitation’ of the original. He also echoes the view of many Wodehouse’s enthusiasts in wanting to introduce Wodehouse to a younger audience. These comments gave me cause for great anxiety about the work to follow, because I had heard them before, not so long ago….
Cast your mind back, if you will, to January 2013. I was giddyish with excitement yet again, leaping about in my chair like a breaching whale, as the long-awaited first episode of the BBC’s Blandings series went to air. There was every reason be hopeful, after two excellent Wodehouse adaptations in the 1990s (Fry and Laurie’s ‘Jeeves and Wooster‘ series, and the 1995 BBC telemovie Heavy Weather), as well as the much-loved 1970s Wodehouse Playhouse with John Alderton and Pauline Collins. When you have such great original material as Wodehouse to work with, it’s surely hard to go wrong.
Unless, of course, you decide that Wodehouse needs a bit of ‘freshening up’ for a younger, modern audience.
I’m not sure who this modern target audience includes, but if the 2013 Blandings series is an indication, it doesn’t include Wodehouse fans. Within five minutes, my hopes were shattered. After ten minutes, I turned off (actually, I popped the 1995 Heavy Weather television movie on instead). Over the coming weeks, the Wodehouse forum I frequent online was inundated by the similarly disappointed. Blandings wasn’t Wodehouse – it fell flat, and has unfortunately confirmed some people’s erroneous impressions of Wodehouse as a trivial writer of upper class twits. I’m yet to come across anyone who has discovered the joy of reading Wodehouse through this series.
It pains me to disagree with Faulks or anyone else wanting to spread the joy of Wodehouse, but I believe this policy of adapting Wodehouse for a younger audiences is misguided.
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Wodehouse has a healthy following among young readers. They may not be as visible or as well known as the more eminent members of our fraternity, but they’re out there, raiding the bookshelves of friends, relations, libraries and booksellers, and quietly getting on with the job of reading them.
In researching this piece, I posted a question to members of the very active Wodehouse fan group in Facebook. Within the first half hour, I received more than twenty enthusiastic replies from young Wodehouse fans. Many had been introduced to Wodehouse early in life by their Wodehouse loving families. The thread quickly expanded, with replies from more young readers, as well as wonderful reminiscences from older readers, recalling how their love of Wodehouse began at a tender age – although nothing beats the delight of an older person discovering Wodehouse for the first time. The Facebook fan page is a terrific forum, connecting readers of all ages from around the globe. Age is irrelevant. We are all joined in happy union by our love of Plum.
But perhaps my biggest objection to this mania for young audiences is the personal slight. It implies there is something slightly amiss with us – Wodehouse’s dedicated, but slightly crustier fans. The ‘oldest members’ among our ranks are critically important and should not be passed over. Many give generously of their time to help other readers understand Wodehouse’s many references, quotations and cultural elements that would otherwise be lost to us. Projects such as the Wodehouse annotations are critically important.
There is nothing to be gained – and much to lose – by continuing to overlook, disappoint and take for granted P.G. Wodehouse’s loyal readers in the quest for finding new ones.
If the stories coming through to me on Facebook tonight (almost 50 of them now) are any indication, when it comes to introducing Wodehouse to new readers, it is the fans who are putting in the bulk of the spadework, spreading largess to friends and family in our wake. We deserve better than Blandings – and so do potential new readers.
But we Plum lovers are also an obliging sort, always happy to indulge the next effort with an open mind, which brings me back to where I started – with Faulks’ introductory remarks. It is time to stop speculating, and start enjoying Jeeves And The Wedding Bells. I’ve taken a blow, but my hopes are not dashed.