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The Great Wodehouse Romances: Archibald’s Benefit

themanupstairs‘Archibald’s Benefit’ (1909) is a delightful short story, included in The Man Upstairs (1914). It relates the trials of Archibald Mealing, a keen but inept golfer, and his romance with Margaret Milsom. I say inept. Wodehouse says:

Archibald, mark you, whose golf was a kind of blend of hockey, Swedish drill, and buck-and-wing dancing.

For a sense of Archibald’s golfing style, this excellent instructional video from Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz (of Duke University) helps to demonstrate how a dash of buck-and-wing might have impaired Archibald’s success off the tee.

His golf may be rotten, but Archie is in good spirits, having recently become engaged to Margaret Milsom, a soulful looking girl with big blue eyes.

But in Wodehouse’s world, as in life, few romances are a simple matter of ‘A’ meets ‘B’. There is also ‘C’ to be considered, not mention ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’. These extras may come in the shape of interfering relations (Margaret Milsom has a couple of these) or misguided friends (in this case, Archie’s pal McCay). Our hero ‘A’ may also have to impersonate hens, perform tricks with a bit of string, or suffer some other frightful ordeal before he and ‘B’ can finally dance their wedding glide.

The complications for Archie and Margaret are well above par. In addition to a cast of interfering extras, Archie has also feigned an interest in poetry to impress the soulful looking Margaret, and finds the deception torturous to maintain.

Every evening he read painfully a portion of the classics. He plodded through the poetry sections of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Margaret’s devotion to the various bards was so enthusiastic, and her reading so wide, that there were times when Archibald wondered if he could endure the strain.

Once again, Wodehouse is true to life. How many of us have feigned interest in things beyond our expertise in the budding stages of a romance? Over the years I’ve been a temporary enthusiast of heavy-metal music, beer coasters, comic books, and beard-care. But I have my limits, as the chap who expected me to watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead and like it discovered. Like Archibald Mealing, I too have suffered.

Archie’s sentimental friend McCay (who ‘knew Ella Wheeler Wilcox by heart, and could take Browning without anaesthetics’) is also concerned that when Margaret comes to see Archie play in a local golf tournament, her girlish enthusiasm will be dashed. He fears the ordeal will test their romance, so McCay colludes with the other club-members to ensure Archie wins his games.

McCay is unaware that Archie has hidden his passion for golf from Margaret — she is such a soulful girl that he fears her disapproval. And as Archie has no expectation of winning the tournament, he has confidently arranged to meet her elsewhere on the afternoon of the final. When the appointed hour arrives, however, he is at the fifteenth tee with a real chance of winning.

Archie’s devotion for Margaret is tested:

If Margaret broke off the engagement—well, it might be that Time would heal the wound, and that after many years he would find some other girl for whom he might come to care in a wrecked, broken sort of way. But a chance like this could never come again. What is Love compared with holing out before your opponent?

Sentimental readers may be scandalised, but Wodehouse the realist does not shirk from difficult truths. Like the case of Freddie Widgeon in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, who attempts to woo April Carroway with Tennyson and fails, we may even feel that Archie has had a lucky escape. After all, no fair-minded girl would begrudge her lover playing golf.

When Archie attempts a reconciliation with Margaret, he is forced to confess that he has been playing golf. But, rather than chastise him for indulging in frivolous pass-times, Margaret confesses to suppressing her own fondness for golf.

Archibald took a step forward. His voice was tense and trembling.
‘Margaret,’ he said, ‘this is no time for misunderstandings. We must be open with one another. Our happiness is at stake. Tell me honestly, do you like poetry really?’

Margaret hesitated, then answered bravely:

‘No, Archibald,’ she said, ‘it is as you suspect. I am not worthy of you. I do not like poetry. Ah, you shudder! You turn away! Your face grows hard and scornful!’

‘I don’t!’ yelled Archibald. ‘It doesn’t! It doesn’t do anything of the sort! You’ve made me another man!’

She stared, wild-eyed, astonished.

‘What! Do you mean that you, too—’

Wodehouse reveals another difficult romantic truth; when love grips, there is illusion on both sides. ‘A’ is too enraptured with ‘B’ to suspect. And ‘B’ would hotly resent any suggestion that ‘A’ is less than he appears. But if a relationship is to last, we must eventually tear off the false whiskers and take our chances.

Wodehouse lovers who, unlike poor Archie, can take Browning without anaesthetic, might enjoy the Wodehouse poetry associations in Pippa’s Song.

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The Annual Mothers’ Treat

When you are shut up all the year round in a place like Maiden Eggesford, with nothing to do but wash underclothing and attend Divine Service, you naturally incline to let yourself go a bit at times of festival and holidays.

‘Tried in the Furnace’ (Young Men in Spats)

What Ho! What Ho!

I’m in an effervescent sort of mood today as I’m about to motor to the seaside for a short, much-needed holiday. My journey will take in the Dorset towns of Maiden Newton and Bridport, which the scholars at Madam Eulalie suggest as likely locations for P.G. Wodehouse’s Maiden Eggesford and Bridmouth-on-Sea.

Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton visit Maiden Eggesford in one of my favourite Wodehouse stories, ‘Tried in the Furnace’, where they both fall in love with the Reverend P.P. Briscoe’s daughter, Angelica. In accordance with her wishes, Barmy reluctantly agrees to take the Village Mothers on their Annual Outing.

The proceedings would appear to have opened in a quiet and orderly manner. Sixteen females of advanced years assembled in a motor coach, and the expedition was seen off from the Vicarage door by the Rev P.P. Briscoe in person. Under his eye, Barmy tells me, the Beauty Chorus was demure and docile. It was a treat to listen to their murmured responses. As nice and respectable a bunch of mothers, Barmy says, as he had ever struck. His only apprehension at this point, he tells me, was lest the afternoon’s proceedings might possibly be a trifle stodgy. He feared a touch of ennui.

He needn’t have worried. There was no ennui.

The human cargo, as I say, had started out in a spirit of demureness and docility. But it was amazing what a difference a mere fifty yards of the high road made to these Mothers. No sooner were they out of sight of the Vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent. The first intimation Barmy had that the binge was going to be run on lines other than those which he had anticipated was when a very stout mother in a pink bonnet and a dress covered with bugles suddenly picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which, all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell, and it was plain that they considered that the proceedings had now been formally opened.

Life is short. Holidays are even shorter. I shall be taking the commendable spirit of the mothers of Maiden Eggesford on mine.

HP

The Drones Club: Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps

Image courtesy of the Russian Wodehouse Society website

‘…he [Barmy] would have been the first to agree that he had never been one of those brainy birds whose heads bulge out at the back. Some birds bulged and some birds didn’t, you had to face it, he would have said, and he was one of the birds who didn’t. At Eton everyone had called him Barmy. At Oxford everyone had called him Barmy. And even in the Drones Club, a place where the level of intellect is not high, it was as Barmy that he was habitually addressed.’

Barmy in Wonderland (1952)

Cyril “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps (pronounced Fungy), a member of Wodehouse’s famed Drones Club, stars in two stories of his own.

‘Tried in the Furnace’ is a short story from Young Men in Spats (1936 UK edition), and a great favourite of mine. Barmy and fellow Drone Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton retire to the country to rehearse their act for a Drones smoking-concert.  When they both fall under the spell of Angelica Briscoe, it tests the bonds of friendship as well as the lengths to which a chap will go to prove his love. Angelica, daughter of the Rev P.P. Brisco, enlists Pongo’s help with the local School Treat, while Barmy is conscripted to oversee the annual village Mother’s outing:

“No sooner were they out of sight of the vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent . . . a very stout Mother in a pink bonnet picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell . . .”

I have reread this episode half a dozen times and it never fails to bring on a case of hysterics.

Barmy eventually finds love in America, in the 1952 novel Barmy in Wonderland  (based on George S. Kaufman’s play ‘The Butter and Egg Man’). As the story opens, we learn the astonishing news that Barmy is gainfully employed as a hotel clerk, although his intellectual capabilities do not seem to have been improved by the experience.

‘Cyril Phipps was tall and willowy, a young Englishman of the type so common in the Drones Club, Dover Street London, an institution of which… he remained a member in good standing. His disposition was intensely amiable, his hair the colour of creamery butter and his face one of those open, engaging faces which arose the maternal instinct in women…’Barmy in Wonderland . But in the opinion of Barmy’s employer, J.G. Anderson, Barmy has ‘…an I.Q. somewhat lower than that of a backward clam – a clam, let us say, which had been dropped on its head when a baby…’

Barmy in Wonderland

Happily, Barmy manages to win the love of Eileen ‘Dinty’ Moore, a street-wise Irish-American dame who promises to add a much needed dash of common sense to the blood of the Fotheringay-Phipps. For more snippets from ‘Barmy in Wonderland’, have a look at my piece ‘Moments when one needs a drink’.

HP

‘Goodbye to All Cats’

Wodehouse with catI am looking forward to reading George Simmers’ chapter on Wodehouse and the Great War. For now though, here is what he has to say on the subject of cats.

Great War Fiction

I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection of critical essays on P. G. Wodehouse. (I’ll be sure to relay full information here when there is firm news about publication date and details.)

My piece is on Wodehouse and the Great War – which might sound to some people like one of those thesis subjects imagined by parodists of academia, like ‘Jane Austen and the French Revolution’ , but looking at Wodehouse in relation to the War really does reveal some quite interesting things about his early work, and his attitude to his writing . I think so, anyway.

The publisher’s reader seems fairly happy with my chapter, too, but sent one little note. Did I know ‘Goodbye to All Cats?’

I didn’t, but the echo of Graves in the title had me interested. A bit of quick research revealed that this was a story in the 1936 collection Young…

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Wodehouse and Tennyson

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott.jpg

Painting by John William Waterhouse depicting Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott

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.

 HP

Plumtopia returns: bigger, better, Plummier

What Ho!

When I started this blog in August 2011, I had a clear vision to combine my lifelong quest for utopia with my love of P.G. Wodehouse. I wanted to explore the possibilities of creating my own kind of Wodehousian existence.

I hit upon a successful formula early on: take a snippet from Wodehouse on a particular topic and muse upon its teachings, as one might do with a religious text.

Then I lost the plot. Plumtopia was always personal , but at some dark point in the proceedings, the personal quest overtook the simple pleasures of enjoying and sharing Wodehouse. Like the great Russian novelists, I looked at life as something so stern and earnest that it was only a matter of time before Grandpapa hanged himself in the barn.

I am now correcting this error and returning to the winning format of old. More and better Wodehouse! I thank you, dear friends, Plum enthusiasts and other followers for your patience.

HP

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