According to Wikipedia, today (8 October 2020) is the 100th anniversary of the book publication in the United States of P.G. Wodehouse’s novel The Little Warrior, subsequently published in the UK as Jill the Reckless. As the Wikipedia entry quotes the definitive Wodehouse bibliography in support of its claim, I assume it is correct.
I’m going to refer to the book as Jill the Reckless, because that’s the title I have always known it by, and I also think it a much better, and less patronising, title than The Little Warrior (which is the description repeatedly used to describe Jill Mariner throughout the text because of her refusal to admit defeat in life).
It isn’t a “classic” Wodehouse title – I doubt if it is anyone’s absolute favourite – but it’s a lovely book in its own right…
Psmith knitted his brow. It was just the sort of line which was likely to have puzzled his patroness, Lady Constance, and he anticipated that she would come to him directly he arrived and ask for an explanation. It would obviously be a poor start for his visit to confess that he had no theory as to its meaning himself. He tried it again.
The widely reported outbreak of COVID-19-induced leisure time is making me dashed resentful. While others are working on first novels, starting podcasts, and creating art, I’m barely managing the demands of working and schooling from home — and cleaning up all the additional mess we’re creating. Spare time for pondering on the topic of Plum is in regrettably short supply.
But I am grateful to have avoided the dreadful virus so far and hope that you, too, are in the pink.
In these trying times, good people are reaching out to support others in whatever way they can, each according to our particular skills. But starting an online P.G. Wodehouse Book Club feels like a poor and inherently selfish response. Is it reasonable to be reading and talking about Wodehouse in the midst of a global pandemic — while others are ‘out there’ doing essential work and saving lives?
I think the answer is yes.
To begin with, the two activities are not mutually exclusive. The new group has at least one member who is reading Wodehouse as an escape from his essential hospital work. And those of us confined to home are playing our part in reducing the spread of the virus in our communities. The psychological benefits of reading, laughing, and connecting with others are all well-established — and important to maintain at such a time.
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across premieval 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.
There are some terrific, well-established online Wodehouse groups if you’re looking to connect with other fans (list follows below). The new P.G. Wodehouse Book Club is for anyone — new readers and enthusiasts alike — who would like to read and discuss the books with others, in a vaguely organised sort of way.
The club was established at approximately 6pm on Wednesday (Australian Central Standard Time) with 41 of its 245 founding members voting for The Inimitable Jeeves as our first book. The gang will be convening online next Saturday — all day, anytime — to talk about it.
An early talking point has been the cover art for this Australian paperback edition.
Bertie isn’t keen on visiting Steeple Bumpleigh, home to Aunt Agatha, the most terrifying of his aunts. But Jeeves is keen to do a spot of fishing and Uncle Percy needs Jeeves’ help in finding a way to pull off a big business deal, so Bertie gives in gracefully. After all, Aunt Agatha is off elsewhere on a visit, ex-fiancée Florence Craye can be no threat to his bachelorhood now that she’s engaged to D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright, and while his young cousin Edwin is always a pestilence, how much harm could one Boy Scout possibly do? But when Florence and Stilton fall out over Stilton’s insistence on being the village policeman and Edwin burns down Bertie’s cottage whilst doing his daily act of kindness, things take a sinister turn. Meantime Uncle Percy is refusing to allow his ward Nobby Hopwood…
For Golden Age of Hollywood fans, the Grand Old Movies blog is well worth following, and this week they’ve added the pleasures of Wodehouse into the mix. ‘Jeeves and The Hollywood Way’ looks at the two Jeeves movies starring Arthur Treacher, Thank You, Jeeves! (1936) and Step Lively, Jeeves ! (1937). The writer is sound on Wodehouse, so there’s no need to add my 2 cents worth on the subject. Highly recommended.
Wodehouse discussion at the Slapstick Festival
Next, it’s Book Shambles Podcast: a live recording from the Bristol Old Vic panel discussion (Robin Ince, Prof Sophie Ratcliffe and Joanna Neary) at the recent Slapstick Festival. The Wodehouse discussion starts about 13 minutes in.
The discussion has had mixed reviews from Wodehouse enthusiasts, but I was pleased to hear the panelists highlight the ‘oomph’ of his female characters, and challenge the popular misconception that Wodehouse appeals mainly to men.
Takarazuka Revue production of Oh, Kay!
And finally, some exciting news from Tamaki Morimura, who is well known to Wodehouse fans for her work translating Wodehouse into Japanese (as well as being a thoroughly good egg).
The all female Takarazuka Revue company will be performing Nice Work If You Can Get It, an adaptation of the 1926 musical Oh, Kay! by George and Ira Gershwin (music and lyrics), Guy Bolton, and P.G. Wodehouse (book).
It’s a fascinating combination. Perhaps it’s time for my first trip to Japan.
For some years now, I’ve been pushing the idea, aided and abetted by a gang of like-minded eggs, that Valentine’s Day should be commemorated as the anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s death in 1975. I’m a persistent sort of blighter, so here we are again in 2020.
This year, I was curious to take a look at Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of love and see how it might have developed over the course of his 75-year writing career. I quickly discovered (as ever with Wodehouse) that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So until some generous bird comes across with the necessary oof for full-time study, it’s a mere snippet.
Unsurprisingly, love doesn’t feature in Wodehouse’s early school stories. The fact that it takes centre stage in his first grown-up novel, Love Among the Chickens (1906) is more curious. Wodehouse’s lifelong love of detective fiction is evident in his early writing–the genre would seem a logical next step and I’m dashed if I can see how he suddenly branched out into romances. Unless…
It would be interesting to know to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs. If life is flowing smoothly for them, are the novels they write in that period of content coloured with optimism? And if things are running crosswise, do they work off the resultant gloom on their faithful public? If, for instance, Mr. W. W. Jacobs had toothache, would he write like Mr. Hall Caine? If Maxim Gorky were invited to lunch by the Czar, would he sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Mr. Dooley? Probably great authors have the power of detaching their writing self from their living, workaday self. For my own part, the frame of mind in which I now found myself completely altered the scheme of my novel. I had designed it as a light-comedy effort. Here and there a page or two to steady the reader, and show him what I could do in the way of pathos if I cared to try; but in the main a thing of sunshine and laughter. But now great slabs of gloom began to work themselves into the scheme of it. Characters whom I had hitherto looked upon as altogether robust developed fatal illnesses. A magnificent despondency became the keynote of the book. Instead of marrying, my hero and heroine had a big scene in the last chapter, at the end of which she informed him that she was already secretly wedded to another, a man with whom she had not even a sporting chance of being happy. I could see myself correcting proofs made pulpy by the tears of emotional printers.
The passage appears at a point in the novel when our hero, the author Jeremy Garnet, is thwarted in his wooing of Phyllis Derrick. Wodehouse frequently draws from personal experience in his early works and there are autobiographical touches to Garnet’s character. It’s not unreasonable (however impertinent) to wonder whether Wodehouse might have been in love.
My love had grown with the days. Mr. J. Holt Schooling, or somebody else with a taste for juggling with figures, might write a very readable page or so of statistics in connection with the growth of love in the heart of a man. In some cases it is, I believe, slow. In my own I can only say that Jack’s beanstalk was a backward plant in comparison.
If Wodehouse was in love in 1906 — or somewhere on the spectrum — no business resulted. The chief suspect, for my money, is Ella King-Hall. The King-Hall family believed Wodehouse was ‘half in love with her’* and he dedicated books to her in 1907 and 1908. The 1907 dedication appeared in a book called Not George Washington, which Wodehouse had written with a chap called Herbert Westbrook (or at least Westbrook’s name appears on the title).
Sophie Ratcliffe describes Westbrook as ‘handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke’* and Wodehouse credited him as an inspiration for the character of Ukridge, Jeremy Garnet’s scoundrel friend and chief trouble maker in Love Among the Chickens.
Ukridge was the sort of man who asks you out to dinner, borrows the money from you to pay the bill, and winds up the evening by embroiling you in a fight with a cabman. I have gone to Covent Garden balls with Ukridge, and found myself legging it down Henrietta Street in the grey dawn, pursued by infuriated costermongers.
Ella King-Hall and Herbert Westbrook were married in 1912.
There is no love rivalry between Garnet and Ukridge in Love Among the Chickens. Ukridge is recently married to the long-suffering Millie (the long-suffering being ahead of her). Ella King-Hall, who was older than Wodehouse and Westbrook by fifteen years, and worked with them on various plays, doesn’t seem to have much in common with either of them.
Nor are there any ‘great slabs of gloom’ in the book, although readers are left wondering about poor Mrs Ukridge’s future.
Looking back at the affair after the lapse of years, Garnet was accustomed to come to the conclusion that she was the one pathetic figure in the farce. Under what circumstances she had married Ukridge he did not learn till later. He was also uncertain whether at any moment in her career she regretted it. But it was certainly pathetic to witness her growing bewilderment during the weeks that followed, as the working of Ukridge’s giant mind was unfolded to her little by little. Life, as Ukridge understood the word, must have struck her as a shade too full of incident to be really comfortable. Garnet was wont to console himself by the hope that her very genuine love for her husband, and his equally genuine love for her, was sufficient to smooth out the rough places of life.
This passage was omitted from a revised 1920 edition if Love Among the Chickens, by which time any real-life concerns about Mrs Westbrook had been partially smoothed by Wodehouse himself.
He [Wodehouse] continued to play a role in Westbrook’s life as the unacknowledged breadwinner. After her marriage, Ella King-Hall became his literary agent for all his British contracts and remained so until her retirement through ill-health in 1935.
Wodehouse was thoroughly business-like when it came to this sort of thing and there is no reason to doubt Ella Westbook’s capacity for managing the task, but he might easily have placed his affairs with somebody else.
In quality terms, the period following Love Among the Chickens (1906) is arguably the least impressive in Wodehouse’s otherwise brilliant career. With the exception of a superb finale in the school story genre (Mike and Psmith), mostof the works from this period (The Luck Stone, The Swoop , The Prince and Betty, Death at the Excelsior) have been forgotten, and are of interest only to Wodehouse enthusiasts.
“Jimmy, we were practically boys together. Tell me about this girl–the girl you loved, and were idiot enough to lose.”
Jimmy drew a deep breath.
“Very well,” said Mifflin complacently, “sigh if you like; it’s better than nothing.”
It would be fanciful to suggest that Wodehouse’s art had suffered from a disappointment in love – and there’s no hint of it in his published letters. Rather, it was a period of creative experimentation with voice, style and genre. Wodehouse had left the school story genre behind him, but was yet to find his place in adult fiction.** Unlike his fictional Drones, Wodehouse did not have the luxury of a private income to sustain him, which meant writing for a living, dashing off whatever the magazines would take until he found his niche.
But love may well have contributed to Wodehouse’s breakthrough. In 1914, he met and married Ethel Wayman in New York. The first Jeeves and Blandings stories appeared in print the following year (My Man Jeeves and Something Fresh). The real-life romance between Wodehouse and his wife is incredibly touching, and readers owe her a debt of gratitude for smoothing away the troubles of life so that he could write.
We may never know more about Wodehouse’s early experiences of love and romance, but we don’t really need to know. Wodehouse never wasted good material – so I feel sure we’ve read about them.
Have you ever been turned down by a girl who afterwards married and then been introduced to her husband? If so you’ll understand how I felt when Clarence burst on me. You know the feeling. First of all, when you hear about the marriage, you say to yourself, “I wonder what he’s like.” Then you meet him, and think, “There must be some mistake. She can’t have preferred this to me!” That’s what I thought, when I set eyes on Clarence.
As a centennial celebration of Wodehouse silent film, this post arrives a little late — the first Wodehouse adaptation for cinema being A Gentleman of Leisure in 1915. But 1919 was a golden year for Wodehouse adaptation, with four silent film versions of P.G. Wodehouse works released.
Many of the films from this era are sadly lost to us and details of the silent Wodehouse adaptations can be difficult for the busy modern Wodehouse reader to put their finger on. I’ve just ordered a copy of Brian Taves’ book P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires and Adaptations so I’m confidently expecting to fill some of the gaping holes in my own knowledge. I really ought to have read it before bunging this piece together, but I didn’t want to hold up the centenary of silent film festivities at Plumtopia any longer.
So I’d like to mark the occasion with a preliminary toe-in-the-water introduction to the silent films of P.G. Wodehouse.
18 silent film adaptations 1915-1928
A Gentleman of Leisure (1915 & 1923)
Paramount Pictures’ release of A Gentleman of Leisure on 1 March 1915 was the first of many screen adaptations of Wodehouse’s work. The 5-reel 1915 film still survives, but not Paramount’s 1923 (also silent) remake.
Wodehouse’s novel A Gentleman of Leisure began life in 1909 as The Gem Collector, before he revised it for the US and UK markets as The Intrusion of Jimmy and A Gentleman of Leisure(respectively) in 1910. It was the first Wodehouse story adapted for stage, running for 76 performances on Broadway in 1911 –starring Douglas Fairbanks–and was revived as A Thief for the Night in Chicago in 1913.
Uneasy Money (1918)
This silent film adaptation of Wodehouse’s 1916 novel Uneasy Moneywas released on 1 January 1918. If the film adaptation kept closely to the original novel, it may also have been the first film to feature bees and/or bee keeping. Sadly, no footage survives.
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
This silent film adaptation of the novel A Damsel in Distress (1919) was released on 12 October 1919 by Albert Capellani Productions. The story was adapted again as a musical comedy film vehicle for Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen in 1937.
Piccadilly Jim (1919)
A Selznick Pictures Corporation silent film released in November 1919 was the first of three adaptations of the excellent early Wodehouse novel, Piccadilly Jim. A 1936 MGM remake starred Robert Montgomery, and a 2004 adaptation starred Sam Rockwell and Frances O’Connor in the leading roles.
The Prince and Betty (1919)
The Prince and Betty is legendary among Wodehouse enthusiasts for its complicated publication history. As Wodehouse expert Tony Ring put it:
It would be a rash person who claimed that the discovery and publication in this book of A Prince for Hire would finally bring to a close one of the most complex bibliographical puzzles in Wodehouse, for it really represents Wodehouse’s fifth variation of a single story, previously known by the title The Prince and Betty.
Which version of the story did this silent film adaptation, released 21 December 1919, most closely resemble? We may never know, as sadly the film is now lost. A young Boris Karloff was included in the cast.
Oh Boy! (1919)
This June 1919 silent film was an adaptation of Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern’s Broadway hit musical, which ran for 463 performances between 1917-1919. The film starred June Caprice and Creighton Hale, who also starred in the 1919 adaptation of A Damsel in Distress. Both films were produced by Albert Capellani.
Oh, Lady, Lady (1920)
Released in November 1920 and neatly described by IMDb as a ‘silent film adaptation of the Kern-Bolton-Wodehouse “Princess Theatre” musical’. This lost silent film starred Harrison Ford. Not a younger Harrison Ford, but an earlier and altogether different Harrison Ford from the one we know and love today.
Their Mutual Child (1920)
Another lost silent film adaptation, released December 1920, produced by the American Film Company. It has been recorded for posterity as a comedy film, but the original novel (published in the UK as The Coming of Bill) was a straight novel, which Wodehouse had written to order for the editor of Munsey’s Magazine.
Golfing Stories (1924)
A series of British silent film adaptations of Wodehouse golfing stories, released in October 1924, included:
Michael Curtiz is well known to cinema lovers as the director behind some of Hollywood’s greatest movies (Casablanca, Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pearce). But did you know the celebrated Hungarian director’s last European film was an adaption of P.G. Wodehouse’s 1915 short story The Making of Mac’s (included in the 1917 collection The Man with Two Left Feet)? Well, you probably did, come to think of it —Plumtopia is read by dashed brainy coves, all sound on Wodehouse– but you might have told me!
Released in July 1926, Der goldene Schmetterling (The Golden Butterfly) starred French actress Lili Damita, who also went on to a short but successful Hollywood career — before marrying Errol Flynn.
The Small Bachelor (1927)
This 7-reel silent film from Universal Pictures, based on the wonderful Wodehouse novel of the same name, was released on 6 November 1927. It appears to be the last silent film adaptation of a Wodehouse novel. The plot may have been familiar to cinema goers, as The Small Bachelorwas adapted from the book of Oh, Lady, Lady, previously adapted for film in 1920.
Oh, Kay (1928)
This was a 6-reel silent film adaptation of the Gershwin musical Oh, Kay, for which Wodehouse had written the book with Guy Bolton. Released 26 August 1928, it included ‘Intertitles by P.G. Wodehouse’ according to Silent Era web database.
As preliminary* lists go, 18 silent film adaptations of Wodehouse’s work over a period of just 13 years — from 1915-1928 — is dashed impressive. It clearly demonstrates the contemporary appeal of Wodehouse’s early work, which modern readers are apt to disregard in favour of the Jeeves stories. But Jeeves, who appeared in his first short story in 1915, doesn’t feature in any of them. This shows, if there was ever any doubt, that Wodehouse was already ‘a name’ long before Bertie and Jeeves made their big move into novels with Thank You, Jeevesin 1934.
You probably knew this already, but many modern readers think Jeeves is all Wodehouse has to offer so it’s a message worth repeating.
It’s here we arrive at the main thrust of this Introduction: literary criticism – which is a significant branch of the Culture Industry – has thus far failed Wodehouse miserably; that is, when it has deigned to notice him. And this has long hindered a true appreciation of his achievements not just as a great comic writer, but as a great writer and Artist…
Whenever I try to describe this blog to people who don’t read it and, let’s face it, probably didn’t ask and don’t want to know, they seem to come away with the impression that I write book reviews. But between ourselves, I find book reviews incredibly difficult and rarely attempt them.
I mean, it’s easy enough to write a ripping admonishment of a uniformly dreadful book, but who has the time to read dreadful books in these busy modern times, let alone make their authors feel any worse? So too, the kind of self-indulgent opinion sharing that routinely passes for review online, which I’m quite good at. Look me up on Twitter, Facebook or Goodreads and you’ll find no shortage of unsubstantiated literary opinions (at least unsubstantiated by me) along the lines of Jane Eyre was a tedious whiner and we’d all be a lot better off if everybody just stuck to reading Wodehouse.
But Paul Kent has written something worthy of more thoughtful review, and I’m dashed if I know how to go about it.
It’s not that I’m lacking in things to say about this book. On the contrary, if you’ll observe my reading copy below, each tag indicates a point on which I’ve been prompted to reflect and want to return to later — so many in fact, that about half way first reading I had to go back and start again with a colour coded system.
This is why, as far as I’m concerned, This is jolly old Fame hits the spot. In some places, Paul Kent makes points that I’ve always wanted to make, but never quite found the right time or had the wit to put into words. To pick just one instance: he says:
…reading even a few Wodehouse novels with reasonably careful attention, there appear scores of themes and recurring motifs which, considered together, add up to something that is both significant and, ultimately, revealing…
And he’s right!
More often, Kent makes points which had never occurred to me, setting my thoughts in a multitude of new directions. He draws on an impressive array of literary sources and opinions, but doesn’t hold back from giving his own – firmly, but respectfully questioning some of the ideas many of us seem to have accepted as lore when it comes to discussing Wodehouse and his work. This is the sort of thinking and writing the world of Wodehouse appreciation needs – and gives the rest of us plenty to talk about.
And this is just Volume 1, with two more volumes to yet come. The focus here is on Wodehouse’s early writing career, influences, and the development of his inimitable style and reputation. Kent begins with this quotation, from one of Wodehouse’s letters to his step-daughter Leonora:
I really am becoming rather a blood these days. . . [In] a review of a book in the Times, they say “The author at times reverts to the P.G. Wodehouse manner”. This, I need scarcely point out to you, is jolly old Fame. Once they begin to refer to you in that casual way as if everybody must know who you are all is well.
I could say more, but each of the many threads I’d like to unpick would lead us to another 1500 or so words of superfluous chattering, when all you really need to know is: