Love in the Time of Wodehouse: Chiefly About Chickens

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.

Love Among the Chickens (1906)

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.

Love Among The Chickens (1906)

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).

Wodehouse dedicated books to him too.

To That Prince of Slackers, Herbert Westbrook

The Gold Bat (1904)

And

To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time

A Gentleman of Leisure (1910)

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.

Love Among the Chickens (1920 edition)

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.

Love Among The Chickens (1906)

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.

Robert McCrum: Wodehouse: A Life (2005)

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), most of 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.”

A Gentleman of Leisure (1910)

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.

Doing Clarence A Bit Of Good in My Man Jeeves (1915)

Better to have loved and lost, and bunged the thing down on paper, than never to have loved at all.

Happy Wodehouse Day!

HP

REFERENCES

*From: Sophie Ratcliffe, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters.

**Read Paul Kent’s Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Volume 1: “This is jolly old Fame” for more on this subject.

Image of Emsworth, Hampshire (where Wodehouse, Herbert Westbrook and Ella King-Hall all lived for a time) taken on a visit by Honoria Plum

16 thoughts on “Love in the Time of Wodehouse: Chiefly About Chickens”

  1. Lovely piece.
    Wasn’t there an incident (before Ethel?) that was called Plum’s “one wild oat”?

    On the post 1906 slump, just want to say that The White Feather came out in 1907, and is one of my favourites among the school stories, almost as good as Mike. (despite a plot that was lampshaded as being cliched even in its time)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Narayanan. You are right of course.

      I am currently rereading the books in publication order. Just finished the 1906 edition of chickens. I feel sure that after I’ve finished The White Feather (and other books listed in this piece) that I will regret suggesting a slump of any kind.

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  2. You may be right about PGW possibly being in love with Ella King-Hall, but Norman didn’t seem to think it went quite that far. In his convention talk ‘Wodehouse and the Girl Friends’ (published in the December 2019 Wooster Sauce), he said that Ella King-Hall “was an accomplished musician, some 16 years older, and [Wodehouse] held her in high regard. They collaborated on a short-lived musical sketch, The Bandit’s Daughter, in 1907. It was probably just a matter of mutual respect,as Ella married Herbert Westbrook, the original of Ukridge, in 1912. However, Wodehouse did make her his agent in the UK until she retired in 1935.” You have all these facts already, of course, but I thought I might give you the Murphy view of the relationship anyway. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Elin.
      Thank you so much for sending this. I often hear Norman’s voice in my head when I read his stuff — even notes like this. We’re so lucky to have them.
      I am not convinced about EKH either. I think I talked myself out of the theory as I was putting this together. But I do feel there must have been some early romance(s) leading up to Love Among the Chickens. As I said to Noel, I just can’t see how Plum would have gone from school stories (thoroughly steeped in personal experience) to a novel about an author in love without having at least some experience of the emotion.
      EKH seemed an obvious suspect because she was a visible part of his life in this period, but it might have been anyone.

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  3. Good grief Honoria did you use a time machine to visit Emsworth? Not even the Indians (peace, Ashok) have made a car like that since about 1950. On the topic, though, you need to note that L among the C was written before Plum met that serial philanderer Guy Bolton, so while the sentimental streak remained forever in his romances after he met Guy and the ladies of Broadway the stories became increasingly cynical about the laughing love god, and all the better for it. No, I’m not forgetting where Ethel came from but you have to admit the Great White Way wrought many changes in Plum. {Guy once joked that Plum sowed his wild oat in that period. Ethel was furious.] Let us wait for more Kent. Funnily enough I went to a funeral today but forgot it was also RIP PGW.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t believe my luck, Noel. I had been taking photographs of the town all day and was about to wrap up when the car just appeared and parked where you see it. The dim afternoon light added a touch of atmosphere to the thing. I was well pleased with it.
      I’m looking forward to the next Paul Kent book. The horror of putting this relatively short piece together has only enhanced my admiration for his work. I enjoyed doing it of course, but I wanted to do more research than I could practically manage — and the bits of research I did manage to do kept enticing me along interesting side paths that dragged me off track so many times that, by the time I had finished, I had forgotten what I had set out to do.
      Also, I never feel entirely confident making biographical points because there’s a good chance some bally fact or anecdote will come roaring out of the woodwork to prove me a total ass.
      Your point about Bolton is excellent. I’d never considered how his adventures might have crept into the stories.
      As for Love Among the Chickens — I seem to have talked myself out of the idea that Wodehouse find have been in love with EKH. But I do feel there must have been at least one romance. It’s just too difficult to imagine Plum branching out from schoolboys and sporting matches to the subject of an author in love, without at some sort of personal experience of the thing. Nothing so adult as a wild oat perhaps. More the sort of thing his characters go in for — falling in love, and then out again when the thing becomes an evident non-starter, without any long term effects. Nothing so severe that a few moody rounds of gold and the distractions of life can’t cure.

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  4. Thank you for this – I haven’t read “Love among the Chickens” in centuries and am planning to pull it out instanter. Your mention of PGW’s passing brought back a vivid memory. When he died, I was but a stripling of 16 who had never heard of him. I read his obituary in the New York Times and was instantly intrigued. I couldn’t wait to get to my high school library to find out more. All they had was “Do Butlers Burgle Banks?”, but it was enough. I sat on the floor in the stacks gobbling it up until the librarian, attracted by my ill-suppressed laughter, reminded me that the floor was not for sitting and the library was not for laughing. It was the beginning of a lifelong love – but what a shame that it had to begin with his death.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing that story. I can just picture you getting caught laughing in the library — beautiful!
      I have just read the 1906 version of Love Among the Chickens for the first time, because I was curious to read the original — and found it not so different from the revised 1920 edition as I’d expected (although that’s still the better version).
      I’m always surprised at how good the early stuff is, when I return to it.
      Happy reading!

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      1. Hi there Honoria. Hope all’s well, and as always a wonderful, thoughtful post. There will be a tiny bit about Plum’s love life in Volume 2, but a whole four chapters devoted to what his characters get up to in that regard, as falling in love is by far his biggest plot generator! The m/s is finished and we’re looking at a September launch. Cheers, P.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m full of admiration for your work, Paul. I know what a sweat compiling this blog can be at times (however enjoyable) so I have an inkling of the kind of commitment involved in your project, and how it will have beefed up your knowledge of the subject (which was pretty thorough to begin with). I can’t wait for Vol 2. If the reading public has any sense, copies should fly off the shelves.
        HP

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  5. Having as always much enjoyed HP’s musings, I now go off at a tangent and record my surprise at her casual dismissal of The Swoop. I suggest it to be a delightful and hardhitting satire on the English and their ways – and should be better-known.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was introduced to Wodehouse by my paternal uncle in 1960. We used to get penguin editions very cheap and also from ‘used books shop’ just near the Luz Corner . And he continued to write well into the 1970’s and it was my delight to follow all his publications closely. He wrote about 80 books ( novels, short story collections) and though the Jeeves-Wooster, Blandings Castle-Lord Emsworth-Uncle Fred, Mulliner, Ukridge, The Sage( Golf stories), are justly famous, he wrote around 40 novels which I have named ‘Random Romances’ without using any of these characters . and every one of them is a gem. beginning with Gentleman of Leisure. (Dr.Sally, Damsel in distress and many more )
    Born in 1881, he wrote many early stories and novels on school topics, ( CRICKET! ), and found his niche in romantic comedies around 1910 ( he was 29 then).

    His girls are absolutely ravishing and charming angels . Not once in his long literary career ,he let any crudity enter his writing.

    An unfortunate internment and exploitation in Nazi camps (1940), led to his getting branded as a Nazi! . He did not write from 1940 to 1946. And he never set foot again in England that he loved so dearly as he describes so lovingly , be it the London or the country-side of castles. and lawns and lakes. He was a firm Socialist! ( PSmith in the city and PSmith the Journalist). He loved NewYork and the Hollywood. How much he loved the English Countryside! How much he should have longed to be in England! He was ‘Exiled’ . by his idiotic countrymen. The US understood him better. It is simply amazing that he continued to create right upto his 94th year! And the last novel was as breezy and jovial as his pre-war novels. He was ‘knighted’ just before he passed away. Small consolation. He cannot be ‘translated’ at all. and one needs to be Shakespearean to understand the loveliness of his language.

    My humble offering in his memory at
    https://sites.google.com/site/pgwodehousebooks/home/random-romance-novels

    Like

    1. Thank you for sharing your love and knowledge of Wodehouse. It’s always a pleasure to meet another Wodehouse fan and I look forward to having a look at your site.

      I would disagree regarding translation though — Wodehouse has been successfully translated into many languages. Quality varies and some translations are better than others, but the best efforts are very good indeed. I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of Wodehouse translators (Dutch and Japanese) whose love and knowledge of Wodehouse is as impressive as their multi-lingual expertise. I wish I had half their brains (must be the fish).

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