Category Archives: P.G. Wodehouse

About P.G. Wodehouse the author and his life.

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

Sweetness and light – How seriously should we take Wodehouse?

Times Literary Supplement (TLS) Book Review

“I always strive, when I can, to spread sweetness and light. There have been several complaints about it”.

Service with a Smile (1961)

Of interest to Wodehouse fans, Eliza Easton has written a review — Sweetness and light: How seriously should we take Wodehouse? — of Paul Kent’s ‘Pelham Grenville Wodehouse Volume 1: This is Jolly Old Fame’ and the latest Wodehouse compilation Above Average at Games’ by Richard Kelly — in the Times Literary Supplement.

HP

A Centenary of Wodehouse in Silent Film

Four silent film adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse’s work mark their 100th anniversary in 2019, making this a fitting year to take a closer look at the silent films of P.G. Wodehouse.

‘…we’re hoping to have more good news for you at any moment. The movie end.’

It had never occurred to Cosmo that there was a movie end.

‘Our man in Hollywood seems sure it will. He’s been sending significant cables almost daily…’ 

Cocktail Time (1958)

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 Money was 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.

1937 A Damsel in Distress Film Poster

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.   

Tony Ring (introduction to A Prince for Hire, 2003)

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:

Three of the films featured in the 2017 British Silent Film Festival.

Der goldene Schmetterling (1926)

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 Bachelor was adapted from the book of Oh, Lady, Lady, previously adapted for film in 1920.

1928 Theatrical poster for Oh, Kay! via WikiCommons .

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, Jeeves in 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.

References

I’ve already mentioned Brian Taves’ book P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires and Adaptations . It comes highly recommended by Wodehouse experts and is a key reference cited by various websites, including Morten Arnesen’s Blandings and related Wikipedia entries (content has clearly been contributed by knowledgeable Wodehouseans).

You may also find my work-in-progress IMDb list of Wodehouse adaptations useful and/or have other works to recommend for inclusion.

*IMDb contained some additional Wodehouse silent film credits, but I was unable to find any further verification of these in my preliminary research so I’ve left them off the list for now.

Image credits:

  • Advertisement for A Gentleman of Leisure, Exhibitor’s Trade Review, December 1922  Paramount Pictures via WikiCommons.
  • Theatrical poster for the 1928 film Oh, Kay! via WikiCommons .
  • Lobby card for the Oh, Lady, Lady (1920) via WikiCommons.
  • Movie poster forDer goldene Schmetterling (1926) via The Movie DB
  • Movie poster for A Damsel in Distress (1937) via Wikipedia

HP

What’s on Your Wodehouse Wish list?

 “I don’t mind telling you that, in the fullness of time, I believe this is going to spread a good deal of sweetness and light.”


The Indiscretions of Archie (1921)

Around this time every year, I post a few suggestions for anyone looking to give the gift of Wodehouse at Christmas.

For the Wodehouse devotee, Paul Kent’s new book on Wodehouse’s writing is sure to please and Wodehouse Society membership is always a good idea.

For new readers and those still working their way through Wodehouse’s substantial output, there is much to choose from. Try this reading guide if you’re looking for suggestions.

But this year I’d like to do things a little differently and ask you.

What’s on your Wodehouse wish list?

Please let us know via the comments below.

Self and cat are keen to spread some Wodehouse sweetness and light ourselves this year, so you never know your luck…

May all your wishes come true

‘You remember that old song, Spread a little happiness. Let’s sing it, shall we?’

‘Okay. I don’t recall the words too well. I’ll have to go tum-tum-tum a bit.’

‘Tum-tum-tum to your heart’s content. It’s the spirit that matters. Ready?’

‘I’m ready.’

‘Then let’s get down to it.’

They got down to it.

The Girl in Blue (1970)

New Wodehouse book: ‘This is jolly old Fame’ by Paul Kent hits the spot

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…

Paul Kent ~ This is jolly old Fame

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.

jolly

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. P.G. Wodehouse

Kent, Jolly Old Fame

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:

‘This is jolly old Fame’ hits the spot.

You can buy it — here.

HP

5 Books Published by P.G. Wodehouse on his Birthday

PG Wodehouse was born on this day, 15 October 1881, in Guildford England. I make no apology for mentioning it each year as an occasion to celebrate, because, as Wodehouse expert Paul Kent puts it:

…his 100 or so books must represent one of the largest-ever bequests to human happiness by one man, at least in literature.

in Pelham Grenville Wodehouse Volume 1: ‘This is jolly old fame’

Five of these gifts to humanity were, like Wodehouse himself, also published on 15 October – in four different decades.

1925 Sam the Sudden montage1925 – Sam the Sudden

Published on P.G. Wodehouse’s 44th birthday, this hidden gem is much loved by Wodehouse fans.

For a moment Kay stared speechlessly; then, throwing her head back, she gave out a short, sharp scream of laughter which made a luncher at the next table stab himself in the cheek with an oyster fork. The luncher looked at her reproachfully. So did Sam.

Sam the Sudden

1954 – Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

Published on Wodehouse’s 73rd birthday, it features a moustached Bertie Wooster, Aunts A and D, Florence Craye, Stilton Cheesewright, Jeeves (of course) and a cast of extras that includes the memorably named Lemuel Gengulphus Trotter.

‘Well, there it is,’ I said, and went into the silence.  And as he, too, seemed disinclined for chit-chat, we stood for some moments like a couple of Trappist monks who have run into each other by chance at the dog races.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

1961 – Service With A Smile

Published on Wodehouse’s 80th birthday, this was a particularly special gift to humankind – a Blandings novel featuring Uncle Fred.

I suppose if the scruples I’ve overcome in my time were laid end to end, they would reach from London to Glasgow.

Service with a Smile

Service With A Smile montage.JPG

1971 – Much Obliged, Jeeves

Published on Wodehouse’s 90th birthday, this was Jeeves and Bertie’s  penultimate outing. I’d be sad, if it wasn’t so good.

By what I have always thought an odd coincidence he paused at this point and asked me why I was looking like something the cat brought in, precisely as the aged relative had asked me after my interview with Ma McCorkadale. I don’t know what cats bring into houses, but one assumes that it is something not very jaunty, and apparently, when in the grip of any strong emotion, I resemble their treasure trove.

Much Obliged, Jeeves

1973 Bachelors Anonymous

Published on Wodehouse’s 92nd birthday.  It’s damned good stuff for a nonagenarian.

…he saw now that Mr Llewellyn was simply one of those lovable characters who readily explode but whose explosions, owing to their hearts being in the right place, are sound and fury signifying nothing. He had met them before, and he knew the type. They huffed and they puffed, but you just sat tight and waited till they blew over. As for throwing porridge at the breakfast table, that was a mere mannerism, easily overlooked by anyone broad-minded. He anticipated a happy association with his future employer.

Bachelors Anonymous

I like to imagine each of these 15 October publication days added a dash of joy to Wodehouse’s birthday. He deserved it!

HP

PG Wodehouse was born on this day, 15 October 1881, in Guildford England. I make no apology for mentioning it each year as an occasion to celebrate, because, as Wodehouse expert Paul Kent puts it:

…his 100 or so books must represent one of the largest-ever bequests to human happiness by one man, at least in literature.

in Pelham Grenville Wodehouse Volume 1: ‘This is jolly old fame’

Five of these gifts to humanity were, like Wodehouse himself, also published on 15 October – in four different decades.

1925 Sam the Sudden montage1925 – Sam the Sudden

Published on P.G. Wodehouse’s 44th birthday, this hidden gem is much loved by Wodehouse fans.

For a moment Kay stared speechlessly; then, throwing her head back, she gave out a short, sharp scream of laughter which made a luncher at the next table stab himself in the cheek with an oyster fork. The luncher looked at her reproachfully. So did Sam.

Sam the Sudden

1954 – Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

Published on Wodehouse’s 73rd birthday, it features a moustached Bertie Wooster, Aunts A and D, Florence Craye, Stilton Cheesewright, Jeeves (of course) and a cast of extras that includes the memorably named Lemuel Gengulphus Trotter.

‘Well, there it is,’ I said, and went into the silence.  And as he, too, seemed disinclined for chit-chat, we stood for some moments like a couple of Trappist monks who have run into each other by chance at the dog races.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

1961 – Service With A Smile

Published on Wodehouse’s 80th birthday, this was a particularly special gift to humankind – a Blandings novel featuring Uncle Fred.

I suppose if the scruples I’ve overcome in my time were laid end to end, they would reach from London to Glasgow.

Service with a Smile

Service With A Smile montage.JPG

1971 – Much Obliged, Jeeves

Published on Wodehouse’s 90th birthday, this was Jeeves and Bertie’s  penultimate outing. I’d be sad, if it wasn’t so good.

By what I have always thought an odd coincidence he paused at this point and asked me why I was looking like something the cat brought in, precisely as the aged relative had asked me after my interview with Ma McCorkadale. I don’t know what cats bring into houses, but one assumes that it is something not very jaunty, and apparently, when in the grip of any strong emotion, I resemble their treasure trove.

Much Obliged, Jeeves

1973 Bachelors Anonymous

Published on Wodehouse’s 92nd birthday.  It’s damned good stuff for a nonagenarian.

…he saw now that Mr Llewellyn was simply one of those lovable characters who readily explode but whose explosions, owing to their hearts being in the right place, are sound and fury signifying nothing. He had met them before, and he knew the type. They huffed and they puffed, but you just sat tight and waited till they blew over. As for throwing porridge at the breakfast table, that was a mere mannerism, easily overlooked by anyone broad-minded. He anticipated a happy association with his future employer.

Bachelors Anonymous

I like to imagine each of these 15 October publication days added a dash of joy to Wodehouse’s birthday. He deserved it!

HP

Volume 1 of Paul Kent’s Wodehouse is available to order now.

A Centenary of A Damsel in Distress

damsel montage

‘I’ve a headache.’
‘I thought you would have, laddie, when I saw you getting away with the liquid last night. An X-ray photograph of your liver would show something that looked like a crumpled oak-leaf studded with hob-nails. You ought to take more exercise, dear heart. Except for sloshing that policeman, you haven’t done anything athletic for years.’

A Damsel in Distress

A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse was first published in the USA on 4 October 1919, having previously been serialised in the Saturday Evening Post in May-June of the same year. The first UK edition was published on 15 October 2019.

The story is set in England, featuring scenes in London and the fictional village of Belpher, based on the pretty coastal town of Emsworth, Hampshire, where Wodehouse once lived — a connection celebrated today by the local Emsworth Museum.

The bally Englishness of it all is rounded off with historic Belpher Castle and its inmates – the aristocratic Marshmoretons upstairs, and a below-stairs cast headed by Keggs the Butler. There’s little to like about the Marshmoretons, who are one of the scaliest gangs of invertebrates and inveritable snobs Wodehouse ever assembled. Even Lady Maud Marshmoreton, the Damsel in Distress of the title, is one of Wodehouse’s least likeable heroines (in my view).

These Marshmoretons need a good shake-up and Wodehouse gives it to them in the form of romantic entanglements with unsuitable Americans — Broadway composer George Bevan and chorus girl Billie Dore. The Americans inject much needed life and Broadway sparkle into the story. They steal all their scenes and render their stuffy English counterparts even more colourless.

‘You aren’t George Bevan!’


‘I am!’

‘But’ – Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’

Perhaps this reflects Wodehouse’s own experience as an Englishman in New York. He had been living and working there for around five years when A Damsel in Distress was written, following previous visits in 1904 and 1909. It may also reflect good commercial sense. Upstairs-downstairs dramas and stories transplanting Americans into the British aristocracy may have already become clichéd by Wodehouse’s day (I’m guessing here), but even in 2019 they remain unaccountably popular. Or at least this popularity is unaccountable to me — when it comes to Downton Abbey, I’m with David Mitchell.

But I digress…

1919 Damsel in Distress ITALIAN
Una Damigella In Pericolo

A Damsel in Distress is a popular favourite among Wodehouse readers – it has a 4 and half star rating on Goodreads and has been translated into multiple languages, including five Italian translations.

The plot has also been adapted for film and stage several times, including a silent film released in October 1919 — when the ink on Wodehouse’s Saturday Evening Post original was barely dry.

Wodehouse himself was involved in developing the script for a 1937 film musical adaptation starring Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns and Gracie Allen – with a fabulous score by George Gershwin. Brain Taves has written about this film’s fascinating history for Plum Lines (Journal of the US Wodehouse Society):

“On the advice of George Ger­shwin, RKO producer Pandro Ber­man bought the screen rights to A Damsel in Distress in November 1936. Gershwin had collaborated in the theater with Wodehouse before he wrote the novel, and Gershwin believed that the character of the music writer named George Bevan in A Damsel in Distress was based on him. Gershwin’s nine songs for the film were composed before the script was written, and he died during production of the movie.”

Brian Taves: A Damsel in Distress: Novel, to Play, to Film
Plum Lines Vol. 2 2 No.3 Autumn 2001

Stage performances of A Damsel in Distress include a 1928 adaptation written by Wodehouse and Ian Hay, which ran at the New Theatre in London –with a young Joan Hickson among the cast. And in 2015, I was fortunate enough to see a wonderful adaptation by Rob Ashford at the Chichester Festival.

While A Damsel in Distress is not one of my own favourite Wodehouse novels, I give it a solid 3 stars (if I rated everything Wodehouse wrote as equally excellent, I’d have no credibility). I suspect I’m in a minority among Wodehouse fans on this one, however, and I have no wish to detract from the pleasure this work brings to others. It remains a ‘must-read’ for Wodehouse fans, particularly for Wodehouse’s Broadway insights.

And the glimmer of his genius is present, as always.

‘A cat, on its way back from lunch, paused beside him in order to use his leg as a serviette.’

And

‘The furniture had been constructed by somebody who would probably have done very well if he had taken up some other line of industry…’

And

His pause was more eloquent than his speech and nearly as eloquent as his eye.

So don’t take my word for it — if you haven’t read A Damsel in Distress, grab a copy and decide for yourself. The 1937 musical is also available on DVD — here’s a snippet to whet your whistle.

Pip pip to old man trouble
And a toodly-oo too

HP

Further reading

Madam Eulalie: Source of the original Saturday Evening Post header image (above). You’ll also find the original Saturday Evening Post text, illustrations, and annotations.

Reviews of A Damsel in Distress

P.G. Wodehouse in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey

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Wodehouse memorial stone:  Photo by Elin Woodger Murphy

P.G. Wodehouse fans are celebrating the wonderful news from Westminster Abbey,  where a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner has been dedicated to the beloved author.

You can read more about it here:

Congratulations to everyone involved in making this tribute to Wodehouse possible.  I’d love to hear your news and reports of the day.

In the meantime, it seems fitting to close with a dash of Wodehouse.

Living in the country had given Augustine Mulliner the excellent habit of going early to bed. He had a sermon to compose on the morrow, and in order to be fresh and at his best in the morning he retired shortly before eleven. And, as he had anticipated an unbroken eight hours of refreshing sleep, it was with no little annoyance that he became aware, towards midnight, of a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. Opening his eyes, he found that the light had been switched on and that the Bishop of Stortford was standing at his bedside.

‘Hullo!’ said Augustine. Anything wrong?’

The Bishop smiled genially, and hummed a bar or two of the hymn for those of riper years at sea. He was plainly in excellent spirits.

‘Nothing, my dear fellow,’ he replied. ‘In fact, very much the reverse. How are you, Mulliner?’

‘I feel fine, Bish.’

‘I’ll bet you two chasubles to a hassock you don’t feel as fine as I do,’ said the Bishop. ‘It must be something in the air of this place. I haven’t felt like this since Boat Race Night of the year 1893. Wow!’ he continued. ‘Whoopee! How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! Numbers, 44, 5.’

And, gripping the rail of the bed, he endeavoured to balance himself on his hands with his feet in the air.

‘Gala Night’ in Mulliner Nights

HP

Wodehouse’s Anti-Semitism in Context by Elliott Milstein

This article was originally published in the March 2019 edition of Wooster Sauce, the journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

* * *

Wodehouse’s Anti-Semitism in Context

by Elliott Milstein

In searching the internet for reactions to the recent news regarding Westminster Abbey’s plans to dedicate a memorial to P. G. Wodehouse, one of the netizens of PGWNet uncovered an article by Benjamin Ivry in the October 18, 2018, edition of Forward whose title really says it all: “How Lovely P.G. Wodehouse Was – Such a Shame About the Anti-Semitism.”

To put this publication in context, the online journal Forward began life in 1897 as the Yiddish language daily paper Der Forvart, dedicated to the advent of worldwide socialism. Today it remains both Jewish and decidedly left-wing.

As we know, socialists, even in Wodehouse’s time – let alone today, as their numbers dwindle – were not particularly fond of him, partly because of his parodies of them and their cause, and partly because he was seen as advocating for the leisured class. So we should keep in mind that Mr Ivry and his ilk likely come to Wodehouse already thinking him not so “lovely”, despite his use of the word in the title. Ivry even tangentially refers to Wodehouse’s efforts to reduce his tax burden, a gratuitous comment that is clearly an attempt to prejudice his leftward-leaning readership, as such actions would be particularly repugnant to any good socialist.

That being said, there are specific accusations made in the article that deserve an objective response, regardless of its author’s prejudice. In doing so, we need to examine those arguments not only in themselves but also within the context of the extraordinarily complicated and nuanced concept of “anti-Semitism” itself.

There are those who aver that all anti-Semitism is the same. Like some of the aggrieved women of the #MeToo movement who equate any salacious remark with rape, there are many Jews who see anyone who says they’ve been “jewed” at the local greengrocer as a Nazi. I personally do not see these issues in pure black and white, but rather on a continuum. Indeed, the majority of scholars on the subject divide anti-Semitism into two categories, frequently labeled “radical” and “genteel”.

Radical anti-Semites are true Jew haters: those who see Jews as enemies, Christ killers, members of a global cabal bent on world domination, who sacrifice gentile children and drink their blood (if you are unfamiliar with the infamous “blood libel”, I assure you this is not an exaggeration). Such people see Jews as deserving not only of persecution but annihilation.

The more genteel variety are those who merely indulge in Jewish stereotypes: the hard-nosed and even corrupt businessman – greedy, grubbing, cheap, excessively uxorious, vaguely obnoxious; people who look funny, dress funny, and talk funny; what Margalit Fox, in her excellent book Conan Doyle for the Defence refers to as “the Other”. They would be abhorred at the idea of persecuting or harming Jews in any way, but they’d rather avoid them, if they can, preferring to associate with PLU (“people like us”). They are not above making a nasty crack from time to time, but more in the way of a witticism than a true expression of grievance, much as such a one may callously mock a person with a lisp or physical deformity.

Ivry makes no specific distinction on the continuum but, based on his arguments, seems to see Wodehouse in both lights, though perhaps more genteel than radical. His arguments fall into three categories: the wartime broadcasts, evidence from his writings, and his private reflections and personal letters.

I will not take the time here to rehash the broadcast arguments and counter-arguments. I will assume that the Sauce readership is fully familiar with this canard and its refutations. Suffice it to say that anyone who believes, as Ivry clearly does, that Wodehouse made these broadcasts out of sympathy with the Nazi cause would certainly believe him to be a radical anti-Semite, but he would just as certainly be wrong. Let us leave this entire subject in the dustbin of history where it belongs and look at the arguments from his writings.

To begin, we must remember that genteel anti-Semitism was so infused in Victorian and Edwardian society that it was virtually everywhere. Perhaps the most notorious example of an anti-Semitic character of the time was Dickens’s Fagin from Oliver Twist. But Dickens himself never saw it as such. When challenged by a Jewish acquaintance, Eliza Davis, for perpetrating this “great wrong” against her people, Dickens protested that he had “no feeling towards Jews but a friendly one”. When asked why he made such a point of making Fagin Jewish, his long reply could be summed up as “literary convention”. In fact, after this exchange, Dickens felt so bad about Fagin that he deliberately made the Jew Riah in his next book, Our Mutual Friend, a remarkably good and sympathetic character. Davis responded by presenting Dickens with a Hebrew-English Bible inscribed, in part, with thanks for “atoning for an injury as soon as being conscious of having inflicted it”. (Our Mutual Friend, Penguin Books, note on page 820 by editor, Adrian Poole)

When I was working on my Wodehouse thesis back in 1976, I was deeply fortunate to have as my adviser J. M. Cameron, a British professor of the old school, recently retired and transplanted from his position as Chair of Philosophy at the University of Leeds to my school, St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. This article does not give me ample space to fully describe this wonderful man, but he was, for one of his time and upbringing, extraordinarily dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism of all kinds. He told me that after Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938), he vowed he would never let even the most innocent anti-Semitic comment made in his presence go unchallenged.

One day as I was discussing my research before I even began writing the paper, he asked me if I had seen any anti-Semitic references in Wodehouse’s writing. I told him I had not. He replied, “He would be quite unique for that period if there were none. Look for them. I am sure you will find them.” And, of course, put on the scent like that, I did. Because, after all, as Prof. Cameron pointed out to me later, virtually every British writer of the time did. The question for us today – post-Kristallnacht, post-Holocaust – is whether, like Henry James, George Orwell, Graham Greene, H. G. Wells, etc., they fell into the genteel category; or, like T. S. Eliot, H. Rider Haggard, Sapper, John Buchan, etc., into the more virulent radical kind; or, like Dorothy L. Sayers, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, etc., somewhere on the continuum.

In Wodehouse’s early books and stories, there are several (no more than four or five, I believe) references to “Jews” as such. The most memorable for me was in Money for Nothing, when John Carroll, in order to distract Pat Wyvern during an especially embarrassing moment in a night club, remarks: “That man . . . looks like a Jewish black beetle.” A gratuitous remark, until one realizes that the character referred to is a “Mr A. Baerman”, the name of the Jewish literary agent who stole Wodehouse’s copyright to Love Among the Chickens. So this quick comment was really just Wodehouse getting a little of his own back at this admittedly nasty man.

But Ivry ignores all of these references (probably he is unaware of them, as they are so few and far between) and, indeed, eschews the more well-known examples of the Jewish money lenders disguised as Scotsmen in Leave It to Psmith; Ukridge’s nefarious partner, Isaac O’Brien, in ‘The Exit of Battling Billson’; or the obnoxious behaviour of the Cohen Brothers in ‘The Ordeal of Oswald Mulliner’. And truly, all of this is pretty mild stuff. I bring it up merely to point out that, as Owen Dudley Edwards states in his book P. G. Wodehouse, “Wodehouse for the most part showed himself far above the magazines where he learned his craft, and even here his shortcomings, while cheap, have nothing of the smooth venom apparent in many of his fellow-writers’ comments on ‘Hebrews’.”

Ivry instead concentrates his ire on Wodehouse’s portrayal of the Hollywood magnates Jacob Z. Schnellenhamer, Isadore Fishbein, and Ben Zizzbaum. There is no doubt that the names chosen are deliberately Jewish-sounding and the characters themselves are far from sympathetic. But it remains that there is no commentary by Wodehouse in the stories on any aspect of their Jewishness, nor are any of the stereotypical attributes played upon. Most likely, these movie executives are given Jewish names for the simple reason that movie magnates in the 1930s were, in fact, predominantly Jewish, something Wodehouse knew firsthand, and it would have been odd if he hadn’t given these characters Jewish names. This is hardly evidence of an anti-Semitic attitude.

It is also important to note that, post-Holocaust, even these mild references to Jews disappear entirely. The character of Ivor Llewelyn – introduced as “Ikey” in The Luck of the Bodkins (1935), making fun of him adopting a false Welsh name – comes back in the 1970s in two books as a much more sympathetic figure, and his Welshness is legitimized with a reference to a Welsh school marm in his childhood, removing even the tiny trace of Jewishness with which he was created. Thus, in a way it can be said that Wodehouse, too, atoned for an injury when he became conscious of having inflicted it.

When asked why the word “Jew” had been removed from later editions of Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train, Graham Greene responded that “after the Holocaust one couldn’t use the word Jew in the loose way one used it before the war. . . . [T]he casual references to Jews [are] a sign of those times when one regarded the word Jew as almost a synonym for capitalist.” In other words, seen through the magnifying lens of the Holocaust, earlier ‘genteel’ anti-Semitism grows to look more like the ‘radical’ version, when clearly that was never the author’s intent. Even the unworldly Wodehouse saw the truth of this and reacted similarly.

The final argument Ivry makes is that Wodehouse’s anti-Semitic attitudes can be gleaned by his references to Jews in his private letters. These are potentially more damning because they reflect Wodehouse the man, not the writer, as speaker and are therefore more likely to reflect his true feelings. Also, many of the examples are post-Holocaust.

The first example Ivry gives, however, is from Hollywood before the war, claiming that Brian Taves notes that “some of Wodehouse’s fellow screenwriters suspected him of being anti-Semitic”. He supports this by citing Philip Dunne, whom even Ivry notes was “left-wing”; Dunne “believed Wodehouse’s ‘hatred’ for members of the SWG [Screen Writers Guild] . . . was an anti-Semitic matter.” The truth behind this story, which is available in full in Brian Taves’s excellent book P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood, is that Wodehouse was being heavily recruited by Dunne to leave the mainstream, extant Screen Playwrights union for the new, socialist SWG, but Wodehouse refused, even showing the other union Dunne’s recruitment letters. Dunne never forgave him and perpetrated this scandal in retaliation.

According to Taves, Dunne was the only screenwriter to accuse Wodehouse of anti-Semitism, not “some of [his] fellow screenwriters”. Here, it seems, Ivry’s prejudice takes the form of deliberate deception to perpetrate what he must have known was a falsehood.

The same is true of Ivry’s use of his later letters. Without rehashing each example, I will say that the only thing damning about the references, when one looks at them closely, is that Wodehouse refers to several Jewish people as “Jews”. Now, one can question why – when complaining, for instance, about how “repulsive” Groucho Marx had become in the 1950s (a perfectly reasonable complaint, I’m sad to say) – he had to describe him as a “middle-aged Jew” rather than a “middle-aged man”, but as Groucho’s Jewishness always was quite manifest, it is hardly significant evidence of an anti-Semitic remark, but more as a colorful descriptor.

The fact is that context is everything. In my own family, when discussing where to dine out, one family member will sometimes turn down a choice of restaurant as having “too many Jews”. Clearly an anti-Semitic remark, right? In actuality, we all know that what she means is that she prefers going somewhere where we are unlikely to run into a lot of people we know. It is a remark made in private to people who know exactly what she means, but, taken out of context and made public, it sounds awful. We must remember that the true context of Wodehouse’s letters to friends and family cannot be fully known.

Here, finally, is the most outrageous example from Ivry’s article, in which context is deliberately hidden. He quotes the following from a letter to Bill Townend dated January 15, 1949: “A curious thing about American books these days is that so many of them are Jewish propaganda. Notice in [Norman Mailer’s] ‘The Naked and the Dead’ how the only decent character is Goldstein. [Irwin Shaw’s] ‘The Young Lions’ is the same. It is a curious trend. The Jews have suddenly become terrifically vocal. Did you see that picture, ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’?”

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? But then read the passage that Ivry leaves out, which immediately follows: “I am wondering if that book of yours about Jews might not do well over here. If you will send me a script, I will see what I can do with it.” (Thanks to Sophie Ratcliffe [P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, p.427] for making this research possible!)

So, what out of context looks like a complaint about the sudden vocalness and pushiness of Jews, is, in context, a prelude to Wodehouse’s offer to promote Townend’s book about Jews. This is hardly the action of an anti-Semite.

When I see examples of people in the early 21st century judging people over a hundred years ago by today’s standards, I always reflect that the young people of the 22nd century are just as likely to feel the same about me because I eat meat or have supported my local zoo, or committed some other future solecism I cannot even imagine. Attitudes and mores change over time, thank goodness. Context is everything.

P. G. Wodehouse was, by all accounts, a mild, kindly, and benign man, but he was a man of his time. It is natural that his attitudes toward the Jewish people were influenced by that, and such attitudes would manifest. But within context, and especially in comparison to his contemporaries, he still remains, in my estimation, a mild, kindly, and benign man, and our post-Holocaust sense of what constitutes anti-Semitism simply does not apply here.

* * *

My thanks to Elliott Milstein for his permission to share this piece at Plumtopia.

HP

Wodehouse and Plumtopia

Taking a short break from shameless self promotion here at Plumtopia because, I am gratified to report, an outstanding chap by the name of Phil Chapman has said all manner of nice things about Plumtopia at his Ukebloke blog.

The credit is all Wodehouse’s of course, but I still get a warm inner glow knowing people enjoy the curated highlights here at Plumtopia.

HP

Ukebloke's Ukeblog

Once again, I’ve taken my eye off the Ukeblog ball for five minutes and more than two years have elapsed.

After this most recent Ukeblog hiatus, I felt moved to post something, having just stumbled upon a rather splendid blog, dedicated to all things P. G. Wodehouse. I discovered Honoria Plum‘s A Centenary of My Man Jeeves post via Twitter and soon found myself diverted from whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, as I enjoyed a pleasant stroll around Plumtopia.

I now realise:

a) I’ve neglected P.G. Wodehouse for far too long; I must revisit old favourites and discover new gems I never got round to reading.

b) The person expecting an email from me by 5pm is now disappointed and will become even more disappointed, as I’ve barely started putting it together.

c) My tea’s gone cold.

All signs of a very welcome distraction.

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