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.
He was sorry, he wrote, that he would be unable to see Miss Petherick-Soames on the morrow, as they had planned, owing to his unfortunately being called away to Australia. He added that he was pleased to have made her acquaintance and that if, as seemed probable, they never saw each other again, he would always watch her future career with interest.
‘The Ordeal of Osbert Mulliner’ (Mr Mulliner Speaking)
Like Osbert Mulliner, I was recently compelled to compose a similar communication to friends and well-wishers in the United Kingdom and prepare for an antipodean journey of indefinite duration.
But wait…. I’m getting ahead of myself.
The adventure started, you may recall, in the March of 2012, with some harmless musing on the Plumtopian dream. Later that year my family and I left Australia for the UK, and I’ve enjoyed some wonderfully Wodehousian experiences in the years that followed.
Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet other Wodehouse lovers in London, Amsterdam, and PSeattle U.S.A. I went on one of Norman Murphy’s famous Wodehouse walks, and had the honour of visiting P.G. Wodehouse’s step-grandson, Sir Edward Cazalet and seeing his family’s impressive Wodehouse archive collection.
The friendship and generosity I’ve encountered among fellow Wodehousians has been incredible, and so it was with heavy heart that I informed friends of my impending return to Australia. The reasons for my return are complex – ‘wheels within wheels’ — but my Wodehouse chums rose to the occasion. We were treated to wonderful farewells by Tony and Elaine Ring, Hilary Bruce (P G Wodehouse Society Chair), and Elin Woodger Murphy, who also saw us off to Heathrow in great style.
All of these wonderful new friends and experiences I owe to Wodehouse.
Building a new life in Australia will be challenging, but I’m returning with renewed determination to find fellow Wodehouse lovers, and introduce his work to new readers. Once the dust has settled, I’ll continuing writing on the subject of Wodehouse — here at Plumtopia.
Reginald Jeeves holds a firm place in the hearts of P.G. Wodehouse readers. Arguably Wodehouse’s best known character, Jeeves appeared in 11 novels and 35 short stories as Bertie Wooster’s ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’, and Bill Rowcester’s gentleman in Ring for Jeeves. More than a century after he first appeared in print, the name Jeeves is known by millions of people around the world, many of whom have never read a Jeeves story — such has his fame permeated the crust of human consciousness.
It is therefore fitting that the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree this week in remembrance of the man who inspired the name — cricketer Percy Jeeves.
Wodehouse had seen Percy Jeeves playing for Warwickshire in a match at Cheltenham in 1913, and had admired his bowling. When Wodehouse was contemplating a name for his new character, Jeeves popped obligingly into his head.
For those with an understanding of cricket, it is easy to visualise the Jeeves we know as one of those dignified bowlers whose graceful delivery of the ball hides the full mental powers of the expert strategist.
For those without an expert knowledge of cricket, I offer this description by cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta (also a Wodehouse enthusiast) of my favourite bowler, Malcolm Marshall:
But, his craft, built on raw pace, did not end there. It was enhanced by weaponry of the sharpest kind. He could swing it both ways, with his hand rather than movement of the body. This made his swing as difficult to read as the leg-breaks and googlies of the canniest leg-spinner… When his whims willed, he could change his pace, varying between express, lightning and just fast, or even slowing down to medium.
To a mere observer of the game, it comes almost as a surprise to hear Marshall described as a fast bowler. As Sengupta says of Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz : “From far away, sitting outside the fence, he often looked a gentle medium pacer.” Similarly, Malcolm Marshall’s approach always seemed to me (admittedly a child at the time) so effortless and calm that it was almost leisurely.
He just sort of shimmered in.
Wodehouse may have consciously only claimed the Jeeves name, but the character he created exhibits all the characteristics of a fine bowler. Wodehouse was sound on cricket, and I think we can safely assume that Percy Jeeves was something special.
This week, the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree in Percy Jeeves’ honour as part of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, commemorating the centenary of his death at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. He never knew of the character Wodehouse named after him.
The full tragedy of the Somme is beyond our comprehension, particularly for those of us who have been fortunate to live through relatively peaceful times. The story of Percy Jeeves, whose promising life was cut senselessly short, is one of millions. Men were sent to their deaths en masse, buried en masse, and are now remembered en masse by subsequent generations. It is easy to lose sight of them as living, breathing, feeling people — and important to commemorate their lives individually where we can.
Well done to the PG Wodehouse Society, Percy Jeeves’ family, Cheltenham Cricket Festival and Cheltenham College for making this commemoration possible.
My pals in the society, knowing that I was chained to a desk in neighbouring Somerset and no doubt wanting to cheer me up, kindly sent me photos to share via Twitter during the day time. Some of their photos are used here, with kind permission.
More on cricket
For more on Percy Jeeves’ cricketing career, I recommend John Pennington’s recent piece in Cricketworld .
For anyone wishing to continue their cricket education, or simply relive memories of a golden age, I offer the following footage of Malcolm Marshall’s 10 wicket haul at Lords in 1988. In the spirit of the Jeeves, I feel obliged to observe that this match took place before the adoption of garish trousers, besmirched by branding, became widespread.
It is not unreasonable to assume that when the assorted dignitaries of Bath bunged off their application for UNESCO World Heritage listing, the fact that P.G. Wodehouse lived here as a boy was pretty high up on their list of reasons. No doubt it weighed heavily with the judges. And yet, in all the historical and literary guides to Bath I find no mention of Wodehouse. Walking tours do not pass his former residence. No miniature of his likeness can be viewed in the Jane Austen or Holbourne Museums. How can this be?
I suspect the answer lies in the rather embarrassing truth (one not so universally acknowledged) that of all the places in which P.G. Wodehouse resided, Bath appears to be the only one in which he did not write. He wrote as a school boy. He wrote in London, and in Emsworth (Hampshire). He wrote in New York and Long Island, in Hollywood and in France. He even continued writing while imprisoned in a succession of German prison camps in 1940-41. When he died in 1975, there was an ‘unfinished manuscript beside his chair’. But in Bath, Somerset, where this prolific life-long writer lived for three years, he produced nothing at all.
By his own admission:
From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)
Over Seventy (1956)
It was in Bath, Somerset, that P.G. Wodehouse spent these loafing years.
P.G Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881 while his mother was visiting England from Hong Kong. Wodehouse’s father was in the colonial Civil Service, and the infant Plum returned to Hong Kong with his mother. In 1883, young Wodehouse returned to England to live with his brothers Peveril and Armine at number 17 Sion Hill, Bath. The Wodehouse boys lived under the care of Nanny Roper, surrounded by maternal relations (the Deane family) who lived next door and elsewhere in Sion Hill.
The same cannot be said going up the hill, which I foolishly attempted on a bicycle, in the rain. It was a mad scheme, particularly when a number 700 omnibus would have sufficed. But as I huffed and puffed and cursed my way up the hill, I reflected that my chosen method of conveyance added a dash of Wodehouse spirit to the occasion, invoking poor Bertie Wooster’s distraught eighteen-mile round trip from Brinkley Court to Kingham in Right Ho, Jeeves.
Arriving at Sion Hill in a dishevelled state of the kind guaranteed to raise even the most broad-minded Bath eyebrow, I abandoned my scheme of knocking on doors with an introductory ‘What Ho!’ Instead, I snapped a few souvenir photographs and soaked up the genteel atmosphere of young Wodehouse’s formative surroundings.
Following Sion Hill as it loops around past local allotments and the Golf Course, the city of Bath appears deceptively distant, an impressionist canvas of blurred green and sun-flecked stone. Here on the hill the soundscape is idyllic too, dominated by the rustle of the trees, not the bustle of town. Jane Austen, who famously disliked Bath, might have preferred it from this distance.
There is a sense of well-heeled serenity here that makes it easy to imagine the young Wodehouse boys at play, over a century ago. The possibilities for exploration are just the sort a growing lad requires before returning home for tea with Nanny Roper.
Some have suggested Miss Roper may have been the model for Wodehouse’s fictional nanny, Nurse Wilks in Portrait of a Disciplinarian. One can readily imagine Miss Roper having good cause to thunder at her charges to ‘WIPE YOUR BOOTS!’
As Mr Mulliner’s nephew Frederick reflected:
The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.
Portrait of a Disciplinarian (in Meet Mr Mulliner) 1927
Frederick Mulliner’s Nurse Wilks is not quite a spent force.
The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round he perceived a different person altogether from the mild and kindly hostess of a moment back. It was plain that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
‘Theideaofyourbringingyournastydirtybootsintomynicecleanhousewithoutwipingthem!’ said Nurse Wilks
Almost 90 years later, P.G. Wodehouse introduced the television adaptation of Portrait of a Disciplinarian as part of the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse series, with Daphne Heard playing Nurse Wilks to perfection.
I left Sion Hill with a contented feeling that Wodehouse’s formative years were spent in such an appealing place, and that these loafing years were not perhaps, so entirely misspent as Wodehouse would have us believe.
The young Plum left Bath in 1886 to attend the Chalet School, in Croydon, Surrey. His literary career began shortly thereafter when, at the age of five, he composed his first poem.
My journey to Sion Hill ended, as these jaunts so often do, with a nourishing beaker at a local pub, where I was chuffed to observe that a table for two had been reserved in the name of Murphy — it provided a fitting moment to toast Norman Murphy who had kindly provided me with the Bath addresses.
Last weekend I visited the charming Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon for a bit of browsing and sluicing with fellow members of the PG Wodehouse Society — the first, we hope, of many gatherings in the South-West. Our luncheon took place at an outstanding local pub called The Longs Arms and we were unanimous in the view that, should we ever extend our activities to include compiling a Pub Guide for Wodehouse fans, the Longs Arms would make a worthy inclusion — the only obstacle being a lack of any obvious Wodehouse connection, unless you’re prepared to accept Haddock on the menu and the Mullineresque conversation of our very own ‘oldest member’, Graham.
From the moment I alighted from the train at Bradford on Avon, I was struck with Wodehouse associations (not at the base of the skull with an eel skin, fortunately). The most obvious of these is the town’s celebration of The Gudgeon in the title of their town newsletter, a local ale, and more. The Gudgeon they’re honouring is of course the fishy variety, and not the memorable character created by P.G. Wodehouse.
Hilda Gudgeon has long held a special place in my heart, though she appears only briefly in The Mating Season as Madeline Bassett’s school friend. Bertie describes her as ‘a solid, hefty girl, of the type which plays five sets of tennis without turning a hair…’. This Gudgeon is refreshingly unlike Madeline, and Bertie is initially disposed to like her (a view he revises when she offers to boost his chances of a union with Madeline).
‘Good morning, Hilda,’ said the Basset in that soupy, treacly voice which had got her so disliked by all right-thinking men. ‘What a lovely, lovely morning.’
The solid girl said she didn’t see what was so particularly hot about it, adding that personally she found all mornings foul. She spoke morosely, and I could see that her disappointment in love had soured her, poor soul. I mourned for her distress, and had the circumstances been different, might have reached up and patted her on the head.
If being unlike Madeline Basset isn’t enough inducement, Hilda Gudgeon is also fond of cricket:
‘…Have you seen the paper this morning? It says there’s some talk of altering the leg-before-wicket rule again. Odd how your outlook changes when your heart’s broken. I can remember a time when I’d have been all excited if they altered the leg-before-wicket rule. Now I don’t give a damn. Let ‘em alter it, and I hope they have a fine day for it.’
As you may recall from a previous post, cricket was my first love before discovering Wodehouse, and I’ve always looked on Hilda Gudgeon as a kindred soul –I even made her the central character of my attempt at Wodehouse homage. Seeing the Gudgeon so revered by the good people of Wilshire filled me with joie de vivre. I purchased both their newsletter and their ale – and what’s more, I’d do it again!
Leaving Gudgeons to one side for the moment (preferably not in the sun) there are Wodehouse connections in the area around Bradford on Avon. Young Wodehouse spent boyhood holidays with relations in Wiltshire and nearby Somerset, making it probable that he would have visited the town. His mother’s family, the Deanes, excelled at the production of spinster Aunts, a gaggle of whom lived just five and half miles away in the village of Box. Deanes also pop up in the registers at Freshford, three miles to the West, and the area known as ‘the Deverells’ is roughly twenty miles away. This combination of Aunts, Deverills, Gudgeons and Haddock can only mean one thing to a Wodehouse fan – The Mating Season.
We may never know if young Wodehouse passed the Longs Arms on a country walk, or called in for a whiskey and splash with the local raconteur, but if you’re looking for a fine lunch in Wodehouse territory, I heartily recommend it. Better still, why not join us next time? We’re planning further exploratory jaunts in the region so please get in touch. We look forward to meeting you, although… I can’t promise that I won’t slap you on the back and address you with offensive familiarity — in the spirit of the Gudgeons.
The solid girl, whom I had dimly heard telling the gardener he needn’t be afraid of breaking that spade by leaning on it, came back and immediately proceeded, in what I considered an offensively familiar manner, to give me a hearty slap on the back.
‘Well, Wooster, old bloke,’ she said.
‘Well, Gudgeon, old bird,’ I replied courteously.
N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.
‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’
Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.
The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.
The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.
There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.
(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)
Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.
There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘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! …’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.
We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.
My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.
When you are shut up all the year round in a place like Maiden Eggesford, with nothing to do but wash underclothing and attend Divine Service, you naturally incline to let yourself go a bit at times of festival and holidays.
‘Tried in the Furnace’ (Young Men in Spats)
What Ho! What Ho!
I’m in an effervescent sort of mood today as I’m about to motor to the seaside for a short, much-needed holiday. My journey will take in the Dorset towns of Maiden Newton and Bridport, which the scholars at Madam Eulalie suggest as likely locations for P.G. Wodehouse’s Maiden Eggesford and Bridmouth-on-Sea.
Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton visit Maiden Eggesford in one of my favourite Wodehouse stories, ‘Tried in the Furnace’, where they both fall in love with the Reverend P.P. Briscoe’s daughter, Angelica. In accordance with her wishes, Barmy reluctantly agrees to take the Village Mothers on their Annual Outing.
The proceedings would appear to have opened in a quiet and orderly manner. Sixteen females of advanced years assembled in a motor coach, and the expedition was seen off from the Vicarage door by the Rev P.P. Briscoe in person. Under his eye, Barmy tells me, the Beauty Chorus was demure and docile. It was a treat to listen to their murmured responses. As nice and respectable a bunch of mothers, Barmy says, as he had ever struck. His only apprehension at this point, he tells me, was lest the afternoon’s proceedings might possibly be a trifle stodgy. He feared a touch of ennui.
He needn’t have worried. There was no ennui.
The human cargo, as I say, had started out in a spirit of demureness and docility. But it was amazing what a difference a mere fifty yards of the high road made to these Mothers. No sooner were they out of sight of the Vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent. The first intimation Barmy had that the binge was going to be run on lines other than those which he had anticipated was when a very stout mother in a pink bonnet and a dress covered with bugles suddenly picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which, all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell, and it was plain that they considered that the proceedings had now been formally opened.
Life is short. Holidays are even shorter. I shall be taking the commendable spirit of the mothers of Maiden Eggesford on mine.
‘P. G. Wodehouse was born on 15 October 1881, at 1 Vale Place, Epsom Road Guildford’ begins Frances Donaldson in her 1982 Authorized Biography, summing the matter up rather neatly.
The house in Surrey was not the Wodehouse home.The family lived in Hong Kong, where P.G.’s father Henry Wodehouse was a magistrate in the Colonial Civil Service. His mother Eleanor was visiting England, staying with a sister in the neighbouring village of Bramley. Eleanor was visiting friends in Epsom Road when the infant Plum popped out unexpectedly. The house is remembered today with a blue plaque over the door.
I’m grateful to have received detailed information about Wodehouse locations in England from Wodehouse expert N.T.P Murphy, whose essential work on the subject includes Three Wodehouse Walks and In Search of Blandings. If you fancy marking the occasion of Wodehouse’s birth with a little gift to yourself, I can recommend both books, as well as Murphy’s other Wodehouse related writing.
At my house, Wodehouse’s birthday provides the perfect excuse for me to stake a rare claim over the television and spend an evening revisiting one of the better adaptations. Tonight, I’m planning to watch the 1995 BBC adaptation of Heavy Weather, which is distressingly unavailable on DVD, but some worthy humanitarian has made it available via Youtube.If you’ve not seen it already, you have a real treat ahead of you.
I recently took a well-thumbed copy of Wodehouse’s French Leave on holiday to Paris, a city famed for its literary connections. P.G. Wodehouse was briefly a resident, and opens the second chapter of French Leave (1956) there:
As the clocks of Paris were striking eleven on a morning three weeks after the Bensonburg expeditionary force had set out for Europe, a tall, willowy, elegant figure dressed in the extreme of fashion, turned the corner of the Rue Belleau and entered the Rue Vanaye. It was Nicholas Jules St Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne, affectionately known to his friends, of whom he had many in all walks of life, as Old Nick.
This ‘Bensonburg expeditionary force’ are three Trent sisters, chicken-farmers from Long Island USA. Having received a modest lump sum, they decide to take a well-earned jaunt to the French resort towns of St. Rocque and Roville. Our heroine is Terry (short for Teresa), who falls in love with Old Nick’s son Jeff. Wodehouse is in top form, expertly employing all the usual comic devices to bring our lovers together. As we expect from Wodehouse, the marriage quest involves overcoming a lack of money and parental objections, as well as painful misunderstandings, and other romantic entanglements.
French Leave also deviates from the classic Wodehouse novel. It is set in France, with a French and American cast. The French flavour includes a summer festival, a corruptible Commissaire of Police, and even a risqué bedroom scene. Terry Trent is the central character, and although she is not Wodehouse’s only female lead, we are more accustomed to following the hero. It is clear that in French Leave, Wodehouse is trying something a little different – and he does it superbly.
French Leave was not universally well-received back in 1956, and it seems modern readers (judging by ‘Good Reads’ reviews) are similarly inclined to prefer it when Wodehouse sticks to his established formula and characters. This seems a shame, because there is much to enjoy in Wodehouse’s stand-alone novels. One of the delights of French Leave is the Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne. Old Nick steals the show with a terrific personality, reminiscent of Ukridge.
Old Nick quivered at the magic word. Americans were always rich. God bless America, he had often felt, unconsciously plagiarizing the poet Berlin.
‘She has a suite on the first floor.’
Old Nick quivered again. He knew what those suites on the first floor of the Hotel Splendide cost.
‘Looks a nice girl,’ said Jeff carelessly. ‘I’ve seen her about the place. I’ve wished occasionally that there was some way of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Some way?’ Old Nicks voice trembled. ‘There are a hundred ways of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Such as —?’
‘Save her from drowning.’
‘She’d be much more likely to save me. She’s a wonderful swimmer. I’ve—er—happened to see her once or twice. But she goes out too far, much too far,’ said Jeff earnestly. ‘It’s dangerous. Suppose she got a cramp? It makes me anxious. Any other suggestions as to what I could save her from? Fire? Runaway horse? Assassins?’
‘Don’t treat this thing with levity,’ said Old Nick severely. He was still thinking of that suite on the first floor. ‘I don’t like to feel that a son of mine is lacking in enterprise. Get into a conversation with her—casually, as it were.’
My favourite passage in French Leave provides an excellent example of Wodehouse demonstrating (again) a depth of understanding he is rarely credited with. Here is Old Nick, explaining a prolonged absence from work to his employer:
‘What happens? I wake. I rise. I shave. I bathe. I breakfast. I take my hat and cane. I say to myself ‘And now for the bureau.’ I go out into the street, and at once I am in a world of sunshine and laughter and happiness, a world in which it seems ridiculous to be shut up in a stuffy office with the senile Soupe and the homicidal Letondu. And all of a sudden. . . how it happens I couldn’t tell you . . . I find myself in a chair on the boulevard, a cigarette between my lips, coffee and a cognac in front of me. It’s a most mysterious state of affairs.’
‘A state of affairs which cannot—’
‘But I am strong,’ proceeded Nick. ‘I take out my watch and lay it on the table. ‘When the hands point to eleven,’ I say to myself, ‘Ho for the bureau.’ And when they point to eleven, I say ‘Ho for the bureau when they point to half past.’ And when they point to half past—’
‘You wait til noon and then go off to lunch?’
Old Nick, unaccustomed to office life, finds the prospects of a fine day cooped up at work unendurable. Instead of enduring, as we workers do, he bucks. We can only dream of following his example. My own life is ebbing away inside a tiny, windowless office — designed by the sort of people who feel that a combination of concrete and asbestos makes the perfect work environment — and not a day passes when I don’t feel it. Old Nick’s defiance brings us both pleasure and a reminder of our pain.
Nor is this a one-off. Wodehouse (who was once a bank employee) releases many captive workers in his stories, and there is a depth to this recurring theme that his critics (and even some fans) overlook, especially if they are readers who lead easy lives. There’s nothing wrong with an easy life, but for those less fortunate, Wodehouse gets to heart of our plight — it’s no surprise to us that George Orwell was a Wodehouse fan.
Similar sentiments are expressed by the chicken-farming Trent sisters :
‘Here we are, young, ardent idealistic, yearning for life and love and laughter, and what do we get? Eggs.’
Like the Trent girls, my trip to Paris was a fleeting escape that drained the family coffers, but was worth every penny.
While strolling in the Latin Quarter, I spotted a man who might have been the Marquis himself, long haired in the style of Louis the Somethingth, wearing flamboyant purple trousers and a pair of preposterous gentleman’s heels. His face was furnished with a dashing moustache. I don’t wish to give the impression that all of France was got up in this sort of fancy dress, but I was delighted to encounter such a character in 21st century Paris. I do hope he was bunking off work!
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Plumtopia is the growing sense that I’m no longer alone in the world; it has been a great pleasure to make new friends, here and elsewhere, through a shared love of Wodehouse. And when my own pilgrimage to the important Wodehouse sites is progressing more slowly than I’d like, I enjoy living vicariously through the experiences of others. Fortunately, we Wodehouse fans are an uncommonly good natured bunch, happy to share our stories in the interests of spreading sweetness and light. My thanks to Arvind Swarup for sharing his.
I am hoping to visit Remsenburg myself, on route to the 2015 Wodehouse society conference Psmith in Pseattle.