Bertie isn’t keen on visiting Steeple Bumpleigh, home to Aunt Agatha, the most terrifying of his aunts. But Jeeves is keen to do a spot of fishing and Uncle Percy needs Jeeves’ help in finding a way to pull off a big business deal, so Bertie gives in gracefully. After all, Aunt Agatha is off elsewhere on a visit, ex-fiancée Florence Craye can be no threat to his bachelorhood now that she’s engaged to D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright, and while his young cousin Edwin is always a pestilence, how much harm could one Boy Scout possibly do? But when Florence and Stilton fall out over Stilton’s insistence on being the village policeman and Edwin burns down Bertie’s cottage whilst doing his daily act of kindness, things take a sinister turn. Meantime Uncle Percy is refusing to allow his ward Nobby Hopwood…
It’s here we arrive at the main thrust of this Introduction: literary criticism – which is a significant branch of the Culture Industry – has thus far failed Wodehouse miserably; that is, when it has deigned to notice him. And this has long hindered a true appreciation of his achievements not just as a great comic writer, but as a great writer and Artist…
Whenever I try to describe this blog to people who don’t read it and, let’s face it, probably didn’t ask and don’t want to know, they seem to come away with the impression that I write book reviews. But between ourselves, I find book reviews incredibly difficult and rarely attempt them.
I mean, it’s easy enough to write a ripping admonishment of a uniformly dreadful book, but who has the time to read dreadful books in these busy modern times, let alone make their authors feel any worse? So too, the kind of self-indulgent opinion sharing that routinely passes for review online, which I’m quite good at. Look me up on Twitter, Facebook or Goodreads and you’ll find no shortage of unsubstantiated literary opinions (at least unsubstantiated by me) along the lines of Jane Eyre was a tedious whiner and we’d all be a lot better off if everybody just stuck to reading Wodehouse.
But Paul Kent has written something worthy of more thoughtful review, and I’m dashed if I know how to go about it.
It’s not that I’m lacking in things to say about this book. On the contrary, if you’ll observe my reading copy below, each tag indicates a point on which I’ve been prompted to reflect and want to return to later — so many in fact, that about half way first reading I had to go back and start again with a colour coded system.
This is why, as far as I’m concerned, This is jolly old Fame hits the spot. In some places, Paul Kent makes points that I’ve always wanted to make, but never quite found the right time or had the wit to put into words. To pick just one instance: he says:
…reading even a few Wodehouse novels with reasonably careful attention, there appear scores of themes and recurring motifs which, considered together, add up to something that is both significant and, ultimately, revealing…
And he’s right!
More often, Kent makes points which had never occurred to me, setting my thoughts in a multitude of new directions. He draws on an impressive array of literary sources and opinions, but doesn’t hold back from giving his own – firmly, but respectfully questioning some of the ideas many of us seem to have accepted as lore when it comes to discussing Wodehouse and his work. This is the sort of thinking and writing the world of Wodehouse appreciation needs – and gives the rest of us plenty to talk about.
And this is just Volume 1, with two more volumes to yet come. The focus here is on Wodehouse’s early writing career, influences, and the development of his inimitable style and reputation. Kent begins with this quotation, from one of Wodehouse’s letters to his step-daughter Leonora:
I really am becoming rather a blood these days. . . [In] a review of a book in the Times, they say “The author at times reverts to the P.G. Wodehouse manner”. This, I need scarcely point out to you, is jolly old Fame. Once they begin to refer to you in that casual way as if everybody must know who you are all is well.
I could say more, but each of the many threads I’d like to unpick would lead us to another 1500 or so words of superfluous chattering, when all you really need to know is:
‘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 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!’
‘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…
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.’
‘The furniture had been constructed by somebody who would probably have done very well if he had taken up some other line of industry…’
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
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.
Highballs for Breakfast is a new compilation of P.G. Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of liquor, drinking, Dutch Courage and mornings after, compiled and edited by Richard T. Kelly. It’s a well-researched collection that delves widely into the Wodehouse canon, unearthing plenty of treasures on the subject.
‘…Have you ever tasted a mint-julep, Beach?’
‘Not to my recollection, sir.’
‘Oh, you’d remember all right if you had. Insidious things. They creep up on you like a baby sister and slide their little hands into yours and the next thing you know the judge is telling you to pay the clerk of the court fifty dollars…’
The classic scenes you’d expect to find are here, including Gussie Fink Nottle’s presentation of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School in Right Ho, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster’s ‘a-hunting-we-will-go’ with the port decanter in The Mating Season. But if you’re unfamiliar with Wodehouse’s world beyond the Jeeves stories, this book should also whet your appetite to discover hidden gems like Cocktail Time, Doctor Sally, Uncle Dynamite, Ukridge, and the Mulliner stories.
‘Suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another, what in your view would best meet the case?’
The gentlemanly bar-tender pondered for some moments.
‘Well,’ he replied at length, ‘I advance it, you understand, as a purely personal opinion, and I shall not be in the least offended if you decide not to act upon it; but my suggestion – for what it is worth – is that you try a Dynamite Dew Drop.’
One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.
‘Much better give him a Dreamland Special.’
A second man, in a sweater and a cloth cap, had yet another theory.
Few good books are without controversy; Wodehouse has always attracted his share and Highballs for Breakfast is no exception. The hot topic of discussion among the troops on this occasion is the assessment of Wodehouse’s non-drinkers as ‘puritans and bores’. Richard Kelly introduces this chapter, noting:
Given the affection Wodehouse reserves for cheery serial tipplers, you can well imagine the rough treatment he dishes out to characters who make a terrific show of never touching a drop. A degree of moderation, at times, is commendable, perhaps – but someone who abstains entirely simply cannot be serious.
The teetotallers in our ranks object. Wodehouse certainly created some memorably foul examples of the puritanical temperance advocate. Having lived through prohibition, he would have had a decent supply of real-life examples to work from, adding them to his diverse cast of ridiculous extremists. But Wodehouse’s most degenerate drinkers are not always such affectionate portraits.
Kelly offers Mervyn Potter’s fiancé as an example of the puritanical type; she insists that Mervyn give up drink and threatens to cancel the fixture if he fails. Anyone reading Barmy in Wonderland (as discussed previously at Plumtopia) can see that she has a point. Mervyn is habitually plastered — he gets truculent, creates disturbances and burns down hotels. Wodehouse gets full comedy value from these scenes, but it’s clear that Mervyn Potter is a menace who gives Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps hell. The reader’s sympathies are with Barmy and Potter’s fiancé, on this occasion.
Another character who overdoes his snifters is Reggie Swithin’s Cousin ‘Eggy’ in Laughing Gas. Wodehouse gets good comedic mileage from Eggy, who thinks he is having alcohol induced hallucinations and is persuaded to give up drinking by a temperance group called the Temple of the New Dawn. The female responsible for saving Eggy is a girl called Mabel, and, while undeniably one of the puritans, she is not without her charms. There is no suggestion that Mabel is a bore, or that Eggy is anything but better off when he decides to marry her.
Gussie Fink-Nottle, Wodehouse’s most famous abstainer, may have restricted himself to orange juice, but I don’t recall him ever forcing the subject on his friends. Between a puritanical temperance advocate and a quiet, unassuming teetotaller there is a wide and substantial difference —neither Wodehouse nor Richard T Kelly is really ‘having a go’ at the latter.
A little controversy is good for us –it keeps the mental faculties sharp — but the inclination to analyse or search for deeper meaning in Wodehouse quickly reaches a point where it makes us (well, me usually) look ridiculous. It causes pure minded jaws to clench. ‘Leave Plum alone!’ they cry. ‘He is to be enjoyed, not dissected.’ Spades and soufflés are mentioned. Kelly does not take things too far. He applies an informed, but light touch to the material and lets Wodehouse’s magic do the rest.
I would like to thank Penguin Random House for providing my copy of Highballs for Breakfast. If the producers of fine wine and porter ales would do likewise, Plumtopia would be a far, far brighter place.
To win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House, visit the competition page and and reply by comment before 15 December 2016.
Last week I attended an excellent binge at The Wodehouse Society’s (TWS) 18th convention, Psmith in Pseattle. It was my first TWS convention, and even more psensational than anticipated. So, climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy, and I’ll tell you about it.
As a TWS first timer, I entered the lobby of the impressive Fairmont Olympic Hotel under a cloud –not one of Seattle’s famous v-shaped depressions, but a personal one. Having lived almost exclusively behind a keyboard for the last few years, my people skills are not what they once were. Nor are my trousers, which are let out far more often than I am. So it’s fair to say I was not at my confident best, and beginning to wish I’d stayed under my little rock in Somerset UK. Added to this, I had recklessly agreed to appear as a speaker and was feeling a strong affinity with Bertie Wooster ahead of his infamous talk at Miss Tomlinson’s school for girls.
“Girls,” said Miss Tomlinson, “some of you have already met Mr. Wooster — Mr. Bertram Wooster, and you all, I hope, know him by reputation.” Here, I regret to say, Mr. Wooster gave a hideous, gurgling laugh and, catching Miss Tomlinson’s eye, turned bright scarlet.
in ‘Bertie Changes his Mind’
All that began to change, very quickly. As I traipsed across the lobby, I spied the familiar, well-groomed head of TWS president Karen Shotting rising on the escalator. Recognising her from her photograph, and forgetting that we had never met, I buzzed over to say ‘What Ho’ like a long lost friend. A short while later, I was on back-slapping terms with a substantial gang of Wodehouse experts and enthusiasts, including Tom Smith, Barbara (the dream rabbit) Combs, Elliot Milstein, Bob Raines (soon to be TWS president), Ken Clevenger, and Tony and Elaine Ring. The name Tony Ring is familiar to most Wodehouse enthusiasts and I’d been daunted by the prospect of meeting him, but his effervescent personality put me immediately at ease, and the sparkle in his eye told me that this shindig was going to be fun.
The following morning, I encountered Elin Woodger Murphy (Wooster Sauce editor and all round good egg) sploshing about in the hotel pool. Having already provided me with guidance and support from afar, Elin took me under her wing and, with the fabulous Jean Tilson, we forked our way through some very decent breakfasts at Seattle’s Pike Place market. Later in the lobby of the Fairmont Olympic, I got to meet online friends for the first time — like Vikas Sonak, and David and Katy McGrann — and make new ones, like Katherine Jordan, Eileen Jones and Ninad Wagle (Alpine Joe). From my strategic position by the bar, I was also well-placed to spot debonair newcomers sporting chrysanthemums their in buttonholes [enter John Dawson].
Wodehouse in song
The formalities began on Friday evening with soprano Maria Jette and pianist Dan Chouinard, who performed songs from Wodehouse’s Broadway career and songs mentioned in his work, like My Hero and The Yeoman’s Wedding Song.
A minion came on the stage carrying a table. On this table he placed a framed photograph, and I knew that we were for it. Show Bertram Wooster a table and a framed photograph, and you don’t have to tell him what the upshot is going to be. Muriel Kegley-Bassington stood revealed as a ‘My Hero’ from The Chocolate Soldier addict.
I thought the boys behind the back row behaved with extraordinary dignity and restraint, and their suavity gave me the first faint hope I had had that when my turn came to face the firing quad I might be spared the excesses which I had been anticipating. I would rank ‘My Hero’ next after ‘The ‘Yeoman’s Wedding Song’ as a standee rouser…
in ‘The Mating Season‘
Maria sparkles on the stage like a Wodehouse heroine leapt from the page, and it was a great privilege to hear these songs performed by musicians of such calibre. If you missed out, Maria and Dan’s two CDs of Wodehouse music are available online. Mixing it with the professionals, an enthusiastic Tom Smith (one of our Pseattle hosts) and his associate ‘Percy Pilbeam’ treated us to a rendition of Sonny Boy. No CD recording of this memorable performance has yet been released.
The joy continued on Saturday with riveting talks. If you missed them, they’ll be published in forthcoming editions of Plum Lines, quarterly journal of The Wodehouse Society (US) , not to be confused with Wooster Sauce, quarterly journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) — if you join both societies you get eight lovely journals in the post every year. Each talk was worthy of further discussion, and I took plenty of notes, but for now you’ll have to be content with a summary.
I was riveted from the moment Elliot Milstein drew his first breath, on the subject of Wodehouse’s opening lines, and listening to Ken Clevenger let himself go on the subject of fish was a long-awaited pleasure. During the luncheon break, I made a Skype call to my family in England to gloat that I’d been educated on the difference between orphreys and chasubles by William Scrivener, who was once a pale young curate. Peter Nieuwenhuizen’s talk on Wodehouse in the comics covered new ground (for me at least). Graphic novels are incredibly popular with young readers and the potential for introducing them to Wodehouse in this way is very exciting. Tad Boehmer’s talk on researching Wodehouse took us into the world of special collection libraries (I wanted more!) and Elin Woodger’s topic ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’ was a topic close to my heart (as readers of Plumtopia will know). For anyone still in doubt about Wodehouse’s appeal to women, Elin confirmed that more women had registered for the convention than men.
John Dawson spoke about the exciting Globe Reclamation Project , an international gang of Wodehouse lovers (Dawson, Ananth Kaitharam, Neil Midkiff, Ian Michaud, Arthur Robinson, Raja Srinivasan and Karen Shotting) who have spent the last two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper (1901-1909?), aided and abetted by Wodehouse experts Norman Murphy and Tony Ring. John spoke passionately about his personal quest to find everything Wodehouse wrote, and the hard working collaboration that has provided so much ‘new’ material for all Wodehouse readers to enjoy. The product of their labours is available to read — in two handsomely bound volumes: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking, with funds raised used for ongoing research (any surplus will be spent making Wodehouse books available in school libraries). A discount is available to Wodehouse Society members.
Closing the day, and well worth the wait, was Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum. As someone who has delved so deeply into Wodehouse’s life, it was moving to hear him speak of Wodehouse’s withdrawal from his painful war-time experiences into the ‘wonderland’ he created. As McCrum put it, ‘Wodehouse was, in fact, happiest in a kind of artistic solitary confinement.’
In my talk on the modern Wodehouse reader, I commented that many of us read Wodehouse to escape the irksome captivity of modern life, just as Evelyn Waugh predicted.
Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in —
Listening to Robert McCrum, it became clear to me that Wodehouse needed the world he created as much as we do. It was his ‘Plumtopia’. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to Wodehouse than I did at that moment.
Tony Ring entertained us between talks with something cryptically listed on the programme as ‘Mr. Punch’s Spectral Analyses’. These proved to be a selection of ghost stories written by Wodehouse for Punch magazine (1903-1904) — a fitting selection to mark the occasion of Halloween. Here’s a taste:
A groan and a weird phosphorescent gleam at the foot of the bed told that the spectre had arrived, right on the scheduled time as usual. I took no notice. I wished to make the ghost speak first. A ghost hates to have to begin a conversation.
“You might speak to a chap,” said a plaintive voice, at last.
“Ah, you there?” I said. “The family ghost, I presume?”
“The same,” said the Spectre, courteously, seating himself on the bed. “Frightened?”
“Not in the least.”
“Hair not turned white, I suppose?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Then you are the man I have been wanting to meet for the last hundred years. Reasonable; that’s what you are. I tell you, Sir, it hurts a fellow when people gibber at him, as most of your human beings do. Rational conversation becomes impossible.”
MR. PUNCH’S SPECTRAL ANALYSES II.— The Ghost with Social Tastes. Punch, August 12, 1903
A handsomely printed set of these stories was provided to conference goers, but if you missed out you can read them online at Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums .
Rummage and Revels There is still much to be said– about the masked ball, the costumes, the auction, and NEWTS skit — but I have other things to do, and presumably you do too. The one thing I must mention is the rummage sale. Just imagine for a moment that you are in a shop devoted to Wodehouse. There are Wodehouse books, and books about Wodehouse. You can also pick up sheet music, costumes, cow creamers, pictures, bookmarks, badges, bags and all manner of merchandise. No shop of this kind exists, but for two days in October the TWS rummage sale comes close to this Plumtopian ideal.
Added to these pleasures, I continued to make new friends, too many to list, but sitting with Donna Myers for the talks, and between Anita Avery and Tim Richards at dinner were highlights. There was an awkward moment when I met long-time Facebook friend Michael Sheldon in person — as he recognised me, but I couldn’t place him because he looked nothing like his Facebook photo (for all the wrong reasons). He won the ‘Scary Enough to Put a Golfer Off His Stroke’ award for his impersonation of Bill Lister (from Full Moon).
How to join the next binge
The next convention will be in Washington DC — Capital! Capital! — in October 2017. Dates will be confirmed shortly.
It’s an experience I highly recommend. I was welcomed with great kindness, in spite of my expansive trousers and questionable character because, as Anita Avery put it, ‘We Wodehouse fans look after our own.’ And she’s right. After many years spent searching for Plumtopia, I may not have found a place that feels like home, but I have found my people. As Wodehouse put it:
There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
‘It’s a riot. They think it will run two years in London. As far as I can make it out you don’t call it a success in London unless you can take your grandchildren to see the thousandth night.’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
To celebrate the recent anniversay of the first Blandings novel, I visited the charming town of Chichester to see a new stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. This story first appeared as a serial in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ in 1919, and was published in book form later the same year. During Wodehouse’s lifetime it was adapted as a silent film, a stage-play (by Wodehouse and Ian Hay), and as a 1937 musical starring Fred Astaire with music from George and Ira Gershwin.
Wodehouse’s own career in the theatre spanned some thirty years. He wrote several plays and was a theatre critic for Vanity Fair. His main contribution, however, was as a Broadway lyricist working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. The theatre world features frequently and is affectionately portrayed in his stories, including A Damsel in Distress.
Wodehouse belonged to the stage as well as the page, so when I learned that a new stage musical of A Damsel in Distress was being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, I wasted no time in dashing off to Sussex to catch the final performance on June 27th. And boy am I glad I did!
The show has finished it’s run in Chichester, but you can still watch the rehearsal trailer. The story of my visit to Chichester and a glowing review of the show follows below.
My visit to Chichester
The first treat on my visit to Chichester occurred on route. The journey by train from my home in Somerset to Chichester requires roughly three hours, and about a dozen changes, but redeems itself by passing through Wodehouse’s former home town of Emsworth. As N.T.P Murphy confirms in The P G Wodehouse Miscellany (2015), Emsworth is the ‘real’ location of Belpher village, where A Damsel in Distress is set. For anyone who has visited this former oyster fishing town (as I did in 2013) Wodehouse’s depiction of Belpher is clearly the same place.
For years Belpher oysters had been the mainstay of gay supper parties at the Savoy, the Carlton and Romano’s. Dukes doted on them; chorus girls wept if they were not on the bill of fare. And then, in an evil hour, somebody discovered that what made the Belpher oyster so particularly plump and succulent was the fact that it breakfasted, lunched and dined almost entirely on the local sewage. There is but a thin line ever between popular homage and and execration. We see it in the case of politicians, generals and prize-fighters; and oysters are no exception to the rule. There was a typhoid scare — quite a passing and unjustified scare, but strong enough to do its deadly work; and almost overnight Belpher passed from a place of flourishing industry to the sleepy by-the-world-forgotten spot which it was when George Bevan discovered it. The shallow water is still there; the mud is still there; even the oyster-beds are still there; but not the oysters nor the little world of activity which had sprung up around them.
A Damsel in Distress
Its proximity to Emsworth makes nearby Chichester a fitting place to stage this musical revival of A Damsel in Distress. It is also close to Goodwood Racecourse, where many Wodehouse characters (notably Bingo Little) have lost their shirts.
Chichester itself is an attractive, prosperous looking town, with an attractive, prosperous looking populace and an air of genteel distinction. As someone who is neither attractive nor prosperous, I never felt more of a blot on the landscape in my life, as I waddled along Chichester’s main street. Even the town’s elderly inhabitants — women old enough to have earned the right to elasticated waists and comfortable shoes — could be seen teetering precariously under half-a-ton of jewellery, on heels that would give me vertigo. The good ladies of Chichester do not let themselves go – they cling on.
Inspecting myself critically in shop-windows, I felt increasingly like a worm who has gotten above itself and crawled into Princess Charlotte’s salade nicoise. So I popped into a local “outfitters to the gentry” in the faint hope that it’s never too late to start making an effort. I don’t know what I expected to find — some tasteful trousers or a tweed skirt. What I got was a shock. It seems the gentry and I are discrepant on matters of taste as well as oofiness. Whereas my inclination is to cover the baggage with cloth, the modern Lady seems to prefer the sort of costume that looks as if it’s been designed by the Gynecological Society to allow curbside examinations.
Leaving empty-handed, I proceeded to the Chichester Festival Theatre in a slightly nervous state (overtaking several septuagenarians in stilettos on the way), but my first sight of the theatre put me at ease. Of a stylish 1960s design and situated opposite an expansive lawn, it reminded me of the Adelaide Festival Theatre, where I saw my first performances as a child and was later married in the rotunda on the lawn. The day was warm (in Chichester, not Adelaide) and the doors had been thrown open, bringing a refreshing breeze indoors. It was the sort of day Wodehouse himself might have written about, and I quickly felt at home among the throng of theatre-goers, beaming in happy anticipation.
Review of A Damsel in Distress
A Damsel in Distress did not disappoint. From the moment the chorus tapped out the opening number — Things Are Looking Up! — I knew I was in the presence of something special. I believe Rob Ashford, the show’s American director and choreographer is some sort of big-wig in the business — and by golly he oughta be! It’s difficult to imagine how this adaptation could have been more perfect.
This adaptation compares favourably to both the original novel and the Astaire musical. George Bevan (played by Richard Fleeshman) is an American composer overseeing the introduction his latest Broadway hit to the London stage. He falls in love with Lady Maud Marshmoreton (Summer Strallen), whose family mistake him for the man she loves. They want her to marry Reggie Byng (Richard Dempsey), who in turn loves Alice Keggs (Melle Stewart), who is Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary and a niece of Keggs of the Butler. Meanwhile George’s friend in the chorus, Billy Dore (Sally Ann Triplett), mistakes Lord Marshmoreton (the wonderful Nicholas Farrell) for a gardener, and captures his heart.
The unpleasantness of class snobbery pervades the piece — as it does throughout Wodehouse’s work. I am always bewildered by the popular misconception of Wodehouse as a preserver of class distinction, when his plots repeatedly smash both class and trans-Atlantic cultural barriers. In A Damsel in Distress, class snobbery is embodied in character of Lady Caroline Byng (Maud’s Aunt and Reggie’s step-mother). She wants them to marry, and strongly objects to George Bevan — as a member of the lower-classes, an American, and presumably poor — as a suitor. In the original book Aunt Caroline is supported by Maud’s brother, the repulsive Lord Belpher. In this adaptation she is the lone representative of class snobbery, wonderfully played by Isla Blair who is everything a stage Aunt and comedy villain ought to be.
This musical doesn’t skimp on matters below stairs either. Lead by Keggs the butler (Desmond Barrit), french chef Pierre (David Roberts) and Dorcas the undercook (Chloe Hart), the staff at Belpher castle plot to undermine Lady Caroline and support the amiable Lord Marshmoreton’s efforts to assert himself as head of the family. Their big song and dance number in the kitchen — Stiff Upper Lip steals the show — I’ve never heard this song sound so good. My daughter and I sang it all the way back to the station, and are still humming the tune a week later.
The entire cast and orchestra were superb. Richard Fleeshman was the perfect leading man as George Bevan, with matinee idol looks and a voice that makes you want to close your eyes and drink through your ears. Sally Ann Triplett sparkled as Billie Dore, who is the more appealing heroine in Wodehouse’s original book also. Lady Maud is one of Wodehouse’s least endearing heroines. As the distant maiden in castle — the damsel in distress of the title — George mostly admires her from a distance, whereas we encounter her close-up. The shallowness of her character (especially in the final scenes of the book) is uncomfortably clear, although the reader is content to feel George’s pleasure when she agrees to marry him. Summer Strallen makes Maud as appealing as she can, and sings beautifully.
The one jarring moment for me came when Reggie Byng made his first appearance in a flurry of ‘What Ho’s, ‘I Say!’s and ‘Tootle Pip!’s — looking and sounding like the sort of blithering idiot Wodehouse is famous for. Indeed for millions of people, creating upper-class twits is all Wodehouse is famous for. It seems no modern adaptation of his work can do without one. I’m not suggesting Reggie ought to have entered solemnly, quoting Proust, but I find the overplayed English twit caricature tiresome. I’m clearly in a minority as Reggie’s appearance at Chichester was a notable hit with the audience. Eventually I too was won over by Richard Dempsey in the role. His rendition of ‘I’m a poached egg without a piece of toast’ would melt the sternest critic’s heart.
That’s the power of great musical comedy, and Wodehouse. They can transport us momentarily from our woes, and even our prejudices, to a state of carefree joy — something the multi-million dollar popular psychology business is still working at. They may be dismissed as ‘light entertainment’ by an overprivileged few, who perhaps have fewer woes to escape than the rest of us, but if you’re an out-of-place worm in the nicoise of life, the benefits are well worth the price of admission.
I haven’t said nearly enough about the show — the impressive sets, the costumes, the wonderful quality of the music, dancing and choreography (Pierre and Dorcas were a treat). Nor the pleasure of seeing Nicholas Farrell, who I’ve long admired since he appeared in my favourite television show (Drop the Dead Donkey). I could say so much more, but if I’m to post this review in the same decade in which I saw the bally thing, I really must draw the line somewhere.
If A Damsel in Distress plays anywhere near you, be sure to catch it!
At last week’s Hay Festival, Alexander McCall Smith was announced winner of the 2015 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, for his book Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party. The prize is awarded ‘in the spirit of P.G. Wodehouse’. I’ve enjoyed many of the previous winners and shortlisted entries, but Wodehouse fans should not to expect great similarities between Wodehouse’s writing and these examples of modern genre.
With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at the 2015 shortlist.
How to Build a Girl by Cailtin Moran
“My life is basically The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole.”
Described as semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story, How to Build a Girl follows 1990s teenager Johanna Morrigan’s efforts to recreate herself as ‘Dolly Wilde’. Author Caitlin Moran is a well-known UK columnist and celebrity, and reviewers have found much to like in her witty narrative style. Wodehouse fans be warned that it’s also heaving with sex and ‘bad language’, so it won’t appeal to everyone.
How to Build a Girl isn’t the sort of book I normally read — as someone who reads for escapist pleasure, the parallels between this story and my life may be a little too close for comfort. The legs on the cover are even wearing my shoes! Like Morrigan/Moran I’ve come from humble beginnings and reinvented myself as Honoria Plum. Unlike Moran, success didn’t follow. I’m ‘keeping the dream alive’ as best I can, but I’d find it easier to laugh at the mistakes of my youth if I was reading from a more comfortable chair.
In contrast, one of the many things I love about Wodehouse is that he doesn’t challenge me with my own mistakes or confront me with gritty realism. When I want those things, I’ll put my book down and look in the mirror.
Losing It by Helen Lederer
It’s great to see women are writing comedy and being shortlisted for this prize. Like Moran, Lederer is well-known in the UK for her work in film and television comedy, and there are clear parallels between Lederer and Millie, the central character in Losing It . Millie is a middle aged, divorced TV star who accepts an offer to advertise diet pills to help resolve her financial difficulties.
There’s a promising Wodehousian element to Lederer’s plot. Millie owes money to loan sharks, but spends her advance from the diet pill company on a holiday. Having spent the cash, she’s committed to losing weight in three months — by whatever means she can. I could see Wodehouse using this sort of plot very well.
Wodehouse created several plus-sized, middle-aged female characters. He usually describes them as ‘handsome’ and portrays them with personality and self-assurance. The tightness of arm-chairs upon hips is mentioned as a matter-of-fact, not censure. In Wodehouse’s world, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and women are accepted just as they are. This is something former Wodehouse Prize winner, the late Sir Terry Pratchett also excelled at. Pratchett created interesting heroines for all ages, shapes and sizes.
Among modern female writers there is a tendency to create neurotic heroines consumed with aesthetic self-judgement. As a reader, this doesn’t interest me any more than modern moralising about weight and beauty interests me in ‘real-life’. I prefer the Wodehouse-Pratchett view of women as worthy of our interest (and approval) just as they are. But Helen Lederer’s novel sounds like an authentic and funny variation on an otherwise tiresome theme.
Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
This novella tells the story of wealthy American tourist, ‘Fatty’ O’Leary’s, visit to Ireland — home of his ancestors. It’s a holiday in which just about everything that could go wrong, does.
I’ve done the dutiful thing and purchased this prize-winning book, but with reservations. I didn’t enjoy the previous McCall Smith I tried — The Sunday Philosophy Club. It’s a great title, but I found the central character, Isabel Dalhousie, a terrible snob (she dislikes one character on the grounds of the university he attended and the colour of his trousers). Wodehouse also created snobbish characters for us to laugh at, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether McCall Smith’s heroine was intentionally flawed, or if her judgmental views reflected those of the author.
Putting this experience aside, I will approach Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party with an open mind, in knowledge that this book impressed the Wodehouse Prize judges. McCall Smith is certainly the most established and prolific author in the shortlist, with a large international audience (that includes my own mother). So I’m hopeful of finding much to like in Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party.
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
Another semi-autobiographical novel from a female writer (should I be rethinking my own comic writing along similar lines?). Man at the Helm is a tale of two sisters trying to find a man for their mother. In a glowing review for The Guardian, Kate Kellaway describes Stibbe’s ‘eye and ear for the absurd’ — something very much in the Wodehouse tradition. Like everything else on the list , this isn’t something I would gravitate towards in a bookstore. I don’t tell you this to pooh-pooh the books, but rather to make you aware this isn’t a genre I’m familiar with — so you can assess my response accordingly. I am happy to read beyond my usual preferences and perhaps discover new favorites. Nina Stibbe could well prove to be one of them.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
“I was like the dog with the empty bladder that nonetheless goes from tree to tree, stopping at each one to cock his leg in vain”.
For Joseph O’Neill’s sake, I hope The Dog is not semi- autobiographical, although similarities with his previous novel Netherland might cause people to wonder. The Dog‘s unnamed narrator is a Swiss-American lawyer working in Dubai for an obscenely rich family. He’s a keen observer of social media, but his Linked In profile probably doesn’t tell you that his hobbies include frequenting prostitutes and bemoaning the failure of his last relationship. It’s a long way from Wodehouse, and definitely involves humour of another kind.
“He articulates a kind of business class existentialism, which is difficult to get excited about, and The Dog is composed of deliberately convoluted sentences which thwart the reader’s absorption.”
But one man’s idea of ‘convoluted’ inevitably signals ‘literary merit’ to another. The Dog was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, making it the most literary entrant in this year’s shortlist. It’s also the hardest to summarise without reading the dashed thing (which, on balance, I’m not inclined to do). Some reviewers find it eye-gougingly dull. The Times review quoted on the cover calls it ‘brutal’ and ‘witty’. Comparisons are made with Kafka, Bret Easton Ellis and Nick Hornby. Others consider O’Neill among a modern literary elite, too high for appreciation by the common reader. It may be all those things, but I’m as common as muck so I’ll be giving this one a miss.
A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh
Wodehouse famously never wrote about sex, but A Decent Ride is the third shortlisted book to come with a warning to Wodehouse fans about sexually explicit content — and I don’t mean a bit of bedroom farce. But while modern comedy writing has ‘progressed’ sexually, it seems to have also to taken a great leap backwards in quality. According to Stuart Kelly’s review in The Guardian,‘A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh review –poor writing and penis jokes’:
Given that it features incest, rape, grave desecration, necrophilia and one character filling a terminally ill man’s saline drip with urine and semen, it is curious that the most shocking thing about Irvine Welsh’s new novel, A Decent Ride, is that it was published at all.
I’m reasonably broadminded, and I don’t mind the judges challenging our ideas of comedy writing, but Decent Ride definitely isn’t for me.
What do you think?
It’s a thought provoking, thoroughly modern short-list. There is no escapist or comic fantasy, with the death of Terry Pratchett leaving a gaping hole in that area. As good as some of these shortlisted novels undoubtedly are, there’s nothing much to remind the modern Wodehouse reader of Wodehouse. Is the Wodehouse tradition at an end? I hope not.
If you’ve read any of the shortlisted books or, like me, have the temerity (if that’s the word I want, Jeeves) to discuss them without having bothered — I’d love to know what you think.
My reviews of Wodehouse Prize winning and shortlisted authors occasionally appear at Plumtopia. I’d be happy to share yours here too.
Norman Murphy’s credentials as the finest writer on Wodehouse since the sad death of Richard Usborne need no affirmation from me. This, dash it, is the man who found out exactly where Blandings Castle is. Such an act of benevolent scholarship assures his immortality. A new book from him is always a treat.
Stephen Fry (Foreword)
As Stephen Fry so aptly puts it in his Forword to The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany (Literary Miscellany), a new book from N.T.P Murphy is always a treat for Wodehouse fans. My copy of this latest release arrived in last Friday’s post and I’ve had a happy week devouring it.
For anyone unfamiliar with N.T.P. Murphy, the dust jacket to this volume says:
A lifelong Wodehouse fan, in 1981 he published his first book on Wodehouse that showed how many of his characters and settings were based on real people and places. Since then he has published three more Wodehouse-based books. He was also the founding chairman of The P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK).
Murphy is also the (UK) Wodehouse Society ‘Remembrancer’, conjuring in my mind an image that is part chronicler, part raconteur — part Galahad Threepwood, part ‘Oldest Member’. I was privileged to meet Norman Murphy in 2013 when I attended one of his legendary guided ‘Wodehouse walks’ in London. I vividly recall his uniquely engaging manner and expert-knowledge holding our group enthralled on a hot summer’s day. The ‘Miscellany’ is written in the same agreeable style, and Murphy’s voice resounds clearly in my head while reading it.
Like it’s author, The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany (Literary Miscellany) is a treasure. For those of us from generations and cultures vastly different from Wodehouse’s own, this book helps bridge the gap between our world and the one Wodehouse and his characters inhabited. Murphy has dedicated years of research to filling this gap — visiting far flung locations and interviewing scores of people — and answering the important questions we Wodehouse readers ask. Where is Blandings Castle? Was Aunt Agatha modeled on anybody? Did the Drones club really exist? Was there a Junior Ganymede? Murphy reveals all in the Literary Miscellany. The service he has rendered us (and future generations), in doing so ought not be underestimated.
The book includes a well-chosen selection of quotations, extending beyond the familiar lines so often quoted in this ‘information age’. I was pleased to find this favourite:
She melted quite perceptibly. She did not cease to look like a basilisk, but she began to look like a basilisk who has had a good lunch.
(The Girl on the Boat)
In addition to providing an excellent summary of Wodehouse’s life and work, this Miscellany is sure to become the definitive geographical tour guide for readers who (like me) enjoy visiting Wodehouse locations. Let us hope it also becomes the authoritative source for journalists and other commentators, so that we can look forward to fewer errors of fact or ill-informed opinions on the infamous Berlin broadcasts.
Hats off to N.T.P Murphy and The History Press for making this volume available. You can order a copy directly from The History Press or Amazon (where you’ll also find Murphy’s other Wodehouse works).
On a personal note, I would like to thank Norman Murphy for including this blog — Plumtopia — in his list of Recommended Wodehouse Websites. I feel greatly honoured to be included (but I would have said all these lovely things about the book anyway).
The Heart of a Goof consists of nine stories related by the Oldest Member of a golf club. He sits aside from the action puffing a cigar and observing the joys and the sorrows, the triumphs and the defeats in matters of golf and the heart enjoyed and suffered by the club’s members. He is a raconteur of the Ancient Mariner type. The Oldest Member’s victims are pressed into listening to a long and involved tale from which they can’t escape. Whatever the plight of the trapped one is, the OM can find a tale to fit his situation. The details of the stories the old man recounts could not possibly be known by him but using him as a mouthpiece is a neat way for Wodehouse to hold the collection together and not to speak with his own, authorial voice.
In December, I had the delightful privilege of seeing Perfect Nonsense on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For anyone not already aware, Perfect Nonsense is a stage adaptation (by David and Robert Goodale) of The Code of the Woosters. It’s been well received by West End audiences since opening in 2013, and is now touring the UK until mid-2015 (see the official site for details). If you’re planning to see the show and don’t want to read my review, look away now.
The Goodale brothers’ clever adaptation sticks closely to Wodehouse’s original story and delicious dialogue, ensuring a production that is pure Wodehouse. But Perfect Nonsense is not a mere staging of the book. The Goodales have added their own comic twist by having all the characters played by just three actors.
The play opens with Bertie Wooster reclining in a favourite armchair. He begins to tell us the sorry tale of his recent entanglement with Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, old pop Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode and an eighteenth-century cow-creamer. Wodehouse fans in the audience will know where this is going. To assist in the retelling, Bertie enlists the help of Jeeves, and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) to ‘play’ the other characters in his narrative.
This ingenious strategy adds something new for Wodehouse fans, without detracting from Wodehouse’s original work — it is also great fun. Jeeves and Seppings undergo an exhausting repertoire of inventive costume changes, in which lampshades become hats and curtains become dresses. The hard-working Seppings is, at one point, dressed as Aunt Dahlia inside a giant Spode suit. John Gordon Sinclair and Robert Goodale were utterly entertaining and memorable as Jeeves and Seppings (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield in the original cast).
Bertie’s role is physically less demanding, with no elaborate costume or character changes to contend with, but requires a delicate balance of jovial stupidity. It’s not an exact science, but Wodehouse fans can be unforgiving when actors get it wrong. Stephen Mangan was well received in the original cast, and I thought Joel Sams did a sound job (as cover for James Lance) in Bath.
Inventive sets were a highlight of this production, with two revolving interiors that cunningly transformed from Bertie’s London flat into an antique shop in the Brompton Road, various locations around Totleigh Towers, and even accommodated a thrilling drive in Bertie’s two-seater. Set changes were comically incorporated into the theatrics: Jeeves twiddles a handle on the wall to change the painting over the fireplace, while Bertie jiggles paper flames at the end of two sticks. The dog Bartholomew also makes notable appearances. These small details added to the joy of the performance, without detracting from the complicated storyline or Wodehouse’s original dialogue.
No doubt a Wodehouse purist, for such creatures I regret to say exist, would find something in this adaptation to pick on. It is often argued that Wodehouse ought not be adapted at all – that it somehow sullies the perfection of his art. But while comic prose was certainly his forte, Wodehouse’s versatility as a writer included a long association with the theatre, predominantly as a lyricist, but also as a writer and critic. As an added bonus, a reminder of Wodehouse’s theatrical career is provided by Tony Ring in the Perfect Nonsense programme.
During his lifetime, P.G. Wodehouse demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different forms and genres, and to collaborate with others. Intelligent adaptations like Perfect Nonsense remind us of this wider legacy, and remain welcome by fans who simply cannot get enough of his stuff.
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Thanks to regular readers who contacted me during my recent absence from Plumtopia. Awfully decent of you! Results of the Wodehouse Survey are currently being collated into a paper for the 2015 convention and will be shared here in due course.