‘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.
YOU DON’T KNOW? THEN ASK YOURSELF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS.
1. DO YOU SUFFER FROM CHEERFULNESS?
2. DO YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING FEELING THAT ALL IS GOING WELL FOR THE ALLIES?
3. DO YOU SOMETIMES THINK THAT THE WAR WILL END WITHIN THE NEXT TWELVE MONTHS?
4. DO YOU BELIEVE GOOD NEWS IN PREFERENCE TO BAD?
5. DO YOU CONSIDER OUR LEADERS ARE COMPETENT TO CONDUCT THE WAR TO A SUCCESSFUL ISSUE?
WE CAN CURE YOU.
TWO DAYS SPENT AT OUR ESTABLISHMENT WILL EFFECTIVELY ERADICATE ALL TRACES OF IT FROM YOUR SYSTEM.
This satirical advertisement is among the many gems to be found in Suffering from Cheerfulness: The Best Bits from THE WIPERS TIMES , which I’ve been reading this afternoon in my bath. THE WIPERS TIMES was a magazine written by British soldiers, in the trenches of the Western Front, during the First World War.
In his introduction to the book, historian Malcolm Brown writes:
To conclude: laughter and mockery and poking fun at authority have been part of the warp and weft of the British military psyche for centuries and it was singularly unlikely that so great a comic tradition would have nothing to say about the new circumstances of 1914-1918, however challenging they might seem. Came the danger, came the leg-pulls, the quips, the spoofs and the jokes. Came the suffering, came the cheerfulness. The outcome was a brilliant philosophy for the time, a philosophy to get men through everything, or almost everything, that the war could throw at them.
THE WIPERS TIMES appears not only to have been permitted by the authorities, but also reprinted in Britain during the war. Here’s another example, this time a letter to the editor.
Once again I feel constrained to draw your attention to the increasing rowdiness of the district. I am a peaceful citizen, and although somewhat behindhand with my rates, yet the injustice of the present conditions is apparent. Surely, when a quiet citizen wishes to cultivate his own small holding, it is not quite the thing to plant a 12-inch howitzer in the middle. I must protest, and if nothing is done in the matter, I announce my intention of voting against the present candidate at the forthcoming elections.
I am, Sir,
From the comfort of my 21st Century bath-tub, the volume makes for pleasant reading. In the trenches, it offered indispensable comic relief to both readers and contributors, as a fine example of British humour in the face of adversity.
Another fine example in this same tradition was penned by P.G. Wodehouse, who spent part of the Second World War imprisoned in a German (civilian) internment camp.
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me ‘How can I become an Internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest. At the time of their arrival, I would have been just as pleased if they had not rolled up. But they did not see it that way, and on May the twenty-second along they came – some on motor cycles, some on foot, but all evidently prepared to spend a long week-end.
P.G.Wodehouse (in the first of five radio broadcasts from Berlin)
Wodehouse kept a humorous ‘camp diary’ during his imprisonment, which he shared with his fellow prisoners at the time. After his release, Wodehouse was taken to Berlin where he ran into a former Hollywood acquaintance who suggested he record a series of humorous broadcasts. Wodehouse agreed, and used his camp diary as material.
The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-Four at Loos was one of those fine, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young smells which stand on both feet and look the world in the eye. We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.
Nevertheless, in spite of the interest of hobnobbing with our smell, we found time hung a little heavy on our hands.
The lads from ‘Wipers’ would have relished having Wodehouse’s brilliant pen and stiff-upper-lip on staff.
Here he is again in the third ‘Berlin Broadcast’:
Arriving at Liège, and climbing the hill to the barracks, we found an atmosphere of unpreparedness. Germany at that time was like the old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many adopted children that she didn’t know what to do with them. As regards our little lot, I had a feeling that she did not really want us, but didn’t like to throw us away. The arrangements for our reception at Liège seemed incomplete. It was as if one had got to a party much too early. Here, for instance, were eight hundred men who were going to live mostly on soup – and though the authorities knew where to lay their hands on some soup all right, nothing had been provided to put it in.
And eight hundred internees can’t just go to the cauldron and lap. For one thing, they would burn their tongues, and for another the quick swallowers would get more than their fair share. The situation was one that called for quick thinking, and it was due to our own resourcefulness that the problem was solved. At the back of the barrack yard there was an enormous rubbish heap, into which Belgian soldiers through the ages had been dumping old mess tins, old cans, cups with bits chipped off them, bottles, kettles and containers for motor oil. We dug these out, gave them a wash and brush up, and there we were. I had the good fortune to secure one of the motor oil containers. It added to the taste of the soup just that little something that the others hadn’t got.
I quote from these broadcasts at length because they are often referred to, but too little read or appreciated as part of the tradition to which they rightfully belong.
By the time of the fourth broadcast, Wodehouse had learned that his amusing account of life as an internee was not appreciated in Britain, although the British public never heard the broadcasts and naively accepted what they had been told about them. The accusation of Nazi collaboration must have shattered Wodehouse, who had ironically been demonstrating one of the truly great British traits — humour in the face of adversity.
The affair has been much written about, particularly since documents relating to the subsequent MI5 investigation were made public several years ago. The British Foreign Office investigated the matter and agreed Wodehouse had no case to answer, with one official noting:
“I do not think that anyone would seriously deny that ‘L’affaire Wodehouse’ was very much a storm in a teacup. It is perfectly plain to any unbiased observer that Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent. He is reported to be of an entirely apolitical cast of mind; much of the furore of course was the result of literary jealousies.”
Iain Sproat’s book ‘Wodehouse at War’ demonstrates Wodehouse’s innocence and shows how the campaign against him was orchestrated. And as biographies by Robert McCrum and Frances Donaldon make clear, Wodehouse had no personal or political connections to the Nazis.
Wodehouse’s credentials as an anti-fascist, having made fun of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley before the war (through the Black Shorts wearing character, Roderick Spode) stand up to scrutiny far better than some of the newspapers denouncing him.
The resulting stain on Wodehouse’s reputation has been shamefully slow to lift. So I’ve cut short my bath today to add my voice to many who have written on the subject. It is not enough that Wodehouse has been exonerated. It is time he was recognised as part of the wartime humourist tradition to which he belongs.
Rupert (or Ronald) Psmith was one of Wodehouse’s earliest heroes. He made his memorable first appearance in 1908 in a school story serialised in The Captain as ‘The Lost Lambs’, better known to many readers under the 1953 title Mike and Psmith. Alongside his bosom school chum Mike Jackson, Psmith (the P is silent as in pshrimp) made a successful transition from school stories to adult fiction in two further novels, Psmith in the City (1910) and Psmith Journalist (1915), before his final appearance in Leave it to Psmith (1923).
It is clear from comments in the growing Wodehouse Facebook community that my own love for this character is shared by many others, so it seems apt that when Wodehouse cast him as a romantic lead, he created Eve.
She was a girl of medium height, very straight and slim; and her fair hair , her cheerful smile, and the boyish suppleness of her body all contributed to a general effect of valiant gaiety, a sort of golden sunniness – accentuated by the fact that, like all girls who looked to Paris for inspiration in their dress that season, she was wearing black.
Leave it to Psmith
Aside from her outward charms, Eve Halliday is also an attractive character. She is one of Plum’s independent heroines, with no stern father or serious minded aunt to misguide her. The prospect of pinching Lady Constance Keeble’s necklace (in aid of a good cause) does not faze her. She also shows herself to be a loyal friend, with an intelligent mind and an elegance of manner that make her a fitting mate for one of Plum’s most beloved characters.
“This,” said Psmith, “is becoming more and more gratifying every moment. It seems that you and I were made for each other. I am your best friend’s best friend and we both have a taste for stealing other people’s jewellery. I cannot see how you can very well resist the conclusion that we are twin-souls.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“We shall get into that series of ‘Husbands and Wives Who Work Together’.”
At the end of Leave it to Psmith, the couple are engaged and Psmith is hired to replace The Efficient Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Although Wodehouse later adapted the story (with Ian Hay) for the stage, he never revisited the Psmiths after their marriage. One possible explanation for this, given by Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson, is that Wodehouse could not envisage Psmith without a substantial income. Donaldson also suggests that Leave it to Psmith was written ‘only after much badgering’ by Plum’s daughter Leonora, to whom the book is also dedicated.
Another explanation has been given, by some brainy cove whose name escapes me for the moment (I have a feeling it was Plum himself, but cannot find the reference), is that Wodehouse found it difficult to envisage suitable plots for Psmith after his marriage. Having found his niche as a writer of romantic comedies, Wodehouse had little use for a married hero (Bertie Wooster was kept notably single). Although we are treated to a few short stories centred on the married life of Bingo and Rosie Little, these are exceptions.
The fate of the Psmiths after marriage continues to be a topic for speculation among Wodehouse readers. We want more of them! I have often thought of writing a little homage myself – along the lines of Sebastain Faulks, but without the advance.
Perhaps like the Molloys (Dolly and Soapy, to their friends) the Psmiths might build on their early forays in the necklace pinching business and turn their capable minds to crime. They would excel I am sure, provided they could overcome any moral objections. I see their criminal activities confined to pinching only from those who have the stuff in piles, coupled with a propensity to share their ill-gotten gains with the needy, combining the debonair style of Raffles with the generosity of Robin Hood.
Perhaps more plausibly, I can also imagine the Psmiths entering the crime detection business. From almost the first moment, when Psmith meets Mike Jackson in the common room at Sedleigh, there is something Holmesian about him. Wodehouse was a great fan of Arthur Conan-Doyle, and it is Psmith, not Sherlock Holmes, who first utters the phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (in Psmith Journalist). Psmith has the perfect partner in Eve, who promises to be every bit as capable as Agatha Christie’s delightful Tuppence Beresford.
Plotting out the next few chapters in their lives, I see Psmith becoming the unexpected recipient of a modest inheritance (a distant Aunt, or perhaps a rich Uncle in Australia) that would enable the Psmiths to purchase a detective agency. They would excel in the detection business, although they may have to fight off some underhanded skulduggery from a competing agency run by Percy Pilbeam.
Great wealth may never be theirs, unless the Psmiths have the good fortune to recover a Maharaja’s ruby, or compromising letters for a wealthy heiress. But they would have enough to secure a modicum of comfort and keep the wolves at bay. Even in tough times, one suspects the enterprising Psmiths have the necessary wherewithal to succeed in life without ever having to fall back on the fish business.
In order to better understand and unravel some of the issues, I’d like to consider the charges levelled against Wodehouse in a recent criticism of Indian Summer of an Uncle by Janet Cameron. While I don’t agree with Cameron’s assessment, I am grateful to her for providing a starting point for my thinking. There is too much to be said on this particular subject in one article (I’d like to make it a PhD study) so I propose to respond in a series of pieces.
I begin today with the first charge:
‘Women are excluded as complex characters’
This charge is partially correct, but misleading because Wodehouse was simply not in the business of creating complex characters at all.
“I believe there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.”
Wodehouse in a letter to William Townend
Bertie Wooster is arguably P.G. Wodehouse’s most complex character. As the first-person narrator of over 10 novels and 30 stories, we have greater insight into his character than any other in the Wodehouse canon – but he is hardly a complex character. In the short story Indian Summer of an Uncle (1930) Bertie and Jeeves are well established and familiar to Wodehouse readers. Of the female characters, two (Rhoda Platt and her Aunt Maudie) make no further appearance. Their characters are developed only to the extent required for the comedy to work – along with the hundreds of other male and female ‘bit part’ characters Wodehouse created in the course of his prolific career.
Wodehouse’s characters don’t require complexity – and certainly not in his short stories. As Hilaire Belloc noted, Wodehouse was a practitioner of commedia dell’arte, adapting a well established cast of stage characters to suit his comedic purpose:
“…the rules of the game are already agreed upon between the actors and their audiences, so that the former had either to play the game with a new brilliance each time or be frankly given the bird by a disappointed audience.”
HilaireBelloc in From the World of Music, Ernest Newman (Calder, 1956) cited by Frances Donaldson in P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorised Biography (1982).
Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson adds to this assessment:
I think it is often forgotten how close Wodehouse… was working to the world of the stock company, the English equivalent of commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century the provincial theatres of England had resident ‘stock’ companies who played all the supporting parts, while the leads were played by visiting stars. These stock companies consisted of actors engaged to play stereotyped parts – the Juvenile lead and the Leading Lady, the Low Comedian, the Heavy Father, the Chamber Maid (later known as the soubrette), Walking Ladies and Gentlemen, later to be known as supers. Playwrights of the nineteenth century had to write plays which included parts for the salaried stock company and the playwrights of the early twentieth century were their immediate descendants.”
Frances Donaldson in P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorised Biography (1982).
Janet Cameron criticises Aunt Agatha – the only recurring female character in the story – as ‘a caricature of an aunt‘. Frances Donaldson would have agreed, having argued in her biography that Wodehouse’s fictional Aunts ‘…are stock characters in a long line of British humour.’ Indeed this is rather her point – that applying well recognised theatrical character types enabled Wodehouse to focus his attention on his intricate farcical plots.
It is clear from Wodehouse’s personal letters that his work in musical theatre greatly influenced his approach as a prose writer, particularly in terms of characterisation. Wodehouse’s involvement in the theatre dates back to 1904 with Sergeant Brue, which ran for 152 performances at the Strand Theatre in London. Wodehouse went on to make a significant contribution to American musical theatre through his collaboration with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern.
But what of the charge that Wodehouse’s women are less complex than his men? Certainly, in the Indian Summer of an Uncle, Bertie Wooster is the central and more complex character, but not just in comparison to the women. Bertie’s Uncle George is a male ‘walk-on’ role, and we never get any closer to knowing the inscrutable Jeeves in spite of his many appearances. If one reads Wodehouse just a little more widely, it’s clear that this particular charge does not stick.
The opposite has even been argued. Robert Hall believes that Wodehouse’s heroines frequently have more depth and interest than his heroes:
Wodehouse’s leading girl-characters are, by and large, somewhat more individualised than his male juvenile leads. Significantly, the Junior Lipstick Club, to which some of Wodehouse’s heroines belong, does not play a parallel role to that of his Drones, in supplying young feminine leads. Almost all of his ingénues have energy and sparkle, often (like Sally Painter in Uncle Dynamite, when she pushes the policeman into the pond) taking the initiative when the “hero” wavers in his resolution.
Robert Hall inthe Comic Style of P.G. Wodehouse (1974)
It is reasonable to give weight to the view of those, such as Belloc, Donaldson and Hall, who have made a detailed study of Wodehouse’s life and work. To their views, I humbly add my own – that Wodehouse could still draw minor characters with great sympathy and affection. For example, in the short story, Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend, he devotes just one paragraph to describing the female lead:
She was a small girl of uncertain age – possibly twelve or thirteen, though a combination of London fogs and early cares had given her face a sort of wizened motherliness which in some odd way caused his lordship to look on her as belonging to his own generation. She was the type of girl you see in back streets carrying a baby nearly as large as herself and still retaining sufficient energy to lead one little brother by the hand and shout recrimination at another in the distance. Her cheeks shone from recent soaping , and she was dressed in a velveteen frock which was obviously the pick of her wardrobe. Her hair, in defiance of the prevailing mode, she wore drawn tightly back into a short pigtail.
Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend (1926)
Wodehouse consciously informs us in this passage that he is describing a ‘type of girl’, and yet his description is no less effective or moving because of it.
In summary, Wodehouse’s female characters are no less lacking in complexity than his males. With the possible exception of Bertie Wooster, all his characters are lightly, and delightfully drawn. Thousands of men and women around the world continue to derive great pleasure from the work of P.G. Wodehouse and share great affection for his characters – who extend beyond stereotypes when given the Wodehouse treatment.
While the lack of depth and human complexity might be considered a failing by some serious-minded critics, theirs is just one way – a very prescriptive and narrow one – of viewing literature. Surely there is enough complexity in the world already without wishing it upon our humourists.