Tag Archives: George Orwell

P.G. Wodehouse reading list: the school stories

‘Sit down, Lorimer,’ he said.

There are many ways of inviting a person to seat himself. The genial ‘take a pew’ of one’s equal inspires confidence. The raucous ‘sit down in front’ of the frenzied pit, when you stand up to get a better view of the stage, is not so pleasant. But worst of all is the icy ‘sit down’ of the annoyed headmaster. In his mouth the words take to themselves new and sinister meanings. They seem to accuse you of nameless crimes, and to warn you that anything you may say will be used against you as evidence.

A Prefect’s Uncle (1903)

Admiration for the works of P.G. Wodehouse is not a competitive sport. The merest whiff of appreciation for The Code of The Woosters, one of Wodehouse’s most popular novels, will be sufficient for other Wodehouse fans to scoop you lovingly into the fold. For as Wodehouse once wrote: ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature” (‘Strychnine in the Soup’ in Mulliner Nights)

However, a knowledge of Wodehouse’s school stories – written, as the name suggests, for younger readers — will set you apart as a more serious enthusiast.

These books can be read in any order. If you’re not a fan of the genre, I suggest starting with Mike and Psmith, starring Mike Jackson and Rupert Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp). I love this story so much that I included it in my top five Wodehouse books.

Wodehouse school stories reading list

*Serialised in the ‘Chums’ between 1908-1909, but not published in book form until 1997.

Notes on the series

P.G. Wodehouse began his writing career at a young age. By his own account:

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

As a student at Dulwich college, Wodehouse edited the school magazine, The Alleynian, and received his first payment for writing in 1900 from Public School Magazine for a piece on ‘Some Aspects of Game-Captaincy’.

Wodehouse’s early fiction reflects the public-school life he knew well, and clearly enjoyed. The stories are set mostly in fictional boys’ schools, and expose the various shenanigans and maneuverings of the inmates. Wodehouse included occasional female characters, often as sympathetic letter writers, and wrote several stories about a plucky cricket enthusiast called Joan Romney.

Wodehouse fans will detect a hint of the autobiographical, even in these stories.

It is a splendid thing to be seventeen and have one’s hair up and feel that one cannot be kissed indiscriminately any more by sticky boys and horrid old gentlemen who “knew you when you were that high, my dear,” or who nursed you on their knees when you were a baby. When I came down to dinner for the first time in a long frock and with my hair in a bun there was a terrific sensation. Father said, “My dear Joan!” and gasped. The butler looked volumes of respectful admiration. The tweeny, whom I met on the stairs, giggled like an idiot. Bob, my brother, who is a beast, rolled on the floor and pretended to faint. Altogether it was an event. Mr. Garnet, who writes novels and things and happened to be stopping with us for the cricket, asked me to tell him exactly how it felt to have one’s hair up for the first time. He said it would be of the utmost value to him to know, as it would afford him a lurid insight into the feminine mind.

I said: “I feel as if I were listening to beautiful music played very softly on a summer night, and eating heaps of strawberries with plenty of cream.”

He said, “Ah!”

The Wire-Pullers (A Cricket Story)

Wodehouse’s knowledge of sports and literature, popular culture, history and classics is evident throughout the early stories – and is worked into his writing with the same seamless genius we associate with his classic works.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

Mike and Psmith

In the context of a long literary life, Wodehouse’s school-story period was short-lived. His first novel for adult readers, Love Among the Chickens, was published in 1906 and introduced his most scandalous ‘old-boy’, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge. Wodehouse’s transition from writing school stories to writing for adults included novels featuring Mike Jackson and Psmith as adults, and using a boys’ school as the setting for The Little Nugget (1913).

Some critics have argued that Wodehouse and his writing, never ‘grew up’ at all — that the characters in his stories think and behave much like school children in adult clothing. As George Orwell put it:

Mike Jackson has turned into Bertie Wooster. That, however, is not a very startling metamorphosis, and one of the most noticeable things about Wodehouse is his lack of development.

George Orwell In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse:

There’s some truth to this, but rather than a point of criticism, I believe it’s one of the magic ingredients that make’s Wodehouse incomparably special. Despite becoming a master of his craft, Wodehouse’s writing is never weighed down by seriousness — he never loses the youthful spring in his step. In a life that was not without its hardships, this is remarkable, and wonderful.

The school stories are an important part of understanding Wodehouse’s place in the world of literature, as well as enjoyable reading. I recommend them highly.

Many can be viewed in their original magazine format via the excellent Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums, a site devoted to the early works of P. G. Wodehouse.

More in this series:

HP

On this day: George Orwell, who wrote in Defence of P.G. Wodehouse, was born (1903)

Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ). [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Orwell was born on this day 1903.

Best known as the author of dystopian classics 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell also wrote a 1946 essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’.

The background to this story has been covered in much detail elsewhere.*

Before the start of the Second World War, P.G. Wodehouse was living in France. When the German Army invaded, he was among those captured and interned — in a succession of prison camps, from Belgium to Upper Silesia. He continued to write throughout his internment, and read his light-hearted camp diary aloud for the amusement of his fellow internees.

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.

(Wodehouse’s Second Berlin Broadcast)

Wodehouse was released in June 1941, shortly before his 60th birthday, and deposited at the Albion hotel in Berlin. While staying there, he met an old acquaintance, Werner Plack, whom he’d known during his stint as a writer in Hollywood. It was Plack who encouraged Wodehouse to make a series of broadcasts to fans in America (which had not yet entered the war) about his recent experience.

It seemed like a good idea to Wodehouse at the time. The talks made light of his experiences, in keeping with the British tradition of humour in the face of adversity.

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 weekend.

(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)

Few people in Britain ever heard the broadcasts, but the ferocious public condemnation that followed was sufficient to convince many people that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser and traitor.

After the war, MI5 and British Foreign Office officials investigated the matter and agreed that Wodehouse had no case to answer. One British Foreign Office official noted:

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.

Sadly, the facts surrounding the broadcasts and findings of the MI5 investigation were never made public during Wodehouse’s lifetime, and even today some people find it difficult to shake their mistaken ideas about Wodehouse, or to report the matter with accuracy.

Writing in 1946, Orwell was certainly unaware of the full facts, and he had not heard or seen a transcript of the broadcasts. He unwittingly relies on misrepresented accounts of Wodehouse’s experience. For example, Orwell refers to “German officers in the neighbourhood frequently ‘dropping in for a bath or a party’” in the period immediately before Wodehouse’s internment.

With the full transcripts available to us, we can read Wodehouse’s remarks in context and understand there was no such party:

One’s reactions on suddenly finding oneself surrounded by the armed strength of a hostile power are rather interesting. There is a sense of strain. The first time you see a German soldier over your garden fence, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. About a week later, you find that you are only jumping five feet. And then, after you have been living with him in a small village for two months, you inevitably begin to fraternise and to wish that you had learned German at school instead of Latin and Greek. All the German I know is “Es ist schönes Wetter”, I was a spent force, and we used to take out the rest of the interview in beaming at one another.

I had a great opportunity of brushing up my beaming during those two months. My villa stands in the centre of a circle of houses, each of which was occupied by German officers, who would come around at intervals to take a look at things, and the garden next door was full of Labour Corps boys. It was with these that one really got together. There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them did not drop in for a bath at my house and a beaming party on the porch afterwards

(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)

Orwell may have been misled on some of the details, and I don’t agree with all of the points he makes, but his analysis demonstrates a sound knowledge of Wodehouse’s work, along with Orwell’s usual political astuteness.

In the desperate circumstances of the time, it was excusable to be angry at what Wodehouse did, but to go on denouncing him three or four years later – and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery – is not excusable. Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats – police officials, penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers – are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape. In England the fiercest tirades against quislings are uttered by Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940. I have striven to show how the wretched Wodehouse – just because success and expatriation had allowed him to remain mentally in the Edwardian age – became the corpus vile in a propaganda experiment, and I suggest that it is now time to regard the incident as closed.

George Orwell: In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse

The following references / further reading are highly recommended to anyone wishing to better understand this chapter in P.G. Wodehouse’s life.

*Summary of the wartime controversy and full transcripts of the broadcasts

Wodehouse At War by Ian Sproat (1981)

Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum (2004)

Honoria

Utopia 500 years (Plumtopia 5)

You may not have noticed, in the hullabaloo of 2016, that this year marked the 500th anniversary of Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia. As the year draws to a close (and good riddance to it) I wanted to spend a few moments reflecting on Plumtopia, which celebrates a more humble fifth anniversary this year.

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Utopia woodcut

Sir Thomas Moore invented the word Utopia as a name for the fictional world he created in 1516. The word is derived ‘from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place‘*. Few people today have read Moore’s original work, but the term he created has evolved to acquire meaning of its own.

Oxford Dictionaries Online give as their definition:

…an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect: The opposite of dystopia.

It’s not a definition I’m happy with. It expresses the thoroughness with which any form of ideal or idealism is dismissed in the modern age. It insists that Utopia can only be imagined. As few people would argue that perfection is possible, it discredits ‘Utopian’ thinkers before they’ve even opened their mouths.

This is not so ‘off topic’ as you might think. Returning to my first piece in August 2011, I began this blog in Search of Plumtopia:

Wodehouse, affectionately known as Plum, sets such pleasingly lofty standards for humanity that perhaps what I’m really seeking is Plumtopia.

The decision to blend Utopia with Wodehouse’s ‘Plum’ (the name by which he was known throughout his life) was a conscious decision that reflected my purpose exactly. I was disgruntled with the world, and felt the world Wodehouse created would make a better one. Five years later, I’ve seen more of the world, but I’m no more gruntled with it than I was in 2011. And I continue to hold the unfashionable notion that ideals are worth striving for.

Plumtopia has not fulfilled the serious-minded promise of this first post, but the 500th anniversary of Utopia provides a fitting occasion to revisit my original idea of Wodehouse’s world as a Utopian ideal. This may cause some of you to click your tongues.

He then said something about modern enlightened thought which I cannot repeat.

Joy in the Morning (1946)

Rest assured I shall resume my usual hearty ‘what ho-ing’ in due course, but in the meantime I hope you’ll indulge me.

The world Wodehouse created doesn’t quite fit the given definition of Utopia. As fiction, it is a part-imagined, part Edwardian. Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy has made countless connections between the characters and locations in Wodehouse’s fiction and real-life examples. And Wodehouse himself, in a 1946 preface to Joy in the Morning, said:

The world of which I have been writing every since I was so high, the world of the Drones Club and the lads who congregate there was always a small world –one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie Wooster would say. It was bounded on the east by St. James’s Street. on the west by Hyde park Corner, by Oxford Street on the north and by Piccadilly on the south. And now it is not even small, it is non-existent.

Although the world Wodehouse depicted is recognisably of its time (and beyond the Drones stories, takes in much wider territory than London SW1), many people believe it never existed at all.  Perhaps this is due to the things he left out – war, violence, poverty, injustice, death and disease are, with rare exceptions, absent from his writing.

It’s not my place to speculate on Wodehouse’s reasons, but none of these subjects are intrinsically funny and it’s not unreasonable that a writer of humour should give them a wide berth. The result is a world that feels slightly unreal, but it’s not a perfect world.

Wodehouse’s world is filled with human imperfection — snobbery, pride, duplicity and greed are ‘necessary’ evils for an author who needs something unpleasant for his heroes and heroines to overcome.  There is wealth inequality too, though not poverty. Many of Wodehouse’s stories feature impecunious heroes, heroines, and a few minor villains,  looking to improve their situation. And they usually succeed (Wodehouse was a great redistributor of wealth).

sunsetatblandings-jacket
Wodehouse’s Blandings: his most idyllic setting

While falling short of perfection, Wodehouse’s world undoubtedly improves upon reality. His characters employed in menial positions are respected in their roles, treated fairly, and live comfortably free from want. At the upper end of the spectrum, his aristocrats and wealthy business magnates are ‘mostly harmless’ (to borrow from Douglas Adams). While they may not demonstrate the high moral standards we like to see in persons of stature, they do not abuse their servants, or take yachting tours of favourite tax havens with friends from the arms-trade.

The opportunities for women in Wodehouse’s world are least as good as Wodehouse’s contemporaries, often better. Women from different social backgrounds take part and succeed in a broad range of careers and activities. They need not be young or beautiful, and finding love is not their only purpose. There isn’t a single preferred model of man or womanhood that must be conformed to.

The sun is almost always shining. And the ideal ratio of village pubs per inhabitant is 1:1.

Put simply, there’s a lot to like!

Wodehouse’s idyllic creation has its critics, who object, as far as I can understand the argument, on the grounds that he presents an idealised view of Britain that brushes socio-economic issues under the carpet, and romanticises the aristocracy. As George Orwell put it:

…Wodehouse’s real sin has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are.

George Orwell In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse (1946)

There’s some truth in the assertion, but it’s a blinkered sort of truth because Wodehouse presents people from all walks of life as our better, brighter selves. He avoids difficult and unpleasant truths, and softens the edges of human folly so that we may laugh at them together. He doesn’t just idealise the aristocracy, as so often claimed. Wodehouse idealises us all.

It has long been my view that the messages we take from Wodehouse’s work are the ones we bring to it ourselves. P.G. Wodehouse didn’t set out to create a Utopian ideal. This is something I’ve divined from the world he created which, free from the worst excesses of human behaviour, seems a great improvement on our own.

To give Wodehouse the penultimate word:

JoyInTheMorningI suppose one thing that makes these drones of mine seem creatures of a dead past is that with the exception of Oofy Prosser, the club millionaire, they are genial and good tempered friends of all the world. In these days when everybody hates everybody else, anyone who is not snarling at something – or at everything – is an anachronism.

Preface to Joy in the Morning

I may be silly (although in 2016, who could tell) but I think Wodehouse’s world is one worth striving for.

Cheers and best wishes to you all for a happy, hearty new year, and much Joy in the Morning !

HP

Footnotes & Further Reading

* Source: Notes on Utopia from the British Library online

** Thomas Moore’s dissatisfaction with English society, 500 years ago, still strike a chord in 2016:

…for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs?  For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure, and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.

from Utopia (1516)

 

French Leave

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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.

ThisBensonburg 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?’

‘Exactly.’

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.’

What is it about eggs that has Wodehouse characters dashing off to France?

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!

HP