Tag Archives: Love Among the Chickens

Love in the Time of Wodehouse: Chiefly About Chickens

For some years now, I’ve been pushing the idea, aided and abetted by a gang of like-minded eggs, that Valentine’s Day should be commemorated as the anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s death in 1975. I’m a persistent sort of blighter, so here we are again in 2020.

This year, I was curious to take a look at Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of love and see how it might have developed over the course of his 75-year writing career. I quickly discovered (as ever with Wodehouse) that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So until some generous bird comes across with the necessary oof for full-time study, it’s a mere snippet.  

Unsurprisingly, love doesn’t feature in Wodehouse’s early school stories. The fact that it takes centre stage in his first grown-up novel, Love Among the Chickens (1906) is more curious. Wodehouse’s lifelong love of detective fiction is evident in his early writing–the genre would seem a logical next step and I’m dashed if I can see how he suddenly branched out into romances. Unless…

It would be interesting to know to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs. If life is flowing smoothly for them, are the novels they write in that period of content coloured with optimism? And if things are running crosswise, do they work off the resultant gloom on their faithful public? If, for instance, Mr. W. W. Jacobs had toothache, would he write like Mr. Hall Caine? If Maxim Gorky were invited to lunch by the Czar, would he sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Mr. Dooley? Probably great authors have the power of detaching their writing self from their living, workaday self. For my own part, the frame of mind in which I now found myself completely altered the scheme of my novel. I had designed it as a light-comedy effort. Here and there a page or two to steady the reader, and show him what I could do in the way of pathos if I cared to try; but in the main a thing of sunshine and laughter. But now great slabs of gloom began to work themselves into the scheme of it. Characters whom I had hitherto looked upon as altogether robust developed fatal illnesses. A magnificent despondency became the keynote of the book. Instead of marrying, my hero and heroine had a big scene in the last chapter, at the end of which she informed him that she was already secretly wedded to another, a man with whom she had not even a sporting chance of being happy. I could see myself correcting proofs made pulpy by the tears of emotional printers.

Love Among the Chickens (1906)

The passage appears at a point in the novel when our hero, the author Jeremy Garnet, is thwarted in his wooing of Phyllis Derrick. Wodehouse frequently draws from personal experience in his early works and there are autobiographical touches to Garnet’s character. It’s not unreasonable (however impertinent) to wonder whether Wodehouse might have been in love.

My love had grown with the days. Mr. J. Holt Schooling, or somebody else with a taste for juggling with figures, might write a very readable page or so of statistics in connection with the growth of love in the heart of a man. In some cases it is, I believe, slow. In my own I can only say that Jack’s beanstalk was a backward plant in comparison.

Love Among The Chickens (1906)

If Wodehouse was in love in 1906 — or somewhere on the spectrum — no business resulted. The chief suspect, for my money, is Ella King-Hall. The King-Hall family believed Wodehouse was ‘half in love with her’* and he dedicated books to her in 1907 and 1908. The 1907 dedication appeared in a book called Not George Washington, which Wodehouse had written with a chap called Herbert Westbrook (or at least Westbrook’s name appears on the title).

Wodehouse dedicated books to him too.

To That Prince of Slackers, Herbert Westbrook

The Gold Bat (1904)

And

To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time

A Gentleman of Leisure (1910)

Sophie Ratcliffe describes Westbrook as ‘handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke’* and Wodehouse credited him as an inspiration for the character of Ukridge, Jeremy Garnet’s scoundrel friend and chief trouble maker in Love Among the Chickens.

Ukridge was the sort of man who asks you out to dinner, borrows the money from you to pay the bill, and winds up the evening by embroiling you in a fight with a cabman. I have gone to Covent Garden balls with Ukridge, and found myself legging it down Henrietta Street in the grey dawn, pursued by infuriated costermongers.

Love Among the Chickens (1920 edition)

Ella King-Hall and Herbert Westbrook were married in 1912.

There is no love rivalry between Garnet and Ukridge in Love Among the Chickens. Ukridge is recently married to the long-suffering Millie (the long-suffering being ahead of her). Ella King-Hall, who was older than Wodehouse and Westbrook by fifteen years, and worked with them on various plays, doesn’t seem to have much in common with either of them.

Nor are there any ‘great slabs of gloom’ in the book, although readers are left wondering about poor Mrs Ukridge’s future

Looking back at the affair after the lapse of years, Garnet was accustomed to come to the conclusion that she was the one pathetic figure in the farce. Under what circumstances she had married Ukridge he did not learn till later. He was also uncertain whether at any moment in her career she regretted it. But it was certainly pathetic to witness her growing bewilderment during the weeks that followed, as the working of Ukridge’s giant mind was unfolded to her little by little. Life, as Ukridge understood the word, must have struck her as a shade too full of incident to be really comfortable. Garnet was wont to console himself by the hope that her very genuine love for her husband, and his equally genuine love for her, was sufficient to smooth out the rough places of life.

Love Among The Chickens (1906)

This passage was omitted from a revised 1920 edition if Love Among the Chickens, by which time any real-life concerns about Mrs Westbrook had been partially smoothed by Wodehouse himself. 

He [Wodehouse] continued to play a role in Westbrook’s life as the unacknowledged breadwinner. After her marriage, Ella King-Hall became his literary agent for all his British contracts and remained so until her retirement through ill-health in 1935.

Robert McCrum: Wodehouse: A Life (2005)

Wodehouse was thoroughly business-like when it came to this sort of thing and there is no reason to doubt Ella Westbook’s capacity for managing the task, but he might easily have placed his affairs with somebody else.

In quality terms, the period following Love Among the Chickens (1906) is arguably the least impressive in Wodehouse’s otherwise brilliant career. With the exception of a superb finale in the school story genre (Mike and Psmith), most of the works from this period (The Luck Stone, The Swoop , The Prince and Betty, Death at the Excelsior) have been forgotten, and are of interest only to Wodehouse enthusiasts.

“Jimmy, we were practically boys together. Tell me about this girl–the girl you loved, and were idiot enough to lose.”

Jimmy drew a deep breath.

“Very well,” said Mifflin complacently, “sigh if you like; it’s better than nothing.”

A Gentleman of Leisure (1910)

It would be fanciful to suggest that Wodehouse’s art had suffered from a disappointment in love – and there’s no hint of it in his published letters. Rather, it was a period of creative experimentation with voice, style and genre. Wodehouse had left the school story genre behind him, but was yet to find his place in adult fiction.** Unlike his fictional Drones, Wodehouse did not have the luxury of a private income to sustain him, which meant writing for a living, dashing off whatever the magazines would take until he found his niche.  

But love may well have contributed to Wodehouse’s breakthrough. In 1914, he met and married Ethel Wayman in New York. The first Jeeves and Blandings stories appeared in print the following year (My Man Jeeves and Something Fresh). The real-life romance between Wodehouse and his wife is incredibly touching, and readers owe her a debt of gratitude for smoothing away the troubles of life so that he could write.  

We may never know more about Wodehouse’s early experiences of love and romance, but we don’t really need to know. Wodehouse never wasted good material – so I feel sure we’ve read about them.  

Have you ever been turned down by a girl who afterwards married and then been introduced to her husband? If so you’ll understand how I felt when Clarence burst on me. You know the feeling. First of all, when you hear about the marriage, you say to yourself, “I wonder what he’s like.” Then you meet him, and think, “There must be some mistake. She can’t have preferred this to me!” That’s what I thought, when I set eyes on Clarence.

Doing Clarence A Bit Of Good in My Man Jeeves (1915)

Better to have loved and lost, and bunged the thing down on paper, than never to have loved at all.

Happy Wodehouse Day!

HP

REFERENCES

*From: Sophie Ratcliffe, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters.

**Read Paul Kent’s Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Volume 1: “This is jolly old Fame” for more on this subject.

Image of Emsworth, Hampshire (where Wodehouse, Herbert Westbrook and Ella King-Hall all lived for a time) taken on a visit by Honoria Plum

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

Ukridge a hit with Dad

ukridgeSomebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.

(‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge)

Back in June, you may recall, I gave my father a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Ukridge. Previous attempts to introduce Dad to the joys of Wodehouse had been unsuccessful – both The Little Nugget and a Jeeves novel had failed to click. But after a decent interval of about a decade, and a good deal of musing on the Psychology of the Individual, I bunged a copy of Ukridge in the post.

I felt supremely confident in my choice. Reading Ukridge always gives me a warm inner glow, and much of my early reading was influenced by my Father’s tastes. How could it fail? But as soon as the parcel left my clutches I began to waiver, because Ukridge is Wodehouse’s most divisive character. Some fans don’t enjoy these stories at all.

A look at Goodreads reviews for the book help to explain why.

JASON: Early Wodehouse work that didn’t quite meet the mark.’ And ‘…the fact of the matter is, the titular character, Ukridge, is a jerk. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I just can’t warm to him the way I did with Bertie Wooster.’

SPIROS: Chalk this one down to the axiom that artists and writers are notoriously unreliable judges of their own work: I remember reading somewhere that Ukridge was Wodehouse’s favorite of all the characters he created. I don’t see it, myself. He has none of the flair of Uncle Fred or Galahad Threepwood, none of the lyricism of Psmith, none of the muddleheaded chivalry of Bertie Wooster. Basically, he is a slightly more resourceful, boorish version of Bingo Little, Bertie’s chum who Jeeves was constantly extricating from the soup in the early Jeeves & Wooster stories…

RACHEL: This is the first of Wodehouse’s books that i’ve read that didn’t involve Jeeves. I can’t say I was overly enamoured. The book is set out in 10 shorter stories, many of which refer back to previous episodes, and are based around Ukridge trying to make money and in most case failing miserably. The stories were quite short and I found myself reading quickly just to get to the end of them. They do not have the same kind of humour that other Wodehouse novels do. Quite disappointing and not the place to start with Wodehouse. So many better novels have been written.

Goodreads reviews of Ukridge

Ukridge is not a novel, but a collection of short stories. Partly, it’s the central character of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge that some readers dislike. Ukridge takes brazen advantage of the bonds of family and friendship to support his money-making schemes, and Corky the narrator is repeatedly put upon in this way. No sensible reader would want a person like Ukridge in their life, and some object to him on the page too. It’s a pity, because he’s a tremendous character.

Ukridge is also sometimes dismissed on the grounds of being an ‘early’ character, having first appeared in 1906 in Love Among The Chickens (which Wodehouse later rewrote). It’s not a view I happen to share. Much of Wodehouse’s early work is outstanding (I read the school stories often) and by the time Ukridge was published in 1924, Wodehouse had classics including Something Fresh (1915), Leave it to Psmith (1923) and The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) under his belt. Most of my own favourites were written during this period.

But I suspect the main cause of disappointment for Ukridge readers is that he is not Bertie Wooster. So often, the modern reader works their way through the Jeeves and Bertie stories without exploring the wider Wodehouse world until the supply of B. and J. has given out. The poor reader, familiar with these stories and expecting more of the same, finds a chap like Ukridge a bit of a jolt.

Indeed, Corky felt much the same way whenever Ukridge made an appearance in his life.

‘I was to give you this letter, sir.’

I took it and opened the envelope with a sigh. I had recognised the handwriting of Ukridge, and for the hundredth time in our close acquaintance there smote me like a blow the sad suspicion that this man had once more gone and wished upon me some frightful thing.

MY DEAR OLD HORSE,

It’s not often I ask you to do anything for me…

I laughed hollowly.

(‘The Return of Battling Billson’ in Ukridge)

My poor Father might well have had a similar response to the book shaped package that appeared on his doorstep in June, but his review, when it came via email from the antipodes, was a good one:

33-19DAD: I was a little hesitant about starting it, because Wooster was not one of my favourite characters, but I became hooked and had to ration myself to two stories per night otherwise I would have still been reading at midnight!

The plots were deceiving – they seemed simple but became ever more complex. I liked the way it all came together in the last few paragraphs – leaving me somewhat stunned at the Wodehouse ingenuity. Although I doubt that the moral message of the Ukridge person would sit well with today’s “correctness” in all things.

However the cover of the modern edition was a bit off the mark. It depicts Ukridge as a John Lennon look-a-like – dapper and suave – with the tattered yellow mackintosh looking more like a tailored double-breasted overcoat!

I liked Stephen Fry’s evaluation on the back cover: “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”

I’m delighted that the old boy, now in his 70th year, and Wodehouse have finally clicked. I’ve sent him Blandings Castle and Elsewhere by return post.

HP

For more on Ukridge, try these two excellent reviews from Karyn Reeves, and a new Wodehouse blogger Paul Taylor-Greaves (welcome to the gang, Paul).

 

A visit to P G Wodehouse’s Emsworth

emsworth streetscapeThis summer I visited the Hampshire town of Emsworth, where P.G Wodehouse once lived. He first arrived at the invitation of Herbert Westbrook, who was teaching at Emsworth House School. Westbrook is described in Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse, A Life in Letters’ as “handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke.” He is forever associated in my mind with the character Ukridge and, for some reason, the novel I most associate with Emsworth is Love Among the Chickens (1906).

Wodehouse lived for a time at Emsworth House School, run by Baldwin King-Hall and his sister Ella. The school is mentioned in Mike (1909) and provided the setting for The Little Nugget (1913). Sadly the building no longer exists.

Wodehouse dedicated the Indiscretions of Archie (1921) to Baldwin King-Hall:

Dedication to

      B.W. KING-HALL

                                              My Dear Buddy

        We have been friends for eighteen years. A considerable

proportion of my books were written under your hospitable

roof.  And I have never dedicated one to you. What will

 be the verdict of Posterity on this? The fact is, I have 

become rather superstitious about dedications. No sooner

do you label a book with the legend :

TO

MY BEST FRIEND

X

Then X cuts you in Piccadilly,  or you bring a lawsuit

against him. There is a fatality about it.  However I can’t

imagine anyone quarrelling with you, and I am getting more

attractive all the time, so let’s take a chance.

 

Yours ever

P.G. Wodehouse

Ella King Hall married Westbrook and there is some suggestion that he may have been Wodehouse’s rival for her affection. She later became Wodehouse’s literary agent in the UK. 

‘Threepwood’

Wodehouse moved from his lodgings at the school and rented a house nearby called Threepwood’, which he later bought. The blue plaque is faintly visible from the road. The names Threepwood and Emsworth should be familiar to Wodehouse fans –indeed the signs around town are almost a Blandings Who’s Who.

Wodehouse also had family in Emsworth, in the shape of his Uncle Walter and Aunt. They lived for a time in Havant Road and presumably ensured that young Plum lived up to familial expectations. This may well have extended to churchgoing. Which of Plum’s many ecclesiastical stories, I wonder, were inspired by his time on the pews here?

Wodehouse's Uncle Walter's house
Uncle Walter’s house

St James Church, Emsworth
St James Church, Emsworth

Wodehouse was a keen sportsman in his youth, and maintained an exercise regime throughout his life that included his famous ‘Daily Dozen’ exercises, and regular walking. So I particularly enjoyed strolling the coastal path at the end of Beach Road and into the town, knowing Plum had ambled this way before me.

Emsworth walk
Coastal Path, Emsworth

My tour of Emsworth was guided by notes graciously supplied by N.T.P Murphy, who mentions that George Bevan from A Damsel in Distress stays at the Crown Hotel. A Damsel in Distress is set in the fictional fishing and oyster town of Belpher, which is clearly based on Emsworth. I was unable to get a decent photograph of the Crown’s exterior, but I did spend several very pleasant hours at the bar.

Emsworth boats

Emsworth harbour

I shall certainly return to Emsworth to visit the highly recommended Emsworth Museum, which was closed on the day of my visit. The town also celebrates its association with Wodehouse, hosting a P.G Wodehouse Festival that should attract Plumtopians for years to come.

Emsworth by the water

More details about Wodehouse’s life and associations with Emsworth can be found in Christine Hewitt’s lovely article for the P G Wodehouse Society (UK) . There is also a Wodehouse page at Emsworth Online.

HP