He was sorry, he wrote, that he would be unable to see Miss Petherick-Soames on the morrow, as they had planned, owing to his unfortunately being called away to Australia. He added that he was pleased to have made her acquaintance and that if, as seemed probable, they never saw each other again, he would always watch her future career with interest.
‘The Ordeal of Osbert Mulliner’ (Mr Mulliner Speaking)
Like Osbert Mulliner, I was recently compelled to compose a similar communication to friends and well-wishers in the United Kingdom and prepare for an antipodean journey of indefinite duration.
But wait…. I’m getting ahead of myself.
The adventure started, you may recall, in the March of 2012, with some harmless musing on the Plumtopian dream. Later that year my family and I left Australia for the UK, and I’ve enjoyed some wonderfully Wodehousian experiences in the years that followed.
Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet other Wodehouse lovers in London, Amsterdam, and PSeattle U.S.A. I went on one of Norman Murphy’s famous Wodehouse walks, and had the honour of visiting P.G. Wodehouse’s step-grandson, Sir Edward Cazalet and seeing his family’s impressive Wodehouse archive collection.
The friendship and generosity I’ve encountered among fellow Wodehousians has been incredible, and so it was with heavy heart that I informed friends of my impending return to Australia. The reasons for my return are complex – ‘wheels within wheels’ — but my Wodehouse chums rose to the occasion. We were treated to wonderful farewells by Tony and Elaine Ring, Hilary Bruce (P G Wodehouse Society Chair), and Elin Woodger Murphy, who also saw us off to Heathrow in great style.
All of these wonderful new friends and experiences I owe to Wodehouse.
Building a new life in Australia will be challenging, but I’m returning with renewed determination to find fellow Wodehouse lovers, and introduce his work to new readers. Once the dust has settled, I’ll continuing writing on the subject of Wodehouse — here at Plumtopia.
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.
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.
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).
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:
I 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.
** 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.
Most Wodehouse enthusiasts will now be aware of the sad news that Lt Col Norman Murphy, founder Chairman of the PG Wodehouse Society (UK), passed away in October.
As the PG Wodehouse Society’s Remembrancer, Norman was generous with his time and expert knowledge, and he leaves behind a body of work that Wodehouse enthusiasts will continue to treasure for years to come. His publications include:
In Search of Blandings
Three Wodehouse Walks
A Wodehouse Handbook (Volumes 1 and 2)
The Reminiscences of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood
Phrases and Notes: P G Wodehouse Notebooks 1902-1905
The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany
Norman will be remembered as much for his own inimitable character as for his expertise. Many Wodehouse fans who encountered Norman — on one of his famous Wodehouse Walks, at a Society meeting, or convention – will retain affectionate memories of an enthralling fellow who always made an impression. I feel incredibly privileged to include myself among them. The friendship, advice and encouragement I received from Norman (and his wife, Elin) is something I’ll always cherish.
The PG Wodehouse Society has opened an online Book of Remembrance for people to share their memories of Norman. Please do share yours with them. Obituaries celebrating Norman’s life and contribution to Wodehouse scholarship have also been published in The Telegraph and The Times .
If you’ve not already done so, please join me in raising a glass– to Norman!
Coincidentally, 1881 was also the year in which Dr. John Watson first met Sherlock Holmes. Their meeting was recounted by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887).
Wodehouse’s wonderful school duo Psmith and Jackson bear some similarity to Holmes and Watson. Psmith is uniquely brilliantly, while his friend Mike Jackson is loyal and dependable. Psmith sees himself as a Holmsian figure and consciously uses Holmes-speak in conversation. It was Wodehouse’s Psmith, not Conan-Doyle’s Holmes, who first used the words ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ — in Psmith Journalist (1910).
“Sherlock Holmes was right,” said Psmith regretfully. “You may remember that he advised Doctor Watson never to take the first cab, or the second. He should have gone further, and urged him not to take cabs at all. Walking is far healthier.”
Psmith Journalist (1910).
The language of Holmes and Watson was one that Wodehouse readers knew – then and now. Many Wodehouse enthusiasts today are fans of Conan Doyle, and much research has been done to find the Holmesian references in Wodehouse’s writing. An excellent list, compiled by John Dawson, is available from the Madam Eulalie website.
When I was starting out as a writer—this would be about the time Caxton invented the printing press—Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.
Wodehouse and Conan Dolyle also became friends. They shared a mutual love of cricket and played together for the Authors Cricket Club .
Wodehouse retained a love of detective stories throughout his life, and this was reflected in his work. He enjoyed entangling characters in a spot of light crime, and created numerous detectives to catch them at it –like Miss Trimble and Mr Sturgis (Piccadilly Jim), Percy Frobisher Pilbeam (Heavy Weather), and Maudie Stubbs née Beach (Pigs Have Wings). He even tried his hand at straight detective fiction, in The Education of Detective Oakes (Pearson’s Magazine, 1914), later republished as The Harmonica Mystery, and Death at the Excelsior.
Perhaps, if he had applied himself seriously, P.G. Wodehouse might have become a great crime writer. Happily for us, he didn’t — readers of detective fiction are spoiled for choice, but great humour writers are lamentably rare. The result was a happy one for his characters too. As a creator of comedy romances, Wodehouse’s detectives were permitted time off from the study of little known Asiatic poisons to relax at the Senior Bloodstain, and even to fall in love.
A hardboiled crime writer could never permit such diversions, as we learn from Wodehouse’s fictional crime writer, James Rodman, in ‘HoneysuckleCottage’.
He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not descend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.
While the great Sherlock Holmes remained a bachelor, Wodehouse’s Adrian Mulliner, detective with the firm Widgery and Boon, won the heart of Millicent Shipton-Bellinger after he distinguished himself in the Adventure of the Missing Sealyham (‘The Smile That Wins).
All her life she had been accustomed to brainless juveniles who eked out their meagre eyesight with monocles and, as far as conversation was concerned, were a spent force after they had asked her if she had seen the Academy or did she think she would prefer a glass of lemonade. The effect on her of a dark, keen-eyed man like Adrian Mulliner, who spoke well and easily of footprints, psychology and the underworld, must have been stupendous.
‘The Smile That Wins’ (Mulliner Nights)
No less stupendous, it seems, was Wodehouse’s life-long love for the genre. I can imagine him, even as a nonagenarian, clawing at the birthday gift-wrapping with indecent haste to get at the latest crime thriller inside.
It is not unreasonable to assume that when the assorted dignitaries of Bath bunged off their application for UNESCO World Heritage listing, the fact that P.G. Wodehouse lived here as a boy was pretty high up on their list of reasons. No doubt it weighed heavily with the judges. And yet, in all the historical and literary guides to Bath I find no mention of Wodehouse. Walking tours do not pass his former residence. No miniature of his likeness can be viewed in the Jane Austen or Holbourne Museums. How can this be?
I suspect the answer lies in the rather embarrassing truth (one not so universally acknowledged) that of all the places in which P.G. Wodehouse resided, Bath appears to be the only one in which he did not write. He wrote as a school boy. He wrote in London, and in Emsworth (Hampshire). He wrote in New York and Long Island, in Hollywood and in France. He even continued writing while imprisoned in a succession of German prison camps in 1940-41. When he died in 1975, there was an ‘unfinished manuscript beside his chair’. But in Bath, Somerset, where this prolific life-long writer lived for three years, he produced nothing at all.
By his own admission:
From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)
Over Seventy (1956)
It was in Bath, Somerset, that P.G. Wodehouse spent these loafing years.
P.G Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881 while his mother was visiting England from Hong Kong. Wodehouse’s father was in the colonial Civil Service, and the infant Plum returned to Hong Kong with his mother. In 1883, young Wodehouse returned to England to live with his brothers Peveril and Armine at number 17 Sion Hill, Bath. The Wodehouse boys lived under the care of Nanny Roper, surrounded by maternal relations (the Deane family) who lived next door and elsewhere in Sion Hill.
The same cannot be said going up the hill, which I foolishly attempted on a bicycle, in the rain. It was a mad scheme, particularly when a number 700 omnibus would have sufficed. But as I huffed and puffed and cursed my way up the hill, I reflected that my chosen method of conveyance added a dash of Wodehouse spirit to the occasion, invoking poor Bertie Wooster’s distraught eighteen-mile round trip from Brinkley Court to Kingham in Right Ho, Jeeves.
Arriving at Sion Hill in a dishevelled state of the kind guaranteed to raise even the most broad-minded Bath eyebrow, I abandoned my scheme of knocking on doors with an introductory ‘What Ho!’ Instead, I snapped a few souvenir photographs and soaked up the genteel atmosphere of young Wodehouse’s formative surroundings.
Following Sion Hill as it loops around past local allotments and the Golf Course, the city of Bath appears deceptively distant, an impressionist canvas of blurred green and sun-flecked stone. Here on the hill the soundscape is idyllic too, dominated by the rustle of the trees, not the bustle of town. Jane Austen, who famously disliked Bath, might have preferred it from this distance.
There is a sense of well-heeled serenity here that makes it easy to imagine the young Wodehouse boys at play, over a century ago. The possibilities for exploration are just the sort a growing lad requires before returning home for tea with Nanny Roper.
Some have suggested Miss Roper may have been the model for Wodehouse’s fictional nanny, Nurse Wilks in Portrait of a Disciplinarian. One can readily imagine Miss Roper having good cause to thunder at her charges to ‘WIPE YOUR BOOTS!’
As Mr Mulliner’s nephew Frederick reflected:
The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.
Portrait of a Disciplinarian (in Meet Mr Mulliner) 1927
Frederick Mulliner’s Nurse Wilks is not quite a spent force.
The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round he perceived a different person altogether from the mild and kindly hostess of a moment back. It was plain that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
‘Theideaofyourbringingyournastydirtybootsintomynicecleanhousewithoutwipingthem!’ said Nurse Wilks
Almost 90 years later, P.G. Wodehouse introduced the television adaptation of Portrait of a Disciplinarian as part of the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse series, with Daphne Heard playing Nurse Wilks to perfection.
I left Sion Hill with a contented feeling that Wodehouse’s formative years were spent in such an appealing place, and that these loafing years were not perhaps, so entirely misspent as Wodehouse would have us believe.
The young Plum left Bath in 1886 to attend the Chalet School, in Croydon, Surrey. His literary career began shortly thereafter when, at the age of five, he composed his first poem.
My journey to Sion Hill ended, as these jaunts so often do, with a nourishing beaker at a local pub, where I was chuffed to observe that a table for two had been reserved in the name of Murphy — it provided a fitting moment to toast Norman Murphy who had kindly provided me with the Bath addresses.
N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.
‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’
Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.
The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.
The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.
There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.
(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)
Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.
There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.
We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.
My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.
A dash of Wodehouse is always a great gift idea. This seasonal piece offers a few ideas to help you choose something special for the Wodehouse lover in your life — or for those poor souls of your acquaintance who have yet to discover his healing prose.
Wodehouse for first timers
I often give Wodehouse books to new readers, with mixed results. The trick is to tailor your choice to what Jeeves calls ‘the psychology of the individual’. If you want to start your intended reader on the Jeeves stories, I recommend The Inimitable Jeeves.
With the Everyman (Overlook) Library editions making Wodehouse’s lesser known works widely available, you needn’t start with Jeeves. If your intended recipient is a fan of detective stories, Wodehouse’s world is full of shady activities, from impersonation through to pig-napping. Why not start them off with Sam the Sudden, or Piccadilly Jim? Or the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh — it’s a particular favourite of mine, now available in a special 100th Anniversary edition.
Wodehouse for enthusiasts
The task of collecting and reading your way through the published works of Wodehouse has never been easier, thanks to the aforementioned Everyman’s Library. If money is no object you can complete the set very quickly, but acquiring Wodehouse in smaller bites over a longer period allows readers to savour the pleasures of anticipating and enjoying each book on its own merits. It also allows friends and family to contribute with gifts they know will be appreciated.
For serious enthusiasts, including those who have collected all the Wodehouse they can get their hands on, there are other ways to bring sweetness and light into their lives. Here are a few suggestions.
Recent releases on the subject of Wodehouse
John Dawson and the Globe Reclamation Project team have spent two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper. John spoke passionately at the Seattle convention about his quest to uncover more of Wodehouse’s work, and the result is this wealth of ‘new’ Wodehouse material, made available to us all in: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking with a discount available to Wodehouse Society members.
2015 also saw the release of N.T.P. Murphy’s The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany . It’s available in Kindle and Hardcover from Amazon or Kobo ebook (more details below). I’ve found this nifty little volume to be a valuable reference in the few short months since its release, and expect it will quickly establish itself as a ‘must have’ for Wodehouse enthusiasts.
Volume 1 of Murphy’s highly regarded A Wodehouse Handbookhas been revised and re-released as an ebook, available from Kobo Books . You or your gift recipient will need the Kobo’s e-reader software, which is free to download from their website.
Wodehouse Society Membership.
Why not give the gift of membership? For a modest annual fee, members can attend society gatherings and receive a quarterly journal to keep them up to date on all things Wodehouse. Find out more from:
The Wodehouse Society (US) Membership costs $25. Have a look at their Regional Chapters page to find your nearest group.
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) Membership costs £22 for a full year (£11 for 6 months if you join between December-February). The society holds meetings and social evenings in London, as well as occasional outings in the other locations.
A list of other Wodehouse Societies is available from the UK Society website.
For younger readers who may not be ready for their first Wodehouse, I recommend The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (recommended age 10+) or Guards! Guards! for adult readers. Terry Pratchett was a fitting winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and I’d recommend his books generally to Wodehouse fans.
My daughter enjoys the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens (Puffin Books recommend for ages 7-12). Set in a 1930s English girls’ boarding school, each book involves the girls in solving a murder. They’re written in an engaging style that doesn’t underestimate young readers’ intelligence, and they provide a good introduction to the period. This should help when your youngster is ready for Wodehouse. The fourth book in the series, Jolly Foul Play, is due out in March 2016.
Film, Television and Audiobook adaptations
Not all Wodehouse lovers enjoy seeing his work adapted. For those of us who do, some adaptations are difficult to find (the BBC telemovie Heavy Weather is not available on DVD) and others are best avoided. I don’t think you can go wrong with the Wodehouse Playhouse series. P.G. Wodehouse introduces several episodes himself. Another popular adaptation is the Jeeves and Woostertelevision series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. This series introduced many people to the joys of Wodehouse, making it a good choice for Wodehouse fans and new readers alike.
I’d also highly recommend adding Wodehouse audiobooks to your collection, or giving them as a gift. There have been various narrators – all good in my view. A Wodehouse audiobook would make a wonderful gift for someone who may be incapacitated, ‘getting on’ in years, or for people with reading difficulties.
Miscellaneous gift ideas
I had many more ideas to share, but Christmas will have come and gone before a full list could be completed (if you’ve already done your shopping, you’ll at least be in time for the January sales). Here are a few more suggestions for the Wodehouse lover in your life:
For some time I’ve been threatening to write a fictional homage to P.G. Wodehouse – a statement that will induce some of you to sadly shake your heads, for there is a school of thought among Wodehouse lovers that such homages ought not be attempted. Stern words have been written on the subject. Alexandra Petri leaps to mind. She makes a sound case for the prosecution in her review of Sebastian Faulks’ homage, ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is worse than bad fanfiction’ (Washington Post), in which she helpfully outlines the world of fanfiction (yes, it’s one word apparently).
I would submit that three kinds of fanfiction [exist]: the sanctioned published kind (spin-off Bonds, Star Wars sequels, many of these aimed at men), the kind you forget is fanfiction (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost) and the kind the word evokes, written on the Internet largely for and by women between 14 and the designated demographic of “50 Shades of Grey.”
However much I might fancy that my own homage might be classed with Paradise Lost, there’s no escaping the fact that I fit smack-bang in the middle of the latter derided demographic. And if that’s not enough to make the self-respecting female writer of homages think twice (or at least get herself a decent set of false whiskers), here’s what La Petri has to say about the motivation and content of fanfiction:
Fanfiction is motivated by the sense that there is something missing. Generally, what is missing is that not enough of the characters are having explicit sex, or that two of the characters that you wish were having sex with one another are not doing so, although in Wodehouse fanfiction this is not always the case. It’s a tribute, but it’s also about filling in the gaps.
The mind boggles! This was certainly not the sort of homage I had mind.
So, not only is fanfiction frowned on by some Wodehouse fans, it seems the last thing the internet needs is another sad old frump churning out homages. What was I thinking? Presumably I ought to be doing something more age and gender appropriate — whatever that might be. Shoe shopping? Planning a diet and skin care regime to address the signs of aging? Reading the aforementioned 50 Shades of Grey? Well, sneer if you will, but writing Wodehouse homages sounds like a much better way to spend my time.
Respectful imitation (the sincerest form of flattery), and homage have long been part of literary tradition, just as they are in other art-forms. Many gifted painters have learned their craft by copying old masters; musicians and composers practice their art by replicating music conceived by others. Many pop stars make a substantial living by imitation alone. Unlike these art-forms, it is not possible for writers to earn a living in this way, but there is much that a developing writer can learn from imitating a beloved author. It is also possible for gifted writers with a strong, original idea to successfully and legitimately appropriate another writer’s characters. My favourite example of this is George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.
If we want Wodehouse’s legacy to extend beyond his own work, as an influence on future writers, we must not close our minds to imitation, adaptation and appropriation — as a starting point. This is particularly important given the lack of an emerging ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in current fiction. As the shortlist for the last Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize demonstrates, between Wodehouse and modern comic writing there is a wide and substantial difference. This isn’t censure — I usually enjoy the books shortlisted. But there is little on offer for Wodehouse fans looking for something new and original in the Wodehouse vein. It’s worth remembering that many modern readers have discovered Wodehouse through later authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, both sadly no longer with us. A continuing ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in comic fiction would provide ‘an entry’ to Wodehouse for future readers.
This brings us back to the matter of Sebastian Faulks and his homage. It hasn’t been a universal hit with Wodehouse fans (although we’re not all as scathing as Alexandra Petri). I don’t know that it has brought many new readers to Wodehouse either — certainly no one has cropped up in our Facebook group or any other forum that I follow, claiming to have found Wodehouse through Faulks. But as homages go, it’s a sound effort and I have no objection to Faulks attempting it (you’ll find my review of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells here.), particularly if it makes homages more acceptable — or at least gets the conversation going.
My own homage-in-progress has been an exercise in developing my skills as comic writer by imitating the style of a master. I’ve adopted a similar approach to N.T.P Murphy and G.M Fraser, writing an original piece that avoids Wodehouse’s central characters and settings (there are no Jeeves or Woosters, Psmiths or Emsworths). I think this is where Faulks made his bloomer. We are simply too close to these characters. As imitation Wodehouse, my story has many faults, but as a stepping stone from imitation to original fiction, I have high hopes for it.
I look forward to sharing it with you here in due course, once I’ve finished reading Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes.
‘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!
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).