Tag Archives: Over Seventy

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

P.G. Wodehouse in Bath: The Loafing Years

Royal Cres Bath sky
Bath’s famous Royal Crescent (image by Honoria Plum)

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.

Sion Hill collage
Young Wodehouse lived at no 17 (top left) close to his maternal relations at various addresses in the street, including number 20 (bottom left)

Modern day Sion Hill is part of the Cotswold Way public walking trail from Bath to Chipping Camden. It abuts the Bath Approach Golf Course and Victoria Park , with stunning views over the city. Bath’s iconic Lansdown and Royal Crescents are an easy downhill walk away.

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.

Sion Hill golf course mini
Public Golf Course, adjacent to Sion Hill

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.

Sion Hill walk (59)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.

HP