Tag Archives: Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge

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

A Shocking Affair

The qualities which in later years rendered Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw so conspicuous a figure in connection with the now celebrated affair of the European, African, and Asiatic Pork Pie and Ham Sandwich Supply Company frauds, were sufficiently in evidence during his school career to make his masters prophesy gloomily concerning his future. The boy was in every detail the father of the man. There was the same genial unscrupulousness, upon which the judge commented so bitterly during the trial, the same readiness to seize an opportunity and make the most of it, the same brilliance of tactics.

‘Bradshaw’s Little Story’ (Tales of St. Austins)

Tales of St Austin's by P.G. Wodehouse

In my last piece, I mentioned our Wodehouse experts. One place to enjoy the output of these beefy-brained birds is the wonderful website Madam Eulalie’s Rare Plums. The site is dedicated to Plum’s early work, and includes material you won’t find elsewhere. And if you’ve ever wondered what ‘bilge’ means, or the origin of ‘the blushful Hippocrene’, the annotations section will tell you this –and much more.

A recent addition to their collection is the school story, ‘A Shocking Affair’, first published in Tales of St. Austin’s (1903). If you want to read the published works of Wodehouse in chronological order, Tales of St. Austin’s is a great place to start. It’s a collection of school stories, originally published in The Captain and Public School Magazine between 1900-1903 (except ‘A Shocking Affair’, which made its print debut in Tales of St. Austin’s). 

If you’ve never read Wodehouse’s writing in this genre, I recommend taking a peep at ‘A Shocking Affair’ for a taste of what to expect. Its central character is that same disreputable antagonist from ‘Bradshaw’s Little Story.’

The Bradshaw who appears in the following tale is the same youth who figures as the hero –or villain, label him as you like – of the preceding equally veracious narrative. I mention this because I should not care for you to go away with the idea that a waistcoat marked with the name of Bradshaw must of necessity cover a scheming heart. It may, however, be noticed that a good many members of the Bradshaw family posses a keen and rather sinister sense of the humorous, inherited doubtless from their great ancestor, the dry wag who wrote that monument of quiet drollery, Bradshaw’s Railway Guide.

A Shocking Affair

Two things about these stories strike me (metaphorically, thank goodness). The first is how good they are (which you can hopefully tell from the quality of the excerpts). Wodehouse often looked askance at his early writing, but there’s no cause for us to do the same. They’re excellent!

In the middle block, at the top of the building, far from the haunts of men, is the Science Museum, containing –so I have heard, I have never been near the place myself—two stuffed rats, a case of mouldering butterflies, and other objects of acute interest. The room has a staircase all to itself, and this was the reason why, directly I heard shouts proceeding from that staircase, I deduced that they came from the Museum. I am like Sherlock Holmes, I don’t mind explaining my methods

A Shocking Affair

The second point, is how early Wodehouse began writing about schemers, rotters and bounders — something he continued to do to the very end. Young Bradshaw with the screwy moral compass might well be considered ‘in every detail the father of the man’ to later characters like Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, Rupert Steggles, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and the Duke of Dunstable. I thoroughly recommend Tales of St. Austin’s, along with Wodehouse’s other works in this genre.

Once you’ve read all the published Wodehouse you can get your hands on, don’t forget to dip into the rare and early works available at Madam Eulalie’s Rare Plums, where Wodehouse experts share the fruits of their labour for our benefit — I cannot say enough good things about them.

Happy reading, all.

HP

Happy New Year: Snifters with Ukridge at the Coal Hole

Coal Hole and steps
Ukridge took snifters at the Coal Hole in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’. Image by Honoria Plum

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, 1923)

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.

stage_door_johnnies_28drawing29
Stage Door Johnnies (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

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)

874817Wodehouse’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!’

‘I am!’

‘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.

Best wishes to you all for 2016!

HP

Coal Hole cellar bar
The Coal Hole cellar bar (Image by Honoria Plum)