Tag Archives: Tales of St Austin’s

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

Five more favourite writers of Wodehouse readers

In my last piece, I revealed the top top five authors Wodehouse lovers in the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse’ Facebook community named as their favourites (when not reading Wodehouse). No doubt you’re itching to know who else our Plum chums love to read, so I’m here to share the next five most popular authors named. As these five were almost equally popular, I’ve listed them chronologically.

Charles Dickens (b. 1812)

‘She dotes on poetry, sir. She adores it; I may say that her whole soul and mind are wound up, and entwined with it. She has produced some delightful pieces, herself, sir. You may have met with her ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog,’ sir.” ‘

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

pickwickclub_serial1Dickens has both fans and detractors among our Wodehouse loving fraternity. As someone who reads for escapist pleasure, I sympathise with those who avoid Dickens. It seems Wodehouse was not a fan either. In a 1954 letter to Denis Mackail, he asked: ‘Do you hate Dickens’s stuff? I can’t read it.’ (Sophie Ratcliffe, A Life in Letters)  And yet he must have done, because Dickens references have be spotted in the Wodehouse canon.

Take this example, from an early school story Tales of St. Austin’s (see ‘The Annotated Wodehouse’ for others):

‘Bradshaw,’ I said, as I reached page 103 without having read a line, ‘do you know any likely bits?’

Bradshaw looked up from his book. He was attempting to get a general idea of Thucydides’ style by reading Pickwick.

‘What?’ he said.

I obliged with a repetition of my remark.

‘Likely bits? Oh, you mean for the Thucydides. I don’t know. Mellish never sets the bits any decent ordinary individual would set. I should take my chance if I were you.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to read Pickwick. Thicksides doesn’t come within a mile of it.’

I thought so too.

Tales of St. Austin’s (1903)

The choice of ‘Pickwick’ is significant here; one can hardly imagine the boys reading  Bleak House or Barnaby Rudge with the same enthusiasm. Author Julie Berry suggests ‘Pickwick’ might have influenced Wodehouse more deeply. It’s a view I’m ill-qualified to judge without reading ‘Pickwick’ for myself, so I’ve acquired a copy and have added it to my reading list.

Saki (b. 1870)

“I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”

Saki (The Unbearable Bassington)

The stories of Hector Munro, written under the pen name Saki, are often cited as a favourite of Wodehouse readers, and if that’s not recommendation enough – Wodehouse himself was a fan. So too was the ever-reliable Christopher Hitchens:

‘At the age of 15, Noel Coward was staying in an English country house and found a copy of Beasts and Super-Beasts on a table: “I took it up to my bedroom, opened it casually and was unable to go to sleep until I had finished it.” I had a similar experience at about the same age, and I agree with Coward that H. H. Munro—or “Saki,” the author of the book in question—is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later. I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story. Begin with, say, “Sredni Vashtar” or “The Lumber-Room” or “The Open Window.” Then see whether you can put the book down.’

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic (2008)

I’ve not read any Saki, but I like what I’ve seen and plan to correct this at the earliest opportunity.

Richmal Crompton (b. 1890)

“ Readin’ all those books makes me wonder whether anyone ever dies natural.”

Richmal Crompton

An author I’m sorry to say I’d never heard of until last week (and must also add to my reading list), Richmal Crompton was a contemporary of Wodehouse, a prolific author of over eighty titles, best remembered for her Just William books. They are school stories, a genre Wodehouse started in, but moved away from. I’d love to know what he made of them. Crompton also wrote novels and short stories for adults. I look forward learning more about her and her writing.

R.K. Narayan (b.1906)

“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”

R.K. Narayan

The choice of this Indian writer in an otherwise British ‘top ten’ line-up reflects, to some extent, Wodehouse’s large following in contemporary India. Although to be fair, R.K. Narayan is also highly regarded and deservedly popular outside his homeland. Narayan was also a Wodehouse fan, and a quick google search reveals scores of readers who are devoted readers of both – making Narayan another recommendation I’ll be adding to my list.

‘R. K. Narayan tells ordinary stories extraordinarily well… His Malgudi is like Hardy’s Wessex and P.G. Wodehouse’s Blanding (sic), far from the clamour and turmoil of urban settings, a place where life carries on at a leisurely pace and change is minimal.’

Rajdeep Bains in The Tribune, India (2004)

John Mortimer (b.1923)

“The main aim of education should be to send children out into the world with a reasonably sized anthology in their heads so that, while seated on the lavatory, waiting in doctor’s surgeries, on stationary trains or watching interviews with politicians, they have something interesting to think about.”

 John Mortimer

rumpoleThrough the medium of 1970s television,  I was acquainted with Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey, long before I was old enough to read Mortimer’s original. Every Sunday night, the family would sit around my Grandmother’s colour television watching Rumpole and other British comedies of the era: The Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Are You Being Served. Whatever faint chance I had of understanding these shows at such a young age was wholly shattered by my inability (or anybody else’s) to hear anything above the hysterical noise emanating from my grandmother. It hardly mattered. Her frothing and squealing delighted and fascinated me far more than any television show could have done. As an adult, I’ve read most of John Mortimer’s books several times over. His wit, easy style, and nostalgic associations always make for a pleasurable read.

Until I started researching this piece however, I’d never associated Mortimer with Wodehouse, whom I discovered much later (that’s quite a story, by the way). So I was delighted to find John Mortimer was a great Wodehouse fan. Indeed, after Mortimer’s death in 2009, Edward Cazalet (Wodehouse’s grandson) said of him:

‘He never missed an opportunity of referring to “The Master”, as he called Plum when speaking to me, in terms of the highest admiration. He wrote a thorough and scholarly assessment of Wodehouse in The Best of Wodehouse (an Everyman Anthology), starting with the theme that “It is a serious fault in our approach to literature, that we do not take comedy seriously”. Then, taking comedy seriously, he went on to rank Wodehouse as one of the best writers of the first half of the 20th century.’

Edward Cazalet (in a piece for the P G Wodehouse Society)

I can certainly recommend Mortimer to fans of Wodehouse. UK-based fans can also listen to the new BBC radio adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Rumpole. He is not Leo McKern of course, but one can hardly blame a chap for that. He is also far too young for the part, but despite my misgivings I thought he was very good.

This completes our top ten. What do you think of it? Have you discovered anything new? I look forward to sharing a third and final instalment on ‘authors Wodehouse readers also read’  very soon.  Until then, happy reading!

HP

Next in this series: 50 authors Wodehouse readers love

Cats Will Be Cats

The struggle between Prater’s cat and Prater’s cat’s conscience was short, and ended in the hollowest of victories for the former. The conscience really had no sort of chance from the beginning.

The Tabby Terror (1902) published in Tales of St Austin’s (1903)

P.G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were devoted animal lovers who donated generously to establish the Long Island Bide-a-Wee animal sanctuary. But Wodehouse was not above casting the occasional cat as chief miscreant when it suited him.

His black heart was hidden by a sleek coat of tabby fur, which rendered stroking a luxury. His scheming brain was out of sight in a shapely head.

The Tabby Terror

I was attacked in my own kitchen by a not dissimilar animal, this very a.m –  a large, Churchillian beast with a decidedly high opinion of himself. He insisted upon the best chair from the moment of his arrival, and I expect will soon take to smoking cigars. Mr Mulliner outlines the attitude nicely in The Story of Webster:

Mulliner Nights by P.G. WodehouseCats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods.

 The Story of Webster in Mulliner Nights (1933)

My nominee for Most Fiendish Exhibit in the Wodehouse Cat Show must surely be Percy, from the stable of Mrs Pulteney-Banks. He appears in another story from the same volume, which leads one to wonder if Wodehouse had some cat troubles of his own at the time.

(H)e was pure poison. Orange of body and inky black of soul, he lay stretched out on the rug, exuding arrogance and hate… One could picture him stealing milk from a sick tabby.

Cats Will Be Cats in Mulliner Nights (1933)

Fortunately for the Mulliners, the cat Webster is on hand to dispose of Percy, for it is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Few mortals succeed in their efforts to outwit a Wodehousian cat, though many fools have tried:

At tea on the following evening the first really serious engagement of the campaign took place. The cat strolled into the team room in the patronising way characteristic of his kind, but was heavily shelled with lump sugar, and beat a rapid retreat… From that moment its paw was against every man, and the tale of the things it stole is too terrible to relate in detail.  Like Death in the poem, it knocked at the doors of the highest and the lowest alike. Or rather, it did not exactly knock. It came in without knocking.

The Tabby Terror

A friendly war between species is one thing. Almost natural you might say, especially when careless authors start throwing cats, boys and sardines together. But Wodehouse takes a firm stance on anyone who oversteps the mark. Our sympathies can never rest easily with The Man Who Disliked Cats, who begins by flinging them about hotels, and works his way up to having them destroyed. He fails, loses the girl, and becomes a mere shadow of his former self.

He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle; of one whom the clenched fist of Fate has smitten beneath the temperamental third waistcoat button.

The Man Who Disliked Cats in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories (1914)

And on that note, I must go. The malevolent feline of my household, of whom I spoke earlier, has returned and is giving me a meaningful eye. I’m sitting in his chair  – and the consequences of thwarting this dictatorial example of his species are more than I can bare.

HP

This piece is dedicated to my beloved cat Terry who recently passed away, leaving a huge hole in our hearts –  and a cold spot on my pillow where a little cat used to be.