Tag Archives: The Man Upstairs

The P.G. Wodehouse Book Club: An Invitation

If he elected to hide his pain under a bright smile and a laugh like that of a hyena with a more than usually keen sense of humour, our line was obviously to follow his lead.

The Man With Two Left Feet & Other Stories

In these trying times, good people are reaching out to support others in whatever way they can, each according to our particular skills. But starting an online P.G. Wodehouse Book Club feels like a poor and inherently selfish response. Is it reasonable to be reading and talking about Wodehouse in the midst of a global pandemic — while others are ‘out there’ doing essential work and saving lives?

I think the answer is yes.

To begin with, the two activities are not mutually exclusive. The new group has at least one member who is reading Wodehouse as an escape from his essential hospital work. And those of us confined to home are playing our part in reducing the spread of the virus in our communities. The psychological benefits of reading, laughing, and connecting with others are all well-established — and important to maintain at such a time.

As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across premieval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me.

The Inimitable Jeeves

There are some terrific, well-established online Wodehouse groups if you’re looking to connect with other fans (list follows below). The new P.G. Wodehouse Book Club is for anyone — new readers and enthusiasts alike — who would like to read and discuss the books with others, in a vaguely organised sort of way.

The club was established at approximately 6pm on Wednesday (Australian Central Standard Time) with 41 of its 245 founding members voting for The Inimitable Jeeves as our first book. The gang will be convening online next Saturday — all day, anytime — to talk about it.

An early talking point has been the cover art for this Australian paperback edition.

You can take part by joining the P.G. Wodehouse Book Club on Facebook, or follow the conversation on Twitter #PGWClub.

Happy reading and stay safe, friends.

HP

Other online Wodehouse groups

Let me know if I’ve missed a group and I’ll add it to the list

The Great Wodehouse Romances: Archibald’s Benefit

themanupstairs‘Archibald’s Benefit’ (1909) is a delightful short story, included in The Man Upstairs (1914). It relates the trials of Archibald Mealing, a keen but inept golfer, and his romance with Margaret Milsom. I say inept. Wodehouse says:

Archibald, mark you, whose golf was a kind of blend of hockey, Swedish drill, and buck-and-wing dancing.

For a sense of Archibald’s golfing style, this excellent instructional video from Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz (of Duke University) helps to demonstrate how a dash of buck-and-wing might have impaired Archibald’s success off the tee.

His golf may be rotten, but Archie is in good spirits, having recently become engaged to Margaret Milsom, a soulful looking girl with big blue eyes.

But in Wodehouse’s world, as in life, few romances are a simple matter of ‘A’ meets ‘B’. There is also ‘C’ to be considered, not mention ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’. These extras may come in the shape of interfering relations (Margaret Milsom has a couple of these) or misguided friends (in this case, Archie’s pal McCay). Our hero ‘A’ may also have to impersonate hens, perform tricks with a bit of string, or suffer some other frightful ordeal before he and ‘B’ can finally dance their wedding glide.

The complications for Archie and Margaret are well above par. In addition to a cast of interfering extras, Archie has also feigned an interest in poetry to impress the soulful looking Margaret, and finds the deception torturous to maintain.

Every evening he read painfully a portion of the classics. He plodded through the poetry sections of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Margaret’s devotion to the various bards was so enthusiastic, and her reading so wide, that there were times when Archibald wondered if he could endure the strain.

Once again, Wodehouse is true to life. How many of us have feigned interest in things beyond our expertise in the budding stages of a romance? Over the years I’ve been a temporary enthusiast of heavy-metal music, beer coasters, comic books, and beard-care. But I have my limits, as the chap who expected me to watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead and like it discovered. Like Archibald Mealing, I too have suffered.

Archie’s sentimental friend McCay (who ‘knew Ella Wheeler Wilcox by heart, and could take Browning without anaesthetics’) is also concerned that when Margaret comes to see Archie play in a local golf tournament, her girlish enthusiasm will be dashed. He fears the ordeal will test their romance, so McCay colludes with the other club-members to ensure Archie wins his games.

McCay is unaware that Archie has hidden his passion for golf from Margaret — she is such a soulful girl that he fears her disapproval. And as Archie has no expectation of winning the tournament, he has confidently arranged to meet her elsewhere on the afternoon of the final. When the appointed hour arrives, however, he is at the fifteenth tee with a real chance of winning.

Archie’s devotion for Margaret is tested:

If Margaret broke off the engagement—well, it might be that Time would heal the wound, and that after many years he would find some other girl for whom he might come to care in a wrecked, broken sort of way. But a chance like this could never come again. What is Love compared with holing out before your opponent?

Sentimental readers may be scandalised, but Wodehouse the realist does not shirk from difficult truths. Like the case of Freddie Widgeon in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, who attempts to woo April Carroway with Tennyson and fails, we may even feel that Archie has had a lucky escape. After all, no fair-minded girl would begrudge her lover playing golf.

When Archie attempts a reconciliation with Margaret, he is forced to confess that he has been playing golf. But, rather than chastise him for indulging in frivolous pass-times, Margaret confesses to suppressing her own fondness for golf.

Archibald took a step forward. His voice was tense and trembling.
‘Margaret,’ he said, ‘this is no time for misunderstandings. We must be open with one another. Our happiness is at stake. Tell me honestly, do you like poetry really?’

Margaret hesitated, then answered bravely:

‘No, Archibald,’ she said, ‘it is as you suspect. I am not worthy of you. I do not like poetry. Ah, you shudder! You turn away! Your face grows hard and scornful!’

‘I don’t!’ yelled Archibald. ‘It doesn’t! It doesn’t do anything of the sort! You’ve made me another man!’

She stared, wild-eyed, astonished.

‘What! Do you mean that you, too—’

Wodehouse reveals another difficult romantic truth; when love grips, there is illusion on both sides. ‘A’ is too enraptured with ‘B’ to suspect. And ‘B’ would hotly resent any suggestion that ‘A’ is less than he appears. But if a relationship is to last, we must eventually tear off the false whiskers and take our chances.

Wodehouse lovers who, unlike poor Archie, can take Browning without anaesthetic, might enjoy the Wodehouse poetry associations in Pippa’s Song.

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.