P. G. Wodehouse
||This article possibly contains original research. (July 2013)|
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse
Wodehouse in 1904 (aged 23).
|Born||Pelham Grenville Wodehouse
15 October 1881
Guildford, Surrey, United Kingdom
|Died||14 February 1975
Southampton, New York, United States
|Occupation||humorist, novelist, playwright and lyricist|
United States (naturalised in 1955, aged 74)
|Genre||comedy, romantic comedy|
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (//; 15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was an English humourist whose body of work includes novels, short stories, plays, humorous verses, poems, song lyrics, and magazine articles. He enjoyed enormous popular success during a career that lasted more than seventy years, and his many writings continue to be widely read. A quintessential Englishman, born during the Victorian era and spending his twenties in Edwardian London, he also resided in France and the United States for extended periods during his long life. His writing reflects this rich background, with stories set in England, France, and the United States, particularly, New York City and Hollywood.
An acknowledged master of English prose, Wodehouse has been admired both by contemporaries such as Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by recent writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry, Douglas Adams, J. K. Rowling, and John Le Carré.
Perhaps best known today for the Jeeves and Blandings Castle novels and short stories, Wodehouse was also a playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of 15 plays and of 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies, many of them produced in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934), wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's Show Boat (1927), wrote lyrics to Sigmund Romberg's music for the Gershwin – Romberg musical Rosalie (1928) and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928). He is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Wodehouse spent the last decades of his life in the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1955, after a controversy arose relating to five radio broadcasts he made from Germany during World War II. He had been imprisoned by the Germans in a civil internment camp for a year, and speculation regarding his motives led to allegations that the broadcasts were the result of collaboration and treason. Some libraries banned his books. An MI5 investigation cleared him of any such crimes, but he never returned to England.
Wodehouse, called "Plum" (abbreviating "Pelham") by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse (née Deane; daughter of John Bathurst Deane) at 1 Vale Place, Epsom Road, Guildford, while she was visiting from Hong Kong. He was baptised at St. Nicolas' Church, Guildford. His aunt Mary Deane was the author of the novel Mr. Zinzan of Bath; or, Seen in an Old Mirror. His father, Henry Ernest Wodehouse (1845–1929), was a British judge in Hong Kong. The Wodehouse family had been settled in Norfolk for many centuries. Wodehouse's great-grandfather The Reverend Philip Wodehouse was the second son of Sir Armine Wodehouse, 5th Baronet, whose eldest son John Wodehouse, 1st Baron Wodehouse, was the ancestor of the Earls of Kimberley. His godfather was Pelham von Donop, after whom he was named.
When he was three years old, Wodehouse was brought back to Britain and placed in the care of a nanny. He attended various boarding schools and, according to one biographer, between the ages of three and 15 years, saw his parents for barely six months in total. Wodehouse grew very close to his brother, who shared his love for art. Wodehouse, from an early age, filled much of his unscheduled time by writing. He spent quite a few of his school holidays with one aunt or another, and the numerous aunts provided him with ample characteristics for some of his most vivid literary creations, including Bertie Wooster's formidable aunt Agatha and his good and deserving aunt Dahlia, as well as Lady Constance Keeble, who figures as an aunt to various nieces and nephews in some of the Blandings Castle series.
Wodehouse's first school was the Chalet School, Croydon, which he attended between 1886 and 1889, together with his two older brothers — Richard, the youngest of the four Wodehouse brothers, was much younger and became somewhat noteworthy as a cricketer in Asia. In 1889, the eldest brother, Peveril, was diagnosed as having a weak chest and the three brothers were sent to Elizabeth College, Guernsey (where they appear on the census for 1891), so that Peveril could benefit from the sea air. Wodehouse remained at Elizabeth College for two years, until, at age 10, it was time for him to move to a preparatory school. Wodehouse's first prep school was Malvern House, at Kearsney, near Dover, Kent, which specialised in preparing boys for entry to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Wodehouse spent two years at Malvern House before finally persuading his father to send him to Dulwich College, where his elder brother Armine was already a pupil.
He enjoyed attending Dulwich College, where he was successful both as a scholar and a sportsman: he was a member of the Classics VIth Form (traditionally, the preserve of the brightest pupils) and a school prefect; he edited the college magazine, The Alleynian, sang and acted leading roles in musical and theatrical productions and gained his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and rugby football First XV; he also represented the school at boxing (until barred by poor eyesight) and his house at athletics. The library at Dulwich is now named after him.
Armine Wodehouse had won a classics scholarship to Oxford University (where he gained a first class degree), and Pelham expected to follow in his brother's footsteps, but according to Wodehouse, a fall in the value of the Indian rupee (in which currency his father's pension was paid) forced the abandonment of the plan for a university education for the family's third son. This account has been questioned by Robert Crum in his biography. His father found him a position with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now known as HSBC), where, after two years' training in London, he would have been posted to an overseas branch. (For a fictional, but somewhat autobiographical, account of some of his experiences in the bank, see Psmith in the City). Wodehouse found himself unsuited to banking as a career and saw his true vocation was writing. He wrote part-time while working in the bank, and in 1902 began writing for The Globe (a then-popular London evening paper), taking over the comic, "By the Way" column from a friend who had resigned. Wodehouse also contributed items to Punch, Vanity Fair (1903–1906), Daily Express (1904) and The World: A Journal for Men and Women (1906–07). During this same period, he wrote stories for schoolboys' magazines (The Captain and Public School Magazine) that were compiled to form his first published novels and four playlets with his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Around this time Wodehouse also played for the Authors XI cricket team.
In 1907, Wodehouse contributed the lyrics to two songs to the Seymour Hicks musical comedy The Gay Gordons. One of the other lyricists on the show was his fellow Globe newspaperman C.H. Bovill. The two would later collaborate on the 1914 revue Nuts and Wine and a series of six short stories collected as A Man of Means in 1913–14.
During 1909, Wodehouse stayed in Greenwich Village and sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier's for a total of $500 – much more than he had ever earned before. He then resigned from The Globe and stayed in New York, where he became a regular contributor (under a variety of pseudonyms) to the newly founded American Vanity Fair (1913). However, the magazine had only just started and might have had to, in Wodehouse's words, "suddenly call it a day." His years of hard work were shortly to be rewarded, however - "the wolf was still outside the door but sticking around and licking its lips in a meaning manner, when suddenly everything changed - The Saturday Evening Post bought and serialised Something New" in 1915.
He used his time in Greenwich Village in various short stories set in the area, including a series of short stories about Bertie Wooster, who resides in and enjoys the bohemian life style of the Washington Square area while avoiding his Aunt Agatha. Some of his early novels, including Psmith, Journalist, Piccadilly Jim, The Little Warrior, and A Gentleman of Leisure, also have New York settings.
Around this time Wodehouse also began collaborating with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on (eventually eighteen) musical comedies, including the innovative Princess Theatre musicals. Wodehouse's contribution to musical theatre was summed up by composer Richard Rogers as follows, "Before Larry Hart, only P.G. Wodehouse had made any assault on the intelligence of the song-listening public." He composed thirty-three musicals in the course of his career, and had five shows on Broadway at the same time in 1917! During the season when the five shows were running simultaneously on Broadway, Wodehouse and Bolton had "about a dozen companies out on the road"; his theatre work was, at that time his "big source of income."
In 1914, Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman (d.1984) and gained a stepdaughter named Leonora. He had no biological children.
During the 1930s, he had two brief stints as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where he controversially claimed he was greatly overpaid. Many of his novels were also serialised in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid well.
Life beyond Britain
Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 until 1947, when he moved permanently to the United States, he split his time among Britain, France and the U.S. In 1934, he took up residence in France, to avoid double taxation on his earnings by the tax authorities in Britain and the U.S. His letters and writings reflect little interest in politics and world affairs. When World War II broke out in 1939, he remained at his seaside home in Le Touquet, France, instead of returning to Britain, apparently failing, as did may others similarly situated, to recognise the imminence of the German invasion and French capitulation. It is also said that his wife couldn't bear to leave their dog, Wonder. He was classified as an "enemy alien" according to the Geneva Convention, and the German military authorities in occupied France interned him, along with other male foreign nationals. He was interned first in Belgium, then at Tost in Upper Silesia (formerly Germany, now Toszek in Poland), of which he is recorded having said, "If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like…"
While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty monologues. He was released from internment a few months before his 60th birthday when, under the Geneva Convention, he should have been released anyway; the early release led to allegations that he had made a deal with the Nazi authorities. He then drafted several humorous talks, based on his life at Tost, as the basis for a series of radio broadcasts aimed at America, which was not then at war with Germany. After his release from internment, he lived for a time at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, before moving to Paris, which was still under German occupation. It did not help that he stayed at the Hotel Bristol (room 327) in Paris, which was the favourite hotel of the German high command and German collaborators. When the text of his talks was published (actual phonographic records had also been made and still survive) in the UK many years later, several short sentences were suppressed (probably by Wodehouse himself) that showed him being relatively civil to the German military when they arrived at Le Touquet. Wodehouse believed he would be admired for having "kept a stiff upper lip" during his internment, but he misjudged the mood in wartime Britain, where reports about the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaborationism with the Germans and even treason, which would have led to his being hanged, which many, including the Prime Minister of the day, thought should happen.
Some libraries banned his books. Foremost among his critics was A. A. Milne, famous as the author of the Winnie the Pooh books; Wodehouse took revenge in a short-story parody, Rodney Has a Relapse (1949), in which a character based on Milne writes about his son, a ridiculous character named "Timothy Bobbin". Here is a sample:
- Timothy Bobbin has ten little toes.
- He takes them out walking wherever he goes.
- And if Timothy gets a cold in the head,
- His ten little toes stay with him in bed.
Another critic was the playwright Sean O'Casey who, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph in July 1941, wrote: "If England has any dignity left in the way of literature, she will forget for ever the pitiful antics of English Literature's performing flea". Wodehouse deflected the insult by giving the title Performing Flea to a collection of his letters to a friend, Bill Townend. Among Wodehouse's defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell.
An investigation led by Major Cussen of the British security service MI5 concluded that Wodehouse was naïve and foolish, but definitely not a traitor. It was advised to him that he should not return to live in England again but either live in France again or go to America. Documents declassified in the 1980s appeared to show that while he was living in Paris, his living expenses were paid by the Nazis, but papers released by the British Public Record Office in 1999 showed that this had been accounted for by MI5 investigators when they established Wodehouse's innocence. By their account, the money was Wodehouse's legitimate earnings, including an advance from his Spanish publisher, which because of the war had to be channelled through the German Central Bank.
For security reasons, the results of Major Cussen's investigation were not published during Wodehouse's lifetime. Wodehouse felt that the unwillingness to publish the document prevented his full rehabilitation.
The backlash and public hostility in his native Britain led Wodehouse and his wife Ethel to move permanently to New York. Apart from his stepdaughter Leonora, whom he adopted and who died during Wodehouse's internment in Germany, the Wodehouses had no children. He became a United States citizen in 1955, spending the remainder of his life in Remsenburg, New York, never to revisit his homeland.
Wodehouse continued to write novels and to follow an exercise regime into his nineties. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1975 New Year Honours; it is widely believed that the honour was not given earlier because of lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. His doctor advised him not to travel to London for the investiture and his wife later accepted the knighthood on his behalf from the British consul. Toward the end of January 1975, he developed pemphigus, a persistent skin rash, brought on by the strain of extra work, answering fan mail and recording the introductions to the Wodehouse Playhouse TV series. In early February, he entered Southampton Hospital, where he died of a heart attack on 14 February 1975 at age 93. His last novel, Sunset at Blandings, was unfinished at his death and was published posthumously in 1977.
Wodehouse took a modest attitude to his own works. In Over Seventy (1957) he wrote: "I go in for what is known in the trade as 'light writing' and those who do that – humorists they are sometimes called – are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at."
A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names'. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
His writing style is notable for its unique blend of contemporary London clubroom slang with elegant, classically-informed drawing-room English; for example:
I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast.
Much of the charm of characters like Bertie Wooster in the Jeeves-Wooster novels derives from the light-hearted cheeriness and bonhomie that Wodehouse conveys through a particularly effective choice of language. While Wooster is often described by acquaintances as mentally negligible, the reader more often sees him as the hapless victim of circumstances, very often circumstances which his "code", his aspiration to be a preux chevalier (valiant knight), prevents his avoiding. For example, Wooster is frequently made the unwilling fiancé of girls who announce their engagement to him after discarding another suitor. Wooster would never get out of such a fix simply by saying no, or as he would put it, issuing a nolle prosequi, because his code does not allow him to be so ungallant.
Wodehouse gives Wooster a rich vocabulary of slang, from abbreviated words, like enjoying the "b & e" at breakfast, or "seeing at a g", to enjoying a drink, or lubricating the tonsils. He will describe another character as looking "like a seal waiting for a slice of fish," or "a tiger after his morning ration of coolie." He clearly enjoyed the benefits of a fine education at Eton and Oxford, particularly in the early novels, when he can spout a Shakespearean line to suit the occasion, or revert to the Latin citation, rem acu tetigisti, when putting his finger on the problem. If memory fails to bring back the literary reference, he can at least point Jeeves in the right direction: "what is that poem about someone looking at someone looking at something?" (Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer".) It is only in the later stories that he loses his smattering of learning, and attributes the most familiar Shakespearian quotations to Jeeves. Wodehouse's use of language was outstanding, including coining new words. "[W]hile not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled".
Literary tastes and influence
In the above-mentioned Over Seventy, Wodehouse names some contemporary humorists whom he held in high regard. These include Frank Sullivan, A. P. Herbert, W. S. Gilbert and Alex Atkinson. Two essays in Tales of St. Austin's satirise modern literary criticism: "The Tom Brown Question" is a parody of Homeric analysts, and "Notes" criticises both classical and English critics, with an ironic exception for those explicating the meaning of Browning. In "Work", Wodehouse calls the claim that "Virgil is hard" "a shallow falsehood", but notes that "Aeschylus, on the other hand, is a demon". Shakespeare and Tennyson were also obvious influences (Wodehouse throws a slightly altered line from Tennyson's poem "The Princess" - "Now slept the crimson petal and the white" into his novel "Heavy Weather" (opening paragraph of Chapter XIII) which itself became the title of a 2002 novel, based in Victorian era, written by Michael Faber); their works were the only books Wodehouse took with him in his internment. He frequently quoted Kipling and Omar Khayyam. Wodehouse enjoyed the traditional British thriller: one of his characters declares that "It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace", and he dedicated Sam the Sudden to Wallace, while Agatha Christie dedicated her Hallowe'en Party "To P G Wodehouse – whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books." In the 1960s he gave important praise for the debut novels of Donald Jack, Gavin Lyall and George MacDonald Fraser. In later life, he read mysteries by Ngaio Marsh and Rex Stout, and unfailingly watched the soap opera The Edge of Night.
Wodehouse's characters, however, were not always popular with the establishment, notably the foppish foolishness of Bertie Wooster. Papers released by the Public Record Office have disclosed that when Wodehouse was recommended in 1967 for the Order of the Companions of Honour, Sir Patrick Dean, the British ambassador in Washington, argued that it "would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate."
Wodehouse's characters are often eccentric, with peculiar attachments, such as to pigs (Lord Emsworth), newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle), antique silver (Wooster's Uncle Tom Travers), golf collectibles (numerous characters) or socks (Archibald Mulliner). His "mentally negligible" good-natured characters invariably make their lot worse by their half-witted schemes to improve a bad situation. In many cases the classic eccentricities of Wodehouse's upper class give rise to plot complications. The very first Jeeves story ("Jeeves Takes Charge") concerns an attempt to prevent publication of an old man's memoirs, which contain embarrassing stories about aristocrats and other prestigious persons in their youth.
Relatives, especially aunts and uncles, are commonly depicted with an exaggerated power to help or impede marriage or financial prospects, or simply to make life miserable. (Wooster speaks of "Aunt Agatha getting after [someone] with her hatchet.") Several of the Jeeves stories involve helping a pal deceive a wealthy relative on whom the pal depends financially ("The Aunt and the Sluggard", "Comrade Bingo"). When Bertie Wooster is first introduced ("Jeeves Takes Charge"), he is himself dependent upon his Uncle Willoughby and only when this uncle "hands in his dinner pail" (dies) does Bertram become independently wealthy. When a Wodehouse character has an aunt, the reader can depend on her being ghastly. Wooster's aunt Dahlia Travers is an exception, but has her own objectionable qualities, giving rise to the title of the late novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen ("The Cat-Nappers" in America).
Children of both genders are invariably troublesome and annoying and frequently malicious. The most egregious is Edwin the Boy Scout, whose attempts at "acts of kindness" cause disasters of widely varying severity in several Jeeves novels and short stories. Other examples of simple 'misguided youth' occur in Laughing Gas (1936), where the child Hollywood star Joey Cooley is viewed in (at times) a very sympathetic light, and in Service with a Smile, where the boy George Threepwood (grandson to the Earl of Emsworth) is viewed as mischievous, rather than villainous.
Friends are often more a trouble than a comfort in Wodehouse stories: Bertie Wooster in particular is often obliged to put himself to trouble and sometimes to endure considerable suffering, in order to help a friend. (The "code of the Woosters", in the novel of the same name, is "Never let a pal down.") Antagonists (particularly rivals in love) are frequently terrifying and just as often get their comeuppance in a gratifying fashion.
Policemen and magistrates are typically portrayed as threatening, yet easy to fool, often through the simple expedient of giving a false name. A recurring motif is the theft of policemen's helmets. One of the most dislikable characters in the entire opus is a magistrate, Sir Watkyn Bassett.
In a manner going back to the stock characters of Roman comedy (such as Plautus), Wodehouse's servants are frequently far cleverer than their masters. This is quintessentially true with Jeeves, who always pulls Bertie Wooster out of the direst scrapes by means of cunning and resource, often by deceptively manipulating him (e.g., "Bertie Changes his Mind", Right Ho, Jeeves) or by convincing him to sacrifice himself. It recurs elsewhere, such as with the efficient (though despised) Baxter, secretary to the befogged Lord Emsworth.
Another recurring type is the successful, square-jawed, ruthless American business executive, most notably in Thank You, Jeeves and in the golf story "The Heel of Achilles," but also in later stories about the Mulliners in Hollywood.
Big bruisers who come and go unexpectedly, muttering threats, abound in Wodehouse, including first and foremost Roderick Spode and Tuppy Glossop but also any number of bookies' henchmen, jealous lovers, nosy neighbours, burglars and what would now be called animal-rights activists.
Many stories involve a strong-willed, independent, middle-aged (or older) female troublemaker. Examples include Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha; Lord Emsworth's many sisters, notably Lady Constance Keeble; Headmistress Mapleton in "Jeeves and the Kid Clementina"; Lady Bassett in the Mulliner short story "Strychnine in the Soup" and the poisonous Princess von und zu Dworniczek in Summer Moonshine. Even Aunt Dahlia, the exceptional aunt who is a "good egg," makes plenty of troublesome demands on Bertie. Most abhorrent are the female writers, young and old, such as Ukridge's Aunt Julia, Bertie Wooster's cousin (and sometime fiancée) Florence Craye and, when the evil fit is upon her, Bingo Little's wife Rosie M. Banks.
Animals of many types play major roles in his works and are the unifying force in A Wodehouse Bestiary, published by Dorset Press in 1985, Foreword by Howard Phipps, Jr., President, New York Zoological Society. Perhaps most famous and beloved of all Wodehouse's non-human characters is Lord Emsworth's Empress of Blandings, who is also the subject of one of his most popular, as well as his hardest-to-spell, stories, "Pig-Hoo-o-o-o-ey!". Wodehouse lived with a dog on his lap at most times and usually lived with several Pekes. Dogs, often referred to as "dumb chums", especially Pekingese, feature prominently in short stories and novels. Wodehouse often referred to their screams and love of food, in their person and in his use of similes. He also often referred to snails and slugs, though he was wont to treat them rather generically, as Phipps criticised in his foreword when he said, "Unfortunately he is sometimes unspecific, referring only to a 'snake' or a 'parrot' and is frequently guilty of adopting a stereotyped view of snakes, parrots, rabbits and rats."
Wodehouse is known for his consummate skill at the detailed construction and development of the plots of his novels. This did not come immediately to him: in the early Psmith novels Psmith in the City and Psmith, Journalist, the device by which the protagonists are rescued from their mounting difficulties is a simple infusion of cash from Psmith's father. This would soon change, and by the 1920s his novels were exhibiting his genius for creating multiple plot layers with mounting obstacles and continual twists before reaching the invariable happy ending. Typically, a relative or friend makes a demand that forces a character into a bizarre situation that leads to numerous complications and the happy ending seems an impossibility - but Wodehouse always untangles the convoluted strands for a clever and satisfying finale. The layers pile up thickly in the longer works, with characters getting into multiple undesirable or potentially embarrassing situations by mid-story. A good example of these types of machinations is The Code of the Woosters, where most of the chapters end with an earlier essential plot point being reversed in the last sentence, catapulting the characters forward into greater disasters. A key figure in many Wodehouse stories is a "fixer" whose genius, inventiveness, and resourcefulness soar above the blather and bluster of most of the other characters, Jeeves being the best known example. Other characters in this vein are Lord Ickenham ("Uncle Fred") and Galahad Threepwood, who perform much the same role in the Blandings Castle stories—though never both at the same time—and Psmith, who does the same thing in the stories that bear his name.
Engagements are a common theme in Wodehouse stories. A man or woman may be unable to become engaged to the object of his/her affection due to some impediment such as poverty, unsuitable employment, feelings of inferiority, or a relative's objection. Often a protagonist unwillingly or unwittingly gets engaged to the wrong person and must find some way out other than breaking it off directly (which, for men, goes against a gentleman's code of honour and may render him vulnerable to a lawsuit for breach of promise). A case in point is Bertie Wooster's engagement to Madeline Bassett in Right Ho, Jeeves, which his code of honour prevents him from breaking, a plot point that recurs in two subsequent novels.
Impersonations, and resulting confusion, are particularly common in the Blandings books, but also occur in other works. Often the impersonation is discovered, but the impersonator is generally able to neutralise the effects of the discovery, at least for as long as the plot requires, by means of "stout denial", or winning the discoverer's cooperation through clever bribery or blackmail, as in Leave it to Psmith (where one impersonator discovers another impersonator on the premises) and Uncle Fred in the Springtime.
Gambling plays a role in some of Wodehouse's stories, particularly stories about members of the Drones Club. The hapless hero is often the victim of serial bad luck (as is the case in many Bingo Little stories) or a malefactor who manipulates the outcome of the wager (see, for example, The Great Sermon Handicap and The Metropolitan Touch, which involve both Bingo Little and Bertie Wooster.)
Another subject which has recurred in several Wodehouse's plots is alcohol, where the tipsiness of a character causes comic results (Gussie Fink-Nottle's prize-giving scene in Right Ho, Jeeves, being a pre-eminent example.) In The Mating Season, Wodehouse enumerates a "definitive" list of hangovers: the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie. There are several references to a drink called the "May Queen",[a] described by Uncle Fred as "any good dry champagne, to which is added brandy, armagnac, kümmel, yellow chartreuse, and old stout, to taste", which inspires several characters to acts of daring, such as proposing to their true loves. Other real and fictitious psychoactive substances have been featured, for instance in Laughing Gas two dentists use the gas referred to in the title; in the short story "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo", the fictional Buck-U-Uppo helps a meek curate to lose his diffidence and win through to true love.
Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing 96 books in his remarkable seventy-three-year-long career (1902 to 1975). His works include novels, collections of short stories, and musical comedies. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by "series":
- The Blandings Castle stories (later dubbed "the Blandings Castle Saga" by Wodehouse), about the upper class inhabitants of the fictional rural Blandings Castle. Includes the eccentric Lord Emsworth, obsessed by his prize-winning pig, the "Empress of Blandings", and at one point by his equally prize-winning pumpkin ("Hope of Blandings", but, mockingly, "Percy" to Emsworth's unappreciative second son Freddie Threepwood).
- The Drones Club stories, about the mishaps of certain members of a raucous social club for London's idle rich. Drones Club stories always involve unnamed club members known as "Eggs", "Beans" and "Crumpets" (after the habit of addressing each other as "old egg", "old bean" or "old crumpet"); in each story, a well-informed Crumpet will endeavour to tell an Egg or Bean of the latest exploits of another Drones Club member, most frequently Freddie Widgeon or Bingo Little. Also featured are a cast of recurrent bit players such as Club millionaire Oofy Prosser.
- The Golf stories. They are built around one of Wodehouse's passions, the sport of golf, which all characters involved consider the only important pursuit in life. The Oldest Member of the golf course clubhouse tells most of them, usually to unwilling listeners who would prefer to be elsewhere.
- The Jeeves and Wooster stories, narrated by the wealthy, scatterbrained Bertie Wooster. A number of stories and novels that recount the improbable and unfortunate situations in which he and his friends find themselves and the manner in which his ingenious valet Jeeves is always able to extricate them. Collectively called "the Jeeves stories", or "Jeeves and Wooster", they are Wodehouse's most famous. The Jeeves stories are a valuable compendium of pre–World War II English slang in use. One story, "Bertie Changes His Mind" (originally published in 1922), is narrated by Jeeves instead of by Wooster.
- The Mr Mulliner stories, narrated by a genial pub raconteur who can take any topic of conversation and turn it into an involved, implausible story about a member of his family. Most of Mr. Mulliner's stories involve one or another of his innumerable relatives. His listeners are always identified solely by their drinks, e.g., a "Hot Scotch and Lemon" or a "Double Whisky and Splash".
- The School stories, which launched Wodehouse's career with their comparative realism. They are often located at the fictional public schools of St. Austin's or Wrykyn.
- The Psmith stories, about an ingenious jack-of-all-trades with a charming, exaggeratedly refined manner. The final Psmith story, Leave it to Psmith, overlaps the Blandings stories in that Psmith works for Lord Emsworth, lives for a time at Blandings Castle, and becomes a friend of Freddie Threepwood. Psmith first appeared in the school novel Mike.
- The Ukridge stories, about the charming but unprincipled Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, who always has a "get rich quick" scheme. Besides the short stories, there is one novel about him: Love Among the Chickens.
- The Uncle Fred stories, about the eccentric Earl of Ickenham. Whenever he can escape his wife's chaperonage, he likes to spread what he calls "sweetness and light" and others are likely to call chaos. His escapades, always involving impersonations of some sort, are usually told from the viewpoint of his nephew and reluctant companion Reginald "Pongo" Twistleton. Several times he performs his "art" at Blandings Castle.
- The stand-alone stories. Stories which are not part of a series (although they may contain overlapping minor characters), such as Piccadilly Jim, Quick Service, Summer Moonshine, Sam the Sudden, and Laughing Gas.
Almost all of these series overlap: Psmith appears in a "School" story and a Blandings novel; Bertie Wooster is a member of the Drones Club; Uncle Fred and Pongo Twistleton appear in both the Blandings Saga and the Drones club stories; Sir Roderick Glossop, one of Wooster's nemeses, visits Blandings in one story; Bingo Little is a regular character in the Jeeves stories and the Drones Club stories, etc.
Considering the extent of his success, there have been comparatively few adaptations of Wodehouse's works. He was reluctant to allow others to adapt the Jeeves stories:
One great advantage in being a historian to a man like Jeeves is that his mere personality prevents one selling one's artistic soul for gold. In recent years I have had lucrative offers for his services from theatrical managers, motion-picture magnates, the proprietors of one or two widely advertised commodities, and even the editor of the comic supplement of an American newspaper, who wanted him for a "comic strip". But, tempting though the terms were, it only needed Jeeves' deprecating cough and his murmured "I would scarcely advocate it, sir," to put the jack under my better nature. Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book."
Doing his own adaptations for film did not attract him either. He had been retained by MGM in 1930 but little used: "They paid me $2,000 a week... Yet apparently they had the greatest difficulty in finding anything for me to do." He returned to MGM in 1937 to work on the screenplay of Rosalie, but even though he was now being paid $2,500 a week and living luxuriously in Hollywood, he said "I'm not enjoying life much just now. I don't like doing pictures."
However, he formed a warm working relationship with Ian Hay, who adapted A Damsel in Distress as a stage play in 1928, with Hay, Wodehouse and A.A. Milne all investing in the production. Wodehouse and Hay holidayed together in Scotland, finding "a lot of interests in common". Wodehouse went on to help dramatise Hay's story Baa Baa Black Sheep in 1929, and in 1930 they co-wrote the stage version of Leave It to Psmith.
Wodehouse wrote the screenplay for the musical film A Damsel in Distress released in 1937, starring Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Joan Fontaine, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. A 1962 film adaptation of The Girl on the Boat starred Norman Wisdom, Millicent Martin and Richard Briers.
The Blandings, Jeeves, Ukridge and Mulliner stories have all been adapted for television. The Jeeves series has been adapted for television twice, once in the 1960s (by the BBC), with the title The World of Wooster, starring Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster, and Dennis Price as Jeeves, and again in the 1990s (by Granada Television for ITV), with the title Jeeves and Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie as Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. David Niven and Arthur Treacher also starred as Wooster and Jeeves, respectively, in a short 1930s film that had the title Thank You, Jeeves!, though neither this nor the sequel, Step Lively, Jeeves, also starring Treacher as Jeeves but without Wooster, bears any relation to a Wodehouse story.
In 1975, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical, originally titled Jeeves. In 1996, it was rewritten as the more successful By Jeeves, which made it to Broadway, and a performance recorded as a video film, also shown on TV.
Piccadilly Jim was first filmed in 1919, and again in 1936, starring Robert Montgomery. In 2004, Julian Fellowes wrote another screen adaptation which starred Sam Rockwell, but this version proved unsuccessful.
There was also a series of BBC adaptations of various short works, mostly from the Mulliner series, under the title of Wodehouse Playhouse starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins, which aired starting in 1975. The first series was introduced by Wodehouse himself in the last year of his life.
|Lists of P. G. Wodehouse characters|
|Characters in all Wodehouse stories|
- Major characters of primary importance
Wodehouse's work contains a number of recurring protagonists, narrators and principal characters, including:
- Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves; his Aunt Dahlia and his Aunt Agatha;
- Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and his large family;
- Mr Mulliner, irrepressible pub raconteur of family stories;
- The Oldest Member, irrepressible nineteenth hole raconteur of golf stories;
- Psmith, monocled dandy and practical socialist;
- Ukridge, irrepressible entrepreneur and cheerful opportunist;
- Uncle Fred (Frederick Cornwallis, Fifth Earl of Ickenham), considered, in some circles, a disgrace to the Peerage. Spreading "sweetness and light" through impersonation.
- Major characters of secondary importance
Certain of Wodehouse's less central characters are particularly well-known, despite being less critical elements of his works as a whole.
- Anatole, French chef extraordinaire, very temperamental;
- Galahad Threepwood, Lord Emsworth's brother, lifelong bachelor with a mis-spent youth and a kind heart;
- Sebastian Beach, Lord Emsworth's butler;
- Rupert Baxter, Lord Emsworth's efficient but annoying secretary;
- Major Brabazon-Plank, Amazon explorer, afraid of bonnie babies;
- Sir Roderick Glossop, intimidating psychiatrist;
- Honoria Glossop, Sir Roderick's daughter and sometime fiancée of Bertie Wooster, demanding, imperious, athletic;
- Tuppy Glossop, Sir Roderick's nephew, muscular rugby-player;
- Roderick Spode, later 7th Earl of Sidcup, amateur dictator, very tall and muscular, based on British fascist Oswald Mosley;
- Pongo Twistleton, Uncle Fred's nephew;
- Oofy Prosser, millionaire member of the Drones Club;
- Monty Bodkin, second richest member of the Drones Club (second to Oofy Prosser);
- Bingo Little, friend of Bertie Wooster, with a complicated love-life;
- Cyril "Barmy" Fotheringay-Phipps, friend of Bertie Wooster, Drones Club member, intellectually challenged;
- Sidney McMurdo, big, muscular golfer, inclined to jealousy;
- Agnes Flack, big, muscular, female golfer;
- Freddie Widgeon, member of the Drones Club;
- Gussie Fink-Nottle, fish-faced, socially awkward newt-fancier, and orange juice drinker (cannot hold his liquor);
- Sir Watkyn Bassett, owner of Totleigh Towers;
- Madeline Bassett, daughter of Sir Watkyn, very pretty but disturbingly drippy and poetical; often voices conviction that "the stars are God's daisy-chain" and other goofy sentiments;
- Bobbie Wickham, attractive but ruthless red-haired girl, very demanding and fond of practical jokes;
- Florence Craye, Bertie Wooster's cousin and sometimes fiancee, and dauntingly intellectual author of the novel Spindrift;
- Lord Uffenham, owner and butler of Shipley Hall;
- Mike Jackson, Psmith's steadfast, cricket-playing friend;
- Archibald Mulliner, sock collector who can mimic a hen laying an egg.
Wodehouse's maternal grandmother, Louisa Elizabeth Fourdrinier, was the daughter of Sealey Fourdrinier, who invented the paper machine (also known as the Fourdrinier machine) alongside his brother, Henry. The entry for "Henry Fourdrinier" in Volume 20 of Dictionary of National Biography makes a brief description of the nature of their innovation:
In conjunction with his brother Sealy he devoted himself for many years to the invention and improvement of paper-making machinery. Their first patent was taken out in 1801. In 1807 they perfected their machine for making continuous paper. This machine imitated with some improvements the processes used in paper by hand. Its chief advantages were that it produced paper of any size, and with greatly increased rapidity.
But despite its advantages, the cost of the machine—totalling £60,000—left the brothers bankrupt and, as a consequence, they made a comfortable income only after they formally made petitions to parliament in 1840 and received donations from other paper firms.
The Fourdriniers are of French Huguenot origins, allegedly fleeing from Caen to Groningen, Holland, before coming to England in the early-18th century. Other notable members of the family included Sealy and Henry's sister, Jemima, who is known primarily for being mother of Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman. One of Wodehouse's maternal aunts, Emmeline Deane, made a portrait of Newman in 1889, when the cardinal was 88 years old (a year before his death). The painting can be found in Room 22 of the National Portrait Gallery.
|Ancestors of P. G. Wodehouse|
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...one of those large, tough, football-playing blokes....
- Wodehouse, P. G. (1969). "Preface [new since the 1969 edition]". Something Fresh. ISBN 0-14-005035-3.
Something Fresh was the first of what I might call – in fact, I will call – the Blandings Castle Saga.
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|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
P. G. Wodehouse
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: P. G. Wodehouse|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to P.G. Wodehouse.|
- The Wodehouse Society
- The P. G. Wodehouse Society (UK)
- Works by P. G. Wodehouse at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about P. G. Wodehouse at Internet Archive
- Works by P. G. Wodehouse at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Interview, BBC, 1958.
- Fry, Stephen (Jeeves actor) (18 January 2000), "What ho! My hero, PG Wodehouse" (recollections and appreciation), The Independent (London)
- Laurie, Hugh (27 May 1999), "Wodehouse Saved my Life", The Daily Telegraph (PG Wodehouse books).
- Clarke, Gerald (Winter 1975), "PG Wodehouse" (PDF), The Paris Review (interview)
- Wodehouse, PG, The five controversial Berlin broadcasts (transcripts), PG Wodehouse books.
- Mordue, Terry, A Celebration of PG Wodehouse (annotated bibliography, characters index, text annotations), UK.
- P. G. Wodehouse at Find a Grave