Tag Archives: P.G. Wodehouse

‘Not George Washington,’ by P. G. Wodehouse

Before I had been in Walpole Street a week I could tell by ear the difference between a rejected manuscript and an ordinary letter. There is a certain solid plop about the fall of the former which not even a long envelope full of proofs can imitate successfully.

P. G. Wodehouse began his very long writing career more than a century ago, in the first decade of the 20th Century. It follows that a number of his earlier works have fallen into the public domain. Among them is his novel Not George Washington, which I read in one of the several collections of his out-of-copyright works available for Kindle.

One can detect the nascent signs of later genius in this book, but if he’d been hit by a bus in 1908, we probably wouldn’t remember him on the basis of this work (which was written in collaboration with one Herbert Westbrook).

The story, narrated by several point of view characters, starts on the Channel island of Guernsey, where a young woman named Margaret Goodwin, an island resident, meets James Orlebar Cloyster. The couple fall in love, and though her mother approves, they agree he needs to go to London to pursue his career as a writer before they can marry. He can’t hope to support a wife without achieving some success.

We then follow James to London, where he makes his fortune fairly quickly (his career follows Wodehouse’s own – Wodehouse wrote the “On the Way” column for the Globe newspaper, while Cloyster writes a column of the same name for a paper called the Orb).

At this point Cloyster finds himself in a quandary. He realizes he doesn’t really desire married life. Even his feelings for Margaret have faded. He wants to continue as a footloose London writer, but his growing fame will surely be noticed in Guernsey.

He then hits on a scheme. He pays three friends a ten percent commission each to submit literary works written by him, but under their names. Thus he can pretend to Margaret that he’s still struggling.

All of this eventually blows back in his face, as anyone but a fathead would have expected (channeling the spirit of one of Wodehouse’s later aunt characters).

As I said, there are foreshadowings of later genius in this work – especially in the employment of impostership in the plot. Otherwise, Not George Washington is a pretty minor work.

But Wodehouse fans (like me) will want to add it to their list of works read.

Amazon Plus Video Review: ‘Blandings’

I didn’t have high hopes for the BBC miniseries Blandings (2 seasons available on Amazon Prime). Comments from members of the Wodehouse group on Facebook were unenthusiastic or downright hostile. I myself found it wanting in certain areas, but better than I feared.

Deep background: Most people have heard of Jeeves and Wooster, but P. G. Wodehouse had other story cycles, notably Blandings Castle (which now and then intersected with J&W). Blandings is an idyllic stately British home in the county of Hampshire. The theoretical master of Blandings is Clarence Threepwood, Lord Emsworth. Emsworth, however, is an amiable idiot, barely sentient, obsessed with gardening and his prize pig. So actual power is wielded by his formidable sister Constance – one of Wodehouse’s legendary “Scaly Aunts.” Constance dominates both Emsworth and his son Freddie, who is as mutton-headed as his father, but more active. A man about town (member of the immortal Drones Club), Freddie divides his activities between losing money gambling and falling in love with girls whom Constance finds unsuitable.

The two seasons of Blandings consist of six and seven episodes respectively. All are based on actual Wodehouse stories. I didn’t follow them line for line, but going by my memory they kept fairly close to the original plots. (The main differences between the two seasons are that George Cyril Wellbeloved, the pigkeeper, is unaccountably dropped in Season Two, and Beach the Butler is recast.)

The adaptations were funny; I’ll grant that. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, as they should be. However, they seemed to me to be differently funny from the original stories. The colors are louder, the comedy broader, more slapstick. Perhaps that’s a good way to compensate for Wodehouse’s essential authorial voice, but it sometimes seemed a tad over the top. The old Jeeves and Wooster series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie handled things better.

Young Freddie Threepwood is a case in point. Jack Farthing plays him pretty broadly, and his garish wardrobe and exaggerated quiff of hair are perhaps what Bertie Wooster would have exhibited, had Jeeves not put his foot down.

The big problem in the casting is with Clarence, Lord Emsworth (Timothy Spall). I think I speak for all Wodehousians when I declare that this is some Imposter (of course, Imposters are an important element of many Wodehouse plots). Clarence in the books is usually described as tall and thin, sporting pince-nez glasses. He prefers to dress shabbily, having no sense of personal dignity. However, the Emsworth we encounter here looks like a madman. His hair stands on end. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man who’d wear pince-nez at all. And he’s fat. He’s funny enough, but he’s wrong.

I was happy, in Season Two, to see the arrival of Uncle Galahad Threepwood, (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, a name almost worthy of Wodehouse himself). “Gally” is an elderly roué, as at home in the city as his brother Clarence is in the country. He’s much smarter than Clarence, though, and an inveterate schemer. He’s written and acted well, and he sports the requisite monocle. However, Julian Rhind-Tutt, though elderly on close examination, has bright red hair which makes him look too young from a distance. Gally’s hair should be white, though his eye is not dimmed nor his natural force abated.

The most faithful performance, I think, is that of legendary comedienne Jennifer Saunders as Aunt Julia. She perfectly portrays a woman of Strong Opinions who takes no nonsense from the idiot men around her. Without her firm guidance, the whole estate would fall to pieces, and she knows it. Saunders is able to convey, however, that Constance loves her family deep down, and wishes the best for them – though her idea of “the best” is looking respectable and marrying the Right Sort of People.

Blandings is worth watching, and will give you some laughs. But go to the original stories afterward, and see it done properly.

Jeeves Appears Again

I missed or had forgotten that Sebastian Faulks had been commissioned by the Wodehouse estate to write a new novel with Jeeves and Wooster. The resulting Jeeves and the Wedding Bells was a hit.

Now a second novel has been commissioned from a different writer, Ben Schott, and the result has also rung true with Wodehouse fans. Mark McGinness writes about Schott’s Jeeves and the King of Clubs.

Every few pages bear a Masterly metaphor. “Monty is to reading as Mozart is to golf”; arriving on the scene “bearing two glasses of Madeira and, so it seemed, the weight of the world”; “a Savile Row suit can be handed down the generations—like gout”; “she has a profile that, if not a thousand ships, certainly propelled a punt or two down the Cherwell”; and “Aunt Dahlia rose from the table with the cumbersome majesty of an unmoored Zeppelin.”

from “A Splendid Schott at Plum” (via Prufrock News)

62 Novels Judged Not Funny Enough for Wodehouse Prize

The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize is the United Kingdom’s only literary award for comic writing. Last year, it went to Bridget Jones’s Baby by Helen Fielding.  Two works tied for the prize in 2016, The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray and The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild. I believe we mentioned these works and the Alexander McCall Smith’s 2015 win earlier in this space.

But the 62 novels submitted for consideration this year were only funny enough to produce “many a wry smile,” not the “unanimous, abundant laughter” the judges were hoping to have.

Judge and publisher David Campbell said, “We look forward to awarding a larger rollover prize next year to a hilariously funny book.”

“There were a lot of witty submissions, bloody good novels, but they weren’t comic novels. The alchemy was not there.” (via Prufrock News)


“Bill” by Wodehouse

Were you aware that, aside from being the funniest writer in history, P. G. Wodehouse helped invent the American musical comedy?

He and another Englishman, Guy Bolton, came to America early in the 20th Century to write for Broadway. At that stage, the theaters were running translated, Americanized versions of Viennese operettas. And that’s what Wodehouse and Bolton did at first. Then they branched out and began to write original plays of their own.

For one of those (now forgotten) shows, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics to a song named “Bill.” The production failed, but years later Jerome Kern (one of their collaborators) and Oscar Hammerstein dusted it off and inserted it into their production of “Showboat.” Thus it became the only Wodehouse song that remains in the songbook today.

Here it is.

Whose Book Is Funniest in UK?

The short list for this year’s Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction has been released. The winner of this UK literary award  will be announced next month, just prior to the Hay Festival in Wales.  The winner “will receive a jeroboam of Bollinger Special Cuvée, a case of Bollinger La Grande Année and the complete set of the Everyman Wodehouse collection. They will also be presented with a locally-bred Gloucestershire Old Spot pig, which will be named after the winning novel.”

Last year’s prize went to two authors, Hannah Rothschild for The Improbability of Love and Paul Murray for The Mark and the Void. In 2015, Alexander McCall Smith won the prize for Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party. (See this article for a photo of the prize pig.)

“It was impossible to separate these two books, because they made us laugh so much. And between them they produce a surfeit of wild satire and piercing humour about the subject that can always make us laugh and cry. Money,” judge and broadcaster James Naughtie told The Guardian.

Uncle Lars Flits Through

Tomorrow I’ll be delivering a sermon in campus chapel at our schools. If you think of it, you might pray that I do more good than harm.

Here’s something rather nice: An old TV production of my favorite short story, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” It’s a little slow for my taste, and they make some odd changes to the text for no apparent reason, but all in all it’s not bad. David Niven is excellent as the inimitable Uncle Fred. (Now that I think of it, that’s a self-contradictory statement. If he’s inimitable, it’s impossible for anyone to portray him excellently.)

Jeeves Was Scarcely Mentioned

In Wodehouse’s first story of the exploits of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, many of the familiar details are present: the language, Bertie’s aunts, and the predicament that needs resolving.

But there was one notable exception: Jeeves scarcely got a mention. “I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter,” wrote Wodehouse. He would flesh him out later. “[A] tallish man, with one those dark, shrewd faces” who brings order to the scrape-ridden world of Bertie and his friends with noiseless omniscience. In that first story, however, there is no hint that we are in the presence of a “bird of the ripest intelligence”, who “From the collar upward…stands alone.”

I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten around to this story. My first foray into this part of Wodehouse’s world was with one or two stories from Very Good, Jeeves, which being written in the late 20s was beyond establishing many of the principles. When I saw that another book, Carry On, Jeeves, began with what you might call an origin story (originally published in 1916), I read through that one before returning to the other. I like to keep things in order.

Jeeves and Wooster came into play for Glenn Fisher the other day when he praised these habit of two writers he admires. “Both JG Ballard and PG Wodehouse challenged themselves to write 1,000 words a day.”

That may be just the idea I need to press ahead with my own goals.

Wilson Weighs Wodehouse

Pastor and author Douglas Wilson recommends P.G. Wodehouse for two reasons:

“Wodehouse was merciless to pretentiousness, and aspiring writers are the most pretentious fellows on the planet. So there’s that spiritual benefit.”

The second reason? “Simply put, Wodehouse is a black belt metaphor ninja. Evelyn Waugh, himself a great writer, once said that Wodehouse was capable of two or three striking metaphors per page.

  • He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.
  • One young man was a great dancer, one who never let his left hip know what his right hip was doing.
  • She had just enough brains to make a jaybird fly crooked.
  • Her face was shining like the seat of a bus driver’s trousers.
  • He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.”

Something New, by P.G. Wodehouse

In a 1948 letter, Wodehouse said he liked his Blandings Castle stories over his others because his character Lord Emsworth is his favorite. The dottering old earl, more content weeding in his garden than doing anything else, is introduced in the novel Something New (later published in the U.K. as Something Fresh (the two books are not exactly the same)), Wodehouse’s first story about the quirky folk of Blandings Castle.

The story gives us the young man Ashe Marson, a writer of monthly juvenile detective adventure novels, being challenged by a beautiful new acquaintance to take his life in his own hands and try something new. This beauty, Joan Valentine, soon discovers that the Honorable Freddie Treepwood, reprobate son of the Earl of Emsworth, was once terribly in the love with her and would rather that part of his life never see the light of day. The reason is Freddie has proposed to Aline Peters, daughter of American millionaire J.P. Peters, who moved into a home near Blandings several months ago. (Mr. Peters is said to be “suffering from that form of paranoia which makes men multimillionaires.”) Aline intends to marry Freddie, perhaps more to please her father than herself, but she hasn’t given herself much time to think about it. Her father, Mr. Peters, is an Ancient Egyptian scarab enthusiast. When he decides to gush about them to the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, trouble broods. Continue reading Something New, by P.G. Wodehouse

…and every postmodern family is a dead loss in its own way

Jane Austen's PersuasionOur friend Dale Nelson sent me a link to this New York Times column by Ross Douthat, all about why many “literary” authors are turning to writing historical novels, rather than setting their stories in contemporary settings. His interesting conclusion is that modern culture just doesn’t present the kind of conflicts that made the family sagas of old work so well:

You can write an interesting contemporary novel based on the “Anna Karenina” template in which the heroine gets a divorce, marries her modern-day Vronsky, and they both discover that they’re unhappy with the choices they’ve made — but the last act just isn’t going to be quite as gripping as Tolstoy’s original. You can turn the Jane Austen template to entertaining modern purposes, as Hollywood did in “Clueless” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” but the social and economic stakes are never going to be as high for a modern-day Elizabeth Bennet as they were for the Regency-era version.

I think he’s got something there. If you want to write a novel about, say, an unwed mother, you can suggest that your plucky heroine’s Neanderthal, Bible-thumping parents don’t want her to have an abortion, but there’s really nothing they can do to stop her. The only other problem her romantic passions are likely to get her into is that of sexually transmitted diseases. In that case, she either takes medication to get better, or she’s stuck with the problem for life. There’s little scope for her to heroically defy convention and shame the small minds; there is no convention to defy.

P. G. Wodehouse wrote stories about couples being kept apart by unsympathetic fathers and guardians, well past the point in history when such parental figures had “sunk to the level of a third rate power” (to quote “Uncle Fred Flits By”). He was able to get away with it because his stories were light confections, not intended to reflect real life in any serious way. If he’d been forced to be realistic, the fun would drained out like water from a lion-footed bathtub.

Is it an indictment of modern society to say that it doesn’t offer scope to certain forms of fiction? Probably not.

But I often think of the popularity of Amish stories in the Romance genre, as I’ve mentioned here before. I don’t think it’s unrelated to highbrow authors writing historical novels. I think there’s a hunger out there to be able to live in a society where people care enough about you to tell you when they think you’re messing up your life.

The autonomous life, in the end, is a pretty lonely one.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture