Friday, April 08, 2005

P.G. Wodehouse: Mr Mulliner speaking

I wonder if anyone reads P.G. Wodehouse any longer? Apart from weirdos like me, that is. And was he ever respectable, in academic terms? I rather doubt it.

For them as don't know -- and there are always new generations coming along -- P.G. Wodehouse was once a very famous and successful English writer. Like a number of other illustrious names from the past (John Buchan, Margery Allingham) he has a Society of hard-core admirers, and you can find a useful biography on the Society's web site.

Born in 1881, Wodehouse gave up working in a bank in 1902, and from then on he had a string of successes both in the book world and in the theatre (his first play opened in New York in 1911). His speciality was humour, and he was enormously popular until the second world war. At that point Wodehouse had a little setback.

In 1940, Wodehouse and his family found themselves stuck in France when the German army invaded. They tried to get back to England but failed. When the Germans asked him to make some broadcasts to his fans in the neutral USA, Wodehouse ill-advisedly did so. These broadcasts were bitterly resented back in England, where he was regarded as a collaborator and traitor.

The result was that Wodehouse readers seldom raised their heads for a decade or two. However, by the 1960s I had several colleagues who were great fans, and public opinion gradually came round to the view that Wodehouse had been foolish rather than wicked. In 1975, he was knighted by the Queen, in recognition of his achievements, and he died a few months later at the age of 93.

Wodehouse produced a vast quantity of fiction. Like Terry Pratchett, he invented a universe of his own, based on England in the years from about 1900 to 1930. This was an England full of rich and idle people whose mostly misguided attempts to get married, avoid getting married, and so forth, could be made richly comic -- if you like that sort of thing.

The book of Wodehouse's which I have recently been reading consists of a number of short stories, as related by Mr Mulliner in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest. Mr Mulliner has a seemingly inexhaustible number of nephews, nieces, and second cousins once removed. Each of these seems to get himself, or herself, into terrible scrapes.

The stories are even more absurd, and the characters even more dim-witted and clueless, than in the average Wodehouse work -- and that is saying a great deal. In one, for instance, there is a budding romance between a wealthy young man (Archibald) whose sole talent, after a very expensive education, is his ability to give a wonderful imitation of a chicken laying an egg. The target of his affections is an equally wealthy and intellectually challenged young woman (Aurelia) who has spent her entire lifetime searching for a man who can give such an excellent imitation of a chicken laying an egg.

And yet, and yet... All does not go smoothly. Archibald is led to believe that Aurelia is in search of a chap with far more highbrow interests than the noises generated by broody hens, and so, when challenged by Aurelia, denies that he has that very talent which he has spent so many years polishing, and which would in fact make him the object of her undying admiration. Aurelia therefore gives Archibald the brush-off. In due course, however, Archibald discovers his mistake, performs nobly as required, and is rewarded by Aurelia's promise of marriage.

'Do it again,' Aurelia sighs. Archibald does do it again. He does it four times, in fact. And no, it's not what you're thinking, you dirty beast. It was the chicken thing that he did. Five times in all, and truly excelled himself.

As you will have gathered, you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Wodehouse.

Mr Mulliner Speaking was the second volume of Mulliner stories, and it was first published in 1929. The stories themselves are timeless, as is Wodehouse's prose; he was renowned as an elegant stylist. But the date shows in the spelling: we have to-day, and to-morrow, whereas today we would omit the hyphens; we have sha'n't, which is technically correct, but today we have dropped one of the apostrophes; and we have week end for weekend; and so forth.

A further indication of period is the fact that Wodehouse quotes from Swinburne, another writer who was once a household name but is now forgotten. Except, as I say, by a few weirdos like me.

43 comments:

Vince Vawter USA said...

Dear GOB: Since retirement six months ago I've been spending several hours a day reading literary/publishing blogs. As the case with most retirements, I find myself so busy now I don't have time for everything I would like to accomplish. I have decided to limit myself to reading three lit/pub blogs a day. GOB made my top-three list. While this certainly is not a prestigious honor in the blog world, you deserve recognition from even the most humble of origins. My reasons for choosing your blog: (1) You post consistently (2) Your subject matter is not bound by the fashion of the day (i.e. P.G. Wodehouse!) (3) Even though you may be an academic, you're writing style does not reflect it. Carry on, GOB. and Thanks.

James Warner said...

I can promise you that lots of people still read P.G. Wodehouse!

dan said...

I've never read Wodehouse, but have seen many of the fine adaptations on television, my favourites being the ones with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in.

I do read Tom Sharpe though and find him quite amusing. He would have been born about 40 years after Wodehouse, I think.

Terry Pratchett rules.

dan said...

PS, It's great to see retired people writing blogs. My parents have all on working the VCR.

doktor gaffel said...

I used to work as an editor for a university press. Day in, day out, reading pages and pages of text, always alert for grammatical errors, potential ambiguities and so on. Much of what I edited was fine, but every now and then I had to wrestle with some really poor prose. My antidote? Reading Wodehouse. It was an absolute joy to read someone whose command of syntax was so masterful without being ponderous or pedantic; I could start one of his complex sentences in the knowledge that whilst there didn't seem to be a verb or an object phrase in sight, I was still in safe hands...

leila said...

I love Wodehouse so much that I bossed my library director into ordering the new biography about him. I still love Leave it to Psmith the best.

srini said...

PGW is still pretty much common fare among the English reading public in India. You could be sure to find a book by him in any bookstore. If I am not mistaken, Penguin India reprints them.
Enjoyed the read, thx GOB

Dennis said...

Everyman are publishing a beautiful complete Wodehouse at a rate of eight volumes a year. Something like 50 volumes are in print to date: about half the total.

Heywood Hill on Curzon Street and on the internet will provide them on a subscription basis. Every March and October, four more appear.

Bliss.

By consensus, The Code of the Woosters is the Master at his pre-war height.

Raja said...

Wodehouse is so popular that there are 4 different web based International Societies dedicated to PLUM. If you are a Wodehouse fan please do join in the fun at the following groups: Wodehouseindia@yahoogroups, Blandings@yahoogroups, alt.fan.wodehouse and pgwnet. My 12 year old daughter has started on Mike at Wrykyn and according to her Plum is COOL!

Anonymous said...

You might like Jonathan Ames's modern-day homage to Wodehouse: Wake Up, Sir! It concerns a young writer who reads too much PGW and loses his mind.

That Other America said...

Unfortunately, writers like wodehouse never get any academic attention. As a full-time grad student in english lit, i can say that many writers who little or no academic attention are often smothered by it if they are trendy enough (i.e. post-colonial, queer theory, etc.). I pride myself on being extraordinarily well-read; however, I had never heard of Wodehouse until I heard The Weakerthan's song "Anchorless." In short, one cannot judge an author, as I'm sure you're aware, by his academic fawns. And I'm not just saying that because I'm drunk.

That Other America said...

...which I totally am.

mckenzee said...

I reread Wodehouse regularly. I am also on a quest for every Jerome K. Jerome.

Any other suggestions?

Phil W said...

I love Wodehouse and blog about him often.

Bill Peschel said...

Another Wodehouse reader here. I bought the complete Mulliner collection years ago and have added to my library since. Overlook Press has been publishing new hardback versions of Plum for awhile; they can be found discounted a few bucks on www.edwardrhamilton.com.

Anup said...

I read Wodehouse whenever I can. It is always relaxing, always funny, and always delightful to read Wodehouse.

loki said...

I cannot imagine winter without P.G. Wodehouse. He is still my favourite after all these years. It was nice to read your post and remember him once again.
Long Live Jeeves!

Janet Croft said...

Love Wodehouse! Perfect bibliotherapy when you're down -- read a little Bertie and Jeeves and you'll be fine. I recently read Edmund Crispin's Buried for Pleasure and found parts of it pleasantly Wodehousian -- though it is a murder mystery and unpleasant realities intrude from time to time. Don't know if his other novels are similar in tone.

Divya said...

I've been reading Joy in the Morning on my train rides (Local trains, Mumbai, India) home and bursting into peals of laughter at almost every page.

Wodehouse makes train rides a lot shorter!

:D

krc said...

Hello-
Just ran across this blog this morning. I was searching for writers groups that specialize in novels of comedy. I am a big fan of Wodehouse as well.
I enjoyed reading the messages posted here.
Thanks.

krc said...

Hello-
Just ran across this blog this morning. I was searching for writers groups that specialize in novels of comedy. I am a big fan of Wodehouse as well.
I enjoyed reading the messages posted here.
Thanks.

Gautam said...

I am Indian too, and a huge fan of PG Wodehouse, having read about sixty of his works. Blandings is my favourite series, but of course Jeeves is sheer brilliance. Favourite characters? Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.

JamesLeigh said...

In "Rose Cottage" Mr Mulliner, now in the snug bar of The Angler's Rest, relates what must be surely the funniest comic ghost story ever penned.
A propos, for an updated Wooster-ish saga with added oomph, viagra and espieglerie, do take a look at James Leigh's vastly stylish, sunny and side-splitting Hangdog Hall, published online by Online Originals (onlineoriginals.com)

Chitra said...

Wodehouse has evoked so many laughters in our college days....I remember we used to sneak in and read about Monty Bodkin and his likes during our Physics lectures. Even now when Im in a bookstore i always head to the humor section to check out some of those gems.

bala said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bala said...

i am a die-hard fan of wodehouse's works .i ve read many of his books and am always at a loss wondering at his ingenuity.He'll have you chuckling endlessly or bursting into laughter all the time while you hold his book in your hand. He is one of THE BEST writers of all time .I came to know a couple of new things about him from your article .Thanks a lot !!!

Mike said...

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is easy. making money

kav said...

my friend introduced me to wodehouse's books and since then i have been hooked.. i just love his slippery and witty comedy.. i feel all the comedy movies fall short in front of his work. currently even my brother started reading them.

kim said...

I've just started reading the World of Jeeves, and I'm hooked.

pooja trivedi said...

One more Indian to add to the list. PGW is simply one of the best! Although my affinity to his works dates way back when I was much younger, I feel I will never stop enjoying him.
And have you ever tried reading him while relishing a glass of wine on a lazy sunday evening?

shlok said...

I especially like to read Jeeves-Wooster series.

Anonymous said...

I do not go to sleep without reading a chapter of a PGW classic which I might have read for the thousandth time.

Vikas said...

Wodehouse is definitely very popular among Indians. Shashi Tharoor wrote a very insightful article about this a few years ago. To me, life would be very drab indeed without Wodehouse. I discovered Wodehouse early in life (as a teenager), thanks to an uncle of mine, and have been an addict ever since. For me too, for may years the daily tedium of long local train rides in Mumbai was relieved by the Wodehouse books I borrowed from the numerous wayside lending libraries common in those days. Plum's unparalleled use of the English language and his humour and optimism were always a perfect antidote to the tough life I had at the time.

I have two questions that some readers may be able to answer:
1. Is there a Wodehouse Society in India? If so, where can I find the details?
2. Can anyone tell me where I can get hold of a complete list of the titles published so far in the Everyman Wodehouse (plus possibly the publication schedule for the remaining titles?)

Vikas Sonak

Book Reviews for the Irreverent said...

There are definitely a lot of Wodehouse fanatics out there(I plead guilty!). He is not as well known in the US, where I live, but whenever my brother's introduced Americans to Wodehouse, they've become hooked.

Anonymous said...

I'm a teenager and I love PG Wodehouse's work and I'm trying to get my friends to read it. The best book is The Code of The Woosters.

Anonymous said...

Ps I just wish books were cheaper :-(

Anonymous said...

Also, people still publish it and they sell well, (in England def.) so people must like it

Jemima said...

I am in my final year of my Englsh undergraduate course and grew up on reglar doses of P.G. Wodehouse. Never has a writer made me laugh out loud like Wodehouse. I know his jeeves and wooster stories and blandings stories like the back of my hand. I am about to write my dissertation on him (although I haven' come up with a good enough title yet), I want to look at his undeniable similarities to Shakespeare and how his totally original style is actually firmly founded in comic convention dating back to anient greek and rman comedy. And if any wodehouse fans have any tips or ideas about this I would be so grateful!

julie said...

Don't forget that Wodehouse was also a lyricist and admired the American musical and the English musicahall. So many happy memories of sitting and laughing by a river on a hot summer day with a wodehouse book in my youth

julie said...

don't forget wodehouse was also a lyricist and an admirer of O Henry and a latterday VIctorian
Wodehouse also loved the music halls which is what his books appear to me ..one long Victorian music hall, the maustachiod uncles the fair young damsels the forbidding aunts.
I have fond memories of lovley summers and rivers and countrysides just sitting and laughing out loud at the surrealism of the Wodehouse world

julie said...

did someone mention post colonialism?
Lordy that word makes me angry I read what I like including Maughm and Waugh and Kipling are these post colonial?
And I do not need any PCorrect telling me that I am wrong to appreciate the English language or good literature, first rule of academic literary studies shpuld be you cannot take anyone out of their time its impossible, those were the times they lived in and they wrote accordingly. Tolkein and Lewis were affected by the wars. Lamb Coleridge Wordsworth Percy Byshe Shelley,Thos Love Peacock would they have been the same writers born in any other era?

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J... said...

Dont worry, there are still people devoted to Plum :) I love Blandings, but the best have always been the Jeeves stories
j :)