Monday, February 22, 2016

P.G. Wodehouse in memoriam (expanded)

I have just finished reading the prolific master’s comparatively little-known but quite wonderful comic novel, Money for Nothing (1928).
Someday  I may have something intelligent to say about this wordsmith magician who pulls rabbit after rabbit out of his fathomless hat,
but for now, the following observation must suffice:
He is both unfailingly wholesome, and (to a degree you do not fully appreciate  till you have lived a while, and beheld the alternative, and seen how, decade after decade, he soldiered on  through it all)  deep-seatedly humane.

Usually he is jolly and joshing, by choice;  but when he wishes, he can conjure up effects out of Wind in the Willows.   As here, describing a pair of young lovers drifting the river:

The Skirme rippled about the boat, chuckling softly to itself.  It was a kindly, thoughtful river, given to chuckling to itself like an old gentleman who likes seeing young people happy.

Many of his characters are -- designedly -- stock figures, recycled from story to story with slight variations.   (Cf. the Commedia dell'arte -- there is no blame in this.)  But Wodehouse can capture the mind’s movements exactly, when so inclined.   A disappointed lover:

‘I hear you’re engaged to Hugo,’ he said, speaking carefully  and spacing the syllables so that they did not run into each other as they showed an inclination to do.

 (A simple-seeming sentence, yet with much art.  A while after reading it, I tried to recall it from memory, but could not fetch up such perfect wording.  All I could think of was “as they seemed inclined to do”, which is not nearly as good.)

Yet later, as she accepts his proposal and offer her hand, the pan-psychism of a benevolent world  springs up anew, now with a touch, not of Willows, but of Mary Poppins:

The garden had learned that dance now.  It was simple once you got the hang of it.  All you had to do, if you were a tree, was to jump up and down, while, if you were a lawn, you just went round and round.   So the trees jumped up and down  and the lawn went round and round, and John stood still in the middle of it all, admiring it.

If a Heaven there be, which I am bound to believe, then I likewise confide, that old P.G. is up there, chuckling with contentment, and playing golf atop the clouds.

Pleased as Plum


When considering writers like Petrarch, a primary consideration is his influence on later authors:  he lives on abundantly, in the works of those unblushing borrowers the Petrarchians.   For Wodehouse, the case is otherwise.  He wrote in a century when, unlike in olden times, great premium was set upon originality.  Furthermore, once he found his voice, he kept doing the same thing over and over -- but so devilishly well, that he formed a sui-generis genre, which none dare ape upon pain of being dismissed as derivative.   So, there is no-one, certainly no prominent writer, who can be called a “Wodehousian”, in anything like the sense that whole passels of poets are Petrarchians.

The thing, then, for those who relish parallels, is to keep an eye out for antedatings of the Wodehousian manner.  After all, he must have derived his distinctive manner from somewhere, unless it were dictated to him directly by Comus (in lieu of the Spiritus Sanctus).   Thus, herewith  some attestations from our own random readings -- foreshadowings of the droll style on which Wodehouse later took out a patent.


Travellers gathered in an inn:

“And was there anything remarkable in her history?”
Never was question more unlucky.  The little Marquis immediately threw himself into the attitude of a man about to tell a long story.  In fact, my uncle had pulled upon himself the whole history of the civil war of the Fronde, in which the beautiful Duchess had played so distinguished a part. 
[some time later]
“… I’ll tell you how it was.  Her father, Henry de Bourbon …”
“But did the Duchess pass the night in the chateau?” said my uncle rather abruptly, terrified at the idea of getting involved in one of the Marquis’s genealogical discussions.
-- Washington Irving ,“The Adventure of my Uncle”, in Tales of a Traveller (1824)

Compare Wodehouse’s recurring character, “The Oldest Member”.


And, from the pen of an American:

A cook she certainly was, in the very bone and centre of her soul.  Not a chicken, or turkey, or duck  in the barnyard, but looked grave when they saw her approaching, and seemed to be reflecting on their latter end.
-- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a serious book;  it is said that Lincoln, upon meeting Mrs Stowe, said, “So you’re the little lady that started a war!”  But here we have a passage that might have wafted over from Castle Blandings.


The first place you’d look, for PGW-parallels, might be Dickens -- the early Dickens of The Pickwick Papers.   Therefore, we shall not fish in so shallow a pond.  But the masterpiece Our Mutual Friend is another mostly rather somber novel; yet even there, one finds snippets that, did they follow the Wodehousian oeuvre, rather than precede it, one might have deemed echos:

When R. Wilfer returned, candlestick in hand, to the bosom of his family, he found the bosom agitated.
-- Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), ch. 4

Pure Wodehouse:  deniching a word from an idiom wherein it figures in a special sense,  to comic effect.  Even the name, “R. Wilfer”, sounds somehow Wodehousian.

“Inasmuch as every man … appears to be under a fatal spell  which obliges him, sooner or later, to mention the Rocky Mountains  in a tone of extreme familiarity  to some other man, I hope you’ll excuse my pressing you into the service of that gigantic range of geographical bores.”
-- Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), ch. 6

That passage is not so close to PGW as the other; moreover, is at least as close to any number of other English humorists, some of them from the Dickens era or earlier, others quite modern (Kingsley Amis, Aldous Huxley).   I cite it merely to show how difficult it is   truly to unearth such correspondences.

We ourselves noted a possible (though problematic) Dickens/Wodehouse parallel, in our notes to the previously unpublished fragment:

There we remarked, in a footnote to the recovered text:

(2) boil his head:  Connoisseurs of both authors will here instantly recognize a favorite phrase of Mr P.G. Wodehouse, so strongly influenced by Dickens in point of style.  Yet he cannot actually have read this particular passus, since, as mentioned previously, it was never published before this very day.  Consequently a direct le-style-c’est-l’homme influence of the earlier upon that later novelist, cannot in this instance  be established.
Whether the contavenient influence, of Wodehouse upon Dickens, might be surmised in this case, mediated perhaps by signal-bearing tachyons traveling backwards in time, we must leave to the physicists.

Scholars are divided as to the proper interpretation of this suggested influence -- indeed, as to the status of the resurrected fragment  as a whole.


Earlier than Dickens, indeed:

“The good wine  did its good office.” The frost of etiquette … began to give way … and the formal appellatives with which the dignitaries had hitherto addressed each other, were now familiarly abbreviated in Tully, Bally, and Killie.
-- Sir Walter Scott, Waverley (1814)

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