Was P. G. Wodehouse an Oxfordian?

Read the fiction of P. G. Wodehouse and you’ll come away with a strong impression that, in his personal life, the author

— was raised by dragon aunts (the Wooster/Jeeves stories)
— went to a private school in England and was obsessed with cricket (Tales of St. Austin, The Swoop)
— was set to work by his family in a bank and hated it (Psmith in the City)
— knew first-hand about life in the great English country houses (the Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings stories)
— liked vacationing in southern France (the short story “Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”)
— spent good parts of his life in America (Carry On, Jeeves, The Small Bachelor, Laughing Gas)
— worked in musical theater and wrote for Hollywood (the short stories “Monkey Business,” “The Nodder,” “The Castaways”)
— was devoted to Shakespeare (The Code of the Woosters, Joy in the Morning) (see this post)
— liked dogs, especially Pekingese (the short stories “Jeeves and the Impending Doom,” “Open House,” and “Ukridge’s Dog College”)
— was an obsessive golfer (“The Heart of a Goof”)

P. G. Wodehouse

And you’d be right on all counts. Of course you could do this with most authors.  You need only to read Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee to gather that the author grew up in a small town along the Mississippi and later lived in New England.  Yet it’s just this sort of common-sense gleaning from the plays and poems of Shakespeare that Stratfordians like James  Shapiro (see this post) object to when it comes to the question of who wrote Shakespeare.

But we digress from our topic, which is who Wodehouse thought wrote Othello and Macbeth.  We don’t suppose his opinion would carry as much weight as a literary scholar or a classical actor, but Wodehouse had solid credibility as a playwright and a man of the theater, and he spent his life with Shakespeare. You can talk about your “desert island” list of books, but Wodehouse actually had to make one and live with it: when he was interned by the Germans during the Second World War, one of the two volumes Wodehouse took with him was the complete works of Shakespeare. Joy in the Morning, which he wrote during the war, shows it.

The question of who wrote Shakespeare was on Wodehouse’s mind for decades.  Digging unsystematically through our Wodehouse library, we found at least half a dozen mentions.

The earliest we ran across was in a comic sketch called “My Life as a Dramatic Critic” that Wodehouse wrote for Vanity Fair around 1918.  (Thanks to Oxfordian researcher Martin Hyatt for bringing this one to our attention; the sketch appears is in A Wodehouse Miscellany.)  In this piece Wodehouse reminesced about his early — very early — career as a theater critic:

I remember once lunching with rare Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern — this would be back in Queen Elizabeth’s time, when I was beginning to be known in the theatrical world — and seeing a young man with a nobby forehead and about three inches of beard doing himself well at a neighboring table at the expense of Burbage the manager.

“Ben,” I asked my companion, “who is that youth?”  He told me that the fellow was one Bacon, a new dramatist who had learned his technique by holding horses’ heads in the Strand, and who, for some reason or other, wrote under the name of Shakespeare.  “You must see his Hamlet,” said Ben enthusiastically.  “He read me the script last night.  They start rehearsals at the Globe next week.  It’s a pippin.  In the last act every blamed character in the cast who isn’t already dead jumps on everyone else’s neck and slays him.”

The sketch includes a quote from Wodehouse’s rave review for Hamlet‘s opening night, as published in The Weekly Bear-Baiter.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Around the time Wodehouse wrote this, the vogue in anti-Stratfordian Shakespeare authorship thinking was for Francis Bacon.  But in 1920, the unfortunately surnamed J. T. Looney published a book called “Shakespeare” Identified that made the first real case for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the author of the plays and sonnets.  (Sigmund Freud, who had been a Baconian, became an Oxfordian after reading “Shakespeare” Identified.)

We don’t have any hard evidence that Wodehouse read Looney’s book.  But consider this passage from Joy in the Morning, chapter VII:

One has, of course, to make allowances for writers, all of them being more or less loony.  Look at Shakespeare, for instance.  Very unbalanced.  Used to go about stealing ducks.

Here Bertie Wooster (the novel’s narrator) was apparently referring to the apocryphal story that William Shakespeare, as a lad, was caught poaching (though he is supposed to have poached deer, not ducks).  But is it just coincidence that Wodehouse used the word “loony” only three words away from the word “Shakespeare”?  Or was there no significance to Wodehouse’s once again making fun of one of the dubious legends about the Stratford man, just as, in “My Life as a Dramatic Critic,” he had made fun of the apocryphal story that Will Shakespeare got his start by holding horses outside the theater? We think not. Wodehouse knew how tellingly few were the actual known facts about the life of the Stratford man.

One thing we do know is that Wodehouse was amused by the baroque, conspiratorial thinking of those Baconians who claimed that clues to the mystery of authorship could be found in elaborate ciphers.  One of these Baconians was a prominent character in the short story “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald” (it’s in Mr. Mulliner Speaking, published in 1929).  Young Algy Wymondham-Wymondham is explaining to Archibald Mulliner that the aunt of an attractive girl with whom Archibald is smitten is “potty.”

“Potty?  That divine. . . . I mean, that rather attractive-looking girl?”
“Not Aurelia.  The aunt.  She thinks Bacon wrote Shakespeare.”
“Thinks who wrote what?”  asked Archibald, puzzled, for the names were strange to him.
“You must have heard of Shakespeare.  He’s well known.  Fellow who used to write plays.  Only Aurelia’s aunt says he didn’t.  She maintains that a bloke called Bacon wrote them for him.”
“Dashed decent of him,” said Archibald, approvingly.  “Of course, he may have owed Shakespeare money.”
“There’s that, of course.”
“What was the name again?”
“Bacon.”
“Bacon,” said Archibald, jotting it down on his cuff.  “Right.”
Algy’s careless words had confirmed his worst suspicions.  A girl with an aunt who knew all about Shakespeare and Bacon must of necessity live in a mental atmosphere into which a lame-brained bird like himself could scarcely hope to soar.

Here Wodehouse has merely recycled the gag about Bacon’s owing Shakespeare money that he used ten years earlier in the Vanity Fair sketch.  But a few paragraphs later, Wodehouse demonstrates that he had actually read some of the Baconian propaganda.  He has Archibald Mulliner obtain a set of books by Bacon and read them, so as to ingratiate himself with Aurelia’s aunt, and he succeeds:

[R]eaching out an arm like the tentacle of an octopus, she drew him into a corner and talked about Cryptograms for forty-seven minutes by the drawing-room clock.

The aunt inflicts upon Archibald an explanation — Wodehouse himself goes on with it too long, actually — of how a cipher reveals that Milton’s famous epitaph on Shakespeare actually referred to Bacon.

Francis Bacon

In “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald” Wodehouse skewered the Baconians so thoroughly as to dispose of any suggestion that he was a Baconian himself.  Indeed, when Wodehouse recycled his gag yet again three years later, he left Bacon out of the story.  In April 1932, in a letter to a friend (it’s quoted in David A. Jasen’s P.G. Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master), Wodehouse was deprecating the plot for his new novel Thank You, Jeeves:

Come, come, Wodehouse, is this the best you can do in the way of carrying on the great tradition of English Literature?  Still, I’ll bet the plot of Hamlet seemed just as lousy when Shakespeare was trying to tell it to Ben Jonson in the Mermaid Tavern.

Wodehouse went on to imagine Shakespeare’s trying futilely to summarize the plot of Hamlet for Ben Jonson.

Wodehouse wrote a final, more elaborate variation of the gag about Shakespeare and Bacon — at least, the last variation we could find — in a humorous sketch he published in Punch in the mid-50s called “Francis Bacon and the Play Doctor” (it appears in America, I Love You, the British edition of which is titled Over Seventy).  Here Wodehouse tells of “a Baconian of my acquaintance” who had documentary proof (“only unfortunately in a cipher which nobody but he can read”) of how Hamlet came to be produced.

In this facetious account, Bacon had “always had the firm conviction that he could write a play,” so he steals time from his job as Chancellor of the Exchequer to dash off Hamlet. Eventually, a theatrical manager takes an interest in the play but explains to Bacon that “it needs fixing.”  Bacon is forced to let the company’s script doctor, “young Shakespeare,” tinker with his play (and it is thus Shakespeare who is responsible for the impossible series of stabbings and poisonings in the last scene of the play.

The program was initially going to have read as follows:

HAMLET

BY

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

(Based on a Suggestion by F. Bacon)

“But Bacon, after sitting through a rehearsal or two and reading the revised script, decided to take his name off the bills.”

So did Wodehouse really doubt that the Stratford man wrote Shakespeare? We think he did doubt. Consider Wodehouse’s use of the gag about Shakespeare and Bacon in Joy in the Morning, chapter XXIII. Here Jeeves, who has a bright idea for helping Bertie’s Uncle Percy, Lord Worplesdon, with a thorny problem, suggests that the suggestion should “appear to emanate” from Bertie rather than him in order to bolster Bertie’s standing with his uncle:

I nodded. His meaning had not escaped me. If you analyzed it, it was the old Bacon and Shakespeare gag. Bacon, as you no doubt remember, wrote Shakespeare’s stuff for him and then, possibly because he owed the latter money or it may be from sheer good nature, allowed him to take the credit for it. I mentioned this to Jeeves, and he said that perhaps an even closer parallel was that of Cyrano de Bergerac.

This, we would emphasize, is the voice of Bertie Wooster, the character in Wodehouse whose views most reliably reflect those of Wodehouse himself. And Bertie takes it for granted that the Stratford man was not the author.

One might infer that Wodehouse, in his mid-sixties, was still wrestling with why someone like Bacon or de Vere would have let the Stratford man take credit for writing Hamlet. But one might also infer that, just as Wodehouse’s vast fictional world remained locked in Edwardian England, Wodehouse’s thinking about the authorship question never advanced beyond what he took from the Baconians and (we surmise) from J. T. Looney in the teens and twenties. Any intellectual curiosity he may have had as to who really wrote Shakespeare had long since been eclipsed by the comic value of (a) the gag itself and (b) the nuttiness of some of the Baconians.

We regret finding no evidence that P. G. Wodehouse was, in fact, a Oxfordian.

 
 

 

This is a good opportunity for us to mention an excellent new publication focusing on Oxfordian scholarship that’s come to our attention. It’s called Brief Chronicles and it’s strictly an on-line journal, so far as we can tell. Here’s the link. And it’s free (although downloading a free issue can take a couple of minutes). The recently published second issue has some excellent and thought-provoking pieces.

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P. G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers

When Monet painted Nymphéas in 1915, he wasn

It’s not pretty when a great talent hangs on too long.  Have you seen film of Willie Mays falling down trying to catch a fly ball for the Mets? Have you seen the appalling canvasses Monet painted in his dotage, when cataracts distorted his sense of color?

So what happens when great writers get old? We haven’t often seen it. Jane Austen (age 41), Jack London (age 40), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (age 44) all died before they got old. E. M. Forster gave up writing novels when he was 44 (after A Passage to India), Thomas Hardy when he was 55 (after Jude the Obscure). Dickens was still at the top of his game when he died at 58.  Who knows what they might have had left in the tank if they’d reached their 90s?

But we do know about P. G. Wodehouse, because the man who was first published in 1903 at the age of 21 kept writing till the end. In fact, he was still writing a new novel (Sunset at Blandings, published after his death, unfinished) when he died in 1975 at the age of 93.

We recently made our way one last time through Wodehouse’s last complete novel, The Cat-Nappers (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen).  Just as we remembered, there was little to enjoy in the work of the 92-year-old Wodehouse.

Now ordinarily there’s nothing like a Wodehouse story for what ails you. A few hours with Ukridge (1923), Very Good, Jeeves (1930), Blandings Castle (1935), Joy in the Morning (1947), or Pigs Have Wings (1952), will cure practically anything.

In 1930 Wodehouse was 49 years old

But The Cat-Nappers is a sobering book, enough to make a man of a certain age reevaluate euthanasia. Why couldn’t Wodehouse have quit while he was ahead? At 64, he could still deliver a hilarious masterpiece like The Mating Season (1949).  At 75, when he wrote How Right You Are, Jeeves (1960), he’d slipped very little.  But at 92, Wodehouse was running on fumes.  In The Cat-Nappers a man can see all too well just what old age has in store for him, like . . .

1. Repeating yourself. Part of Wodehouse’s genius, of course, was to present old wheezes in fresh new ways. Take Bertie Wooster’s habit, when in a certain buoyant mood, of judiciously abbreviating a word or two in a phrase. Wodehouse used the gag to help set the tone of How Right You Are, Jeeves in the novel’s opening sentence:

Jeeves placed the sizzling eggs and b. on the breakfast table, and Reginald (Kipper) Herring and I, licking the lips, squared our elbows and got down to it.

Or from Joy in the Morning:

“She expressed a hope that you might shortly see your way to visiting Steeple Bumpleigh.”
I shook the head.
“Out of the q., Jeeves.”

This sight gag was a unique invention.  (It’s entirely for the benefit of the silent reader, lost if you’re reading out loud.) But like any trick it loses its comic effect if overused. In the Wooster-and-Jeeves novels of his prime, Wodehouse rarely used it more than once per book.

Not so in The Cat-Nappers.  The gag first pops up on page 16:

I drove on, and he said “Phew” and removed a bead of persp. from the brow.

So far, so good — but then Wodehouse uses it again, more awkwardly, two pages later:

“You know her?” Orlo said. I saw that I would do well to watch my step, for it was evident that what I have heard Jeeves call the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on was beginning to feel the rush of life beneath its keel. You never know what may happen when the g.-e. m. takes over.

Corot knew just how much of his trademark red (in the girl’s hair ribbon) was needed for a color accent in his picture. Wodehouse, in younger days, knew just when and how often to use his trademark gags for maximum effect.

And then, on page 30, one finds abbreviated words twice on the same page. And more on pages 36, 46, 47 (the same word as on page 46), 56, 68, and 99!  At 93 years of age, Wodehouse couldn’t tell when enough was enough. By the end of the book, the abbreviations long cease to amuse; they’re just an annoying writer’s tic.

2. Repeating yourself (part 2). Wodehouse fans relish Bertie Wooster’s hilarious habit of attributing lines of poetry to the wrong poet (often Shakespeare). In his prime, Wodehouse had the judicious use of this gag down cold.

But in The Cat-Nappers he had lost his feel. At page 83, Bertie is puzzled as to the origin of “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” which comes up in a conversation with Jeeves:

“Your own?” I said.
“No, sir. A quotation.”
“Well, carry on,” I said, thinking what a lot of good things Shakespeare had said in his time.

Wodehouse forgot that he’d already used the gag 50 pages earlier:

One of the first poems I ever learned — I don’t know who wrote it, probably Shakespeare — ran

I love little pussy; her coat is so warm;
And if I don’t hurt her, she’ll do me no harm
.

If Wodehouse thought it would be funny to posit Shakespeare as the author of “I love little pussy,” one can only conclude that he was, as Jacques put it in As You Like It, entering “second childishness.”

Wodehouse in 1975, a few days before his death

3. Childishness. And painful as it is to write, there’s reason to think that the nonegenarian Wodehouse had, indeed, entered into his second childhood when he sat down at his typewriter to write The Cat-Nappers.  In its opening paragraphs, Bertie is explaining to Jeeves that he has spots on his chest, and he cites Ogden Nash for the proposition that he should scratch them:

“Well, here’s what the poet Nash wrote. ‘I’m greatly attached to Barbara Frietchie. I’ll bet she scratched when she was itchy.'”

In 75 years of writing, Wodehouse had never stooped to such a thing as borrowing someone else’s joke. His special genius was literary allusions in new and unexpected contexts — not re-using someone else’s comic material.  And the comic rhyme Bertie was quoting was kindergarten humor, at best.

4. Forgetfulness. Another tool in Wodehouse’s bag of tricks for his Wooster-and-Jeeves novels — again, a gag he had always used with discretion — was to have Bertie, supposedly a mental lightweight, struggle to come up with a five-dollar word. He does it at page 79 of The Cat-Nappers:

I was still much perplexed by that utterance of Angelica Briscoe’s. The more I brooded on it, the more cryptic, if that’s the word, it became.

But why would Bertie have ever doubted whether “cryptic” was the word he wanted?  In the preceding two pages alone, Bertie had used the words “nihilist,” “personable,” and “desultory” effectively and appropriately.  Why would “cryptic” have been a puzzler?  And why did Wodehouse think it would be funny for Bertie to question whether he’d used it correctly?

And once again, Wodehouse had lost his knack of sensing when a gag wouldn’t be funny anymore.  Two pages later, Bertie fumbles for a word again:

“I wouldn’t have thought Porter would have shown such what-is-it.”

Jeeves helps him out:

“Would pusillaniminity be the word for which you are groping, sir?”

“Quite possibly. I know it begins with pu.”  A few chapters later, Bertie gropes for another word, then brings it to mind.  The word turns out to be “dumfounded.”

The elderly Wodehosue

This pattern’s especially telling. Wodehouse has Bertie struggling for the right word so often in The Cat-Nappers as to suggest that the elderly author himself was struggling to come up with words when he wanted them.

6. Rambling. If Wodehouse’s prose has a fault, especially in his later books, it was that he sometimes dwelt too long on a point and looked at it from too many different angles. Sometimes, one feels, Wodehouse couldn’t choose between figures of speech that he liked and decided simply to use them all.

In The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse rambles and dithers like never before.  When, at page 34, Bertie sees a man he had no reason to expect in the vicinity, Wodehouse wastes a page and a half of tiresome prose having Bertie speculate that the man has died and that his ghost is haunting the neighborhood.  Five pages later, Wodehouse has Bertie spend another full page describing how he met a cat and scratched it behind its ears.

7. Indiscretion. Throughout his life, unlike so many other 20th-century writers, Wodehouse claimed to be apolitical.  Except for a bit of mild mockery of British fascists in some of his stories from the 1920s and 1930s (see this Emsworth post), he rarely showed his political colors.

But in The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse let the mask fall, revealing himself (to Emsworth’s morbid satisfaction) as a staunch conservative.  When an old school acquaintance, Orlo Porter, whom Bertie encounters leading a protest march, discloses that he is a communist, Bertie looks at him askance:

I hadn’t realized that was what he was, and it rather shocked me, because I’m not any too keen on Communists.

When Orlo complains that his fiance’s father has gotten rich by “grinding the faces of the widow and the orphan, Bertie gives his readers a pithy defense of free-market capitalism:

I could have corrected him here, pointing out that you don’t grind people’s faces by selling them pressed beef and potato chips at a lower price than they would be charged elsewhere . . . .

Nor is Bertie under illusions about the murderous thugs in Moscow:

Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.

Wodehouse surely held these bluntly expressed views well before he reached his nineties.  But nothing like them appears in his earlier stories.  For decades Wodehouse had carefully posed as a man of the arts who was comfortably and blissfully above the fray.  In The Cat-Nappers, Bertie Wooster compares himself to Orlo Porter:

I was told he made fiery far-to-the-left speeches, while I was more the sort that is content to just exist beautifully.

No doubt in 1974 Wodehouse still wanted his readership to think of him as “existing beautifully” — the same image that had been cultivated by the aesthete Oscar Wilde, who so greatly influenced Wodehouse (see this Emsworth post). But political sentiments spill forth in The Cat-Nappers anyway, because the irritability of old age had robbed Wodehouse of the discretion that had for so long kept them in check.

The Cat-Nappers is perhaps the only work of P. G. Wodehouse that Emsworth cannot recommend.  It’s not entirely without merit; there’s an amusing passage on page 88 in which a fiance of Bertie’s lectures him on improvements to his character that she will bring about once they’re married.  But there’s not much more.  The Cat-Nappers reminds us that if we live long enough, we too can look forward to a day when we keep saying the same things over and over, lose our art, wax indiscreet, become childish, and babble till our dazed offspring zone us out altogether.

Was P. G. Wodehouse squeamish about sex?

We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off.  Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.

Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950) characters use the words “bitch” and “bastard.” (The words jar when you read them; perhaps feeling that for once he’d struck sour notes, Wodehouse never used them again.)

But for all the romances that blossom and flourish in Wodehouse’s stories, no Wodehouse lovers ever wind up in bed. They’re not even seen (as in Viagra commercials) heading for the bedroom with amorous intentions. One finds no evidence that any Wodehouse character even thinks about having sex.

In fact, Bertie Wooster — the Wodehouse character in whom the mindset of the author can best be discerned — becomes nervous when conversation merely threatens to have anything to do with sex:

“Oh, Bertie [said Madeleine Bassett], you remind me of Rudel.”
The name was new to me. “Rudel?”
“He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli.”
I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

(The Code of the Woosters, ch. III.)  In Wodehouse, sexually aggressive females invariably involve men in folly.  When (in The Mating Season, ch. 10) Corky Pirbright “shamelessly” flirts with Gussie Fink-Nottle and makes him forget that he’s already engaged, Bertie reflects:

Oh, Woman, Woman, I said to myself, not for the first time, feeling that the sooner that sex was suppressed, the better it would be for all of us.

Was Bertie speaking for Wodehouse himself?

Nor are Wodehouse characters comfortable with nudity. The closest Wodehouse ever comes to portraying sensuality — not that it comes close at all — is his occasional use of nude portraits as Macguffins in his elaborate plots. But the fate of the nude painting in his story “Jeeves Makes an Omelette” is characteristic: it so disgusts one character that it destroys his appetite, and Bertie ends up cutting it into small pieces and throwing them into the fire. In one of his last books (written when Wodehouse was 89 years old), one of the characters gets the idea that he wants a Renoir-like portrait of a woman, but ends up announcing, “I don’t want the damned thing. And it beats me how I ever got the idea I did. It makes me sick to look at it.” The telling American title of his novel was No Nudes is Good Nudes.

In his later years, when many bestsellers were full of four-letter words and explicit love scenes, Wodehouse complained of “smutty” books. Curiously, though, the ribaldry in Shakespeare’s plays — and Shakespeare was Wodehouse’s constant companion — apparently never bothered him.  Shakespeare seems to have been obsessed with reproduction; it’s the theme of a number of sonnets, and in his plays too characters are urged to marry and beget children, as Viola (Cesario) does to Olivia in Twelfth Night (Act I, scene 5):

Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

But the very idea of reproduction was embarrassing to Bertie Wooster, as in this passage from Jeeves, in which Bertie’s Aunt Agatha is haranguing him about finding a wife:

“It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”

“But, dash it all . . .”

“Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .”

“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.

In story after story, Bertie Wooster manages to escape the terrors of matrimony and its bedroom duties.

Wodehouse was already 42 years old and had been married for nine years when he published Jeeves (his first masterpiece) in 1923. He and his wife Ethel never had children and may never have tried; Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum refers to him as “sexless” (he may have been sterile or impotent as a result of adolescent illness) and reports that and and Ethel always occupied separate bedrooms. Did Wodehouse think of himself as a drone? That would explain a lot.

What P. G. Wodehouse learned from Macbeth

It would be a joy to read Wodehouse even if his stories didn’t have more ingenious poetic allusions than there are stars in the sky. On the latest of our many happy passes through The Code of the Woosters — perhaps the very best of the Jeeves and Wooster novels — we started taking inventory.

Wodehouse starts with a taste of Keats on the very first page, as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” A few pages later, Sir Watkyn Bassett, a country magistrate who has it in for Bertie, assures Roderick Spode that time in prison won’t prevent a man from “rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things.” That’s from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

Bertie Wooster doesn’t know as much poetry as his friends, so his allusions are often accidental, as when he tells Madeline Bassett what he thinks of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s diffident personality,

Bertie: A sensitive plant, what?
The Bassett: Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.
Bertie: Oh, am I?

(The poet Shelley wrote “The Sensitive Plant.”) A Robert Browning allusion also goes over Bertie’s head. As he and Bertie arrive at Totleigh Towers, where trouble lurks, Jeeves pronounces, “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Bertie tells us, “what he meant I hadn’t an earthly.”

Robert Browning

Robert Browning

There’s more Browning farther along in the story, as Madeline Bassett explains to Bertie why he reminds her of the hero of “Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli.” Wodehouse tosses in Longfellow, too: “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” both get nods.

Like Emsworth, Bertie sometimes has trouble remembering where phrases came from. Explaining to Jeeves why Stephanie Byng is the most dangerous young woman he’s ever had to deal with, he asks, “Who was the chap lo whose name led all the rest — the bird with the angel?” “Abou ben Adhem, sir,” Jeeves reminds him. The poem was Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem.”

Kipling

P. G. Wodehouse must have read a good deal of Rudyard Kipling in his youth

But for all his fuzziness, Bertie has clearly read a lot of literature.  Nearly everything reminds Bertie of something out of a poem; he tells his readers: “And then out of the night that covered me, black as the pit from pole to pole, there shone a tiny gleam of hope. I thought of Jeeves.” Somewhere, Bertie had read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”! Later, in low spirits, Bertie tells Jeeves, “You see before you, Jeeves, a toad beneath the harrow.” The reference was to Kipling’s “Pagett, M.P.”

And Wodehouse calls on Browning again to help close out The Code of the Woosters. His problems all neatly sorted, Bertie says, “This is the end of a perfect day, Jeeves. What’s that thing of yours about larks?” Jeeves has Browning’s lines from “Pippa Passes” on the tip of his tongue.

Those are some of the allusions we spotted; there were many more. In this one short novel Wodehouse also mentions A Tale of Two Cities, Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” Reginald Heber’s hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” (“Totleigh Towers might be a place where Man was vile, but undoubtedly every prospect pleased”), Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Cargo of Champagne,” and Gerald Fairlie’s now-forgotten 1929 novel The Muster of the Vultures (tracking that one down wasn’t easy!)

But of all the poets, a reader of Wodehouse is far more likely to encounter Shakespeare than anyone else. In The Code of the Woosters alone, Wodehouse invokes King Lear, Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Hamlet (three different references to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy). Wodehouse even has Gussie Fink-Nottle quote Matthew Arnold’s sonnet entitled “Shakespeare.” (Calling Bertie Wooster a “muddle-headed ass” for forgetting to bring him a book, Gussie comments sarcastically, “Others abide our question, thou art free.”)

Of course, Bertie himself rarely knows what’s Shakespeare and what isn’t. In The Code of the Woosters he misattributes Sonnet 33 to his valet:

I remember Jeeves saying to me once, apropos of how you can never tell what the weather’s going to do, that full many a glorious morning had he seen flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye and then turn into a rather nasty afternoon.

And like so many people, Bertie thinks Shakespeare wrote things he didn’t:

Bertie: You don’t mean you have an idea?
Jeeves: Yes, sir.
Bertie: But you told me just now you hadn’t.
Jeeves: Yes, sir. But since then have been giving the matter some thought, and am now in a position to say “Eureka!”
Bertie: Say what?
Jeeves: Eureka, sir. Like Archimedes.
Bertie: Did he say Eureka? I thought it was Shakespeare.

Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole

A scene from Macbeth by the nineteenth-century British painter George Cattermole, who also illustrated Dickens

More often than not, the Shakespeare that Wodehouse pulls out of his hat is Macbeth.  This was surely the Shakespeare play he knew best. In fact, seeing the Scottish play at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) a couple of weeks ago (see this post), we found that we weren’t fully feeling the terror and tragedy because so many of the play’s best lines reminded us of what Wodehouse had done with them. When Lady Macbeth shooed Macbeth’s dinner guests away with “Stand not upon the order of your going,” for instance, we couldn’t help hearing Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia using the line to tell Bertie to make himself scarce.

In Macbeth, Banquo shakes his gory locks at Macbeth’s grand feast twice, then disappears for good. Throughout the collected works of P. G. Wodehouse, the ghost of Banquo materializes so often that he’s practically a regular. We think, though we’re not sure, that Banquo’s first appearance in Wodehouse was in his 1914 short story “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” (in The Man Upstairs); he pops up in Wodehouse’s very last novel, The Cat-Nappers (1973) (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen). Our favorite sighting of Banquo is in the 1950 short story “The Shadow Passes” (in Nothing Serious):

I don’t know if you ever came across a play of Shakespeare’s called Macbeth? If you did, you may remember this bird Macbeth bumps off another bird named Banquo and gives a big dinner to celebrate, and picture his embarrassment when about the first of the gay throng to turn up is Banquo’s ghost, all merry and bright, covered in blood. It gave him a pretty nasty start, Shakespeare does not attempt to conceal.

Macbeth also has what must have been Wodehouse’s favorite line from Shakespeare, one he used in one story after another. Early in the play, as everyone knows, Lady Macbeth loses patience with her husband for hesitating to murder his royal guest and eggs him on to the crime:

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem?
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ the adage.

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7. In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster has almost exactly the same problem as Macbeth: his Aunt Dahlia is insisting that he steal a cow-creamer from his host’s collection at Totleigh Towers. Like Macbeth, Bertie can’t steel himself to the crime:

Bertie: That is the problem which is torturing me, Jeeves. I can’t make up my mind. You remember that fellow you’ve mentioned to me once or twice, who let something wait upon something? You know who I mean — the cat chap.
Jeeves: Macbeth, sir, a character in a play of that name by the late William Shakespeare. He was described as letting ‘I dare not” wait upon ‘I would,’ like the poor cat i’ th’ adage.
Bertie: Well, that’s how it is with me. I wabble, and I vacillate — if that’s the word?
Jeeves: Perfectly correct, sir.

Not for the first or last time, Bertie Wooster was in the same pickle as Macbeth: a strong-willed woman was demanding that he do something he knew he shouldn’t. What better to fall back on than Macbeth?

October 30, 2009

See this post for Emsworth’s decidedly mixed feelings about this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Although Wodehouse clearly drew a good deal from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this Emsworth post), one doesn’t find direct allusions to Wilde’s plays in Wodehouse’s stories (only to Wilde’s serious novel The Picture of Dorian Gray). Then again, why would one comic writer allude to another?

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde

oscar-wilde

Wilde

(April 2009) Seeing The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival in 2004 persuaded us that P. G. Wodehouse had no greater literary influence than Oscar Wilde. How very like Wodehouse’s idle young men in spats were Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing (as played by David Leyshon and Evan Buliung)! How very like the manner of Jeeves was the deadpan sarcasm of Algernon’s manservant Lane (as played by Robert Benson)! How very much like Bertie Wooster’s dragon aunts was Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell!

wodehouse

Wodehouse

And how much do Wodehouse plots owe to The Importance of Being Earnest?  In how many Wodehouse stories do young men and women make their way into English country houses posing as tutors or gardeners or friends of friends so they can pursue forbidden romances or purloin prize pigs or play detective? Of course Wilde’s play is a story of imposters too. When he is in London, Jack adopts the identity of a fictitious brother named “Ernest” so that he can live the life of a libertine in the city (as Ernest) without tarnishing his respectable reputation back home in the country. And when Algernon wants to meet Jack’s pretty ward Cecily Cardew (who like so many Wodehouse young women cannot marry without her guardian’s permission), he goes to the country house where she is staying, posing as Jack’s much talked-about but never-seen brother “Ernest”.

Wodehouse was only an impressionable 14 years old when The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in 1895, and we think it must have influenced him powerfully.  If you took out of Wodehouse all the foppish young men, imposters, domestic blackmail, wodehouse-pigs-have-wingsdragon aunts, butlers, and young women who need permission from guardians to marry — that is, the characters, the plot, and the comic elements of Wilde’s play — there wouldn’t be much Wodehouse left on our library shelves. And why else would Eustace Mulliner’s man Blenkinsop (in Wodehouse’s short story “Open House” have prepared cucumber sandwiches for Eustace’s visiting Aunt Georgiana, if not for the example of the cucumber sandwiches served by Algernon Moncrieff to Lady Bracknell in the first scene of Wilde’s play?

It’s easy to identify the writers who were dear to Wodehouse’s heart; his work has thousands of quotations from and allusions to Keats, Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and especially Shakespeare. Nowhere, however, is Wodehouse’s delight in Oscar Wilde so transparent as in his 1952 novel Pigs Have Wings.

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Galahad Threepwood in one of Wodehouse’s later, lesser novels

There is, first, Lord Emsworth’s brother Gally. The now middle-aged Galahad Threepwood (a recurring Wodehouse character) has spent his life carousing in nightclubs and chasing barmaids, just as he did in the 1890s when he was a young man. (Galahad’s character is the antithesis of that of the pure knight of the Arthurian legends.) Remarkably, however, Gally’s decades of fast living have had no impact on his health or his perennially youthful appearance — no more than they did, Wodehouse gleefully tells us in Pigs Have Wings, on Dorian Gray.

albrights-dorian-gray-chicago-1943

Ivan Albright’s alarming 1943 painting of Dorian Gray is at the Art Institute of Chicago

The chief imposter in Pigs Have Wings is the butler’s niece Maudie, formerly a barmaid, now co-proprietor of a detective agency. Gally engages her to come incognito to Blandings Castle to help foil what Gally fears to be a plot to either steal or nobble Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning fat pig — and he insists that she pose as “Mrs. Bunbury,” an old friend of one of the guests.

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Brian Bedford will take the part of Lady Bracknell at the Stratford Festival in 2009

Wodehouse’s choice of “Bunbury” for Maudie is an unmistakable act of homage to Oscar Wilde, a reference to the opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest , when we learn that for some time Algernon has pretended to have a friend in the country named Bunbury whom Algernon must frequently visit because of Bunbury’s alleged ill health. Whenever Algernon wants to escape London because of inconvenient social obligations, he pleads that his friend “Bunbury” needs him and flees town. While Wodehouse shows his affection for other authors by quoting from them, he acknowledges his debt to Oscar Wilde by using the names of Wilde characters in his stories — as in The Inimitable Jeeves, where Wodehouse makes “Lord Windermere” a character in a clichéd penny novel.

We have tickets to see The Importance of Being Earnest again next month in Ontario, this time at the Stratford Festival. Stratford stalwart Brian Bedford will be directing and playing Lady Bracknell (in drag), but the roles of Algernon and Jack will be played by two actors that we’ve seen most often in years past at the Shaw Festival, Mike Shara and Ben Carlson.

June 2009: We liked Bedford’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. See this post.

October 2009. We weren’t altogether satisfied with the Stratford Festival’s 2009 Macbeth, but it did remind us how Wodehouse borrowed the most famous lines in Shakespeare’s play and turned them on their heads in his comic stories. See this post.

Jeeves at Christmastime

charles-dickensIt is our habit to re-read a favorite Christmas story around Christmastime each year — aloud if anyone will listen, silently if they won’t. Often as not, it’s A Christmas Carol, which never gets old. Sometimes it’s one of Dickens’s lesser Christmas tales, sometimes O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” very-good-jeeves-2This Christmas Eve, we fell merrily back on P.G. Wodehouse’s only Christmas tale, “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit.”

We don’t suppose Wodehouse has much of a reputation as a Christmas author. Dickens does, in good part because of his affectionate account of the Cratchit family’s Christmas dinner party and the shenanigans under the mistletoe at the Wardles’ (Pickwick Papers, chapter 28) . But Bertie Wooster passes lightly over the details of the Christmas bash at Skeldings, the country home of Lady Wickham:

It being Christmas Eve, there was, as I had foreseen, a good deal of revelry and what not; so that it wasn’t till past one that I got to my room.

On with the story, Wodehouse must have thought.

rockwell-tiny-tim

Norman Rockwell's Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim

Both Wodehouse and Dickens give us their characters waking up with their servants on Christmas morning. From “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit,” a passage that reminded us of Scrooge waking up after his night with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future:

I could have sworn I hadn’t so much as dozed off for even a minute; but apparently I had. For the curtains were drawn back and daylight was coming in through the window, and there was Jeeves with a cup of tea on a tray.

“Merry Christmas, sir!”

And from Pickwick Papers, chapter 30:

“Well, Sam,” said Mr. Pickwick as that favoured servitor entered his bed-chamber with his warm water, on the morning of Christmas Day, “still frosty?”

“Water in the wash-hand basin’s a mask o’ ice, Sir,” responded Sam.

“Severe weather, Sam,” observed Mr. Pickwick.

“Fine time for them as is well wropped up, as the Polar Bear said to himself ven he was practising his skating,” replied Mr. Weller.

P. G. Wodehouse

We candidly admit that the theme of Wodehouse’s story is not actually one of peace on earth and good-will to men, like A Christmas Carol and the passages from Pickwick. “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit” is, instead, an account of Bertie Wooster’s ill-advised infatuation with the red-headed Roberta Wickham and Bertie’s plan to revenge himself on his friend Tuppy Glossop for a practical joke.

And it’s one of the most hilarious stories Wodehouse ever wrote — in fact, one of the funniest things anyone ever wrote. Jeeves has some of his best lines, especially when he’s advising his master against an alliance with Roberta Wickham:

“I would always hesitate to recommend as a life’s companion a young lady with such a vivid shade of red hair.”

Good cheer on Christmas Eve!

Reminding myself why I don’t watch television (a season of Seinfeld)

Several weeks ago, someone related by blood to Emsworth urged upon him a DVD box set of episodes of a defunct TV sitcom called Seinfeld. I had never seen the show and knew nothing about it.

But Emsworth is nothing if not open-minded, so I loaded up my DVD player and sat back in my recliner. A couple of weeks later, I had gotten through the four DVDs that contained the seventh season of Seinfeld. It seems that these were originally aired around 1996.

Midway through the fourth disc, I finally stopped asking myself why I was still watching. The answer was that this show, despite its shortcomings, owes a lot to P. G. Wodehouse.

Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie) and Jeeves (Stephen Fry) in the BBC series "Jeeves and Wooster"

Now a typical Wodehouse plot goes like this: One of Bertie Wooster’s domineering aunts summons Bertie, a passive and obliging character, and sends him on a simple errand, like picking up an antique brooch from a jewelry repair shop. But Bertie bungles everything and lets the brooch come into the possession of someone who will not give it back. The situation becomes hopeless, but at the last minute, through an ingenious plot twist, Bertie’s man Jeeves sets everything aright.

Then take the plot of “The Bottle Deposit,” the 21st episode of the seventh Seinfeld season. Elaine’s domineering boss gives her a simple errand: she is to go an auction and bid up to $10,000 on a set of golf clubs once used by President Kennedy.

But she bungles the job, first by rashly bidding twice as much as authorized (just the sort of thing Bertie Wooster would have done!), then by entrusting the vintage clubs to Jerry, who leaves them in the back seat of his car, which is then stolen by a crazed auto mechanic. The clubs end up mangled and bent. But in a hilarious, last-minute plot twist, Elaine’s boss jumps to the conclusion that the clubs were bent by the late President himself in moments of golfing temper, and Elaine comes up smelling like a rose.

Then there’s the gag that runs from the first to the last episodes of the seventh season: George Costanza has rashly become engaged, and, like Bertie Wooster in nearly every Jeeves and Wooster novel, he is desperate to get out of it. This too is classic Wodehouse. As Bertie Wooster said after one of his dangerously close brushes with matrimony: “I was in rare fettle and the heart had touched a new high. I don’t know anything that braces one up like finding you haven’t got to get married after all.”

Newman (Wayne Knight) in "The Bottle Deposit"

Wodehouse might have written “The Bottle Deposit” himself, and I would be very surprised to learn that Larry David, the principal writer for Seinfeld, did not know his Wodehouse. In fact, Jerry’s friends Kramer and Newman are stock Wodehouse characters, amoral ne’er-do-wells and moochers who, like Wodehouse’s Ukridge, spend all their time dreaming up easy money schemes. (I find that blogger Mark Grueter has also noted the relationship between Larry David and P. G. Wodehouse.)

So the writing in Seinfeld, grounded on the Wodehousian formula, isn’t bad. But the eight hours or so I spent on these episodes served as a bracing reminder of why I don’t watch network television shows.

Let’s start with the laugh track.  Long ago, when TV shows were filmed live, audience laughter was natural enough. But canned applause annoys me beyond words. And this show isn’t always funny. I was surprised, for example, at how little I found to laugh at in Jerry Seinfeld’s opening monologues.  But the laugh track keeps rolling, regardless.

Then there’s the debased popular culture portrayed in Seinfeld. Emsworth is no prude, but Seinfeld and his friends have the sexual morals of characters in a soft-core porn movie — not for comic purposes, but just because that’s the way they live. The essentially sluttish Elaine, for example, is ready to bed someone she has just met, but hesitates because she has only a limited number of discontinued contraceptive devices. Should she waste one on him? Elaine’s schtick over whether he was “sponge-worthy” was cringe-making.

But worst of all is the yelling. Jason Alexander is clearly a talented actor. So why does his character, George Constanza, always yell at fellow characters who are only six inches away from his face? Why don’t TV sitcom directors realize think that high-decibel discussions are only funny if they’re the exception, not the rule?