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.

Hardly the most famous men or women in American history

Last month’s Smithsonian magazine included a startling article on a recent survey by Sam Wineburg to determine the most “famous” Americans since the time of Columbus, other than presidents and first ladies. According to a survey of school-age children, six of the most famous Americans are women, and four are African-Americans.

In order, these were the top ten:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Rosa Parks
  3. Harriet Tubman
  4. Susan B. Anthony
  5. Benjamin Franklin
  6. Amelia Earhart
  7. Oprah Winfrey
  8. Marilyn Monroe
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. Albert Einstein

On its face, this is not a list of either the ten most famous Americans or the ten most important Americans. (Mr. Wineburg felt he would have gotten the same results if he had asked participants to name “important” Americans.)

Emsworth offers his own list of the most famous men and women in American history, other than Presidents and their wives, at this post. At any rate, from Mr. Wineburg’s survey we learn (or are reminded of) three things.

First, children usually tell grown-ups what they think they’re supposed to. That’s why no rappers or studio wrestlers made the list. Any kid who’s heard of “diversity” knows he won’t go wrong by identifying Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony as a person of fame.

Second, political correctness has triumphed in our history classes. This survey makes clear that history teachers (now, regrettably, “social studies” teachers) are now giving as much time to the better-known women in American history as they are to men, and as much time to African-Americans as to Caucasians. What else can explain the name of Harriet Tubman on this list? Hers is a great story that schoolchildren ought to know. But who would seriously argue that she had more than a very modest impact on American history – even on the history of abolition? And what else can explain the name of a woman aviator best known for failing to fly around the world?

At any rate, my concern is with the third lesson that I draw from this list: History teachers are giving pre-eminence to those strands of American history that deal with the struggle for equal rights, at the expense of all the rest.

Where are the pioneers and explorers on this list? Don’t schoolchildren learn about Lewis and Clark anymore? Or even about Sacagawea? Fifty years ago there were television shows about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and the boys all wanted coonskin hats. I wonder if boys today even know who they were. Not the Wright brothers? Or Charles Lindbergh? What about John Glenn and Neil Armstrong? Are teachers today embarrassed that Americans conquered the wilderness, learned to fly, orbited the Earth, and walked on the moon?

Where are the generals and admirals? General Washington and General Grant were ineligible for the list because they became presidents, but what about Commodore Perry? General Robert E. Lee? General Douglas MacArthur? Surely we’re not ashamed of the military accomplishments that have kept us free and democratic for 200 years! Rosa Parks was a bona fide hero and a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but what about Revolutionary War catalysts Paul Revere (the midnight rider) or Nathan Hale (“I only regret that I have but one life to give my country”). Do we think that the Revolutionary War didn’t count for much because the Founding Fathers left slavery in place?

What of giants of industry and finance like Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and John Paul Getty? If political correctness is de-emphasizing military figures in our history curricula, I suppose it should be no surprise if kids aren’t being taught about the men who built modern America, either. When I was a boy, we all knew about the only two billionaires in the world (Getty and Howard Hughes). In 2008, shouldn’t Bill Gates be on a list of famous Americans?

Where are the giants of American philanthropy (essentially the same names as the giants of industry and finance)?

Where are the religious leaders? For 50 years, Billy Graham’s name sat at the very top of surveys of most-admired Americans while other names came and went. One can only conclude that decades of muddled ideas about “separation of church and state” in the schools are making people shy away from mentioning this man of God in the same breath with such secular saints as Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony.

Where on this list are any of America’s novelists, poets, musicians, artists? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway? Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, or Leonard Bernstein? Surely Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer and a celebrity of the first order in his day, or Louis Armstrong, the world’s greatest jazz musician, achieved enough fame for such a list.

The survey does show, at least, that the kids are learning something about American’s technological and scientific accomplishments, with Franklin, Edison, and Einstein each making the cut.

The real proof that the kids told the survey-takers what they thought they were supposed to say is that there are only two entertainers on the list (Marilyn Monroe and Oprah). No Babe Ruth? Or Madonna? Sinatra? Elvis?

Millions flock to Graceland, Elvis records are still sold by the millions, and Elvis impersonators still proliferate. Here in Rochester, though, a tiny nonprofit organization struggles to keep Susan B. Anthony’s modest inner-city home open to the public as a museum. My recent visit was well worth the time, but I wonder if even five thousand souls visit the Susan B. Anthony House in a year. Are we really to believe that this remarkable American woman is more famous than Elvis?

We can be sure of one thing: our children are being taught that our nation’s greatest heroes are not pioneers, soldiers, writers, or preachers, but instead those who crusaded for civil rights. Four of the names on the list represent the struggle for racial equality (King, Parks, Tubman, and Winfrey); two of the names are identified with the struggle for women’s rights (Anthony, Earhart). Civil rights are all well and good, but they are not America’s only story.

Update: Emsworth humbly suggests two lists of the most famous American men and the most famous American women at this post. (Presidents and their wives are excluded.) Not everyone who’s famous deserves to be, and some men and women who richly deserve fame don’t have it, so don’t shoot the messenger!