PG Wodehouse :
Welcome to the second in our new series of features called Legends of Literature. Our second featured iconic author is none other than the wry, witty and always funny PG Wodehouse.
The Honourable Galahad Threepwood has decided to write his memoirs, and England's aristocrats are all diving for cover, not least Galahad's formidable sister Lady Constance Keeble who fears her brother will ruin the family reputation with saucy stories of the 1890s.
Abe - What influence did boarding schools have on PG Wodehouse and his writing?
Ian Michaud: “Wodehouse always claimed that his school days at Dulwich College were the happiest of his life and they gave him a great start to his writing career.”
Kris Fowler: “They provided idyllic existence for Wodehouse, who had essentially no family home while his parents were posted in India. The classical education he received gave him a thorough grounding in grammar and all points of composition, while he developed his humourous style writing for the student magazine. Boarding school also supplied the material for starting his professional writing career: he wrote many ‘school stories’ for publication in magazines like ‘The Captain’ that catered to boarding-school readers.”
Ian Michaud: “For the first 10 or 15 years of his career his output almost exclusively consisted of ‘school stories’ in which he used his experiences at Dulwich to write stories that were enormously popular with public schoolboys. One of his schoolboy characters, Psmith, would eventually graduate and become one of Wodehouse's first great adult characters, and the London suburb of ‘Valley Fields’ (“that fragrant backwater”), which appears in at least a dozen Wodehouse novels, is the town of Dulwich in disguise.”
Kris Fowler: “The social rules learned at school - what is done and what is not done - pervade much of his writing throughout his career; Bertie Wooster’s ‘code’ is a schoolboy one, of never letting a pal down.”
Abe - Why are Wodehouse’s stories still enduring when they are about a bygone age?
Kris Fowler: “The bygone age strikes many readers as an attractive one to escape into. But even more attractive are the delightfully intricate plots and brilliant verbal style, which are timeless - his absurd situations and hilarious language still make people laugh. And of course some of the inspired lunacy, such as holding a prize pig for ransom, doesn't belong to any period, so it can't really be said to be outdated.”
Abe - Wodehouse had a modest opinion of his own talents as a humourist, but where do you see him ranking alongside other great humourists?
Ian Michaud: “I would certainly rank him as the greatest English language humourist of the 20th century.”
Kris Fowler: “His stories don’t go out of date because they didn’t rely on topical material, and his technique was perfect - he worked extremely hard at his craft to achieve an expertly light result. Other excellent humourous writers were and are fans of his (Evelyn Waugh and Terry Pratchett, to name but two).”
Abe - Which of his characters is your favourite and why?
Ian Michaud: “I would usually answer this question by saying, ‘the star of the last book I re-read.’ But, assuming that answer won't pass muster, I'll say Lord Uffenham, the central character of Money in the Bank and Something Fishy (US title The Butler Did It). His eccentric personal mannerisms make him completely unique in Wodehouse’s galaxy of characters. He was modelled after a man named Max Enke, one of PGW's fellow internees at the civilian internment camp at Tost in World War II. And, as Max was a Canadian from Gabriola Island in my home province of British Columbia, I take particular pleasure in reading about Lord Uffenham’s exploits.”
Kris Fowler: “Psmith is my favourite character - that elegant and dignified manner while doing the most outrageous things, like stealing an umbrella to save a pretty girl from the rain and then explaining it to the umbrella's owner as ‘practical socialism.’ And who else would add a silent P to add distinction to the commonplace name of Smith?”
Abe - What is Wodehouse's most underrated work?
Kris Fowler: “I'd say most of Wodehouse’s work is underrated - only the Bertie and Jeeves books are really famous, and there's so much more excellent fun to be had with the Blandings saga, Mr. Mulliner’s tall tales, the golf stories (hilarious even to a non-golfer like me), and the misadventures of all the pearl-necklace thieves and young men in spats. Probably the school stories, like The Pothunters get the shortest shrift; they don't meet Wodehouse’s later goal of a laugh in every line, but the humour is definitely there to spice the compelling mix of student dilemmas and sports contests; even a hundred years later, they pull the reader in.”
Ian Michaud: “French Leave is a book I personally enjoy very much, but Wodehouse’s American agent in the 1950s didn't like it. In fact, it wasn’t published in the US until 1959, three years after its British and Canadian publication.”
To learn more about the PG Wodehouse Society, visit: http://www.wodehouse.org/
In 1975, The Paris Review interviewed PG Wodehouse – check out this excerpt.