Remembering P.G. Wodehouse on his birthday

  • Published 15.10.17

In my early adolescence, the only people I cared about were children attending schools in faraway worlds. They had me captivated with dorms, apple-pie beds, midnight feasts, tuck-shops, study-rags, and “six of the head’s best” strikes (although, thank goodness, I had never actually been caned myself). While I was stealing food with Billy Bunter, being up to mischief with William the Outlaw, sympathising with Lucy Brown and frolicking with the O’Sullivan twins, in sauntered Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, fondly known as Plum, “talking rot” about house matches and house masters. It was delightful.

I discovered only later that, while I had stumbled across this impossibly stiff-upper-lip, tongue-in-cheek writer with The Pothunters, Plum himself had made his writing debut with these school yarns in 1902. It’s not often that one is able to launch on a life-long attachment to an author who has more than 70 novels to his name, with the very first story to be written by him. Having only just left his schooldays behind him, young Wodehouse felt the need to recreate some of those experiences; Jeeves had not yet shimmered into his imagination and Clarence, “that amiable and boneheaded peer”, was not around to potter around the Empress of Blandings.

This fledgling Wodehouse was yet to rise to the pinnacle of masterful dialogue that would distinguish him a couple of decades later. 

“Not those socks, Jeeves,” I said, gulping a bit but having a dash at the careless, off-hand tone. “Give me the purple ones.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“Those jolly purple ones.”

“Very good, sir.”

He lugged them out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of the salad.

— The Inimitable Jeeves, 1923

But he certainly showed all the signs of it.

“If every day were run along these lines, school-mastering wouldn’t be such a bad profession. I wonder if one could persuade one’s form to run amuck as a regular thing.”

— Mike: A Public School Story, 1909

In fact, so inspired is Wodehouse’s flair for dialogue that when in 1915, he had Psmith utter the words, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary”, he had generations of Sherlock Holmes fans misquoting this famous detective.

I got my hands on P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters only recently, and discovered how much of the adolescent Wodehouse was present in the stories that had devoured my girlhood. Like Mike who “had been petitioning the home authorities... to be allowed to leave his private school and go to Wrykyn”, so had young Wodehouse pleaded with his own father to be allowed to attend Dulwich College, which his elder brother Armine was already attending. We also find Wodehouse in the unfortunate Wyatt, whose stepfather was shoving him off to work in a bank directly after school, which was exactly the same as Plum’s own fate, in spite of his painstaking preparations for the scholarship exam that was to be the entrance to Oxford, a place he’d had his heart set on.

 While the general assumption might be that disappointments build character, for Wodehouse they certainly built ingenuity. Amid the drudgery of the London branch of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Wodehouse drew from the life he had been loath to forsake — a life driven by the spirit of sportsmanship, a code of honour and respect for rules that were unwritten. Wodehouse taught generations of children that disloyalty was a reprehensible trait and that friendship was to be earned.

In schools like Wrykyn, St. Austin’s and Eckleton, junior boys hold their tongues with prefects, boys breaking bounds after hours are not to be ratted out even if the headmaster is in a fine rage about it and everyone sticks together when planning a large rag like a mass-bunk or tearing up a solution sheet. In Wyatt’s sage words to Mike, “There are two types of discipline at school. One you can break if you feel like taking the risks; the other you musn’t ever break.”

The reason the school stories ring so true even a hundred years later is because, in spite of the advent of technology and perhaps less archaic rules, classroom experiences remain inherently the same. For instance, in the tireless exchange of surreptitious notes, we would all prefer to have been exposed by a teacher of Mr Thompson’s benign disposition than a less forgiving “form-beak”.

“Kindly tear that note up, Graham.”

“Note, sir?”

“Kindly tear that note up, Graham. Come, you are keeping us waiting.”

— The Pothunters, 1902

All the cricket I ever picked up was from these early Wodehouses. Plum himself was quite the sportsman, so it’s unsurprising that his school plots nearly all centred around cricket and scrabbling for “first-eleven colours”. The thing about Wodehouse is that he is evidently having a hoot, which makes it hard to resist his particular brand of horseplay. In the vein of most school stories, Wodehouse didn’t offer a vast variety in plot, but like Plum himself, his readers “relished the social and gastronomic aspect of school”. He once admitted, “I haven’t developed mentally at all since my last year at school. All my ideas and ideals are the same.” This perhaps is what makes Wodehouse eternal. While his plots became more devious, more hysterical and preposterous, his lovability quotient remained constant. Aunts were always to be eyed askance, policemen to be tormented and romances to be regarded an impediment. As for school games, well no one in his right mind would “sneer at cricket and jeer at footer.”

— Ramona Sen