Monday, November 16, 2009

"Those rather hit-or-miss days," or, Wodehouse in spats and letters

In Wednesday's post about the P. G. Wodehouse interview that's included in the newest volume of The Paris Review Interviews I mentioned in passing Wodehouse's expression of dismay at the disappearance of spats, but his whole disquisition on the topic is so good that it seems a shame not to share it, for it gives a great flavor of the light, yet thoughtful tone Wodehouse maintains throughout.

The exchange begins with a lament from Wodehouse about the changing times:
. . . I suppose a typical member of the Drones Club now is someone with a job and very earnest about it. Those rather hit-or-miss days have passed away. . . .

I suppose that world has gone the way of spats. You were very fond of spats, weren't you? Tell me a little about them.

I don't know why spats went out! The actual name was spatter-dashers, and you fastened them over your ankles, you see, to prevent the spatter from dashing you. They certainly lent tone to your appearance, and they were awfully comfortable, especially when you wore them in cold weather. I've written articles, which were rather funny, about how I used to go about London. I would borrow my brother's frock coat and my uncle's hat, but my spats were always new and impeccable. The butler would open the door and take in my old topcoat and hat and sniff as if to say, Hardly the sort of thing we are accustomed to. And then he would look down at the spats and everything would be all right. It's a shame when things like spats go out.
In fact, as Orwell (among others) has pointed out, Bertie Wooster was out of date almost the instant he first appeared; in his sympathetic 1945 essay defending Wodehouse against the charge of treason for the German radio broadcasts he made from Berlin during the war, Orwell notes,
Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie really belongs to an epoch earlier than that. He is the "knut" of the pre-1914 period, celebrated in such songs as "Gilbert the Filbert" or "Reckless Reggie of the Regent's Palace". The kind of life that Wodehouse writes about by preference, the life of the "clubman" or "man about town", the elegant young man who lounges all the morning in Piccadilly with a cane under his arm and a carnation in his buttonhole, barely survived into the nineteen-twenties. . . . It is significant that Wodehouse could publish in 1936 a book entitled Young Men in Spats. For who was wearing spats at that date? They had gone out of fashion quite ten years earlier.
Reading Orwell's essay again made me wonder what Wodehouse himself thought of it, whether his appreciation for the support would be diminished by the fact that Orwell's defense consisted largely of establishing that Wodehouse was so ignorant of reality as to be essentially blameless when it unexpectedly intruded. Robert McCrum, in his biography of Wodehouse, reports the essay was actually in part the result of a correspondence the two men struck up following a group lunch in Paris*, and that at the time the essay was published, Wodehouse was grateful, writing to Orwell,
I don't think I have ever read a better bit of criticism. You were absolutely right in everything you said about my work. It was uncanny.
A bit more digging, however, led me to the P. G. Wodehouse Books site, which quotes from a letter Wodehouse sent around the same time to his friend Bill Townend, wherein he complains about Orwell's mention of Wodehouse's line from the radio talks about how German officers near his house were always "dropping in for a bath or a party":
From Orwell's article, you would think I had invited the blighters to come and scour their damned bodies in my bathroom. What actually happened was that at the end of the second week of occupation, the house next door became full of German Labour Corps workers and they seemed to have got me muddled up with Tennyson's Sir Walter Vivian. The gentleman who "all of a summer's day gave his broad lawns until the set of sun to the people." I suppose to a man fond of German Labour Corps workers, and liking to hear them singing in the bath, the conditions would have been ideal, but they didn't suit me. I chafed, and a fat lot of good chafing did me. They came again next day and brought their friends.
Even the staunchest Wodehouse apologist is unlikely to have much sympathy for his account of the suffering brought on by the horrors of German singing, considering what others went through; at the same time, the letter itself sounds so Wodehousian--so unexpectedly close in tone to some of his characters--that it's hard not to be in some degree charmed nonetheless.

One last note before I leave Wodehouse behind for a while. That passage led me to wonder whether his letters might be worth reading--whether they were, as for so many writers, a place for rehearsing what would later turn up in his fiction. Well, if Nancy Mitford is to be trusted--and on the subject of comedy, I think she surely is--the answer is no: she closed a letter to Evelyn Waugh** in 1953 with this postscript about Wodehouse's just-published Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters:
Have you read the P G Wodehouse letters? He never seems to stay in one place more than a week. Not a joke in the whole lot -- as far as I've read.
Anyone out there read them and disagree strongly enough to make a case for my giving them a try?


  1. Mark O'Donnell reports that Robert McCrum ". . . calls Wodehouse's epistolary memoir Performing
    Flea (1953) 'a bravura demonstration of tact, evasion, and wishful thinking' . . . ."

  2. The extract on the cover of the old Penguin edition looks promising:

  3. OK, I got hold of 'Performing Flea' from a library, and am about 1/3 through now. It's entertaining enough, in that Wodehouse can't not be pleasant and funny, but they're all letters to one old friend, and about half of them seem to be specific bits of advice to that one friend about how to fix up the magazine stories that he's writing. Not what it could have been if the range of letter-receivers had been wider, I suspect. I wonder what 'Bring on the Girls', his memoir, co-written with Guy Bolton, about working in musical comedy, is any better?

  4. Thanks, Dave. This is an example of how you're a good librarian and I'm a dabbling non-librarian: I had the McCrum at my elbow and didn't think to look up Performing Flea in it!

    And JRSM: you may have convinced me to seek it out, even though it does sound like a strangely constricted book. I have no idea about Bring on the Girls (and the McCrum's not at my elbow right now!), but how could a memoir of working in musical comedy in that era not be good?