February 24, 2018

"Plum" Wodehouse, Plumheads

On this day in 1881, P. G. Wodehouse -- Pelham Grenville, but known as "Plum," his fans as "Plumheads" -- was born, in Surrey, England. Although he had Barons, the sister of Anne Boleyn, and noblemen who attended upon Edward the Confessor in his ancestry, Wodehouse's biographers say he liked to avoid the topic. This is not surprising for one who spent a lifetime exploring, as George Orwell put it, "the comic possibilities of the English aristocracy." The biographers also regard as a defining moment the decision by Wodehouse's parents to send him, at age two, back to England from Hong Kong, where Wodehouse's father was a magistrate. Until age fifteen, Wodehouse rarely saw his parents, spending his years with a series of nannies, relatives and schools; this, the theory goes, laid the groundwork for the detached style in which Wodehouse would poke fun at a world of uppity posers and fumblers. Wodehouse said he could not remember a time when he didn't want to be a writer, or want anything more than to be left alone to do it, and there are many anecdotes which offer verification. One story of his social discomfort concerns the attempt to find an apartment in New York -- Wodehouse first went there in his thirties, and lived there permanently for his last two decades. Having given up on finding anything suitable, and seeing that his wife was heading out to continue the search, Wodehouse told her to be sure to get an apartment on the ground floor. Asked why, he replied, " I never know what to say to the lift boy."

There is something of this in the opening to The Luck of the Bodkins. Although not one which features the indefatigable Jeeves, it is a classic Wodehouse moment:
         Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French. One of the things which Gertrude Butterwick had impressed upon Monty Bodkin when he left for his holiday on the Riviera was that he must be sure to practise his French, and Gertrude's word was law. So now, though he knew that it was going to make his nose tickle, he said:
         "Er, garsong."
         "Er, garsong, esker-vous avez un spot de l'encre et une pièce de papier –- note-papier, vous savez, -– et une enveloppe et une plume?"
         The strain was too great.
         "I want to write a letter," said Monty. And having, like all lovers, rather a tendency to share his romance with the world, he would probably have added "To the sweetest girl on earth" had not the waiter already bounded off like a retriever, to return a few moments later with the fixings.
         "V'la, m,sieur! Zere you are, sir," said the waiter. He was engaged to a girl in Paris who had told him that when on the Riviera he must be sure to practise his English. "Eenk -- pin -- pipper -- enveloppe -- and a liddle bit of bloddin-pipper."
         "Oh, merci," said Monty. "Thanks. Right ho."
         "Right ho, m'sieur," said the waiter....

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