P G Wodehouse
- Category : Writers-Humor
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- Definition : Triple Split
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Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE; (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was an English humorist, whose body of work includes novels, short stories, plays, poems, song lyrics and numerous pieces of journalism. He enjoyed enormous popular success during a career that lasted more than seventy years and his many writings continue to be widely read. Despite the political and social upheavals that occurred during his life, much of which was spent in France and the United States, Wodehouse's main canvas remained that of a pre- and post-World War I English upper class society, reflecting his birth, education and youthful writing career.
An acknowledged master of English prose, Wodehouse has been admired both by contemporaries such as Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by recent writers such as Stephen Fry, Douglas Adams, J. K. Rowling, and John Le Carré.
Best known today for the Jeeves and Blandings Castle novels and short stories, Wodehouse was also a playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of 15 plays and of 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies, many of them produced in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934), wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's Show Boat (1927), wrote lyrics to Sigmund Romberg's music for the Gershwin – Romberg musical Rosalie (1928) and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928). He is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Wodehouse, called "Plum" (abbreviating "Pelham") by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse (née Deane; daughter of John Bathurst Deane) while she was visiting Guildford. He was baptised at St. Nicolas' Church, Guildford. His aunt Mary Deane was the author of the novel Mr. Zinzan of Bath; or, Seen in an Old Mirror. His father, Henry Ernest Wodehouse (1845–1929), was a British judge in Hong Kong. The Wodehouse family had been settled in Norfolk for many centuries. Wodehouse's great-grandfather Reverend Philip Wodehouse was the second son of Sir Armine Wodehouse, 5th Baronet, whose eldest son John Wodehouse, 1st Baron Wodehouse, was the ancestor of the Earls of Kimberley. His godfather was Pelham von Donop, after whom he was named.
When he was just three years old, Wodehouse was brought back to Britain and placed in the care of a nanny. He attended various boarding schools and, between the ages of three and 15 years, saw his parents for barely six months in total. Wodehouse grew very close to his brother, who shared his love for art. Wodehouse filled the voids in his life by writing relentlessly. He spent quite a few of his school holidays with one aunt or another; it has been speculated that this gave him a healthy horror of the "gaggle of aunts", reflected in Bertie Wooster's formidable aunts Agatha and Dahlia, as well as Lady Constance Keeble's tyranny over her many nieces and nephews in the Blandings Castle series.
Wodehouse's first school was the Chalet School, Croydon, which he attended between 1886 and 1889, together with his two older brothers — Richard, the youngest of the four Wodehouse brothers, was much younger and became somewhat noteworthy as a cricketer in Asia. In 1889, the eldest brother, Peveril, was diagnosed as having a weak chest and the three brothers were sent to Elizabeth College, Guernsey (where they appear on the census for 1891), where Peveril could benefit from the sea air. Wodehouse remained at Elizabeth College for two years, until, at age 10, it became time for him to move to a preparatory school. Wodehouse's first prep school was Malvern House, at Kearsney, near Dover, Kent, which specialised in preparing boys for entry to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Wodehouse spent two unhappy years at Malvern House before finally persuading his father to send him to Dulwich College, where his elder brother Armine was already a pupil.
He enjoyed attending Dulwich College, where he was successful both as a pupil and as a sportsman: he was a member of the Classics VIth Form (traditionally, the preserve of the brightest pupils) and a school prefect; he edited the college magazine, The Alleynian, sang and acted leading roles in musical and theatrical productions and gained his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and rugby football First XV; he also represented the school at boxing (until barred by poor eyesight) and his house at athletics. The library at Dulwich is now named after him.
Wodehouse's elder brother, Armine, had won a classics scholarship to Oxford University (where he gained a first class degree) and Pelham was widely expected to follow in his brother's footsteps, but a fall in the value of the Indian rupee (in which currency his father's pension was expressed) forced him to abandon such plans. His father found him a position with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now known as HSBC), where, after two years' training in London, he would have been posted to an overseas branch. However, Wodehouse was never interested in banking as a career and "never learned a thing about banking". Some of his experiences in the bank were recounted in Psmith in the City. He wrote part-time while working in the bank and in 1902 became a journalist with The Globe (a now defunct newspaper), taking over the comic column from a friend who had resigned. Thereafter, Wodehouse contributed items to Punch, Vanity Fair (1903–1906), Daily Express (1904) and The World: A Journal for Men and Women (1906–07). He also wrote stories for schoolboys' magazines (The Captain and Public School Magazine) that were compiled to form his first published novels and four playlets with his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson.
In 1907, Wodehouse contributed the lyrics to two songs to the Seymour Hicks musical comedy The Gay Gordons. One of the other lyricists on the show was his fellow Globe newspaperman C.H. Bovill. The two would later collaborate on the 1914 revue Nuts and Wine and a series of six short stories collected as A Man of Means in 1913–14.
During 1909, Wodehouse stayed in Greenwich Village and "sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier's for a total of $500 – much more than I had ever earned before." He then resigned from The Globe and stayed in New York, where he became a regular contributor (under a variety of pseudonyms) to the newly-founded American Vanity Fair (1913). However "the wolf was always at the door" and it was not until The Saturday Evening Post serialised Something New in 1915 that he had his "first break". Around this time he began collaborating with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on (eventually eighteen) musical comedies, including the innovative Princess Theatre musicals.
In 1914, Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman and gained a stepdaughter called Leonora. He had no biological children and it is possible that he was rendered sterile after contracting mumps as an adolescent.
During the 1930s, he had two brief stints as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where he controversially claimed he was greatly overpaid. Many of his novels were also serialised in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid well.
Life beyond Britain
Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 onward he split his time between Britain and the United States. In 1934, he took up residence in France, to avoid double taxation on his earnings by the tax authorities in Britain and the U.S. He was also profoundly uninterested in politics and world affairs. When World War II broke out in 1939 he remained at his seaside home in Le Touquet, France, instead of returning to Britain, apparently failing to recognise the seriousness of the conflict. It is also said that his wife couldn't bear to leave their dog, Wonder. Subsequently the German military authorities in occupied France interned him (along with several other Englishmen in the same position) as an "enemy alien" according to the Geneva Convention. He was interned first in Belgium, then at Tost in Upper Silesia (formerly Germany, now Toszek in Poland), of which he is recorded having said, "If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like…"
While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty dialogues. He was released from internment a few months before his 60th birthday when, under the Geneva Convention, he should have been released anyway; the early release led to allegations that he had made a deal with the Nazi authorities. He then drafted several humorous talks, based on his life at Tost, as the basis for a series of radio broadcasts aimed at America, which was not then at war with Germany. After his release from internment, he lived for a time at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, before moving to Paris, which was still under German occupation. When the text of his commentaries was published in the UK many years later, several short sentences were suppressed (probably by Wodehouse himself) which showed him being relatively friendly to the German military when they arrived at Le Touquet. Wodehouse believed he would be admired as showing himself to have "kept a stiff upper lip" during his internment, but he misjudged the mood in wartime Britain, where the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaborationism with the Germans and even treason. Some libraries banned his books. Foremost among his critics was A.A. Milne, famous as the author of the Winnie the Pooh books; Wodehouse took revenge in a short story parody, Rodney Has a Relapse (1949), in which a character based on Milne writes about his son, a ridiculous character named "Timothy Bobbin". Another critic was the playwright Sean O'Casey who, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph in July 1941, wrote: "If England has any dignity left in the way of literature, she will forget for ever the pitiful antics of English Literature's performing flea". Wodehouse deflected the insult by giving the title Performing Flea to a collection of his letters to a friend, Bill Townend. Among Wodehouse's defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell.
An investigation led by Major Cussen of the British security service MI5 concluded that Wodehouse was naïve and foolish but not a traitor. Documents declassified in the 1980s revealed that while he was living in Paris, his living expenses were paid by the Nazis but papers released by the British Public Record Office in 1999 showed that this had been accounted for by MI5 investigators when establishing Wodehouse's innocence; the money was, in fact, Wodehouse's legitimate earnings, including an advance from his Spanish publisher but had to be channelled via the German Central Bank.
For security-reasons the results of Major Cussen's investigation were not published during Wodehouse's lifetime. Wodehouse felt that the unwillingness to publish the document prevented his full rehabilitation.
The criticism led Wodehouse and his American-born wife to move permanently to New York. Apart from his stepdaughter Leonora, who died during Wodehouse's internment in Germany, they had no children. He became a United States citizen in 1955, spending the remainder of his life in Remsenburg, New York, never to revisit his homeland.
Wodehouse continued to write novels and to follow an exercise regime into his nineties. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1975 New Year Honours; it is widely believed that the honour was not given earlier because of lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. His doctor advised him not to travel to London for the investiture and his wife later accepted the knighthood on his behalf from the British consul. Toward the end of January 1975, he developed pemphigus, a persistent skin rash, brought on by the strain of extra work, answering fan mail and recording the introductions to the Wodehouse Playhouse TV series. In early February, he entered Southampton Hospital, where he died of a heart attack on 14 February 1975 at age 93. His last novel, Sunset at Blandings, was unfinished at his death and was published posthumously in 1977.
In a BBC interview shortly before his death, Wodehouse said that he had no ambitions left, as he had been knighted and created as a wax figure at Madame Tussaud's.
In 1988 a blue plaque was installed on the house in Mayfair in London where Wodehouse lived, No. 17 Dunraven Street.
The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, given annually for the finest example of comic writing in the UK, was established and named in his honour in 2000.
Wodehouse took a modest attitude to his own works. In Over Seventy (1957) he wrote: "I go in for what is known in the trade as 'light writing' and those who do that – humorists they are sometimes called – are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at."
However, he also lightly taunted his critics, as in the introduction to Summer Lightning.
A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names'. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elijah; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
His writing style is notable for its unique blend of contemporary London clubroom slang with elegant, classically-informed drawing-room English; for example:
I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast.
Much of the charm of characters like Bertie Wooster in the Jeeves-Wooster novels, derives from the light hearted cheeriness and bonhomie that Wodehouse conveys through a particularly effective choice of language. While Bertie is often described by acquaintances as mentally negligible, the reader more often sees him as the hapless victim of circumstances, very often, circumstances which his “code”, his aspiration to be a preux chevalier (valiant knight), prevents his avoiding. For example, Bertie is frequently made the unwilling fiancé of girls who announce their engagement to him after discarding another suitor. Bertie would never get out of such a fix simply by saying no, or as he would put it, issuing a nolle prosequi, because his code does not allow him to be so ungallant.
This is Bertie’s appeal. He hasn’t an ill tempered, mean spirited bone in his body, and apart from some mischievous penchant for purloining policemen’s helmets, is always a gentleman. Wodehouse’s language, and Bertie’s peculiar slang, neatly reinforces all of our hero’s charm. Bertie always has a nice detachment from his problems, an ability to see them from the outside, to put himself in the third person. Thus, he will find himself “deep in the mulligatawny with no hope of striking for shore,” “knee deep in the bisque.” He will refer to himself as B. Wooster, or Bertram, or Wooster, Bertram, and announce that “It is pretty generally recognised by those who know him best”…, and “the Woosters are always magnanimous.” However others may slight his mental acuity, or however much he may admire Jeeves for his ability to come up with schemes to extract Bertie from the tureen, he never loses his self-confidence, and remains convinced that he is a man of iron will, a man who can, with the arch of an eyebrow, or relying on just a touch of steel in his voice make others see that he is unmoved on a given point, showing the velvet fist in the iron glove, “if that is the phrase I want”, and confident, in matters sartorial, of his own diablerie (devilry).
Wodehouse gives Bertie a rich vocabulary of slang, from abbreviated words, like enjoying the “b & e” at breakfast, or “seeing at a g”, to enjoying a drink, or lubricating the tonsils. He will describe another character as looking “like a seal waiting for a slice of fish,” or “a tiger after his morning ration of coolie.” He clearly enjoyed the benefits of a fine education at Eton and Oxford, particularly in the early novels, when he can spout a Shakespearean line to suit the occasion, or revert to the Latin citation, rem acu tetigisti, when putting his finger on the problem. If memory fails to bring back the literary reference, he can at least point Jeeves in the right direction: “what is that poem about someone looking at someone looking at something?” (Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer".) It is only in the later stories that he loses his smattering of learning, and attributes the most familiar Shakespearian quotations to Jeeves. Wodehouse's use of language was outstanding, including coining new words. "While not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled".
Literary tastes and influence
In the above-mentioned Over Seventy, Wodehouse names some contemporary humorists whom he held in high regard. These include Frank Sullivan, A.P. Herbert, W.S. Gilbert and Alex Atkinson. Two essays in Tales of St. Austin's satirise modern literary criticism: "The Tom Brown Question" is a parody of Homeric analysts, and "Notes" criticises both classical and English critics, with an ironic exception for those explicating the meaning of Browning. In "Work", Wodehouse calls the claim that "Virgil is hard" "a shallow falsehood", but notes that "Aeschylus, on the other hand, is a demon". Shakespeare and Tennyson were also obvious influences; their works were the only books Wodehouse took with him in his internment. He frequently quoted Kipling and Omar Khayyam. Wodehouse enjoyed the traditional British thriller: one of his characters declares that "It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace", and he dedicated Sam the Sudden to Wallace, while Agatha Christie dedicated her Hallowe'en Party "To P G Wodehouse – whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books." In the 1960s he gave important praise for the debut novels of Donald Jack, Gavin Lyall and George MacDonald Fraser. In later life, he read mysteries by Ngaio Marsh and Rex Stout, and unfailingly watched the soap opera The Edge of Night.
Wodehouse's characters, however, were not always popular with the establishment, notably the foppish foolishness of Bertie Wooster. Papers released by the Public Record Office have disclosed that when Wodehouse was recommended in 1967 for the Order of the Companions of Honour, Sir Patrick Dean, the British ambassador in Washington, argued that it "would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate."
Wodehouse's characters are often eccentric, with peculiar attachments, such as to pigs (Lord Emsworth), newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle), antique silver (Bertie's Uncle Tom Travers), golf collectibles (numerous characters) or socks (Archibald Mulliner). His "mentally negligible" good-natured characters invariably make their lot worse by their half-witted schemes to improve a bad situation. In many cases the classic eccentricities of Wodehouse's upper class give rise to plot complications. The very first Jeeves story ("Jeeves Takes Charge") concerns an attempt to prevent publication of an old man's memoirs, which contain embarrassing stories about aristocrats and other prestigious persons in their youth.
Relatives, especially aunts and uncles, are commonly depicted with an exaggerated power to help or impede marriage or financial prospects, or simply to make life miserable. (Bertie speaks of "Aunt Agatha getting after [someone] with her hatchet"—her hatchet being her nose.) Several of the Jeeves stories involve helping a pal deceive a wealthy relative on whom the pal depends financially ("The Aunt and the Sluggard", "Comrade Bingo"). When Bertie Wooster is first introduced ("Jeeves Takes Charge"), he is himself dependent upon his Uncle Willoughby and only when this uncle "hands in his dinner pail" (dies) does Bertram become independently wealthy.
Children of both genders are invariably troublesome and annoying and frequently malicious. The most egregious is Edwin the Boy Scout, whose attempts at "acts of kindness" cause disasters of widely varying severity in several Jeeves novels and short stories. Other examples of simple 'misguided youth' occur in Laughing Gas (1936), where the child Hollywood star Joey Cooley is viewed in (at times) a very sympathetic light, and in Service with a Smile, where the boy George Threepwood (grandson to the Earl of Emsworth) is viewed as mischievous, rather than villainous.
Friends are often more a trouble than a comfort in Wodehouse stories: Bertie Wooster in particular is often obliged to put himself to trouble and sometimes to endure considerable suffering, in order to help a friend. (The Code of the Woosters, in the novel of the same name, is "Never let a pal down.") Antagonists (particularly rivals in love) are frequently terrifying and just as often get their comeuppance in a gratifying fashion.
Policemen and magistrates are typically portrayed as threatening, yet easy to fool, often through the simple expedient of giving a false name. A recurring motif is the theft of policemen's helmets. One of the most dislikable characters in the entire opus is a magistrate, Sir Watkyn Bassett.
In a manner going back to the stock characters of Roman comedy (such as Plautus), Wodehouse's servants are frequently far cleverer than their masters. This is quintessentially true with Jeeves, who always pulls Bertie Wooster out of the direst scrapes by means of cunning and resource, often by deceptively manipulating him (e.g. "Bertie Changes his Mind", Right Ho, Jeeves) or by convincing him to sacrifice himself. It recurs elsewhere, such as with the efficient (though despised) Baxter, secretary to the befogged Lord Emsworth.
Another recurring type is the successful, square-jawed, ruthless American business executive, most notably in Thank You, Jeeves and in the golf story "The Heel of Achilles," but also in later stories about the Mulliners in Hollywood.
Big bruisers who come and go unexpectedly, muttering threats, abound in Wodehouse, including first and foremost Roderick Spode and Tuppy Glossop but also any number of bookies' henchmen, jealous lovers, nosy neighbours, burglars and what would now be called animal-rights activists.
Many stories involve a strong-willed, independent, middle-aged (or older) female troublemaker. Examples include Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha; Lord Emsworth's many sisters, notably Lady Constance Keeble; Headmistress Mapleton in "Jeeves and the Kid Clementina"; Lady Bassett in the Mulliner short story "Strychnine in the Soup" and the poisonous Princess von und zu Dworniczek in Summer Moonshine. Even Aunt Dahlia, the exceptional aunt who is a "good egg," makes plenty of troublesome demands on Bertie. Most abhorrent are the female writers, young and old, such as Ukridge's Aunt Julia, Bertie Wooster's cousin (and sometime fiancée) Florence Craye and, when the evil fit is upon her, Bingo Little's wife Rosie M. Banks.
Animals of many types play major roles in his works and are the unifying force in A Wodehouse Bestiary, published by Dorset Press in 1985, Foreword by Howard Phipps, Jr., President, New York Zoological Society. Perhaps most famous and beloved of all Wodehouse's non-human characters is Lord Emsworth's Empress of Blandings, who is also the subject of one of his most popular, as well as his hardest-to-spell, stories, "Pig-Hoo-o-o-o-ey!". Wodehouse lived with a dog on his lap at most times and usually lived with several Pekes. Dogs, often referred to as "dumb chums", especially Pekingese, feature prominently in short stories and novels. Wodehouse often referred to their screams and love of food, in their person and in his use of similes. He also often referred to snails and slugs, though he was wont to treat them rather generically, as Phipps criticised in his foreword when he said, "Unfortunately he is sometimes unspecific, referring only to a 'snake' or a 'parrot' and is frequently guilty of adopting a stereotyped view of snakes, parrots, rabbits and rats."
Wodehouse was known for his consummate skill at their detailed construction and development. This did not come immediately to him; in the early Psmith novels Psmith in the City and Psmith, Journalist, the device by which the author rescues the protagonists from their mounting difficulties is a simple infusion of cash from Psmith's father. This would soon change, and by the 1920s his novels were already showing off his genius for creating multiple layers of comedic complications that the characters must endure to reach the invariable happy ending. Typically, a relative or friend makes some demand that forces a character into a bizarre situation from which it seems impossible to recover, only to resolve itself in a clever and satisfying finale. The layers pile up thickly in the longer works, with a character getting into multiple dangerous situations by mid-story. An outstanding example of this is The Code of the Woosters, where most of the chapters have an essential plot point reversed in the last sentence, catapulting the characters forward into greater diplomatic disasters. A key figure in most Wodehouse stories is a "fixer" whose genius soars above the incompetent blather and crude bluster of most of the other characters, Jeeves being the best known example. Other characters in this vein are Lord Ickenham ("Uncle Fred") and Galahad Threepwood, who perform much the same role in the Blandings Castle stories—though never both at the same time—and Psmith, who does the same thing in the stories that bear his name.
Engagements are a common theme in Wodehouse stories. A man may be unable to become engaged to the woman he loves due to some impediment such as poverty, feelings of inferiority, or a relative's objection. Just as often, a protagonist unwillingly or unwittingly gets engaged to a woman he does not love and must find some back-door way out other than breaking it off directly (which goes against a gentleman's code of honour and renders him vulnerable to a lawsuit for breach of promise). The most widely-read case in point is Bertie Wooster's engagement to the objectionable Madeline Bassett in Right Ho, Jeeves, which recurs in several subsequent novels.
Impersonations, and resulting confusion, are particularly common in the Blandings books, but also occur in other works. Often the impersonation is discovered, but the impersonator is able to silence the discoverer by means of bribery or blackmail, as in Leave it to Psmith and Uncle Fred in the Springtime.
Gambling often plays a large role in Wodehouse plots, typically with someone manipulating the outcome of the wager.
Another subject which features strongly in Wodehouse's plots is alcohol, and many plots revolve around the tipsiness of a major character. In The Mating Season, he enumerated what many people consider as the definitive list of hangovers: the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie. Furthermore, he makes several references to a drink called the "May Queen", a described by Uncle Fred as "any good dry champagne, to which is added brandy, armagnac, kümmel, yellow chartreuse, and old stout, to taste", which inspires several characters to acts of daring, such as proposing to their true loves. Sometimes, other psychoactive substances are featured, for instance in Laughing Gas and the short story "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo".
Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing 96 books in his remarkable seventy-three-year long career (1902 to 1975). His works include novels, collections of short stories, and musical comedies. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by "series":
The Blandings Castle stories (later dubbed "the Blandings Castle Saga" by Wodehouse), about the upper class inhabitants of the fictional rural Blandings Castle. Includes the eccentric Lord Emsworth, obsessed by his prize-winning pig, the "Empress of Blandings", and at one point by his equally prize-winning pumpkin ("Hope of Blandings", but, mockingly, "Percy" to Emsworth's unappreciative second son Freddie Threepwood).
The Drones Club stories, about the mishaps of certain members of a raucous social club for London's idle rich. Drones Club stories always involve unnamed club members known as "Eggs", "Beans" and "Crumpets" (after the habit of addressing each other as "old egg", "old bean" or "old crumpet"); in each story, a well-informed Crumpet will endeavour to tell an Egg or Bean of the latest exploits of another Drones Club member, most frequently Freddie Widgeon or Bingo Little. Also featured are a cast of recurrent bit players such as Club millionaire Oofy Prosser.
The Golf and Oldest Member stories. They are built around one of Wodehouse's passions, the sport of golf, which all characters involved consider the only important pursuit in life. The Oldest Member of the golf course clubhouse tells most of them, usually to unwilling listeners who would prefer to be elsewhere.
The Jeeves and Wooster stories, narrated by the wealthy, scatterbrained Bertie Wooster. A number of stories and novels that recount the improbable and unfortunate situations in which he and his friends find themselves and the manner in which his ingenious valet Jeeves is always able to extricate them. Collectively called "the Jeeves stories", or "Jeeves and Wooster", they are Wodehouse's most famous. The Jeeves stories are a valuable compendium of pre–World War II English slang in use. One story, "Bertie Changes His Mind" (originally published in 1922), is narrated by Jeeves instead of by Bertie.
The Mr Mulliner stories, narrated by a genial pub raconteur who can take any topic of conversation and turn it into an involved, implausible story about a member of his family. Most of Mr. Mulliner's stories involve one or another of his innumerable nephews. His listeners are always identified solely by their drinks, e.g., a "Hot Scotch and Lemon" or a "Double Whisky and Splash".
The School stories, which launched Wodehouse's career with their comparative realism. They are often located at the fictional public schools of St. Austin's or Wrykyn.
The Psmith stories, about an ingenious jack-of-all-trades with a charming, exaggeratedly refined manner. The final Psmith story, Leave it to Psmith, overlaps the Blandings stories in that Psmith works for Lord Emsworth, lives for a time at Blandings Castle, and becomes a friend of Freddie Threepwood. Psmith first appeared in the school novel Mike.
The Ukridge stories, about the charming but unprincipled Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, always looking to enlarge his income through the reluctant assistance of his friend in his schemes. Besides the short stories, there is one novel about him: Love Among the Chickens.
The Uncle Fred stories, about the eccentric Earl of Ickenham. Whenever he can escape his wife's chaperonage, he likes to spread what he calls "sweetness and light" and others are likely to call chaos. His escapades, always involving impersonations of some sort, are usually told from the viewpoint of his nephew and reluctant companion Reginald "Pongo" Twistleton. Several times he performs his "art" at Blandings Castle.
The stand-alone stories. Stories which are not part of a series (although they may contain overlapping minor characters), such as Piccadilly Jim, Quick Service, Summer Moonshine, Sam the Sudden, and Laughing Gas.
Almost all of these series overlap: Psmith appears in a "School" story and a Blandings novel; Bertie Wooster is a member of the Drones Club; Uncle Fred and Pongo Twistleton appear in both the Blandings Saga and the Drones club stories; Sir Roderick Glossop, one of Bertie's nemeses, visits Blandings in one story; Bingo Little is a regular character in the Jeeves stories and the Drones Club stories, etc.
Considering the extent of his success, there have been comparatively few adaptations of Wodehouse's works. He was reluctant to allow others to adapt the Jeeves stories:
One great advantage in being a historian to a man like Jeeves is that his mere personality prevents one selling one's artistic soul for gold. In recent years I have had lucrative offers for his services from theatrical managers, motion-picture magnates, the proprietors of one or two widely advertised commodities, and even the editor of the comic supplement of an American newspaper, who wanted him for a "comic strip". But, tempting though the terms were, it only needed Jeeves' deprecating cough and his murmured "I would scarcely advocate it, sir," to put the jack under my better nature. Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book."
Doing his own adaptations for film did not attract him either. He had been retained by MGM in 1930 but little used: "They paid me $2,000 a week... Yet apparently they had the greatest difficulty in finding anything for me to do." He returned to MGM in 1937 to work on the screenplay of Rosalie, but even though he was now being paid $2,500 a week and living luxuriously in Hollywood, he said "I'm not enjoying life much just now. I don't like doing pictures."
However, he formed a warm working relationship with Ian Hay, who adapted A Damsel in Distress as a stage play in 1928, with Hay, Wodehouse and A.A. Milne all investing in the production. Wodehouse and Hay holidayed together in Scotland, finding "a lot of interests in common". Wodehouse went on to help dramatise Hay's story Baa Baa Black Sheep in 1929, and in 1930 they co-wrote the stage version of Leave It to Psmith.
Wodehouse wrote the screenplay for the musical film A Damsel in Distress released in 1937, starring Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Joan Fontaine, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. A 1962 film adaptation of The Girl on the Boat starred Norman Wisdom, Millicent Martin and Richard Briers.
The Blandings, Jeeves, Ukridge and Mulliner stories have all been adapted for television. The Jeeves series has been adapted for television twice, once in the 1960s (by the BBC), with the title The World of Wooster, starring Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster, and Dennis Price as Jeeves, and again in the 1990s (by Granada Television for ITV), with the title Jeeves and Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. David Niven and Arthur Treacher also starred as Bertie and Jeeves, respectively, in a short 1930s film that had the title Thank You, Jeeves!, though neither this nor the sequel, Step Lively, Jeeves, also starring Treacher as Jeeves but without Bertie, bears any relation to a Wodehouse story.
In 1975, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical, originally titled Jeeves. In 1996, it was rewritten as the more successful By Jeeves, which made it to Broadway, and a performance recorded as a video film, also shown on TV.
A version of Heavy Weather was filmed by the BBC in 1995 starring Peter O'Toole as Lord Emsworth and Richard Briers, again, as Lord Emsworth's brother, Galahad Threepwood.
Piccadilly Jim was first filmed in 1919, and again in 1936, starring Robert Montgomery. In 2004, Julian Fellowes wrote another screen adaptation which starred Sam Rockwell, but this version was unsuccessful.
There was also a series of BBC adaptations of various short works, mostly from the Mulliner series, under the title of Wodehouse Playhouse starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins, which aired starting in 1975. The first series was introduced by Wodehouse himself in the last year of his life.
In 2013 the BBC produced Blandings featuring a host of British TV heavyweights such as Jennifer Saunders, Timothy Spall, Mark Williams and David Walliams.