[Book Review published in ‘Wooster Sauce’ – September 2019]
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse – Volume 1: ‘This is jolly old Fame’ by Paul Kent
In his first of three salubrious slabs exploring how PGW developed what a mid-1920s New York Times reviewer called “The P. G. Wodehouse manner”, Paul Kent leaves no s. un’t’d. Fastidious in research but never finicky in delivery, he soon overtakes the obvious observations of whimsy, nostalgia, and escapism to boldly go where no biographer has gone before.
Of his knowledge and meticulous research there can be no doubt as Mr Kent promises to “always enhance and never explain” the passage of PGW’s work from stage to page. As a reader, I felt like a trusted participant on this journey, and with such forensic analysis of Plum’s writing provenance, this book deserves our time and attention. As I chaise-longued my way through the initial pages of this ambitious and impressive opener in a series of three books scrupulously entitled Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, any reservations I had as to why I might invest time in more than 270 pages were soon dismissed as the author confirmed and thanked his illustrious predecessors who had already researched, reported, and rejoiced in the mastermind of Wodehouse, clearing the runway for Kent’s own takeoff. Indeed, if I had had to take another trundle through the school stories and the hack work at the Globe progressing into musical comedy, while laughing along at ludic lines I love, it might all have felt . . . well, frankly . . . a bit overdone. Thankfully, Kent never takes us there. Instead, he freshly fillets the career of our Old Alleynian hero into digestible slices of mouth-watering content, exploring, among other things, how fans range from the Queen Mum to Lemmy of Motörhead.
Kent’s quest to find out how any given PGW story is greater than the sum of its parts focuses on the origins and development of Wodehouse’s writing style. While other seasoned chroniclers typically point to an absence of parental love and the obvious disappointment at not following his brother Armine to Oxford, Kent disagrees that this affected Plum’s art. Rather, he asserts that writing was cathartic for Wodehouse and therefore did not represent an unburdening, pointing out in a straightforward way:
“It was the working out of his creative compulsion, not the working through of his personal problems.” Plum himself put the matter beyond doubt, driving the point home in a letter to Bill Townend in 1945: “Do you find your private life affects your work? I don’t.”
Having been given access to Sir Edward Cazalet’s personal archive, Kent slides open a sash window, blowing fresh perspective into those stuffy establishment rooms full of recycled opinion. For example, I was surprised and saddened to learn that Plum endured inapt snobbery throughout his professional life. How could such a popular and successful writer, who outsold so many of his contemporaries, have been so neglected by the establishment? How could his honorary D.Litt have proved controversial? The further I read on, the more upright I sat, perturbed atPlum’s remarks from that time: “I have always been alive to the fact that I am not one of the really big shots.”
Luckily, Kent is on hand to help us process why such appalling English snobbery was directed at such an appealing English writer. He points out that comedy is considered subversive, and it is this central irony, he argues, that accounts for why Plum never quite made it onto literature’s top table.
Even being a bestselling author was never enough as he was afforded only “grudging credit for [his] awareness of literary theory”. With a heavy heart I pulled out my own copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 18th edition, to confirm a mere six quotes compared to twelve from Kafka. How can literary criticism have failed Wodehouse so? Kent coughs, reminding us dutifully that “comedy needs to station itself behind the red velvet rope and mind its own business”.
Throughout this volume we are in safe hands as our tour guide shows us how Wodehouse’s lightness of language and lyrics came about, working its magic to build the cathedral of his genius. As Paul comments concisely: “Wodehouse carried the torch for happiness and entertainment.” He didn’t want his audience to need a reason to laugh or feel guilty; he simply wanted to entertain.
But should this book be devoured in one go or consumed in small bites as modern life always seems to dictate nowadays? The answer is…both! Mr Kent’s easy narrative flows as he ferries his reader through the fons et origo and across the vast plane of Plum’s early working life. Absorbing the fresh scrutiny into Wodehouse’s characters, I learned so much – about, for instance, Psmith, “an über Charteris” who makes his debut in The Lost Lambs in 1908 and then allows Wodehouse to move on and “hoof it over the school wall and charge off into the outside world”.
Pulling off the delicate operation of dissecting Plum’s work to show how his writing endured beyond literary fashion and history is no easy task, but Paul does it masterfully. With relentless marmalading of facts spread thickly across page after page, Paul reveals gems such as Plum’s epochal trip to the Crystal Palace Theatre in 1895 to see Patience by Gilbert & Sullivan, watermarking his work for the rest of his life; the disclosure that Wooster/Jeeves and Blandings, combined, contributed to only one-fifth of PGW’s output; and the plummiest understatement of all: “Any chump could make a living as an author.” With all this and more, ‘This is jolly old Fame’ provides endless insightful nourishment.
As Paul points out, Plum spent a lifetime perfecting the energy and rhythm of his magical prose for one purpose only: to entertain his public. Fascinated with the craft of writing, he understood how stories worked in the mind of his readers, and just as Wodehouse wrote for the man in the street, so this first instalment of Paul’s three-volume work offers plenty for the devotee as well as the curious punter. If you would like to discover how P G Wodehouse earned all the superlatives showered upon him, then join Paul Kent’s tour around Wodehouse Manor.