Friday, March 08, 2013

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The news that Sebastian Faulks is to take on the mantle of PG Wodehouse and write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel 40 years after the last, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, has had a largely negative reception, many ardent Wodehouseans fearing that he won’t be able to pull it off.

In a piece in The Times this morning, I tried to be more encouraging. Faulks, after all, understands the canon, as demonstrated in this piece two years ago, and is unlikely to be guilty of trying too hard.

As I mischievously suggested, perhaps Faulks will really horrify the traditionalists by modernising the Jeeves format, having the valet rescuing Bertie from a gay marriage to Gussie Fink-Nottle, at which the Reverend Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng was due to conduct the ceremony. I suspect not.

But can he conjure the wit, seemingly effortless yet laden with historical and literary references, of Wodehouse that proves so charming? There is a wonderful website that allows you, by refreshing the page, to read a selection of randomly chosen Wodehouse quotes.

To take the first three that came up just now:
  • “Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.”
  • “Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma Gandhi sits down to a good juicy steak and follows it up with a roly-poly pudding and a spot of stilton, you will see the end of all this nonsense of Civil Disobedience.”
And, my favourite:
  • “Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”
Good luck matching that, Sebastian.

He is not the first man to try to replicate Wodehouse, though he is the first to have an official imprimatur. Eileen McIlvaine’s Wodehouse: A Comprehensive Bibliography records 29 “imitations, parodies and other flights of fancy”.

My colleague, Simon Barnes, wrote a Wodehouse-style short story called How’s That, Jeeves? for a collection of cricket-themed parodies called A La Recherche Du Cricket Perdu, in which Bertie is a county captain, Jeeves his dressing-room attendant and Madeleine Bassett a telephonist.

In 1979, four years after Wodehouse’s death, Northcote Parkinson, a naval historian, wrote a fictional life of Jeeves, called A Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman (he had done the same a few years earlier for Horatio Hornblower), while Peter Cannon, in a rather slim volume of three short stories called Scream for Jeeves, attempted rather surprisingly to marry the styles of Wodehouse and H.P. Lovecraft.

There is also a pastiche by Barry Tighe that fits into the tries-too-hard category called Gieves to the Fore (he had to tweak the names under legal warning, so Gieves attends on Bartie Wooster and his rival, Spade).

The most interesting Wodehouse tribute, though, can be found in a fabulous study published last year of Wodehouse’s influence on the theatre, called Second Row, Grand Circle, by Tony Ring.

In it, Ring has discovered that Thornton Wilder, the American winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, started upon a stage play called Homage to P. G. Wodehouse, in 1938 but never completed it.

Manuscripts found in the Thornton Wilder Papers at Yale University reveal two drafts of scenes that refer to Freddie Threepwood, heir to the Blandings empire, his manservant Jeeves (on secondment from Wooster?), an Aunt Augusta, the Drones club and some missing jewels.

It sounds fascinating, but Wilder maybe did not feel up to the challenge of echoing the Master and ended the project. Does Faulks know what he has let himself in for?

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