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Posts Tagged ‘Catherine the Great’

THE RUSSIAN HISTORY

The Pre-Wodehousean History of Russia

Wodehouse’s references to the period of Russian history before his birth concern only two historic characters: Catherine, Empress of Russia (don’t confuse with the Empress of Blandings), and Napoleon. In the case of the latter, I have restricted myself to references to Napoleon during his Moscow campaign. Napoleon at Waterloo, also several times mentioned by Wodehouse, is not relevant to this investigation, but to ignore Napoleon near Moscow? It can’t be allowed!…

Catherine of Russia is mentioned only in five novels, only for describing women who are large and/or have commanding personalities. (The Small Bachelor; Spring Fever; Money for Nothing; Doctor Sally; and Ice in the Bedroom). Wodehouse doesn’t directly provide a portrait of Catherine, but according to his description of Mrs Waddington (The Small Bachelor, ch2), with whom she is twice compared in chapter 1, we may deduce that Catherine was a strong woman; not tall, but one who bulged so generously in every possible direction that, when seen for the first time, she gave the impression of enormous size.

However, in chapter 4 of Spring Fever, Wodehouse reports that Lady Adela Topping, though built rather on the lines of Catherine of Russia, is, by contrast to Mrs W, tall and handsome. He adds that Lady Adela also resembles the Russian Empress in force of character and that imperiousness of outlook which makes a woman disinclined to stand any nonsense. This information is confirmed in Money for Nothing, ch4, where Wodehouse explaines to his reader that Catherine, like Cleopatra, was definitely not a slim, slight girl with a tip-tilted nose. So it is understandable that a woman of this sort – as well as dozens of the world’s most wonderful women, such as Queen Elizabeth I or the already-mentioned Cleopatra – would be out of place in William Bannister’s remote country-seat at Woollam Chersey (Good Morning, Bill and Doctor Sally, ch3). In other words, despite many excellent qualities, Catherine of Russia was not everybody’s girl.

Wodehouse tells us nothing more concrete about the excellent qualities of the Russian Empress, but we can see that during a thirty-year period his attitude to Catherine the Great had changed. While Mrs Waddington (1927) is not only voluminous, but absolutely unpleasant, his description of Leila York (1961) in Ice in the Bedroom, ch4, as a large, hearty-looking woman in her early forties, built up on the lines of Catherine of Russia, is much more sympathetic.

The other historical character from nineteenth-century Russia who enjoyed a voluminous press from Wodehouse was Napoleon. Wodehouse used the image of Napoleon retreating from Moscow to describe characters who had suffered complete fiascos in his novels. There are numerous examples, such as Bill Hardy (Company For Henry, ch7), Lancelot Mulliner (‘Came the Dawn’ from Meet Mr Mulliner), Gordon ‘Oily’ Carlisle (Cocktail Time, ch13), Mr Duff and Mr Steptoe (Quick Service, ch10), Sidney Price, Tom Blake and Rev. Mr Hatton (Not George Washington ch18), and even some of the ladies – Bill Shannon (The Old, Reliable, ch3) and the minor character Connie (not Lord Emsworth’s sister Constance!) in ‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ from Young Men in Spats. All of them are depicted as looking likes Napoleon coming back from Moscow. The example from Quick Service will be sufficient to give you the idea:

‘In the aspect of the two men, as they shambled through the French windows, was a crushed defeatism which would have reminded Napoleon, had he been present, of the old days at Moscow’.

And the aspect of other members of Wodehouse’s cast can be even worse. In ’Helping Freddie’ from My Man Jeeves, narrator Reggie Pepper reportes:

‘Taking Tootles by the hand, I walked slowly away. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow was a picnic by the side of it’.

In Jill the Reckless, ch2, there is a moving description of a cab drive which Jill Mariner, Freddie Rooke, Derek Underhill, and his mother Lady Underhill take in silence after dinner at Freddie Rooke’s which suggests that Napoleon was having a holiday stroll.

By the way, Ukridge, because of his indomitable, but absolutely non-corroborated adventurism, is twice compared to the retreating Napoleon – in ’The Debut of Battling Billson’ and in The Love Among the Chickens, ch23.

Some of Wodehouse’s allusions help us to imagine Napoleon’s state at Moscow. From The Girl in Blue, ch12, we learn that Napoleon made no secret of the fact that he did not enjoy his Moscow experience, just like Jerry West, who goes through the same sort of thing at Mellingham Hall, Mellingham-in-the-Vale. Had Napoleon been asked how he had managed to get out of Moscow, Wodehouse suggests he would have been a bit vague about it, as is Bertie Wooster after his unsuccessful attempt to persuade Ma McCorkadale to vote against herself in Much Obliged, jeeves, ch18. And even if the name of Napoleon is sometimes not mentioned directly, we understand perfectly who is being referred to by the demeanour of the character involved (The Little Nugget, ch 20; Mike, ch25).

Finally, it should be noted that Wodehouse selected Jeremy Garnet in Love Among the Chickens, ch16, and the stage doorman Mac in Summer Lightning, ch2, as role models to explain to us the virtue of tact. Garnet does not venture to break in on Ukridge’s thoughts, just as if he, Garnet, had been a general in the Grand Army, he would not have struck up a conversation with Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow. By contrast, Mac is held up as someone who, despite many admirable qualities, would still have tried to cheer Napoleon up by talking about Winter Sports at Moscow.

Masha Lebedeva

Masha Lebedeva infests the environs of Moscow and suffers from the delectable affliction of Wodesousitis since 1992 or so. She is a member of both the UK Wodehouse Society and The Wodehouse Society (USA). She has written essays on Wodehouse, undertaken themed tours and has even attended as many as 4 TWS Conventions so far, hobnobbing with Plum fans on both sides of the Atlantic. With the help of The Russian Wodehouse Society (TRWS), she has organized an Old Home Week in Moscow.

The excrept you read here is a part of her scholarly research on all things Russian in the Wodehouse canon, titled ‘The Russian Salad’. The series covers the following facets: Russian Culture, Russian History and Russian Spirit. Its Russian version of her work has earlier appeared on the TRWS website; the English version having been serialized in Wooster Sauce, with huge help of accomplished Wodehouseans from different parts of the world.

Her permission to reproduce her work here is gratefully acknowledged.

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https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2021/05/16/p-g-wodehouses-russian-salad-masha-lebedeva-part-1

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