Posts Tagged ‘John Dawson’

John Dawson recently shared with me a few excerpts from his book P. G. Wodehouse’s Early Years: His Life and Work 1881-1908.

The Context

Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856–1934) of Kensington was a comic novelist and playwright who practiced law for a brief period after leaving school. His first published short story was a farce set in ancient Rome called “Accompanied by a Flute.” It ran in the humor magazine Mirth in 1878; a compositor’s error credited “F. Anstey,” the pen name he would use for the rest of his career.

While at Cambridge, Guthrie had begun an ingenious novel of a father and son switching bodies that he called Vice Versa, or A Lesson to Fathers. When finally published in 1882, it became an overnight sensation. Graphic: “A touch of the romance of Arabian Nights, some of the peculiar whimsicalities of Gilbert, a humour akin to Dickens, and an insight into modern school boy life as deep as that of Hughes or Farrar. A writer with a personality and a bright, clever style.”

Novelist Andrew Lang introduced Guthrie to the editor of Punch, F. C. Burnand. The result was “Voces Populi,” a series of sketches of Brits at work and play that were, according to Brander Matthews of Cosmopolitan: “Photographic in their accuracy. Anstey has caught the cockney in the very act of cockneyism, but wholly without bitterness or rancor. He knows his roughs, his ruffians, his housemaids, his travellers. He sees their weakness, but he is tolerant and does not dislike them in his heart”— another description that could have fit the work of Wodehouse.

In 1958 Plum told his biographer Richard Usborne that he was “soaked in Anstey’s stuff.” He had been for a long time; fifty-three years earlier, as he compiled notes for “Sunshine and Chickens,” (published in 1906 as Love Among the Chickens) he wrote: “Cook as old soldier like a man in Anstey’s Fallen Idol [1886] always grumbling and vaguely indignant with other people when he does anything wrong.” (Phrases, Notes Etc.) The character did not make it into the book.

From Wodehouse’s The White Feather of 1907: “In stories, as Mr. Anstey has pointed out, the hero is never long without his chance of retrieving his reputation,” which is the main theme of the story.

Enter Baboo Jabberjee

Guthrie’s most notable imprint on Wodehouse’s work comes from the pages of Baboo Jabberjee, B.A., published in 1897. Murphy: “At the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of young Indians came to London to read law, which led F. Anstey to write a series of essays for Punch in the 1890s, supposedly written by one of them. They became the rage and the whole country quoted Mr. ‘Baboo’ Jabberjee, a pompous young Indian law student, who wrote weekly letters to ‘Hon’ble Punch,’ describing his experiences as a visitor to England. His style of speech was orotund eighteenth century Augustan English, and ten words were used when one would do, mixed in with Shakespearean misquotations.” Indeed—in the first installment, Baboo introduces himself to the editors: “Since my sojourn here, I have accomplished the laborious perusal of your transcendent and tip-top periodical, and hoity toity! I am like a duck in thunder with admiring wonderment at the drollishness and jocosity with which your paper is ready to burst.

Plum’s first quotes from the garrulous Indian appear in “The Manoeuvres of Charteris” and in book form in A Prefect’s Uncle: “The Bishop, like Mr. Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee, B.A., became at once the silent tomb.” The silent t. wheeze is one well known to Wodehouse’s readers.

It might have brought a smile of satisfaction to Wodehouse in May 1906 when Ernest Foster, then editor of Chums, the constant companion of his boyhood, commissioned him to write a “not so public-schooly serial with rather a lurid plot.” He turned to Bill Townend for ideas, and under the alias Basil Windham the pair collaborated on a serial novel “full of kidnappings, attempted murders, etc.” called The Luck Stone. It had a long gestation; serialization wasn’t begun until September 1908. Plum referred to the story in a 1911 letter to L. H. Bradshaw as “in the Andrew Home vein.” The formulaic page-turner might best be described to Americans of a certain age as a British version of a Hardy Boys adventure. ‘Basil Windham’ lifted Baboo’s rem acu tetigisti (Lt., you have touched the matter with a needle) which Anstey had cribbed from the Roman playwright Plautus, and mens sana in corpore sano (Lt., a sound mind in a sound body) courtesy of Juvenal; both phrases are well known to Wodehouse’s readers. The authors created a delightful Baboo clone with the Indian student Ram:

Misters and fellow-sufferers permit me to offer a few obiter dicta on unhappy situation in re lamentable foodstuffs supplied to poor schoolboy. For how without food, even if that food be the unappetising and a bit off, shall we support life and not pop off mortal coil, as Hon’ble Shakespeare says? ’Tis better, misters, as Hon’ble Shakespeare also says, to bear with the snip-snaps we know of than fly to others which may prove but a jumping from frying-pan into fire. Half a loaf is better than an entire nullity of the staff of life. (Abridged from original text)

Plum deprived English literature of what would surely have been a comic masterpiece by not letting his readers in on Ram’s recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy: “Even in its original form this is admitted by most people to be a pretty good piece of writing, and Ram improved on the original. He happened to forget the exact words half-way through, and, scorning to retire gracefully, as a lesser man might have done, he improvised.”

Usborne detected Baboo’s influence in the speech patterns of three of Wodehouse’s most famous characters: “Take your line through Ram, into Psmith the buzzer, Bertie the burbler and Jeeves the orotund, and you may feel inclined to pay a passing tribute to F. Anstey for planting a seed in the rich soil of young Wodehouse’s burgeoning mind. Jabberjee was powerfully seminal to Psmith. Some of his false concords [disagreement of relative and antecedent, misgovernment of pronouns, mistaking the adverb for the adjective, etc.] are repeated verbatim by Bertie Wooster, and some of his inflated phraseology goes into Jeeves’s vocabulary. It was Jabberjee, not Bertie, who first misunderstood Shakespeare’s “an eye like Ma’s to threaten and command.” (“An eye like Mars, from Hamlet)

Chapter 10 of the book, entitled “A Booky Sort of Person,” discusses Wodehouse’s early reading habits and literary influences.

For all Plum enthusiasts, the book is a treasure trove!

(Permission to reproduce these excerpts on this blog site is gratefully appreciated).     


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Fans of P G Wodehouse are of various kinds.

There are those who enjoy an occasional saunter down some of Plumsville’s streets which boast of trees laden with luscious low hanging fruits of sublime humour.

There are also those who decide to spend some time on the banks of Plumsville’s merry rivulets and experience their gentle murmur while delving into one of Plum’s juicy narratives.

Then there are fans who happen to be intellectual coves. They believe that such sunlit humour deserves to be subjected to a pitiless analysis. One cannot rest content with merely basking in it, soaking in the unique warmth it offers, and moving on. One needs to delve deeper, discover the gems of wisdom hidden therein, and share the same with unsuspecting fans.

John Dawson happens to be one of them. His name needs no introduction. Erudite scholarship at its very best. Madam Eulalie, of which he is one of the Principals, is a website which strives to deliver deeper satisfaction to Plum’s ardent fans.

Here is a guest post from him, which carries a small slice of annotations of ‘Laughing Gas.’




requiring careful treatment; awkwardly difficult or unfortunate, unpleasant, nasty [1910-15]

P.E.N. Club

association of writers in founded London in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers; “Poets, Essayists and Novelists;” Its first members included Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. Not to be confused with PGW’s fictional Pen and Ink Club of London, to which his female novelists Julia Ukridge, Leila Yorke, and Rosie M. Banks belonged.

Bicarbonate of soda

sodium bicarbonate; used as an antacid [1880-85]


to appraise, verify, or check for accuracy [1860-65]


(d) to bungle or play clumsily [1825-35]

(my) tee shot

opening drive in golf

Anecdote about Scotsmen, Irishmen and Jews

Nineteenth and early twentieth century ethnic humor generally depicted Scotsmen as stubborn, Irishmen as drunks, and Jews as cheap; In a typical joke, two or three of them would be faced with a common situation and react according to stereotype. In Right Ho, Jeeves from 1934, Bertie relates a similar experience: I remember once detaining a dentist with the drill at one of my lower bicuspids and holding him up for nearly ten minutes with a story about a Scotchman, an Irishman, and a Jew.

Drones (Club)

PGW’s fictional young gentlemen’s club in Dover Street, Mayfair, which Wodehouse based on Buck’s Club at 18 Clifford Street in London; the origin of the name lies in a speech made by Joseph Chamberlain in the 1880s. Chamberlain, a renowned orator, in attacking the House of Lords, declared them to be ‘drones of the hive.” The phrase stuck in the public and (Wodehouse’s) consciousness. [NM] Geoffrey Jaggard estimates 173 Drones Club members, of which fifty-three are named in the course of the books and stories, including its most prominent member, Bertie Wooster

smoking room

a room set apart for smoking in a hotel or clubhouse [1680-90]


persons who have superior knowledge and understanding of a particular field, esp. in fine arts, literature, and fashion; from Lt. conoscere, to know [1770-80]

Right ho

Br. used to express understanding or assent [1895-1900]


Br. slang, Odd, peculiar; also rum [1820-30] Swift speaks of ‘a rabble of tenants and rusty dull rums’ (country parsons). As these “rusty dull rums” were old-fashioned and quaint, a “rum fellow” came to signify one as odd as a “rusty dull rum.”

National Geographic Magazine

illustrated monthly journal of the National Geographic Society, begun in 1888 and known for its colorful photojournalism

Bilge (water)

Foolish, worthless or offensive talk or ideas; nonsense [1700-10]


a morally reprehensible person; a bounder Br. Au. Slang; an annoying person, esp. a naughty child Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher? Code of the Woosters, 1938


Located in the northwestern part of Los Angeles, center of the American motion picture industry:

Joey Cooley

Wodehouse liked retaining the initial letters and rhythm of original names for his fictional characters; Norman Murphy writes that Joey is based on Jackie Coogan (1914-84) who became world-famous at the age of six when he played opposite Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1920). But in 1934-35, when PGW wrote the prototype novelette for Laughing Gas, Coogan was no longer a child star — indeed, in 1937, her married Betty Grable. I think Joey is actually based on Jackie Cooper, born in 1922, who appeared in the early “Our Gang” shorts and emerged as a major child star in 1931 with “Skippy.” Wodehouse named the character Joey Cooley, but in the 1935 novelette of the same title, he’s Tommy Flower.

Idol of American Motherhood

PGW’s take on the sobriquets assigned by studios and fan magazines to movie stars; In Wodehouse’s short story The Nodder from 1933, child star Little Johnny Bingley — actually a 40-year old midget – is referred to as “The Idol of American Motherhood” and “The Child With the Tear Behind the Smile.”

Reggie Havershot

Outside of the physical description, background, and presence of Jeeves, Wodehouse has entirely appropriated his Bertie Wooster character to use as Reggie. There are dozens of points of similarity, from the way Reggie thinks and talks (in the otherwise-rare first person) to his quotations, his fractured and inane metaphors and similes, his self-deprecation/braggadocio, his appropriation of Bertie’s signature Gothic-Victorian musings: Hideous privations – A sort of hideous tenseness – Sheer horror – I reeled again – Hideous errand – I stood aghast – my blood froze – my soul recoiled in horror – Icy horror – hideous truth — a cold hand seemed to clutch my vitals – A fate. . . worse than death, and so on. Those familiar with the Bertie/Jeeves books and stories will immediately see that Reggie is cloned from Bertie — in a way that may be discomfiting to fans. In my opinion, Wodehouse, in adapting and expanding the original novelette, had to add material and more “personality” to Reggie, and chose Bertie as a convenient source. At any rate, almost the entirety of Reggie’s sentences and thoughts could be interpolated into a Bertie/Jeeves story and be entirely congruent to the Wooster character. If one had never read the Wooster/Jeeves output, Reggie would be an original, charming character — but since Wodehousians know and love Bertie, his appearance in someone else’s skin may leave some fans discombobulated.

Hark(ing) back

return to a previous subject or point; foxhunting, to return to a course for the hounds to regain the scent [1175-1225]

buckling down

setting to work with vigor and concentration [1300-1350]

Third Earl of Havershot

An Earl is a member of the British peerage, ranking below a marquess and above a viscount; an Earl has the title “Earl of” when the title originates from a place name; Havershot is fictional; but given Wodehouse’s propensity for using bits and pieces of real English towns for his own fictional names and places, it may be likely a compound of Havant (next door to Emsworth) and Aldershot, where public schools boxing competitions were held.


to catch, nab; to steal or filch; [1695-1705] the

. . . title

the Earldom

Hundred-to-eight shot

Gambling term indicating a chance of eight in one hundred to win; a long shot

Field was full of seasoned performers

Refers to other family members higher in succession order to the title; seasoned performer is usually used to describe a mature actor, actress, or athlete or someone who has long experience in his or her chosen field

Who could give me a couple of stone

boxing, refers to a heavier, larger opponent who would ostensibly be favored in a match. A stone is equivalent to fourteen pounds or 6.4 kg.

Uncles call it a day and hand in their spades and buckets

We try to take off the tension of death with a lighter cliché: “kicked the bucket,” “cashed in his chips,” and in a common Wodehouse usage, “handed in his dinner pail.” “I’m taking my spade and bucket and going home” is a pout spoken by a child playing at the seashore who feels he or she is no longer wanted. Although today the word order is usually reversed to “buckets and spades,” Wodehouse’s use was common in the late nineteenth century. He had used it in the 1928 story Fixing it for Freddie

Boxing Blue at Cambridge

A competitor who has represented Cambridge is permitted to wear a light blue blazer and an Oxford athlete a dark blue one. To earn a Blue, one has to have participated in an Oxford vs. Cambridge Varsity match. To be a boxing blue for either of these universities is a great honor.



Bill(s) of replevin

a court order for the purpose of recovering property in the wrongful possession of others

Give(ing) (me) the eye

To look fixedly at

(Isn’t it a) scream

something that is hilariously funny [1905-10]

Noblesse oblige

Lt., Nobility obliges; the moral obligation of those of high birth or powerful social position to act with honor, kindness, generosity, etc. “Nobility has its obligations” [1830-40]


The act of asking someone for money as a loan or gift

Collateral branches

Relatives descended from the same stock, but in a different line; not lineal; cousins, in-laws, etc

dip into the till

to help oneself to cash from a drawer, box or the like, as in a shop or bank, in which money or valuables are kept [1425-75]

Notice of Distraint

a legal filing to be served upon one in possession of assets belonging to a third party; a “padlock” or retainer action.

Tut-tut (ed)

Be still; hush; an exclamation used for checking or rebuking.

Tut, never fear me: I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream; Tut, tut, thou art all ice, thy kindness freezeth


Grew to Man’s estate

attained majority; reached a required age to inherit property and assume legal responsibilities

When I am grown to man’s estate, I shall be very proud and great, And tell the other girls and boys Not to meddle with my toys.

R L Stevenson in “A Child’s Garden of Verses”

London W. 1

London’s most fashionable district, encompassing Mayfair


drunkard [1915-20]

Bull-dog spirit

Stubborn and persistent; tenacious, ready to fight for one’s beliefs or wants [1490-1500]

If therefore that it is possible that the abolition of prize fighting may be prejudicial to that sort of bull-dog spirit of an Englishman, which is to be found in no other nation, we should pause before we attempt to effect it

Sporting Magazine, London 1823

Boat Race night

Gentlemen. If you ever find yourself in England on Boat Race night there are some things which it is absolutely necessary that you understand, if you mean to survive. Boat Race night is that night of nights when Oxford rows against Cambridge. What is important is the adherence to certain cultural protocols. For example, you must be well dressed. If your tailor is anything other than special you may as well not annoy the ancient day with your presence. Once you have succeeded in adding to the beauty of the landscape, you must find yourself a couple of equally well dressed chaps and plunge out in search of one of those most blessed merchants who deal strictly in the wines and spirits. You must be merry. However, there is a line you must not cross. Yes, you must be somewhat floating in potent fluid, but you cannot impair your mental or physical abilities. You need to be able to walk, and more importantly . . . run. Now remember, this is still before the actual race. You will have ample time to imbibe after the race as well, so pace yourselves. If you drink too much before, then you will have to turn down drinks afterward. I recommend drinking to that perfect equilibrium, where one decides to eschew the consequences and knuckle down to spreading sweetness and light. You now attend the race. Yell and holler until your throat needs a second moistening, and then unaware of the victor, return to the beverages. It is important that you have removed all means of identification from your person before this phase. It is also crucial that you not be arrested for disturbing the peace just yet, as you will be called upon by others to enact the most ancient and honored tradition the island kingdom has to offer. You will be told to pinch a policeman’s helmet. Now some might have ethical qualms about such a deed. Put these aside, if the alcohol has not already done it for you, and move on like a man. If policemen didn’t want their helmets stolen, then why, I ask you, would they wear them on Boat Race night? Approach the policeman from the rear. You will of course have to rob whatever policeman the boys have selected but remember that the bigger he is the slower he probably is. The smallish ones can be a bit tricky because they are generally able to run one down after the removal of the helmet. Do your best to disappear. This of course means that you must stop laughing. After assuming a position to the rear of your quarry,, remember above all things not to simply grab the helmet and pull straight back. In such a case the policeman comes with it. One must always pinch the helmet and never the policeman. As for the helmet, when successfully purloined, it will be an heirloom of your family’s for generations to come. So remember, thrust forward on the helmet first, for this disengages the strap from the chin, and then pull back. At this point you run away. But as is normally the case, you will more likely find yourself in a cell for the rest of the night and standing before the local magistrate in the morning. When in the courtroom remember what name you gave the constable when you checked into the facilities the night before. I suggest that you have a name in readiness before the day begins so you are less likely to make one up off the cuff and forget it in the morning. You must now plead guilty as charged and settle for whatever the magistrate imposes. Some will settle for a mere reprimand which is quite reasonable for a night’s entertainment, accommodation, and breakfast in the morning. A most unreasonable fellow will send you up the river for three days, or soak you for five pounds. Upon exiting the courtroom, you are a free man. You may return from whence you came with one Boat Race beneath your belt. Stand tall.

Nathan Wilson

Bonneting (policemen)

To pull or crush a person’s hat over their eyes, thus temporarily blinding them [1900-30’s]

Throwing soft-boiled eggs at the electric fan

Sport engaged in by the more inebriated Drones Club members and others on celebratory occasions; I believe the first appearance to be in Wodehouse’s 1916 Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest.

I have one friend, a most intelligent chap that writes sober, scientific books, and he’s always aching to throw an egg into an electric fan to see what will happen.

Jack London, The Valley of the Moon 1917

Harley Street

Just north of Oxford Street, the home of London’s most prestigious doctors for over a century [NM] home to Sir Roderick Glossop in Thank You, Jeeves, and to E. Jimpson Murgatroyd in Full Moon and Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen


Chiefly Br. Wireless telegraphy [1890-95]

Drinking like the stag at eve

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) The Lady of the Lake: The stag at eve had drunk his fill, etc. Wodehouse uses it in The Story of Webster and The Old Reliable, among others


(s) something or someone wonderful; an excellent or remarkable thing; Br. slang Used to describe an exceptionally attractive young woman.


Br. slang; a person, usually one who is odd or has some peculiarity


Chiefly Br. Euphemism for damned [1790-1800] arose from the printers’ convention of rendering “damned” with dashes as “d—d”


causing great horror; repugnant; distressing; reverence: a feeling attitude of deep respect tinged with awe

High priest sicking the young chief

misprint/error for “siccing.” Probably inspired by a boy’s adventure story Wodehouse read at school. I haven’t been able to find an exact attribution. Ancient Aztec and Indian literature both could be sources as well, but more likely Wodehouse remembered the Kiplingesque adventure tales from his youth.

Butt(ing) in

to meddle in the affairs of others

Put a stopper on

finish up, cause to end; as in corking a bottle


Fr. love affair

Live and let live

to tolerate other people’s actions and expect them to tolerate one’s own; “They thought differently about most things but worked together on a principle of live and let live” Dutch proverb, one of many versions of the theme


joined together or united [1515-25]. Br. slang, Married

Twentieth Century Limited

express passenger train operated by the New York Central Railroad 1902-1967, it became one of the most famous trains in the world; Known for its style as well as for its speed, passengers walked to and from the train on a plush, crimson carpet which was rolled out in New York and Chicago, thus the “red carpet treatment” was born.

Heavyweight championship of the world

Coincidentally, on June 22, 1937, Joe Louis defeated James J. Braddock in Chicago to win the heavyweight championship. In Over Seventy Wodehouse wrote: This yearning I had to visit America. . . was due principally, I think, to the fact that I was an enthusiastic amateur boxer in those days and had a boyish reverence for America’s pugilists — James J. Corbett, James J. Jeffries, Tom Sharkey, Kid McCoy and the rest of them. I particularly wanted to meet Corbett and shake the hand that had kayoed John L. Sullivan.”


An accompaniment or garnish to the main dish [1510-1520] Reggie is referring to the money and property he inherited

Easy Street

A state of wealth, financial independence, or ease [1900-05]; also the title of a 1917 Charlie Chaplin movie

He determined to wait until the memory of his crime was forgotten, and then he would return, uncache his wealth, and live on Easy Street for the remainder of his days.

Bret Harte, Overland Monthly 1868

Application for soccage (socage) in fief

pro. SOAK-age; During the feudal period a person might hold land of a lord by knight service, which meant that he owed a certain number of days in service to his lord for the privilege of living on and cultivating it. But as the modern state arose, the concept of knight service waned and socage arose to fill in the gap. It entails the payment of a sort of annual tax to live on the land.

Heir apparent

an heir whose right is indefeasible provided he or she survives the ancestor [1325-75]

(Your) heart(s) rule your head(s)

To let impulse, esp. in romance, outweigh practicality. Origin unclear, very old.

“I suppose an affair of the heart to be such a situation of the feelings that the heart rules the head. The prime essence of love is that it should be complete, making no reservations and of allowing no checks from the reason.”

Doctor Claudius, 1883, Francis Marion Crawford.

Verbum sapienti satis

Lt. proverb “A word to the wise is sufficient.”


Legend has it that the detachable collar was invented in 1827 by a housewife who was having difficulties with her husband’s “ring-around-the-collar.” The most popular style of collar in 1900 was the “high-band,” a turndown collar with a height of from 2 to 3 inches that encased the whole neck in a smooth glossy cylinder of starched linen. Uncomfortable as these are, they made up over 60% of the collar trade in the summer of 1900. Hard collars continued to be popular through WW I, but the comfortable soft collared shirts worn in the trenches permanently impressed their wearers, so through the twenties the public slowly went back to spread collars, and discarded the detachables. By the 1930’s the hard collar was only the preserve of older men and conservative dressers, except for the wing collar for formal and evening wear.

Observation car

A railroad passenger car having a lounge or platform from which the passing scenery can be viewed. [1870-75]


Known as sixpence; American equivalent in 1936 would be about thirty cents.

(Permission to use this material is gratefully acknowledged.

In case you are tempted to savour more of such juicy stuff, please check out the Eulalie website: http://www.madameulalie.org/annots/pgwbooks/pgwlg1.html.)


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