Posts Tagged ‘Napoleon’


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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Napoleon, had he been around in our times, would have been amused upon discovering the high level of influence he exerts over the residents of Plumsville. Much like a spiritual sun which shines with equal benevolence on all, his leadership traits and planning skills provide inspiration to almost all the characters we come across in the narratives dished out by Plum. Even in defeat and disorderly retreat, he does not fail to provide succour to a tormented soul. His soft power extends to a wide variety of situations and continues to enthuse many amongst us.

When it comes to handling a difficult task, Napoleon provides the inspiration. With him around, failure is not an option. When irate nerve specialists have to be confronted, his skills in planning wars come in handy.

Members of the so-called sterner sex shudder at the prospect of being expected to carve out a Napoleonic career…

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Napoleon, had he been around in our times, would have been amused upon discovering the high level of influence he exerts over the residents of Plumsville. Much like a spiritual sun which shines with equal benevolence on all, his leadership traits and planning skills provide inspiration to almost all the characters we come across in the narratives dished out by Plum. Even in defeat and disorderly retreat, he does not fail to provide succour to a tormented soul. His soft power extends to a wide variety of situations and continues to enthuse many amongst us.

When it comes to handling a difficult task, Napoleon provides the inspiration. With him around, failure is not an option. When irate nerve specialists have to be confronted, his skills in planning wars come in handy.

Members of the so-called sterner sex shudder at the prospect of being expected to carve out a Napoleonic career for themselves so as to earn the respect of the delicately nurtured in their lives. Overbearing sisters get labelled as persons who could dominate even the likes of Napoleon.

When a goofy plan is laid bare, it gets listened to with the same reverence with which Napoleon was heard by his humble adherents.  When impelled by a youthful and hypnotic Napoleon, one meekly accepts a course of action which one does not really approve of oneself.

A confident and resourceful person often commands the reluctant respect of a woman, much like Napoleon would. The latter’s trait of going for the enemy’s weak point comes in for praise. When it comes to imperious gestures, Napoleon even gets compared to Henry VIII.

Should one have suffered a crushing defeat in an enterprise, mere mention of what Napoleon suffered at Moscow soothes the soul.

Here are some quotes which demonstrate the power that Napoleon exerts in various narratives of Plum.

Napoleon inspires Bingo Little

If Bingo Little has to save his job at Wee Tots, he has to attend a luncheonEggsBeansAndCrumpets being hosted by Bella Mae. The challenge he faces in doing so is to convince Mrs. Bingo to celebrate their wedding anniversary by having a dinner together, instead of a lunch.

“And then, after he had been sitting for a goodish time with his head in his hands, exercising every cell in his brain to its utmost capacity, he received an inspiration and saw what Napoleon would have done. A moment later, he was on the telephone, with Mrs. Bingo’s silvery voice are-you-there-ing at the other end. 

“Hullo, darling,” he said. 

“Hullo, angel,” said Mrs. Bingo. 

“Hullo, precious,” said Bingo. 

“Hullo, sweetie-pie,” said Mrs. Bingo. 

“I say, moon of my delight,” said Bingo, “listen. A rather awkward thing has happened, and I should like your advice as to how to act for the best. There’s a most important litterateuse we are anxious to land for the old sheet, and the question has arisen of my taking her out to lunch to-day.” 

“Oh, Bingo!” 

“Now, my personal inclination is to tell her to go to blazes.” 

“Oh, no, you mustn’t do that.” 

“Yes, I think I will. ‘Nuts to you, litterateuse? I shall say.” 

“No, Bingo, please! Of course you must take her to lunch.” 

“But how about our binge?” 

“We can have dinner instead.”



 Bingo allowed himself to be persuaded. “Now, that’s an idea,” he said. “There, I rather think, you’ve got something.”

 “Dinner will be just as good.””

[The Editor Regrets (Eggs, Beans and Crumpets)]


Napoleon sets the bar for a difficult task

Aunt Julia expects Ukridge to ingratiate himself with a tycoon of the jute industry and land a job, thereby doing something useful and ceasing to be what she calls a wastrel and an idler.

“‘Idler! I’ll trouble you! As if for a single day in my life, Corky, I have ever not buzzed about doing the work of ten men. Why, take the mere getting of that couple of quid from old Tuppy, for instance.

 ‘Simple as it sounds, I doubt if Napoleon could have done it. Tuppy, sterling fellow though he is, has his bad mornings. He comes down to the office and finds a sharp note from the President of Uruguay or someone on his desk, and it curdles the milk of human kindness within him. On these occasions he becomes so tight that he could carry an armful of eels up five flights of stairs and not drop one. And yet in less than a quarter of an hour I had got a couple of quid out of him.’

 ‘Oh, well, women say these things.”

 [Ukridge and the Old Stepper (Eggs, Beans and Crumpets)]


When failure is not an option

Reginald Mulliner is bucked up after his sterling performance at the villageAFewQuickOnes concert and is intent upon giving a piece of his mind to Sir Jasper Todd, the financier. He proceeds to Wissel Hall.

‘When Reginald reached the massive front door, the fact that repeated ringing of the bell produced no response suggested that the domestic staff had been given the night off to attend the concert. But he was convinced that the man he sought was somewhere inside, and as he had now thought of five more names to call him, bringing the total to eleven, he had no intention of being foiled by a closed front door. As Napoleon would have done in his place, he hunted around till he had found a ladder.

Bringing this back and propping it up against the balcony of one of the rooms on the first floor, he climbed up. He had now thought of a twelfth name, and it was the best of the lot.’

(A Few Quick Ones)


A singular absence of nerves of chilled steel

 A nerve specialist like Sir Roderick Glossop can hardly help taking a ratherThe Inimitable Jeeves 1st edition (1923) image courtesy of wikipedia warped view of humanity. It stands to reason that when Aunt Agatha plays a match-maker for his daughter Honoria, he wishes to check the Pumpkin Quotient of Bertie Wooster, the groom-to-be. Some cats in Bertie’s bedroom, a stolen hat and nerves of a weaker version of steel ensure that the fixture is scratched.

‘I say! This isn’t my hat!’

‘It is my hat!’ said Sir Roderick in about the coldest, nastiest voice I’d ever heard. ‘The hat which was stolen from me this morning as I drove in my car.’


 I suppose Napoleon or somebody like that would have been equal to the situation, but I’m bound to say it was too much for me. I just stood there goggling in a sort of coma, while the old boy lifted the hat off me and turned to Jeeves.

 ‘I should be glad, my man,’ he said, ‘if you would accompany me a few yards down the street. I wish to ask you some questions.’

 ‘Very good, sir.’

[Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (The Inimitable Jeeves)]


The challenge of carving out a career

Eustace entices Bertie to visit Twing Hall, where, upon arrival, he runs into Cynthia.

‘Oh, hallo, old thing,’ I said.

Great pals we’ve always been. In fact, there was a time when I had an idea I was in love with Cynthia. However, it blew over. A dashed pretty and lively and attractive girl, mind you, but full of ideals and all that. I may be wronging her, but I have an idea that she’s the sort of girl who would want a fellow to carve out a career and what not. I know I’ve heard her speak favourably of Napoleon. So what with one thing and another the jolly old frenzy sort of petered out, and now we’re just pals. I think she’s a topper, and she thinks me next door to a loony, so everything’s nice and matey.

[The Great Sermon Handicap (The Inimitable Jeeves)]


Someone who could dominate even Napoleon

“Precisely as stated Lady Constance was in the amber drawing-room, APelicanAtBlandingssipping sherry and looking as formidable and handsome as ever. 

All Lord Emsworth’s sisters were constructed on the lines of the severer type of Greek goddess, except Hermione, who looked like a cook, and Connie in particular was remarkable for aristocratic hauteur and forcefulness of eye. One felt immediately on seeing her that there stood the daughter of a hundred earls, just as when confronted with Lord Emsworth one had the impression that one had encountered the son of a hundred tramp cyclists. He was wearing at the moment patched flannel trousers, a ragged shirt, a shooting coat with holes in the elbows and bedroom slippers. These, of course, in addition to the apprehensive look always worn by him when entering this formidable woman’s presence. From childhood onward she had always dominated him, as she would have dominated Napoleon, Attila the Hun and an all-in wrestling champion.”

 (A Pelican at Blandings)


Plans which are listened to with reverence

When Dolly lays out her plans, these get listened to with reverence, thoughMoneyForNothing tinged with some doubt.

‘Don’t you worry, Soapy. I’ve got this thing well in hand. When we’ve gone, you jump to the ‘phone and get Chimp on the wire and tell him this guy and I are on our way over. Tell him I’m bringing the kayo drops and I’ll slip them to him as soon as I arrive. Tell him to be sure to have something to drink handy and to see that this bird gets a taste of it.’

‘I get you, pettie!’ Mr. Molloy’s manner was full of a sort of awe-struck reverence, like that of some humble adherent of Napoleon listening to his great leader outlining plans for a forthcoming campaign; but nevertheless it was tinged with doubt. He had always admired his wife’s broad, spacious outlook, but she was apt sometimes, he considered, in her fresh young enthusiasm, to overlook details.

(Money for Nothing)


Being impelled by a youthful hypnotic Napoleon

Plans to park Ogden somewhere safe get made all the time. Mr. PrettPiccadillyJim reluctantly agrees to fall in line with Ann’s fruity scheme, a scheme he himself does not approve of.

‘In the boyhood of nearly every man there is a single outstanding figure, someone youthful hypnotic Napoleon whose will was law and at whose bidding his better judgment curled up and died. In Mr. Pett’s life Ann’s father had filled this role. He had dominated Mr. Pett at an age when the mind is most malleable. And now—so true is it that though Time may blunt our boyish memories the traditions of boyhood live on in us and an emotional crisis will bring them to the surface as an explosion brings up the fish that lurk in the nethermost mud—it was as if he were facing the youthful Hammond Chester again and being irresistibly impelled to some course of which he entirely disapproved but which he knew that he was destined to undertake. He watched Ann as a trapped man might watch a ticking bomb, bracing himself for the explosion and knowing that he is helpless. She was Hammond Chester’s daughter, and she spoke to him with the voice of Hammond Chester. She was her father’s child and she was going to start something.’

(Piccadily Jim)

The reluctant respect that Napoleon commands

With his tall claims, Mr. Bulpitt earns the reluctant respect of Lady Abbott.

‘You and your science!’

‘All right, then, me and my science.’

There was hostility in Lady Abbott’s eyes, but also a certain reluctant respect, such as the Napoleon type always extorts from women.

‘Have you ever been beaten at this game, Sam?’

‘Once only,’ said Mr. Bulpitt, with modest pride.

(Summer Moonshine)


Going straight for the enemy’s weak point

Joe tells Jane that his stepmother has bought the entire rights to his successfulSummerMoonshine (1) play and plans to take it off stage so as to avoid getting sniggered at by her close friends for some inappropriate parts therein. He is therefore planning to leave for California. Jane realizes that the cold fury she felt against Joe could well have been a deeper affection. The character of his stepmother comes into focus.

“Jane was in no mood to share this detached, sportsmanlike attitude.

‘She’s a hellhound.’

‘But a Napoleonic one. Like Napoleon, she sees the enemy’s weak point and goes straight at it, crumpling him up and causing him to fly from the field in rout. You see me now about to fly from the field.’”

(Summer Moonshine)

When Napoleon competes with Henry VIII

When Princess Dwornitzchek discovers that her stepson is engaged to be married to a secretary, she loses no time in ticking off Sir Buckstone.

“The Princess Dwornitzchek turned to Sir Buckstone with a sweeping gesture.

‘So!’ she said.

There are very few men capable of remaining composed and tranquil when a woman is saying ‘So!’ at them, especially when a sweeping gesture accompanies the word. Napoleon could have done it, and Henry VIII, and probably Jenghiz Khan, but Sir Buckstone was not of their number. He collapsed abruptly into his chair, as if he had been struck by a thunderbolt.”

(Summer Moonshine)

Retreating in disorder

The search for the prized Lady in Blue has left Jerry feeling defeated. HePGW TheGirlInBlue confides in Jane who is ready to buzz off to London on some legal errand.

‘My New York lawyer has come over and wants to see me. He’s just telephoned. Something about my legacy, I suppose. I’ll be back this evening. But never mind that, I want to hear what happened. How did you get on?’

‘Not too well.’

‘I thought as much.’

It had not taken great perception to bring her to this conclusion. Even at a distance he would have struck her as being on the sombre side. To be obliged to retreat in disorder from a stricken battlefield always tends to lower the spirits. Napoleon, who had this experience at Moscow, made no secret of the fact that he did not enjoy it, and Jerry, going through the same sort of thing at Mellingham Hall, Mellingham-in-the-Vale, was definitely not at his perkiest.

(The Girl in Blue)


Squelching back from Moscow

A confrontation between Augustus and Rocket has led to the party falling intoPGW JeevesInTheOffing the lake at Brinkley Court.

‘Reaching the mainland some moments later and squelching back to the house, accompanied by Bobbie, like a couple of Napoleons squelching back from Moscow, we encountered Aunt Dahlia, who, wearing that hat of hers that looks like one of those baskets you carry fish in, was messing about in the herbaceous border by the tennis lawn. She gaped at us dumbly for perhaps five seconds, then uttered an ejaculation, far from suitable to mixed company, which she had no doubt picked up from fellow-Nimrods in her hunting days.’

(Jeeves in the Offing)


The Napoleonic Code and the Wooster Code

Napoleon, born on the 15th of August, 1769, was a great military and political reader. His lasting legal achievement, the Napoleonic Code, is said to have influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations around the world. According to British historian Andrew Roberts, “concepts such as meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.”

Some of these are rather close to the key values we find covered in the Code of the Woosters. As discussed elsewhere in a series of posts, the C of the W is not only about standing by one’s pals through thick and thin. It is also about equality before, and respect for, the law. It is about one being a Preux Chevalier. The spirit of Noblesse Oblige. The capacity to tame a hippopotamus like Roderick Spode by teamwork. Of having a bulldog spirit. Of refusing to be a doormat. Of being aware of one’s Pumpkin Quotient. Of attempting a pitiless analysis of one’s own actions.

The only aspect of the Wooster Code which would have possibly met with Napoleon’s stern disapproval would be that of upholding the feudal spirit. Being the proponent of a democratic outlook on life, he might have taken a dim view of aunts endeavouring to influence the cause of justice by offering to trade-off their favourite chefs so as to avoid the prospect of their nephews serving thirty days without the option.

Of ‘Napoleon Complex’ and the contempt for intellectuals

Napoleon’s sense of humour is said to have been so limited that he demandedNapoleon that all court painters refrain from putting a smile on any of his portraits.  As luck would have it, other than Roderick Spode, there are not many characters in Plum’s works that could be said to suffer from a ‘Napoleon Complex.’

Quite a few of the delicately nurtured fail in their attempts to raise the Bertie Wooster’s level of intellect by making him read such profound works as ‘Types of Ethical Theory’. Bertie has this innate tendency of avoiding intellectual pursuits of any kind. It is quite likely that Napoleon, had he ever run into him, would have heartily approved of this trait of his. The great strategist is reported to have once said that “You don’t reason with intellectuals; you shoot them.

A French honour for Plum?!

Given his poor sense of humour, it would have surely surprised someone like Napoleon to hear from one of his humble adherents about the kind of influence he exercises upon the goings-on in Plumsville.

Discovering the manner in which his sterling qualities of head and heart have been showcased by Wodehouse in his numerous works, Napoleon might have even considered making our beloved Master Wordsmith an honorary Knight in the French Legion Of Honour!

(Related post: https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/de-codifying-the-code-of-the-woosters)

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