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Posts Tagged ‘P G Wodehouse’

ashokbhatia

There are several reasons as to why P G Wodehouse, fondly referred to as Plum, is revered so very highly. For lesser mortals, one of these is surely the manner in which he makes fun of a decadent British aristocracy. He does so by skillfully juxtaposing strict social norms against nonsensical and ridiculous acts which rank rather high on the Goofiness Index. Then there is his unique use of the English language, with twists which could gladden the hearts of some of the most morose amongst us.

One other factor which endears Wodehouse to his ardent fans is the manner in which he draws upon the works of such other literary figures as Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde.

In the Wodehouse canon, The Bard has a unique place. Almost all of Plum’s works are littered with references to the literary outpourings of…

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ashokbhatia

To be or not to be a die-hard fan of a particular literary figure is perhaps decided by our Guardian Angels. Mines have been benevolent and ensured that I suffer from acute Wodehousitis.

But when it comes to William Shakespeare, much revered by all and sundry, my GAs have ensured that I never qualify to be even a mild case of Shakespearitis. One of the several challenges I have faced in my life is that of understanding the literary fare dished out by William Shakespeare. Given the high level of what Bertie Wooster might label as my Pumpkin Quotient, repeated attempts on my part to comprehend the ingenious outpourings of The Bard have failed miserably.

But an absence of Shakespearitis does not necessarily guarantee peace of mind. On the contrary, it makes life even more of a challenge. The brow is invariably furrowed. The heart is leaden with woe. This…

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RUSSIAN SPIRIT

The final section of my researches involves quotations relating to what I would essentially call the ‘Russian Spirit’ – with the meaning of this expression adopted by Alexander Pushkin in Ruslan and Ludmila, when he wrote: ‘The Russian spirit… Russia’s scent’. Moreover, the words ‘Russian spirit’ appears twice in Wodehouse’s text, as I mentioned earlier in the article, in the Russian Culture part. I now move on to the manifestations of the Russian spirit that were described by Wodehouse himself.

Before doing so, however, I must make some reference not to the Russian Spirit itself, but to the basis of this spirit. I mean the land of Russia: its territory, its climate, its rivers, its cities, and everything else that Wodehouse tells us as a geographer. We certainly can’t call his information exhaustive, but it is quite sufficient for a country which neither Plum nor his characters ever visited.

From Wodehouse we learn that there are at least three cities in Russia: Moscow, the main city with the political centre in the Kremlin, with an Artbashiekeff (‘Chester Forgets Himself’, from The Heart of a Goof) that might turn out to be a Moscow suburb; Leningrad, formerly Petrograd; and Nijni Novgorod. There are at least two rivers: the Volga and the Don the famous Russian steppes seem to be situated near the River Don (The Swoop, Part 2, ch7). And somewhere in Russia you will find Siberia.

The climate in Russia is inclement, at least in winter (Frozen Assets, ch9) and in Moscow, where it enables Winter Sports to take place (Summer Lighting, ch2). However, if you are not a sportsman but one of Napoleon’s generals, you would say something worth about the Moscow weather (Jill the Reckless, ch2). In Siberia, despite what we might hear from other sources, some claim the climate is not so terrible compared, say, to the weather in the late English summer (The Swoop, Part 2, ch5). On the whole, the atmosphere there doesn’t evoke such a crushed gloom, as do the park and gardens of Blandings Castle on occasion (Something Fresh, ch2).

Having briefly depicted the geographical and climatic peculiarities of Russia, Wodehouse passes to ethnographical research. To his credit, he avoided that trite set of images: matrioshka; balalaika; and beers in Moscow streets. He wrote instead about samovars, not only that of Vladimir Brusiloff but also in the drawing-rooms, where the English intelligentsia had parties (‘Jane Gets off the Fairway’, from The Heart of a Goof). And icons help to provide the atmosphere in some of these drawing-rooms (‘The Purification of Rodney Spelvin’, from The Heart of a Goof). Once Wodehouse mentioned Russian boots, and drew his readers’ attention to the habit of Russian men of concealing almost their entire faces behind a dense zareba of hair. But he did realise that under that disguise there was a picturesque swarthiness, which could be enhanced by a touch of the Raven Gipsy No. 3 grease paint (The Swoop, Part 2, ch6).

There is another stereotypical image wich Wodehouse was not able to avoid: vodka. But before I concentrate on the role that vodka plays in forming the Russian national character, I’d like to take a short digression into the general area of Russian cuisine. Wodehouse devoted a lot of his pages to matters culinary. We probably shouldn’t consider an egg for Vladimir Brusiloff’s breakfast as a national Russian dish, even when mixed with a brace of bombs. But Wodehouse does tell us about two real pearls of the Russian cuisine: Russian Salad and Charlotte Russe (‘Best Seller’, from Mulliner Nights), and as for beverages, it must be said that – in addition to vodka – the only specific spirits or liquor Plum mentioned that he thought might be Russian, is Artbashiekeff, which I mentioned above. In fact, it is no more a drink than a Moscow suburb, but those readers who – like Felicia Blakeney’s good husband-to-be – don’t know what it really is, will find the secret disclosed in Norman Murphy’s Wodehouse Handbook. Norman suggests this is PGW’s version of Artzybashev, who was not so much a Great Russian as a Rude Russian; his 1907 novel Satin caused a sensation with its frank discussion of sex.

Now let us turn to Russian vodka. As we have already learned, its absence causes that abysmal soul-sadness which so frequently afflicts Russian peasant after a heavy day’s work (Jill the Reckless, ch8), while by contrast a decanter and a half of the neat spirit would encourage a Russian general (in the days of his youth) to sing at a bump-supper at Moscow University (The Swoop, Part 2, ch2).

Nobody knows what song was presented by the future general. We may imagine, however, that it was like hearing the Siberian wolfhound in full cry after a Siberian wolf (Cocktail Time, ch9). If the English butler (a former steward on a transatlantic liner) could sing in such a way in the company of an English aristocrat, so much easier would the future Russian general find it. It is also quite possible that the general’s song was similar to the ‘Volga Boat Song’, because, as Wodehouse showed us with his examples of Russian literary chef d’oeuvres, no Russian, even from higher social layers, would lose a chance to get filled with the sad and gloomy Russian spirit.

It is notable how frequently I have referred to Grand Duke Vodkakoff, the general in charge of one of the two main invading armies in The Swoop. He is a typical representative of the Russian aristocracy who won’t sing without drinking vodka (rather like a proponent of modern karaoke), and refuses to eat fried fish only with his fingers. Nevertheless, as a general of the Russian army, he prefers to speak with his opponents in a smooth, cynical, Russian way, and when he acts, it is a typical Muscovite acts, with behaviour which is at the same time swift, secret, and deadly, wholly unlike the manners of the effervescent Russian writer who, being in raptures, kisses people on both cheeks.

Russian aristocrats, Russian generals, and Russian writers together make up just a small proportion of the Russian people. The good investigator should come down to the simple folk, who are the real source of the national spirit. While Russian writers may describe the Russian peasant as being in a hopeless misery, when he can’t find pleasure in the shining sun and singing birds and decids to commit suicide at the page 380, a Wodehouse moujik – whether a peasant of the steppes or a Volga boatman – is an active person who can find his way out of any difficult and dangerous situation. Of course, Volga boatmen have to do heavy work, which is why they walk with a slow and dragging step (The Code of the Woosters, ch8) and with something of the weary moodiness (‘Excelsior’, from Nothing Serious), but they knew, unlike Bertie, that they should not stick their stomachs out.

As for the peasants, one of Plum’s favourite anecdotes which with minor variations and diverse details was told in no fewer than 11 novels and short stories (see, for example, ‘The Man Who Gave Up Smoking’, from Mr Mulliner Speaking) is the story of peasant on the steppes of Russia who is compelled, in order to ensure his own safety, to throw his children out of the back of the sleigh to the pursuing wolf pack.

A detailed study of this story shows that the complete version, reaching the peak of tragedy when the loving father has to sacrifice his infant son, appeared in three of Wodehouse’s stories. In the remainder, thankfully, there is no such sacrifice, although in a further three (such as The Mating Season, ch6) the peasant stays sufficiently tête-à-tête with a wolf that in the absence of a child the peasant’s fate still evokes strong apprehensions. In the final four sources we realise that the happy end is possible, especially if a suitably high tree had suddenly grown in the middle of the steppes (Right Ho, Jeeves, ch11).

Undoubtedly, the story of the relationship between the peasant and the wolves is quite entertaining by itself, and it becomes more interesting when we recall that sometimes Plum retold it, turning the landscape of the Russian steppes into the Indian jungles, the wolf into a tiger and the Russian peasant into a coolie (see, for example, Uncle Dynamite, ch10). However, Wodehouse was not the only writer who used this wolf–peasant story. It also features on the pages of Rex Stout’s 1946 detective novel The Silent Speaker, in which Archie Goodwin, giving himself up to his childhood reminiscences, refers to ‘an old picture, there was one in our dining-room out in Ohio, of the people in the sleigh throwing the baby out to the wolves that were chasing them’. This coincidence makes one think about the actual existence of such a picture. Perhaps both Wodehouse and Stout had seen this painting in an American gallery? And while Stout put the picture on his pages, so to speak, in its entirety, Wodehouse preferred to use the image. It is possible, however, that Stout, having read one of Wodehouse’s five versions of the story which was published before The Silent Speaker, was so inspired by its drama that he couldn’t help reproducing it in his own novel.

Wodehouse himself teases us about the story’s origin in chapter 9 of Bring on the Girls, in which he describes Guy Bolton’s fiancée, Marguerite Namara, as wearing around her neck was ‘a collar decorated with silver bells similar in design to those seen in paintings of troikas pursued through the Siberian woods by wolves’. But although Wodehouse met Namara in 1918, he did not write about it until the 1950s.

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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Wodehouse and Contemporary Russian History

In Monday begins on Saturday, the fantastic novel of the remarkable Russian writers the Strugatsky brothers, there is a chapter in which the hero, using a time machine, visits the so-called ‘describing future’ and is very surprised when he finds out that the most of the people are nearly naked. Then he realises that the cause of this phenomenon is the habit of authors describing a typical character as ‘a man in a cap and spectacles’.

In the same way, Russia appears in the first works of Wodehouse as a scantily attired person. It is quite understandable – there was no place for contemporary Russia in the early school stories. From time to time English schoolboys recalled Napoleon’s exploits, but no more than that. In the course of time, however, Wodehouse clothed Russia in more contemporary dress, though – we have to say – dress of rather gloomy, bloody-red colours.

Here I must stress one point. Although the world of Wodehouse is extremely sweet and light, even parts of this world are penetrated here and there by representatives of different left-wing movements. But neither Psmith with his socialist ideas, nor Vanessa Cook leading protest marches, nor George Cyril Wellbeloved with his strongly communistic views, nor even Bingo Little at the time of his membership of the ‘Red Dawn’ could be counted as contributing Russian references unless and until other characters begin – correctly or not – to mention their names in connection with their colleagues, pals or tutors from Moscow.

Neither do I include the anarchists with bombs who were mentioned in Summer Lighting, ch12, since I suppose there were enough Anarchists in other countries. However, a brace of bombs coming in through the window and mixing themselves up with the breakfast egg of Vladimir Brusiloff in ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’ is right within my brief.

One of the first Wodehouse’s works where contemporary Russians appear, is The Swoop, a 1909 story and one of two stories where Russians are active – almost the main – participants in the plot. In The Swoop we have the Grand Duke Vodkakoff, the leader of the Russian army that, along with eight others, had simultaneously invaded Great Britain. Though fortunately this event never took place in historical reality, in reading the story we can readily imagine Russia as the country with a powerful army; a country which, together with Germany, had been playing a leading role in the interventionist coalition (Part 1, ch7). I don’t know whether British politicians took Wodehouse’s warnings into consideration, but the fact remains that during both the world wars, Great Britain joined in coalition with Russia. I leave you to draw your own conclusions!

From the pages of The Swoop we learn for the first time about the role that Cossacks had been playing in Russian army – the Cossacks of the Don, those bearded soldiers from the steppes: fierce, semi-civilised fighting machines who know no fear (Part 2, ch7). In ‘The Castaways’, from Blandings Castle, we learn more of the Cossacks’ role in Russian politic life: they were charged with punitive functions such as committing pogroms. From Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch2, we realise that they had a role in stopping protesters such as Vanessa Cook from shouting certain things during a protest march, and, reading between the lines of Something Fresh, ch2, this sometimes resulted in individuals being exiled to Siberia.

So on the whole we can see that pre-revolutionary Russia is depicted in Wodehouse as a militant autocratic monarchy (see, for example, A Prince for Hire, ch9, in which the authority of the Czar was compared to that of an unscrupulous moneyed man in 1930s New York) where blood could be spilt in large quantities (A Gentleman of Leisure, 1910, ch9), a phenomenon that held some attraction for a certain part of the British populace.

Completing Wodehouse’s description of the pre-revolutionary period of Russian history, I’d like to remind readers of the writer Vladimir Brusiloff from ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’. Though Russia never knew him as an author, he was named after the well-known Russian general Alexey Brusilov, a hero of the First World War. Another eminent but fictional cultural figure was Gotsuchakoff, whose works (alongside those of Thingummyowsky and other foreigners) were permitted (despite being modern) to be played at school concerts (The Head of Kay’s, ch4). Wodehouse does not specify Gotsuchakoff as being Russian, but Norman Murphy suggest in his Wodehouse Handbook that he was PGW’s way of referring Prince Alexander Gortchakoff, the Russian Foreign Secretary of the late 19th century. Norman also confirmed my suspicion that to a 16-year-old schoolboy mind in 1900, Thingummyowsky was Peter Tchaikovsky.

The revolutionary events of 1917 were not described directly in Wodehouse. Only once, in the words of Archibald Mulliner’s valet Meadows, do we learn, that the revolution à la russe includes ‘massacres and all that’ (see ‘Archibald and the Masses’ from Young Men in Spats, 1935), but the attentive reader undoubtedly understands that something important was happening in Russia, after which Europe had been inundated with crowds of ‘exiled Grand Dukes and dowagers of the most rigid respectability’ (Ring for Jeeves, 1953). And if some Grand Dukes or Princes – at least, in the minds of the press-agents of gullible actresses – still had enough money to buy expensive presents (such as pet snakes) for these actresses (Indiscretions of Archie, ch7), the dowagers, on the contrary, were in the most deplorable state. Not being able to compete with English peeresses who earned fortunes by performing Greek – and even Russian – dances on the New York stage (Uneasy Money, 1916, ch6), Russian princesses had to pose before incompetent artists lying on divans in the semi-nude with their arms round tame jaguars (‘The Story of Webster’, from Mulliner Nights).

By the way, we can see from Wodehouse’s pages how the Europe of the 1930s differed from the Europe of the 1970s, by which time these Russian princesses tended to be in the absolute nude, and the tame jaguars had been replaced by tiger skins (The Girl in Blue, 1970, ch2).

Meanwhile, Wodehouse had noticed that, in post-revolutionary Russia, Petrograd had been renamed Leningrad (A Prince for Hire, ch9), and the Bolshevists, who had come to rule instead of the Czar, had settled not in Leningrad but in Moscow, even in the Kremlin. It is interesting that in 1919, in A Damsel in Distress, ch21, Wodehouse uses the word ‘Bolsheviki’, which is absolutely identical with the Russian term, but by 1921, with the revised edition of Love Among the Chickens he changed to the Anglicised version ‘Bolshevist’. Later variations included ‘Bolshevik’ and, in 1931, in If I Were You, ch3, the pretty word ‘Bolshie’.

I will be examining Wodehouse’s attitude to the Bolshevists later, but I should remind readers that though not every one of his Communists is a Russian communist, every reference to a Bolshevik certainly has a Russian origin. I have traced 12 mentions in the books and short stories from 1919 to 1957, the year when the Bolshevists themselves (as members of the Bolshevist faction, which was formed after the Party’s split at the Second Congress of the Russian Socialist-Democratic Party in London in 1903) ceased to exist. Perhaps this was because most of them – as may have been the case with Orlo Porter’s pal in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch8 (1974) – had been liquidated during a course of what Wodehouse so delicately referred to as Old Home Week in Moscow.

Naturally, life in Russia didn’t become easier under the Bolshevists. The police persecution, even after the demise of the Cossacks, still remained (The Code of the Woosters, ch4), and nobody doubted that it was these Russians who introduced the fashion of imposing substantial fines for moving pigs without a permit. And even in spite of the fact that the Wilson Hymack song ‘Mother’s Knee’ was a best-seller among the Bolshevists as well as among Borneo cannibals and Scots elders (Indiscretions of Archie, ch23), the idea of staging Broadway musicals in Moscow seemed rather impracticable (Barmy in Wonderland, ch18).

On the whole, however far Soviet Russia was situated from the Great Britain and the United States, and however light-hearted were Wodehouse’s characters, they knew that the time had come when Drama was stalking abroad in the night in the more vivacious quarters of Moscow (Bill the Conqueror, ch5). And not only in Moscow. Even in Nijni-Novgorod, as the Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff could witness, the internecine strife was proceeding so briskly that a brace of bombs could always happen to come in through a fellow’s window and mix themselves up with his breakfast egg (‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’).

Such attempts to cut the supply of Russian novelists, as well attempts to assassinate the Bolshevist leader V. Lenin with rewolwers (by then Russia’s great national sport), should undoubtedly be considered as by-products of the revolutionary activity of the Soviet Bolshevists, whose main purpose was a massacre of the Bourgeoisie.

An attentive reading of Wodehouse’s works forces us to the conclusion, however, that the Bolshevists must have put an end to their native Bourgeoisie rather quickly, as they seemed to be concentrating on exterminating the Bourgeoisie abroad. Even the Cloth-Capped Man from Valley Fields knew that such a Bourgeois as the City clerk didn’t swank about in a grey top-hat in Moscow and Leningrad, because Stalin was always ready to knock their heads off and stamp them into the mud (Big Money, ch6). But in London, there were plenty of City clerks and other representatives of the Bourgeoisie, which is why Moscow attached a special importance to the distribution of Red propaganda (Joy in the Morning, ch7).

The spread of Moscow agents was exceptionally versatile. One could meet not only the simple non-organised Proletarians like those Budd Street elements, who bunged turnips from the back row at Ronnie Fish and Hugo Carmody when they presented Shakespearean scenes at the Rudge-in-the-Vale annual dramatic and musical entertainment (Money for Nothing, ch7), or the charabanc driver nicknamed Weasel, who was indignant at the patrician hauteur in Jane Abbott’s voice (Summer Moonshine, ch19), but also Proletarians (sometimes even whole Proletarian families) more organised into movements like the League for the Dawn of Freedom (‘Archibald and The Masses’ from Young Men in Spats) or The Red Dawn, ready to admit into their company Bolshevists who have to go about disguised because of the police (The Inimitable Jeeves, ch11).

The Bolshevist propaganda didn’t stop, however, with the Proletariat, for it sent out its feelers into the midst of valets, butlers and their flesh and bloods (see, e.g., Spring Fever, ch.6). Moreover, we can see representatives of the upper classes in Britain citizens, and even the Mulliner family, inspired with Bolshevist ideas. We can recognize the revolutionary disposition in Archibald Mulliner’s wish to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane, and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy, inspired by the pitiful love of the martyred proletariat. This is also seen in Mervyn Mulliner’s more mature understanding that what was wrong with the world was that all the cash seemed to be centred in the wrong hands and needed a lot of broad-minded redistribution (‘The Knightly Quest of Mervyn’, from Mulliner Nights). When we also recall Cedric Mulliner’s yearning for the day when the clean flame of Freedom, blazing from Moscow, should scorch Lady Chloe Downblotton and other wastrels to a crisp (‘The Story of Cedric’, from Mr Mulliner Speaking), perhaps we should admit that something was amiss within the Mulliner family.

Maybe the bloodthirsty intentions of lower-class characters were caused mainlyeither by a bad Shakespearean presentation, or by the patrician hauteur in a girl’s voice, or by the disgusting temper of an employer, though, to be honest, in the latter case, even the most anti-Soviet valet wouldn’t have stayed with Senator Opal for more than a week or so (Hot Water ch7).

What is there to say about the English aristocrats, who chose as a target of their bloody-minded plans their upper class equals? Even Orlo Porter’s main aggression (though he was not an ordinary Red Dawn blighter but a real Communist, probably on palsy-walsy terms with half of the big shots at the Kremlin) was aimed at the young aristocrat Bertie Wooster, even if Bertie himself believed that the more of the bourgeoisie that Orlo Porter disembowelled, the better Orlo’s pals in the Kremlin would be pleased (see Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch7).

‘The Story of Cedric’, already referred to, provides us with a clue that it may be that dress was the cornerstone on which Bolshevist propaganda in England was based. Look at Wallace Chesney and his plus fours, for supporting evidence (‘The Magic Plus-Fours’, from The Heart of a Goof):

‘Miss Dix, I present a select committee of my fellow-members, and I have come to ask you on their behalf to use the influence of a good woman to induce Wally to destroy those Plus-Fours of his, which we all consider nothing short of Bolshevik propaganda and a menace to the public weal’.

If we add here the story of the top-hatted Lord Hoddeson’s meeting with the cloth-capped man in Big Money, chapter 6, the evidence seems pretty conclusive.

I must now invite readers to recall the first part of my article, in which I said that from the 1950s, Chekhov’s plays ousted the novels of Leo Tolstoy from Wodehouse’s pages. I now report a similar tendency in the historic-political record, where emphasis on the class struggle gave way to undisguised spy-mania. Thus, we can say, that – according to Wodehouse – the Russia of the first half of the 20th century was a country mainly known in Great Britain for its radical ideological philosophies, whether it was Count Tolstoy’s appeals to twiddle the fingers as an alternative to smoking or Red Bolshevist propaganda. After the Second World War, however, the situation changed, and Russia turned into an overtly unfriendly power, initiating more vigorous attempts to destabilise the situation in England by sending over its spies or by staging Chekhov’s plays.

The reason for this change of the attitude in the political sphere is quite understandable. Moscow did not have confidence in the sort of people whom they had tried to convert to Bolshevism. Yes, Syd Price had a way of twisting people’s remarks and making them recoil on his interlocutors like boomerangs because he spent half his time arguing with his Bolshie friends (If I Were You, ch3), but most of these so called Bolshevists clearly needed more support to bring about the Red Dawn. The charabanc driver Weasel has been wished Stalin were around to give Jane Abbott a piece of his mind (Summer Moonshine, ch19). Bertie Wooster’s temporary valet Brinkley, though described as Moscow’s Pride, disgraced himself by getting stewed to the gills. As for Orlo Porter, he – like Ukridge’s Bolshevist hen, which ate its head off daily at Ukridge’s expense and bit the hand which fed it by resolutely declining to lay a single egg – completely forgot his duty of murdering capitalists and the needs of hard-up proletariat, dreaming instead about a Mayfair flat, champagne with every meal, and Rolls-Royces, matters that would hardly be approved by the boys in the Kremlin (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch17). On the contrary, Orlo’s dreams, as well Archibald Mulliner’s later meditations, which were definitely hostile to the Masses, would have compelled Stalin to pursue his lips. In such conditions it was quite natural that the Moscow big shots, being disillusioned with their native British followers, preferred to make use of their own Bolshevist spies.

We don’t meet an actual Russian spy in the pages of Wodehouse, but the atmosphere of spy hysteria is described in a masterly way in many of his books. We can see that the sweet times of the 1930s, when youth (represented by Sue Brown, alias the American Myra Schoonmaker, see Summer Lightning, ch8) was brooding over the situation in Russia, have gone with the wind. Now every British citizen began to feel that he was in the secret service. So one realised that the freelance journalist Murphy was suspected of being widely known at Scotland Yard as an agent of a certain unfriendly power (i.e. Russia) under his real name Ivanovitch or Molotov, especially when he could mop up alcohol like a vacuum cleaner – an apparent requirement of all Russian secret agents, who had been trained to acquire resistance to spirits and liquors (Frozen Assets, ch6, 8, 9).

In such an atmosphere of total espionage, it was hardly surprising that a former employee of the Foreign Office could go off his onion and began to send secret official papers over to Russia, believing that he was Stalin’s nephew (Cocktail Time, ch14). Or that (in Something Fishy, ch4), the former butler Keggs set a private eye onto the son of his former employer’s friend, and when it was suggested that he become the head of the secret police in Moscow, he only declined because of the unpleasant Russian climate. Or that the publisher Cyril Grooly was ready to adopt the nom de guerre Golinsky, assumed to be a Communist spy, in order to break his engagement with a female novelist (‘Sleepy Time’, from Plum Pie).

Perhaps what was saddest in the Great Britain of the 1950s and 60s was that people had lost faith in the altruism of pro-Bolshevist compatriots. If, at the end of the 1920s, only the proletariat, armed with turnips, was accused of being in the pay of Moscow (Money for Nothing, ch7), now one (e.g., the ‘Field Marshal’, in Something Fishy, ch12) might even be suspected of this merely because they voted for Labour blisters who (in the opinion of Lord Uffenham) were nothing but a bunch of bally Bolsheviks. Moreover, not only British citizens, but even their pets, were ready to suspect that a man found sitting on a roof or prowling about the house at night was involved in a Red plot or in the pay of Moscow (Summer Moonshine, ch12; Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, ch9).

Completing the theme of Russia’s international influence, I must point out that it was not only Russian spies that kept Europe in thrall. Even the representatives of Soviet Russia at the United Nations upset other countries with the firmness by which they issued their 111th veto (Company for Henry, ch12), inspired either by the memory of Molotov politics (The Old Reliable, ch2) or by the ancient traditions of shifty Russian diplomacy once demonstrated in the remote past by Grand Duke Vodkakoff (The Swoop, Part 1, ch7).

No historian could overlook the leaders of a country with the colourful history of Russia. So Wodehouse couldn’t pass over in silence the heads of the Russian state in silence. Some have been mentioned in previous parts of the article, but I would like to recap. Wodehouse gave us descriptions of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great and referred offten to the contemporary rulers of Russia during his lifetime, starting with a casual reference to a Czar living in Petrograd (A Prince for Hire, ch9), whom we can deduce to be Nicolay II, during whose period in office Maxim Gorky began his career as a writer (The Love Among the Chickens, ch10).

Vladimir Lenin – father of the October revolution – appears twice, both times in the company of Leon Trotsky, and we have to say that as so represented, Lenin seems to be very human. He enjoys golf – even in the presence of a crowd armed by rewolwers, and even against Russian novelists (‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’). It was probably Trotsky’s idea to acquaint Lenin with Russian novelists, organizing the golf matches or inviting the novelists to lunch to meet him. Lenin was always ready to further this acquaintance, and it was not his fault that Maxim Gorky couldn’t dash off a trifle in the vein of Stephen Leacock during such a lunch (Love among the Chickens, ch10). Very likely, it was Trotsky’s fault, because he was a man who couldn’t hit a moving secretary with an egg on a dark night (Uncle Fred in the Springtime, ch12). It is Trotsky whose photograph, when added to a couple of ikons, produces the gloomy atmosphere of a Russian novel (‘The Purification of Rodney Spelvin’, from The Heart of a Goof) and whose name was considered worthy to be assumed when Bertie’s friend Oliver Sipperley was arrested by the police on Boat Race night (‘Without the Option’, from Carry On, Jeeves).

But Wodehouse paid most attention to Stalin, and I have already described some of their references. We can’t expect any tolerance from such a man, whom you never find dancing at a time when the fundamental distribution of whatever-it-is so dashed what-d’you-call-it (‘Archibald and the Masses’ from Young Men in Spats). Nevertheless, we have surprising confidence that a go-getter like Freddie Threepwood could undertake to ingratiate himself with Stalin if he gave his mind to it (‘Company for Gertrude’, from Blandings Castle). And, without doubt, every young British aristocrat would prefer to have Stalin in his employment than the unspeakable Brinkley (Thank You, Jeeves, ch22).

Although, as we know, Wodehouse’s was a timeless world, he liked to be up to date and his works reflect signs of the time. That’s why, in addition to Lenin and Stalin, Nikita Kruscheff is referred to in Frozen Assets, ch9, although regrettably Biff Christopher was unable to obtain any details about what Kruscheff was really like.

Among other distinctive marks of the 1950s and 60s we notice the reference in ‘Sleepy Time’ to students rioting in Saigon, Moscow, Cairo, Panama and other centres (although, in reality, no student was rioting in Moscow in the middle of the 1960s!). However, the real sign of the Present, which impressed and even frightened contemporaries, was the Russian Sputnik, which might hit you (see the updated version of ‘Big Business’ which appeared in A Few Quick Ones in 1958), though Lloyd’s could insure you against this (Do Butlers Burgle Banks?, ch6). Speaking of such an achievement of Russian science, we note that Wodehouse didn’t pay much attention to the scientists of Russia, his only reference to the University of Moscow having appeared in 1909 (The Swoop, Part 2, ch2)! So it is all the more pleasurable that he did not forget to mention the great Russian physiologist Doctor Pavlov and his research on induced reflexes (Galahad at Blandings, ch5).

And so we approach the end of our investigation. But Wodehouse, as a real Master, not only tells us about political life of contemporary Russia; he also provides us with information on the country’s economics. From his books we can learn about the rouble – for example, that the fees offered to an average Russian novelist for a lecture tour among English suburban literary societies, worked out in roubles, seemed just about right, especially if he knew that his principal creditors had perished in the last massacre of the bourgeoisie or fled from Russia (‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’). And though it was risky to buy roubles in 1922 (The Adventures of Sally, ch6), in 1931 you could already obtain high returns by investing some of your money in Soviet Russia (A Prince for Hire, ch2). Perhaps such divergent outcomes were due to the Five Year Plans of which adherents like Brinkley were so fond (Thank You, Jeeves, ch13).

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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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.

(Related Posts:

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

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THE RUSSIAN LITERATURE

Those Russians who could preserve their literary patriotism under the yoke of the school program, and those funny foreigners, who see the novels of Dostoevsky as the principal reason for the study of the Russian language, would scarcely like Wodehouse’s attitude towards Russian literature. The average, more light-hearted reader, however, will definitely approve.

The 1922 story The Clicking Of Cuthbert might be considered the real text-book on Russian literature, but I’ll comment on this further. First, I’ll consider three bearded Russian classics – Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – who symbolise, I presume, the grandeur of the Russian literature in the opinion of the West, and begin with Chekhov, as both the most intently studied and the most frequently quoted by Wodehouse.

I will justify including Chekhov’s plays in a section on ‘Literature’ instead of attributing them to a separate part ‘Russian Theatre’ by pointing out that it was Chekhov’s texts, rather than the work of the directors or the performances of the actors that so depressed Wodehouse’s characters. From novel to novel Bertie Wooster recalled the agonizing experience when he was made by his Aunt Agatha to attend Russian plays at the Old Vic in order to improve the mind of her son Thos (for example, Jeeves in the Offing, ch4).

Admirers of the great Russian writer and dramatist would say that Bertie suffered torments rather because of Thos’s company, than because of Chekhov, but that is not quite right. Bertie had to see Chekhov not only with Thos, but also with Florence Craye at the time of their engagement – when on every Sunday night she took him to see Russian plays, amongst which we can recognize the themes of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard (see The Mating Season, ch22).

Another character who was not in raptures at the idea of attending a performance of Chekhov’s plays – Seagull, at least – was Roberta Wickham (Jeeves in the Offing, ch4) although not everybody will consider young Bobbie as a competent authority. Especially – as we deduce see from the book – as she herself, unlike Phyllis Mills, never actually saw the play. But we may recollect here the genuine horror of the sweet Lord Uffenham – absolutely not a red-haired girl – when he recalled how an aunt of his once made him take her to something similar (Something Fishy, ch23).

Wodehouse will frequently describe briefly the plots of Chekhov’s plays, and may even name some of the characters, though they are not always spelt correctly. We can thus suppose that Plum was very familiar with the dramatic works of Chekhov, or – to be correct – with those examples which made Wodehouse recall the Chekhov spirit when he put his characters in an atmosphere of distress and misfortune (see, e.g., Big Money, ch7, or The Mating Season, ch2).

Curiously, the first Chekhov appearance in the pages of Wodehouse was absolutely unconvincing. The authorship of the play named Six Corpses in Search of an Undertaker (‘Best Seller’, from Mulliner Nights) was imputed to him. We may suppose that in 1930s Wodehouse knew Chekhov’s works only by hearsay, and that may be why, writing ‘Best Seller’, he produced a title which was a sort of cross between the Pirandello play Six Characters in Search of an Author and the spirit of Chekhov’s. Only by the 1960s and 70s did this spirit, widely quoted in the first half of the century, take the form of real plays with titles and personages.

Moreover, we can see, that by then Russian plays had completely forced out mentions of the Russian novel from Wodehouse’s works, which had been dominant in 1920s and 30s. Even the story of a relation who hanged himself in the barn, which evidently made a deep impression, being referred to several times as emanating from a Russian novel (see, e.g., (Money For Nothing, ch7, 1928), was apparently also found in a Russian drama by 1949 (The Mating Season, ch2).

Wodehouse’s biographers – as well, as experts in Russian literature – probably know the causes of this substitution the Russian novels with plays, but we may suppose that by the 1960s, at the rate at which the inhabitants of Russia were murdering one another, the supply of Russian novelists must have eventually given out.

As for us, we have only to regret the sad tendency of Russian culture to export its most dark and indigestible species. Tolstoy might write joyful comedies, Chekhov humorrous stories and sweet vaudevilles, even Dostoevsky contributed pretty melodrama.

All for nothing! To the annals of the world literature the Russian classic authors are perceived as writers whose collective main character was Grandpapa, who had hanged himself in that barn.

As we turn to the Russian novel, you may recall my earlier comment that the 1922 story ‘The Clicking Of Cuthbert’ might be considered the real text-book on the subject of Russian literature. From this story we learn that by 1922 it was insufficient to be an ‘English’ writer to have real success in the literary walk of life in England. You needed to be Russian or Spanish or similar, and have the mantle of the great Russians descend on you. Undoubtedly, even a top-class golfer such as Cuthbert Banks would have hated to have such misfortune with the mantle happen to him, but in another other golf-story, ‘Rodney Fails to Qualify’ from The Heart of a Goof, the rumour of the period (1924) about the great Russian writers had reached the drawing-rooms of the English intelligentsia, where a discussion on the subject of the Russian thought intruded on the peace of the night.

Now, as we accompany Cuthbert to the Wood Hills Literary and Debating Society meeting dedicated to the famous Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff, we learn many interesting things about Russian novelists. Two other Russian writers, Sovietski and Nastikoff, who were mentioned by Raymond Parsloe Devine in his conversation with the famous visitor, did not belong to the generation of the bearded Russian classics. His mastership, however, unlike the false glamour of the two precedents and much more than Mr Devine’s work, might be approved of by competent critics, because Vladimir specialised in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide. And, as we know, the Russian novelists love to write about grim, ironical, hopeless, grey, despairful situations (‘Ukridge’s Accident Syndicate’, from Ukridge).

Undoubtedly, not all authors or raconteurs are competent to describe these situations. Mr Mulliner, for example, disliked to dwell on the spectacle of human being groaning under the iron heel of Fate (‘Monkey Business’, from Blandings Castle). Wodehouse confessed his own limitations as a writer when he tried to convey a vision of Freddie Rooke trying to obtain a cocktail in a strange club (Jill the Reckless, ch8). Conceding that French or Russian authors would have been more successful, he perhaps spoke modestly, for did not Vladimir Brusiloff assert that only two novelists, Tolstoy and P G Wodehouse might be considered not too bad by comparison with him. Surely the author who had to describe – from novel to novel – the sufferings of Lord Emsworth (see, for example Pigs Have Wings, ch1) merits a place on the same pedestal as such a Great Master of the Russian novel as Leo Tolstoy.

Nevertheless, some things are beyond even the power of the great Russian masters with all their atmosphere and depths of psychology, at least in Mr Mulliner’s (or, rather, his nephew Archibald’s) opinion (‘The Code of the Mulliners’, from Young Men in Spats). And this is a valid opinion which has the right to exist, because the task of the Russian novel is not to describe unhappy love, but the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka-bottle empty (Jill the Reckless, ch8).

It is no secret that amongst the numerous girls to whom Bertie Wooster was more or less engaged, those who intended to jack up his soul definitely sought assistance from Russian literature. Earlier I mentioned Bertie’s enforced visits to watch Chekhov. Bertie may have been lucky that Vanessa Cook didn’t make him start his reading with Turgenev and Dostoevsky (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch15), but she, as Florence Craye before her (Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, ch3) insisted on Tolstoy. Bertie doesn’t mention what particular reason Florence Craye had to select a ‘perfectly frightful thing by Tolstoy’ when she dashed the mystery thriller from his hand, but Vanessa Cook, inspired by his statement that twiddling the fingers was a good alternative to smoking (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch10), and having been trying to get Bertie to lose this bad habit, undoubtedly saw a way to kill two birds with one stone.

However, we must say, that the endeavours of Vanessa Cook weren’t entirely useless. While reading Tolstoy in the days of his engagement to Florence Craye had not furthered Bertie’s intellectual level (nor, it seemed, improved his memory), Bertie did learn during the course of an instructive conversation with Jeeves that Count Tolstoy – by then already the late Count Tolstoy – was a famous Russian novelist, not a bosom pal of Vanessa’s. And we can only regret that nobody told Bertie that Turgenev and Dostoevsky, who may have been a couple of Russian exiles who did a bit of writing on the side, had definitely never met Vanessa in London.

To summarise, then, we may affirm that if Wodehouse had to organise a gathering of Russian novelists (perhaps as envisaged in The Girl on the Boat, ch2), the first writers he would invite would be Chekhov and Tolstoy, followed, probably, by Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It is very interesting, that the first reference to Maxim Gorky (in Love Among the Chickens, ch10 (1906)) which envisaged his being invited to dinner with the Czar, was updated in the revised edition in 1920 so that now he was dining with Trotsky! But the suggestion that if he had been invited to lunch by Trotsky to meet Lenin, Gorky might sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Stephen Leacock seems unreasonable, when the presence even of Trotsky’s photograph can turn a drawing-room into the mise en scène of a Russian novel (‘The Purification of Rodney Spelvin’, from The Heart of a Goof).

As I finish the part of my researches devoted to Russian culture, I would like to invite real connoisseurs of Russian literature, to suggest which of Tolstoy’s novels Wodehouse was parodying in Jill the Reckless , ch9, with the sad story about the Russian peasant who found the vodka bottle empty after his hard, but tragic, day’s work. Or to identify the author and title of the Russian novel (or drama) where Grandpapa (or Ivan) hanged himself in the barn*, assuming that it is not in fact. Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, which seems to be the only Russian classical play in which a character did actually hang himself.

Finally, I can only add, that the novel By Order Of The Czar, which Bertie Wooster selected as his preferred reading in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (ch14) was undoubtedly not written by Leo Tolstoy, even under another name. Jeeves said so, and that’s good enough for me, so I do not consider this reference (even with the Czar in its title) to be a valid Russian one.

* After the article was already published I found out that a mujik committing suicide appears in Leo Tolstoy story Polikushka – though it is a garret, not a barn, in which the title character hangs himself. Moreover, a movie based on this story was released in 1922, starring Ivan Moskvin and Vera Pashennaya, two great Russian actors of that time. It may be possible that Plum had seen this movie, more so that if he had read the story.

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.

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

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ashokbhatia

There come some truly humbling moments in one’s life when, while imagining that one’s Guardian Angels are surely in a benevolent mood, one suddenly wakes up to a reality which appears to be quite to be contrary. Scales fall from one’s eyes. One realizes with sudden horror that one had perhaps been promoted to the post of an honorary Vice President of the Global Association of Morons, exuding negative vibes to all the hapless souls around. Or, as P G Wodehouse would have put it, one looks ‘like the hero of a Russian novel debating the advisability of murdering a few near relations before hanging himself in the barn.’ 

Yours truly was recently in a suburb of a city known as Trondheim in Norway. Nudged by my hosts, I had decided to take a walk on a relatively lonely road overlooking the fjord. Seagulls were having a gala time…

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THE RUSSIAN CULTURE

The Russian Ballet

The Russian Ballet as the cultural phenomenon of world-wide fame certainly couldn’t be ignored by Wodehouse, especially because it was a subject which the English intelligentsia was ready to discuss both in 1917 (Piccadilly Jim, ch9) and in 1931 (‘The Voice from the Past’, from Mulliner Nights). The Russian Ballet theme figured even in the knockabout cross-talk acts at village-halls up and down the country (The Mating Season, ch9 and 22). We can only regret that Wodehouse – unlike the guests of Mrs Pett – wouldn’t give his attention to the inner meaning of the Russian Ballet, but concentrated upon its outward manifestations, although he did once tell us about the famous Swan Lake (Bachelors Anonymous, ch10).

Here and there Wodehouse mentions the Russian ballet dancer – sometimes unnamed, sometimes Nijinsky. I decided not to attribute to Russia quotations such as ‘He spun round with a sort of guilty bound, like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat’s milk’ from Joy in the Morning, ch3, as I don’t wish to deprive other countries’ dancers from certain merits in the sphere of ballet.

Mostly, Wodehouse prefers to describe this and that step of the dancer to express, first of all, this and that state of mind of the character. It may be an unexpected pleasure, when Jeff d’Escrignon, learned of Mr. Clutterbuck’s plan to sell a hundred thousand copies of his book (‘The Ritz grillroom did a Nijinsky leap before Jeff’s eyes’, French Leave, ch8(1)); or something more unpleasant, as when Bingo Little realised that Mrs Bingo knew all (‘…the offices of Wee Tots did one of those entrechats which Nijinsky used to do in Russian Ballet’, ‘Bingo Bans the Bomb’, from Plum Pie). The reference might be to a mere expectation of unpleasantness, as when Bertie Wooster was on the very brink of his next engagement to Madeleine Basset (‘The mice in my interior had now got up an informal dance and were buck-ad-winging all over the place like a bunch of Nijinskys. The Mating Season, ch10).

It was not only a restaurant grill-room, but even a respectable liner such as the Atlantic which could behave like a Russian dancer and lower Nijinsky’s record for leaping on the air and twiddling the feet before descending, though in fairness to the ship we should add that its behaviour was caused by a terrible storm (The Luck of the Bodkins, ch13).

Wodehouse characters who themselves acted like Russian dancers should certainly be at least partly excused for their behaviour. In fact, from the List of quotations, you can see that Lord Emsworth, Bream Mortimer and James Corcoran shouldn’t be blamed very much at all, because they made the Ballet pas whilst under considerable stress. Especially we should excuse Mr Trout (Bachelors Anonymous, ch10), who had been floating about the room like something out of Swan Lake because of pure love which had suddenly come to him.

As for the case of Adrian Peake, he undoubtedly should refrain from jumping ‘with a lissom grace, like something out of the Russian ballet’ (Summer Moonshine, ch6). His action resembles Cyprian Rossiter’s adroitness in avoiding a blow from a dagger. (‘If he fails as a critic, there is always a future for him as a Russian dancer’, ‘The Man who gave up Smoking’, from Mr Mulliner Speaking).

Far more revolting is the situation, when the Brinkley Court servants, dancing at a country house ball, make Bertie Wooster think he might as well be living in the middle of the Russian Ballet (Right Ho, Jeeves, ch22). A similar remark may be addressed to Mr Slingsby after springing forward with war-cries and treading on a casual golf-ball (‘The Spot of Art’, from Very Good, Jeeves).

It is curious that the female characters in Wodehouse’s works exhibit rather an enviable restraint and are rarely found practising steps from the Russian Ballet. Marcia Ferris, an early fiancée of Tipton Plimsoll did so (Galahad at Blandings, ch10(1)), but otherwise we have to turn to Mrs Fisher, who contrived to turn even golf into the Russian Ballet, for assistance (‘Keeping in with Vosper’, from The Heart of a Goof).

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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When the Delicately Nurtured Get Ahead

He admired Joan’s courage, he was relieved that her venture had ended without disaster, and he knew that she deserved whatever anyone could find to say in praise of her enterprise: but, at first, though he tried to crush it down, he could not help feeling a certain amount of chagrin that a girl should have succeeded where he, though having the advantage of first chance, had failed. The terms of his partnership with Joan had jarred on him from the beginning.

A man may be in sympathy with the modern movement for the emancipation of woman and yet feel aggrieved when a mere girl proves herself a more efficient thief than himself. Woman is invading man’s sphere more successfully every day; but there are still certain fields in which man may consider that he is rightfully entitled to a monopoly–and the purloining of scarabs in the watches of the night is surely one of them.

Obesity

On the theory, given to the world by William Shakespeare, that it is the lean and hungry-looking men who are dangerous, and that the “fat, sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights,” are harmless, R. Jones should have been above suspicion.

The Gravity of Challenges

Trouble, after all, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The Perks of an Advanced Age

Among the compensations of advancing age is a wholesome pessimism, which, though it takes the fine edge off of whatever triumphs may come to us, has the admirable effect of preventing Fate from working off on us any of those gold bricks, coins with strings attached, and unhatched chickens, at which ardent youth snatches with such enthusiasm, to its subsequent disappointment. As we emerge from the twenties we grow into a habit of mind that looks askance at Fate bearing gifts. We miss, perhaps, the occasional prize, but we also avoid leaping light-heartedly into traps.

As we grow older and realize more clearly the limitations of human happiness, we come to see that the only real and abiding pleasure in life is to give pleasure to other people.

When the Heart Stands Still

To say that Baxter’s heart stood still would be physiologically inexact. The heart does not stand still. Whatever the emotions of its owner, it goes on beating. It would be more accurate to say that Baxter felt like a man taking his first ride in an express elevator, who has outstripped his vital organs by several floors and sees no immediate prospect of their ever catching up with him again. There was a great cold void where the more intimate parts of his body should have been.

The Perils of Handling a Millionaire

Success had made Mr. Peters, in certain aspects of his character, a spoiled child.

At the moment when Ashe broke the news he (Mr. Peters) would have parted with half his fortune to recover the scarab. Its recovery had become a point of honor. He saw it as the prize of a contest between his will and that of whatever malignant powers there might be ranged against him in the effort to show him that there were limits to what he could achieve. He felt as he had felt in the old days when people sneaked up on him in Wall Street and tried to loosen his grip on a railroad or a pet stock. He was suffering from that form of paranoia which makes men multimillionaires. Nobody would be foolish enough to become a multimillionaire if it were not for the desire to prove himself irresistible.

The Honourable Freddie hated piercing stares. One of the reasons why he objected to being left alone with his future father-in-law, Mr. J. Preston Peters, was that Nature had given the millionaire a penetrating pair of eyes, and the stress of business life in New York had developed in him a habit of boring holes in people with them. A young man had to have a stronger nerve and a clearer conscience than the Honourable Freddie to enjoy a tete-a-tete with Mr. Peters.

Of Cat Fights

The unpleasantness opened with a low gurgling sound, answered by another a shade louder and possibly more querulous. A momentary silence was followed by a long-drawn note, like rising wind, cut off abruptly and succeeded by a grumbling mutter. The response to this was a couple of sharp howls. Both parties to the contest then indulged in a discontented whining, growing louder and louder until the air was full of electric menace. And then, after another sharp silence, came war, noisy and overwhelming.

Standing at Master Waffles’ side, you could follow almost every movement of that intricate fray, and mark how now one and now the other of the battlers gained a short-lived advantage. It was a great fight. Shrewd blows were taken and given, and in the eye of the imagination you could see the air thick with flying fur.

Louder and louder grew the din; and then, at its height, it ceased in one crescendo of tumult, and all was still, save for a faint, angry moaning.

Pleasures of the Table

Occasions of feasting and revelry like the present were for him so many battlefields, on which Greed fought with Prudence.

(Related Post:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2021/04/30/some-evergreen-life-lessons-from-something-fresh-part-1)

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A Singular Absence of Morality

Once the Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty goes missing and the needle of suspicion points to a forgetful Lord Emsworth, Mr Peters veers around to the view that:

‘There’s no morality among collectors, none.’

Rupert Baxter, having served collectors in a secretarial capacity earlier in his career, also knows that collectors who would not steal a loaf of bread even if they are starving do fall before the temptation of a coveted curio.

A Female Who Aims to Break the Glass Ceiling

The feisty heroine of Something Fresh could well be a role model for the younger females who have to bear with prying eyes, eve teasing and inappropriate advances in all spheres of life. This is how Plum describes her at one stage:

Her eyes were eyes that looked straight and challenged. They could thaw to the satin blue of the Mediterranean Sea, where it purrs about the little villages of Southern France; but they did not thaw for everybody. She looked what she was–a girl of action; a girl whom life had made both reckless and wary–wary of friendly advances, reckless when there was a venture afoot.

While ticking off Ashe Marson on the subject of who steals the scarab, this is how she retorts:

‘That’s simply your old-fashioned masculine attitude toward the female, Mr. Marson. You look on woman as a weak creature, to be shielded and petted. We aren’t anything of the sort. We’re terrors! We’re as hard as nails. We’re awful creatures. You mustn’t let my sex interfere with your trying to get this reward. Think of me as though I were another man. We’re up against each other in a fair fight, and I don’t want any special privileges. If you don’t do your best from now onward I shall never forgive you.’

Gone are the days when the parents would urge upon their daughters to leave for their husband’s home and hearth with a submissive attitude, meekly submitting to the demands of her newly acquired family. It was like a one-way ticket, the only escape route being death.

Armed with a decent education, a higher level of literacy and renewed self-confidence, females no longer submit to bullying by the party of the other part. They demand a life of self-respect and dignity. They aim to break as many glass ceilings as they possibly can.  

Like many of his other heroines, Plum has been prescient in modeling Joan as an emancipated individual in a misogynistic society. He modeled her close to a century back, when Rosa Parks was an unknown name and the feminist movement was beyond anyone’s imagination in the Western world.      

The Perks of Being Woolly Headed

Many of us take a liking to Lord Emsworth, simply owing to his woolly headedness. His memory span is rather short, thereby leaving his mind uncluttered and relatively free to potter about in his gardens, taking care of the Empress of Blandings and, occasionally, an odd pumpkin or two. One suspects that his worries, if any, are limited only to what he is passionate about.     

Except for a few of life’s fundamental facts, like the drawer in which his cheque book is and that he has a young idiot like Freddie on his hands as a son, he does not remember anything for more than a few minutes. He could always rely on Rupert Baxter, his indefatigable secretary, to supply any other information that may become necessary.

Thus, he may be accused of lacking in subtler emotions of life, but he leads an extremely happy life. A success does not unduly uplift his spirits, nor does a failure dampen his spirits too much. In other words, he is already living a life based on the principle of detachment and equipoise recommended by Bhagavad Gita, the 5,500 years old scripture of Indian origin.

The secret of his state of happiness is that he does not worry too much about things which are beyond either his areas of interest or control. Whereas lesser mortals like us are often twiddling our thumbs trying to figure out the ways and means of controlling a surging pandemic, the future of humanity in the face of rapid advances in technology, global warming and even the political aspirations of a wannabe super power on the global front, he, blessed with a deep sense of contentment, keeps attending to the the Achillea, the Bignonia Radicans, the Ampanula, the Digitalis, the Euphorbia, the Funkia, the Gypsophila, the Helianthus, the Iris, the Liatris, the Monarda, the Phlox Drummondi, the Salvia, the Thalictrum, the Vinca and the Yucca in his extensive gardens.  

He shows us that the key to leading a happy life lies not in worrying but being contented with what life has already offered one.    

Securing an Opening and Being Disobedient  

When Ashe Marson walks into Mr Peter’s den for securing an assignment, he is full of gall. Looking the boss in the eye and giving it back to him occasionally earns him not only the assignment but also a long term career offer. The diet-exercise regime unleashed upon him to cure his dyspepsia gradually starts showing results. The employer-employee relationship here has a dash of disobedience on part of the latter but it does get results.

‘You’re a wonder,’ said Mr Peters. ‘You’re sassy and you have no respect for your elders and betters, but you deliver the goods. That’s the point. Why, I am beginning to feel great.’

After the scarab is restored and the assignment at hand is over, Mr Peter is impressed enough to offer him a career in watching over his health. He graciously accepts the offer to shift base to America, along with Joan Valentine, the love of his life. We are already aware that Ashe is conscious that a future in which Joan did not figure would be so unsupportable as not to bear considering.

Alas, much like Psmith and Eve of the Leave it to Psmith fame, both are never heard of again anywhere else in the canon.  

Thinking on One’s Feet

In the servant’s hall, when the true identity of Joan Valentine comes under focus, Ashe is quick to divert the group’s attention by imitating a fight between cats. This amuses the group no end and his popularity index goes up quite a notch.

Of Literature and Mental Prowess

In his earlier days, Freddie Threepwood had been persuaded to experiment with high brow literature in Greek, Latin and English. But he had shown a sheep-like stolidity in declining the rich fare. However, the Adventures of Gridley Quayle brought romance and excitement into his otherwise dull life. He had finally found the kind of literature that suited his mental prowess.

While devouring one of the escapades of the famed detective, he prefers to be left all alone. He objects to his reveries broken in upon not only by officious relatives but even by Aline, his fiancée. His inclination to relish his solitude makes her scratch the fixture and return him to store.

The Art and Science of Investigation

Courtesy Ashe Marson, we also get an inkling of the kind of tactics detectives apply to crack a case. They have their own methods. Inductive reasoning is one. A dash of intuition is another. Being a pitiless observer while remaining invisible is yet another. Waiting for coincidences is another important ingredient in cracking a case.

Sleuths at Scotland Yard and at similar other outfits might find these inputs of some use.    

Suspecting Everything

The Efficient Baxter earns his living by suspecting everything around him. His chief characteristic is a vague suspicion of his fellow human beings. He does not suspect them of any definite crime; he simply suspects them. Miss Willoughby describes him as a Nosy Parker.

His sense of duty deserves to be emulated. He takes a proprietary interest in all things at the Castle. His whole being revolts at the thought of allowing the sanctity of the museum to be violated. He performs his duties even by enduring considerable discomforts, physical as well as mental.

Nature has not intended him to be a night-bird. But he spends nine consecutive nights keeping a strict vigil on the proceedings on the ground floor hall from a discreetly placed chair in the gallery which runs above it. Alas, the suspect does not walk into the trap.

In the call of duty, he even undergoes mental anguish and withstands a public rebuke from Lord Emsworth. After an unpleasant encounter on the staircase, he manages to survive as many as six bullets fired in dark from the latter’s pistol. When the lights get switched on, he is found on the floor, duly accompanied by a cold tongue, a knife, a fork, some bread, a corkscrew and a bottle of white wine.    

The monstrous accusation he earns by way for a reward of his efforts is narrated thus:

‘My dear Baxter, if your hunger is so great that you are unable to wait for breakfast and have to raid my larder in the middle of the night, I wish to goodness you would contrive to make less noise about it. I do not grudge you the food — help yourself when you please — but do remember that people who have not such keen appetites as yourself like to sleep during the night. A far better plan, my dear fellow, would be to have sandwiches or buns — or whatever you consider most sustaining — sent up to your bedroom.’

Besides being a ceaseless vigilante, he also uses tact. Nipping Mr Pater’s do-it-yourself approach towards recovering the scarab in the bud, he does not embarrass his guest. Rather, he speaks of Mut and Bubastis, of Ammon and the Book of the Dead.

Those who wish to shine in their careers could draw a lot of inspiration from Rupert Baxter.

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Some Evergreen Life Lessons from ‘Something Fresh’ (Part 1)

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