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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.

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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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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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