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

The Context

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Baboo Jabberjee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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