The Inimitable Wodehouse

By - Monday 4th November, 2013

Cormac Mannion finds the influence of Croydon had a lasting effect on PG Wodehouse, even seeping into his characters

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“Croydon’s such a dive, I hate this place.” This rather splenetic statement prompts a momentary suspension of my conversation, as I enjoy a coffee with fellow Citizen contributor Tom Lickley in the Whitgift Centre. The train of our no doubt immensely profound and serious thought has not so much been lost as de-railed.

I must point out that this statement was not actually directed at us; the distressing sentiment was ventilated by a twenty-something lady to her companion as they passed by our table. This fact did not stop me from bristling nor Tom from bridling, though neither of us manage to marshal ourselves in time to launch a trenchant rebuttal to the offending party. So we settle for shooting dark glances at their backs, as they draw away to their chosen seats, unperturbed by their affected indifference to our disapproval. (It was almost as if they hadn’t even noticed)

Tom is quickest to recover and begins a belated but admirably cogent exposition of the various exciting property developments in our fair town, the proximity to the centre of London, the excellent transport links, our rich diversity and other such factors while I nod supportively for emphasis with an almost Ed Ballsian fervency. As Tom’s encomium draws to an end, I settle the matter and compound the defeat of our flippant (and entirely oblivious) adversary with an indignant: “and Wodehouse was educated here!” Tom nods his assent solemnly and, singularly pleased with ourselves, we sip our (by now cold) coffee with the proud air of champions of truth and justice.

Wodehouse is said to have claimed that it was in Croydon that he first encountered the feisty nature of the cockney woman, on which some of his characters were later to be based

He was, you know. Educated here. Wodehouse, I mean. Why does that matter and why was I so sure that this fact acted as some kind of ultimate repudiation to the lady’s remark? Well, let me attempt to explain. P G Wodehouse, for those of you who’ve yet to have the pleasure (you have my envy), was very possibly the finest comic writer to have ever been born. His formative years were spent being educated right here in our fair borough.

Born in 1881, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was educated at what is now Elmhurst School for Boys in South Croydon between 1886 and 1889. Wodehouse’s father worked as a judge in Hong Kong but sent his sons back to England to receive a proper British education. In a biography of Wodehouse, A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe, Wodehouse is said to have claimed that it was in Croydon where he first encountered the feisty nature of the cockney woman, on which some of his characters were later to be based, such as Uncle Dynamite’s Elsie Bean (take that how you will).

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Wodehouse created some of the most beloved and imperishable characters in the English literary canon: the insouciant but brilliant Rupert Psmith; the doddering Lord Emsworth and his louche younger brother Galahad; and most famously, the comedy duo of the eloquent but hapless Bertram Wooster and his manservant or ‘gentleman’s gentleman’, the omniscient Jeeves.

Despite also writing articles and poems, today Wodehouse is best remembered and cherished for his novels. These almost invariably centre on the eccentricities of the English ‘landed gentry’, and the various farcical goings on in imaginary country manors such as Blandings Castle and Totleigh Towers. His novels depict the illusory or at best anachronistic world of the English gentleman in the early twentieth century. There is certainly an element of the fantastic in Wodehouse’s work, which lends it an escapist quality that is central to its appeal. Wodehouse’s novels allow the reader to escape from everyday life to the charming world of the English countryside in which there are scandals and ‘tight spots’ aplenty, but never tragedies. This is one of the loveable traits of Wodehouse. Reading one of his novels is like talking to an old friend — relaxed, comfortable and warm. Evelyn Waugh put it best when he observed that “[Wodehouse] has made a world for us to live and delight in.”

Describing his works as ‘comfortable’ is not to denigrate them. His masterly prose, brilliant and singular as it is, has been unofficially termed ‘Wodehousian’ by some of his affectionate adherents. Attempts to analyse or explain Wodehousian English would be futile and far more qualified individuals than I have already done so. Instead I shall furnish you with one of my personal favourite excerpts which contains a classic Wodehousian simile. To provide you with some background:  Bertie has graciously agreed to aid his friend Ginger Winship in his bid to become an MP, by canvassing the local neighbourhood of Market Snodsbury and has just been admitted into the house of a Mrs McCorkadale. What follows is Bertie’s impression of his hostess, written from his point of view:

“Mrs McCorkadale was what I would call a grim woman… She had a beaky nose, tight thin lips, and her eye could have been used for splitting logs in the teak forests of Borneo. Seeing her steadily and seeing her whole, as the expression is, one marvelled at the intrepidity of Mr McCorkadale in marrying her — a man obviously whom nothing could daunt.”

Going back full circle to the beginning of this article, one might ask whether one can really take some kind of strange vicarious pride in the works of a dead-for-some-time author whose time in Croydon was rather short. But I can’t help but think that slipping into the endearing world of Wodehouse is made all the more enjoyable by the knowledge that the mind of this comic maestro was, at its most malleable, shaped by our very own borough.

Cormac Mannion

Cormac Mannion

A born and bred Croydonian, Cormac has recently completed a PGCE at Cambridge University following a History and Philosophy degree at Exeter University. A keen sportsman, Cormac worked for two summers in America at an underprivileged sports camp in New York and spends his spare time playing for local Croydon rugby team the Old Mids. When he’s not playing rugby or writing for the Citizen, you will most likely find him at Nandos complaining that he has yet to receive a Black Card despite his inordinately frequent custom.

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  • Anne Giles

    I love Wodehouse!

  • Terry Coleman

    I do believe that D H Lawrence lived and worked in Croydon as a school teacher. I wonder if the town inspired characterisation for any of his novels?

    • Richard Goff

      Yes DHL taught at Davidson’s. Guessing his experience there may have influenced the school scenes in ‘The Rainbow’ – more obviously Paul Morel’s ill-fated older brother Walter comes down south to live and work – in Elmers End