Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reciprocal Wodehouse Linkage

He linked to my old post about P.G. Wodehouse, but even if he hadn't, I'd recommend that you look at Ray Givran's post about the source of a P.G. Wodehouse short story.

What I argued a few years ago was that many of Wodehouse's works, and in particular the short stories, are basically parodies of popular fiction from the early 20th century; the subjects and stock characters that other writers might be dealing with in a serious way -- dissolute young clubmen, bluff, hearty ex-explorers -- are played for laughs. The Mr. Mulliner stories, my favorite Wodehouse series, are a send-up of a once-popular type of fiction which is "framed" by a bunch of people sitting around and listening to one person tell them the story. (It was a deliberate send-up of a type of story that Wodehouse particularly disliked.)

One of the few Mulliner stories about a woman, Mr. Mulliner's niece Charlotte, is "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court": Charlotte, a pretentious animal-rights supporter who writes "Vignettes in Verse," and her boyfriend, an equally pretentious writer of "Pastels in Prose," go to a country house populated by stereotypical hunting addicts. The house exercises some kind of power that turns anyone into a lover of hunting; by the end of the story she and her gentleman friend are trying to shoot an old man with an air-gun, and her poems are all about the joys of shooting gnus. It also contains one of the very greatest Wodehouse lines:

The sky was blue. The sun was shining. All Nature seemed to call to her to come out and kill things.

According to Givran, a discussion on a message board has suggested that this might be a parody of a John Buchan story that had appeared the year before, called "Fullcircle: Martin Peckwether's Story." It's about a young literarily-inclined, couple that moves into a house that exerts a similar fascination on them, until they drop their freethinking ways and become just like the person who originally owned the house.

Now, Wodehouse might not have had that specific story in mind, because he'd already written a somewhat similar (and truly insane) story called "Honeysuckle Cottage," in which a writer of hard-boiled mysteries moves into a house owned by his aunt, a writer of soppy romance novels. He finds himself not only being possessed by the spirit of his aunt's writing (coy, beautiful maidens keep finding their way into his stories along with lines like "a veritable child of faerie") but also finds himself living out the plot of one of her sentimental books: a beautiful girl gets hit by a car and winds up staying in his house, he saves her dog's life, the girl's aged fiance nobly steps aside so she can be with the man of her heart, etc. (The story is a great guide to the cliches of a type of novel -- the completely sexless romance -- that no longer exists.) But the Buchan story does show that this kind of plot was used frequently in serious, or at least semi-serious fiction. Wodehouse's stories are crazier versions of plots that were actually played straight in the rest of the magazine.

As time went on and those stories started to die out, of course, Wodehouse's treatment of these ideas and characters became more stylized, because his audience was no longer aware that they were supposed to be parodies of anything.

1 comment:

Ray Girvan said...

Then again, the plot thickens... The 1925 Honeysuckle Cottage has in turn been analysed as chiefly a parody of Henry James' 1898 The Turn of the Screw, which it even mentions; and Buchan's Fullcircle was actually first published in January 1920, which also puts in the picture as an influence for Honeysuckle Cottage.