Reviewed by Brian Green
Jan Piggott is uniquely qualified to write about the life and work of P G Wodehouse, once described as England’s greatest comic writer. He was head of English and Keeper of the Archives at Dulwich College; the very school attended by Wodehouse and which influenced nearly all his early writings. Not only that, Piggott is somewhat of a Wodehouse buff, and in the first half of Wodehouse’s SCHOOL DAYS, he provides a narrative of the author’s life at Dulwich. Part Two is a fascinating deconstruction of Wodehouse’s school stories and demonstrates his close observance of his fellow pupils, masters and customs.
There was something comic from the start of P G Wodehouse’s life when his mother decided to name her three sons after their respective godfathers, or rather append them with their surnames. And grand they were. Hence we have the eldest, Peveril, then Armine, the golden boy who excelled at sport, music and his studies and in whose shadow Pelham Grenville Wodehouse carved out his own life at Dulwich College. Actually his middle name of Grenville was chosen by his mother because of her admiration for British heroes. It did not really matter what he was named because he invariably used his initials or his nickname Plum.
Plum, perhaps, disappointed his father, a colonial judge in Hong Kong, who had taken an early retirement in 1895 after suffering severe sunstroke and whose pension had fallen in value because of the collapse of the rupee. Plum’s brother Armine’s glittering career at Dulwich had been crowned with a Classical Scholarship to Corpus Christi where he would later take a Double First. Two years his junior, Plum emulated his brother’s sporting prowess but his examination results were erratic. Arthur Herman Gilkes, the inspirational Master of the College noted his deficiencies.
“Continually he does badly in examinations from lack of proper books; he is often forgetful; he finds difficulties in the simple things and asks absurd questions whereas he can understand the more difficult things.
He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humour; he draws over his books and examination papers in a most distressing way and writes foolish rhymes in other people’s books. Notwithstanding, he has a genuine interest in literature ………one is obliged to like him in spite of his vagaries…..If he perseveres he will certainly succeed”
Wodehouse senior could not have been impressed by this end of year report for 1899 and his reaction was summed up by Plum two years later in a poem found in the Public School Magazine.
For he heard the voice of his father say
In tones devoid of pity:
You aren’t going up to the ‘Varsity,
For I’ve got you a place in the City.
Fifty years after he left the school he wrote to a great friend from his schooldays: ‘to me the years between 1896 and 1900 seem so like Heaven that I feel everything since has been an anti-climax’. They must have done, because at the time he dared not return to Dulwich from post-war France for fear of being arrested and charged with treason, a fate that had already befallen a fellow Dulwich resident |(but not alumnae) William Joyce - Lord Haw Haw, and which ended in the latter’s execution.
Of course we must not overdramatize Plum’s six radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany. Unlike Joyce’s they did not seek to undermine British morale but instead were humorous transmissions directed to a (then) neutral American audience by the world’s most famous comic writer who rather stupidly failed to exit France before the Germans marched in. British newspapers pilloried him and the Establishment shunned him. Wodehouse readily admitted the error of making the broadcasts, which at his old school, Piggott tells us, led to boys who carried any of Plum’s books in their briefcases being caned by a prefect, or even more damningly goes the legend, that in the Pavilion, held so sacred by Wodehouse, the sports team’s photographs in which he appeared were turned to the wall.
That his rehabilitation, in the form of a knighthood, took time and came rather grudgingly from his mother country only five weeks before his death in 1975 must have hurt badly. Wodehouse never returned to England after the war but neither did he lose his affection for the College. In 1972 he wrote to Charles Lloyd, the Master: “If I do come to England the only place I really want to see is Dulwich”.
This was the second time that Plum had been forgiven and a lengthy endnote in the book throws light on the first occasion. Dr Piggot discards sentimentality in favour of intellectual rigour to question Plum’s account that he failed to join the colours in the First World War because of his poor eyesight. The reader might question further; the army eye-test was not that rigorous. Men with poor eyesight were given duties in the lines of communication. It is difficult not to conclude that Plum took the opportunity to go to the United States in 1914 and stay there for the duration in order to avoid the war. As far as his eyesight was concerned, the case is not proven either way. A summary of his cricketing success in the 1st X1 in 1900 praises his bowling and commends his batting but his fielding is ‘rather hampered by his sight’. That Plum was not photographed in glasses until years later could be put down to youthful vanity but his prowess as a member of the 1st X1 and 1st XV also seems to confirm he could see well enough. Wodehouse, who had written accounts of school matches for the school magazine in the years immediately after he left Dulwich, stopped receiving The Alleynian from 1914-17. Was he conscious stricken? Two of his team mates in the 1st X1 cricket team were killed and three in the rugby 1st XV. After 1920 Plum resumed his accounts of school matches he regularly watched at Dulwich in The Alleynian.
In Part Two, cricket and rugby, as well as boxing, in which Wodehouse also excelled, feature prominently in the six books and almost forty short stories he sets in a public school very recognisably, Dulwich College, which he wrote between 1902 - 1909. These fictional schools - Wrykyn, Beckford, Sedleigh, Eckleton and St Austin’s are a thinly disguised Dulwich College and like the College are set between the Village and the Woods on the hill. Did he unconsciously adopt the name St Austin’s from the large house of the same name at the corner of Dulwich Village and Village Way and now the home of JAPS as one of his fictional schools? Elsewhere in his school stories he calls Dulwich - Valley Fields and sets his famous character Psmith in Mulberry Grove (Acacia Grove). Piggott suggests that his characters, Sir Eustace Briggs and Sir Alfred Venner MP are based on Sir Evan Spicer, the owner of Belair, the mansion where Plum went on skating expeditions on the pond one hard winter after nipping out of Ivyholme where he was a boarder.
Significantly, Wodehouse judged his happy days to start when he became a boarder at the College in 1896, rather than when he started as a day boy at the age of 12. It has long been argued that the Dulwich College gave him the stability of a home life which he lacked by reason of the absence of his parents abroad. He was brought up by a succession of aunts and aunts feature heavily in his Jeeves and Wooster books. One devotee of the genre has calculated that he actually had as many as twenty aunts in total!
Wodehouse’s SCHOOL DAYS is required reading for anyone interested in the phenomenon of the golden age of the English public school as well as exploring the well-spring of ideas of this genius of comic literature.
WODEHOUSE’S SCHOOL DAYS by Jan Piggott is published as the first in a series of books in celebration of the Quatercentenary of Dulwich College in 1619. Available from Dulwich College Commissariat £20