Jenny Haddon was a writer from four years old. She read English at St Hugh's College, Oxford, failed to get her first novel published and went to work at the Bank of England, where she learned to check everything at least 10 times and beware high flying economists. Mostly she is published as Sophie Weston, and her most recent story, 'Cinderella, Revised', is in the new collection Loves Me, Loves Me Not, edited by Katie Fforde and Sue Moorcroft. Always interested in style - well, P.G. Wodehouse is her hero – she has co-written Getting the Point, A User-Friendly Guide to Punctuation for Adults with historical novelist Elizabeth Hawksley. Jenny is currently working on a different sort of novel and, with Diane Pearson, is compiling a celebration volume of the Romantic Novelists' Association's first 50 years. Here she discusses P.G. Wodehouse's Hot Water.
Jenny Haddon on Hot Water by P.G. Wodehouse
When I was young there were three ways of discovering authors, rather like boyfriends: polite introduction by one's elders; adventuring in the fleshpots, generally with a specific warning against; and chance. And it was by chance, all on my own, that I found Wodehouse, when I picked up a book in my local library. I read a page and, with an almost audible click, I was home.
No one I knew agreed with me. My father, a sweet-hearted socialist of the old school, was uncomfortable with PGW's upper-class twits. My mother said simply that she didn't like funny books. Teachers and contemporaries alike dismissed him. For this, Sean O'Casey's assessment - 'English literature's performing flea' - must bear some responsibility. To be fair to O'Casey, he wrote this in a letter to The Daily Telegraph in 1941, when the British press was calling Wodehouse every sort of fascist traitor, so the judgement has to be at least as political as it was literary. But then, I suspect, for O'Casey there was not a big difference.
Yet, in spite of the general sniffiness, I began to realize that Wodehouse was more than a spot of trivial self-indulgence. He bore re-reading exceptionally well. I could remember the best bits word for word, more readily than anything except Shakespeare. He gave me a new and delightful, if slightly weird, perspective on other people's activities. In fact, he was a source of profound pleasure, up there with Bach and Mozart.
Can I explain it? Well, no, not entirely. But it was more than the simple pleasure of taking a holiday in an eternal Edwardian summer of Grand Country Houses and barmy aristocrats. In fact, I disagree with the regular characterization of Wodehouse's dramatis personae as amiable eccentrics. (Bertie Wooster is a kind man but his slightest gesture towards eccentricity is squashed by Jeeves - one remembers, with regret, the skirmish over the white mess jacket. Lord Emsworth is only intermittently amiable. With the exception of the occasional chorus girl, all PGW's women are tough cookies who could give today's feminists a correspondence course in man management.) The amiability is the author's and it is the amiability of the measured Augustan, who sees life steadily, sees it whole and gets a jolly good laugh out of it. The eccentricity exists only in the characters' lack of self-consciousness. These are not people-pleasers. Still less are they analysts of their own desires. They do what they want to do. Sometimes that is daft. Sometimes it is hopelessly pretentious. Occasionally it is criminal. They may dissemble in pursuit of a stratagem - and a great source of delight and plot complication it is - but essentially they don't lie. They are as wilful and inventive as adolescents. Courteous and friendly adolescents, on the whole, but adolescents nevertheless. Their plans zip straight from the subconscious to the boat train, with minimal messing about.
And of course, there is the joy of the Wodehouse style. No words of mine can do it justice. It is worth remembering that the other great 20th century stylist of popular fiction, Raymond Chandler, arrived at Dulwich College the autumn term after Wodehouse left. Maybe they found their way independently to their mastery of balance, structure, clarity and timing. Maybe it was the inspiration of the flamboyant headmaster, A.H. Gilkes, himself a novelist. But my money is on a classics master, who will have taught them rhetoric, which they both used to such effect. (I hold that nobody since Pope has used the Mock Heroic, and its attendant Bathos, to such effect as Wodehouse.) Robert McCrum, in his masterly biography of PGW, refers to the Librarian, Philip Hope, of whose exhilarating lessons one of his students remembered: 'Few could have rivaled him in teaching boys to compose prose and verse, and we were often spell-bound by the speed and brilliance with which he gave version after version of the ways in which a sentence or line could be turned into Greek or Latin.' [Robert McCrum, Wodehouse, A Life, pp. 30-31.] Aha, I thought, when I read it. That'll be the chap.
I came to Hot Water late and, again, by chance, this time in a second-hand bookshop. My copy is one of the old Herbert Jenkins orange cloth-bound jobs - 'fourth printing, completing 51,007 copies', so sales were pretty good, in spite of a lukewarm reception by the critics. Even J.B. Priestley said it was 'the mixture as before', adding as a sop, which can have been small comfort to PGW, 'and very diverting it is, too'. (I wish I could have told PGW that once, when struggling in the net of a vile depression, I read it from cover to cover and decided that life wasn't so bad after all and flushed the tablets down the loo.) It is dedicated to Maureen O'Sullivan (yes, that Maureen O'Sullivan; he was working in Hollywood and they shared a passion for Pekes) and was written after he had got into a fairish-sized bath of hot water himself, making fun of the studio who employed him to the LA press. It effectively ended his career in movies.
But Hot Water is not about Hollywood. (Read the Mr Mulliner stories for that. You are in for a treat.) Nor is it part of either the Blandings or Wooster canon. It is set mainly on the French Riviera, has the neatly convoluted plot of a French farce and is pure heaven. PGW, a cautious man when it came to evaluating his own work, thought it, 'A corker. There isn't an incident in it that doesn't act as a delayed bomb and lead to an explosion later.' He was not wrong.
This is farce that nods to Molière. Characters do not know themselves (or their nearest and dearest) and have to learn. But these are not eccentrics. Take out the wondrous authorial voice, and you have people who could turn up in any number of novels - political thrillers, high and low romances, gumshoe crime and Literature with the proverbial capital. (It was written in 1932. Two years later, Fitzgerald published Tender is the Night - same period, same landscape, same floundering American expats; even, God help us, the same level of inebriation.) No, it is not this particular bunch of characters which is eccentric. It is us. The novel's message is that we are all barmy when we get the bit between our teeth. It simply takes the Author of Sense and Sentiment to reveal it to us.
And how gently, how deliciously, how sympathetically he does it. Hot Water starts with a tubby little man, forcibly transplanted to the South of France by his wealthy wife, reading post from home on the terrace of a Riviera chateau. 'Ever since his marriage two years ago and the subsequent exodus to Europe he had been pining wistfully for California. The poet speaks of a man whose heart was in the Highlands, a-chasing of the deer. Mr Gedge's heart was in Glendale, Cal., wandering around among the hot dogs and filling stations.' This is farce made upon the stuff of tragedy. (I sometimes imagine what Fitzgerald would have made of J. Wellington Gedge and his power-broking wife. Probably the poor sap would have ended up as Ambassador to France, wearing knickerbockers, after all, while Mrs Gedge ran a salon of whiskered blokes and waged war against Gertrude Stein.)
Sometimes the Author of Sense and Sentiment stands back and simply observes. Waterloo Station, for instance, resembles 'a cathedral whose acolytes fill in their time with a bit of steam-fitting on the side'. Similarly, 'An education at Eton and subsequent travel in both Great Britain and the United States had given the Vicomte de Blissac a considerable fluency in the English tongue but not a perfect command of it. He belonged to the school of thought which holds that if you talk quick the words will take care of themselves.'
Sometimes the author is right behind the shoulder of one of his characters, letting us tune into their inner monologue. Take the disdainful beauty Lady Beatrice Bracken, bidding a temporary farewell to her fiancé, Patrick B. Franklyn, 'the well known young American millionaire and sportsman', when they bump into his old friend, that cheerful reveller the Vicomte under reference. 'It was not often that Lady Beatrice Bracken did approve of Packy's friends. It seemed to her that each was more repulsive than the last. She herself, except for a taste for the society of intellectuals, was exclusively County in her intimacies. Packy, on the other hand, as far as she had been able to gather, seemed to like everybody.' Aha, says the alert reader. This is a woman who needs to become an ex-fiancée and pretty sharpish. Packy, of course, liking everybody as he does, is unaware of it. So here is the book's romantic conflict, without which no Wodehouse novel is complete: chap goes for wrong girl and has to find out the hard way.
I cannot tell you any more of the plot. You need to see it unfold for yourself, each little slow-release bomblet fizzing away at the back of your mind, while the characters plan and persuade and push and sometimes think they're getting somewhere, only to fall spectacularly on their butts – well, this is farce, after all. All I can say is that, as it unfolds, it all seems perfectly natural. Heck, it is what the reader would do himself, as the logical next step. (As I said, we are all 'eccentrics'.) Only logic is not reliable. Hot Water is an Ode in Praise of Cock-up Theory.
There are scenes to treasure. I commend to you two Americans pretending to be French aristocrats, compelled to speak French. Put your coffee cup down when you get to that one. I commend to you the inventive, resourceful, open-hearted hero, the lively heroine, her Prohibitionist Senator father (a ten-minute egg, if ever there was one), her fiancé, the younger British novelist who earns his bread doing noises off at the BBC - 'Somebody says "Hurrah, girls, here comes the Royal Bodyguard" and Blair goes tramp, tramp, tramp! - the Pinkerton's agent, the safe blower... oh every single one, a delight. I commend to you an approach to fiction in which the good end happily and the bad end seeing the error of their ways.
Above all, I commend to you the sheer delight of a style which is perfectly honed, as spare and expressive as poetry, as clear as chemical analysis and as friendly as a Labrador. Enjoy!
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]