P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) is known for smirk worthy satire and slapstick, a prolific and often formulaic writer who was very able at poking fun of society’s elite and ‘betters’ usually by having them run around like headless chickens misunderstanding each other and ending up with webs of lies even the author of the Art of War may have had trouble making the best of. Farcical circumstances with many a twist, silly stereotypes and star crossed lovers abounded – as well as vile interlopers who’d stand in said couples way preferring them to find love, well at least nuptials in their own class to protect the family name and fortune. I’ve been frequently amazed by how many of the lovers in his stories have happy endings and marry really quickly out of what seems like rebellion and infatuation ‘euphamised’ as love at first sight. It usually makes for comedy to many fans though it could easily be tragedy, especially with the characters consisting of mainly clueless, reckless folk and then masterminds adept at cunning, ruthlessness and artifice – scary balance there but ‘good’ always wins so it’s a-ok ;-). I don’t think his works are as intricate or relatable as say Terry Pratchett or as derisive as Tom Sharpe but he knew how to convey Brit nobles to the public and their integration with American new money and had a firm grasp of colloquial language.
If reading his stories without factoring in the publishing date or being told somewhere on the packaging, the timeframe of the settings in his books are a bit hard to guess other than being 20th century and little-to-no mention of major war (like Agatha Christie in that sense – though at least with her you could tell the period by style/decor fashions) but because of the people he deals with and their ‘quaint’ customs/style they have a somewhat timeless quality – as if plucked out of a time loop and plonked on the landscape. A landscape that usually includes London and the ‘country’ with the country set being more rustic and dare I say presented as quaint in comparison to the city set.
The Gold Bat (first published in 1904) falls into the selection of stories that isn’t a part of the in/famous Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings Castle ones nor his short stories, but it also isn’t like many of its neighbours in that it’s more of a ‘slice of life’ than comedy caper following the favoured formula. It has one setting, based on schoolboys at a well-to-do school, mostly regarding their rugby teams and is in my opinion more serious than other stories. Not that arranged marriage isn’t deadly serious but this story doesn’t get the usual light hearted treatment, it doesn’t have the rip-roarious tone. It’s a bit more thoughtful, more gentle and slow paced yet still genteel, one can only speculate what it was that inspired it.
PLOT & CONTROVERSIAL EXTRA-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES
It’s post-Xmas at Wrykyn boarding school and a new term has kicked off with a half hearted scratch game to see who’s eaten a bit too much, who’s fallen out of shape and who could fill the boots of students that have left the school and their teammates in the lurch.
There’s an award for every team in the school but a cup for the annual winners and little Gold bat/pin for the runner’s up. The Captain of one of the favourite teams currently holding the bat (Trevor, also Head of his House and Prefect) has lent it to a friend O’Hara and upon one of O’Hara’s little deviant excursions it has gone astray. Damn. That’s almost as bad as when students pawn their wares during term time after having spent their allowance decorating their studies with trinkets, theatre posters or in the cafe/tuck shop. In this case (and this is no spoiler) the loss of the bat is extra worrying because the excursion/vandalism leads to a public and political scandal. If Trevor is thought to be involved he’ll be sent home, permanently, and as poignantly noted in the book – it’s not the being expelled that’s the problem, it’s the going home/return of the prodigal son that’s hardest to face.
The rest of the plot follows Trevor and his friend’s efforts to find said bat, but what is thrown up in the meanwhile is really quite sinister. Choosing one’s team can be tough on a Captain (and his supervisors) when an old school secret society is revived like a vampire from the cave silent smoking meetings are held by some of the boys. The society was apparently started with the philanthropic aim of serving their own brand of medicine to bullies but turned into a thug gang that stalked anyone they had a tiff with and when it became public it was put to rest… Until it becomes a scapegoat for some current students to recreate the group’s activities including methodically destroying private studies making a disarray of everything; toppling furniture, breaking ornaments, throwing ink everywhere, tearing photos into pieces after taking the faces out and ripping chapters out of books. All thoroughly amusing and a salivating gossip inducing spectacle for others until it happens to them when it becomes misery incarnate.
Trevor (one of the few characters others refer to by first name) must decide between being that society’s target and choosing his team on merit.
Throughout the book there’s an alarmingly relaxed attitude about the exploits of students, what they do to each other, their teachers, their houses, conspired group behaviour in class to purposely be sent out and their general lack of interest in any of the subjects which could lead to job prospects different from nepotistic likelihoods. They get away with a lot unless it’s public, or smoking (which is regarded as a kind of cardinal sin that disrespects the divine weed supposed to be enjoyed via a pipe in comfort and to do otherwise will undoubtedly lead to degeneracy and a bad end). But then the other side is shown – students aren’t getting away with anything they don’t consider fair game (that being a very wide/inclusive term though) – these are a self governing bunch. One of Trevor’s periodic duties is reporting to the Old Man aka headmaster where he gives not only a house report but a separate essay on any given topic said old geezer decided upon at the previous meeting and is very staunch about correcting. At one of these meetings Trevor is told that he needs to find a couple of his house members that are suspected of smoking:
You will understand that I’m leaving this matter to you to be dealt with by you. I shall not require you to make any report to me. But if you should find tobacco in any boy’s room, you must punish him well, Trevor. Punish him well.
This meant that that the culprit must be ‘touched up’ before the house assembled in the dining-room… There might be any number of devotees of the weed, and he meant to carry out his instructions to the full, and make the criminals more unhappy than they had been since the day of their first cigar.
“We shall be able to see the skeletons in their cupboards… I am not going to be left out of this jaunt.”
“I suppose we needn’t look up the prefects?”
“The prefects are above suspicion.”
Yes, quite. Unofficial searches, ‘touching up’, blackmailing, mutual silence are all part of a sacred, closed circuit duty as well as boxing instead of duelling at dawn and fags of course, those being first year underlings paying their dues by living in servitude to their seniors. (I remember a colleague telling me once that his seniors used him as a footstool in their den whilst they had a great time talking about others, eating and incidentally, smoking; but ‘ratting’ ar*es has always been seen as worse than being one regardless of class).
LANGUAGE & CONCLUSION
I don’t often dwell on language in fiction, there’s many types of writing that qualify as well written or engaging to me, I don’t have a criteria or preferred style but it’s worth mentioning for this book because it feels like being suffocated or in a bubble. ‘Stuffy’ isn’t the right word for it, it’s more like the use of language plus the feelings of the characters makes it uncomfortable.
I usually learn a fair bit from Wodehouse’s use of popular terms and dialect – words that I didn’t know or got twisted over time like the use of bird and chick as referring to young-ish gentleman with too much time and money on their hands, on the town, in their clubs and perhaps newspapers too – though they weren’t necessarily degrading terms then. In this book the language is markedly and consistently ‘different’ to current mainstream literature to the point of littering sentences with slang (posh slang so shouldn’t really call it slang of course 😉 ) and terms for addressing others. They insist on being extra courteous no matter how close they are as well as civilly rude to those they dislike but in practise lash out and then torture or rag their teachers and housemasters (who pretty much think their students are the scum of the Earth and wouldn’t mind if they dropped off the face of the planet, perhaps with a helpful kick up the backside) yet presumably were the same when they were kids and who will later turn into good old boys with Silver hair who look back fondly at their school days and boyish memories… Oh and the token Irish boy reverts to olde English whilst relating his adventures/dishing out a world of hurt but the token Euro is barely understandable to his peers though he tries his best not to speak his native tongue at all, they are benevolent towards and don’t dislike him though.
The use of terminology is also confusing e.g. I was sure I was reading about rugby from the start but having it constantly described as football threw me off a bit. I know Americans traditionally use the term ‘football’ for rugby and ‘soccer’ for football but that’s the first time I’ve seen him notably use an American voice in his predominantly English based novels so along with the heavy use of apparently common school kid/boy jargon for those in the upper classes the first few chapters were a bit tough. There’s no mention of ‘rugger’ at all but plenty of description for things I didn’t know about like rules about the how schools play internally and externally against other schools, the nature of their house cup, first/second/third strings, that they play practise games against teachers and how they decide who gets the best bathroom and when…
The use of public and private school threw me off a bit too and then I fully realized who I was reading about, that elusive 1%. For the time period the school categories fit in well as opposed to later terms like boarding (that even later changed from full boarding to admitting day pupils and partial boarding) or independent schools (both fee-paying although the ‘public’ ones being exclusive of the govt plus ironically set up originally as charity schools) but with the story as a whole its perhaps so authentic that it’s almost alien. It’s not the same as reading Victorian or prior literature, getting used to the lingo and then going with the flow with the mindset ”I’m reading about another culture”. There’s something disconcerting about it because it’s describing home not away, it’s an everyday world he’s describing, a society within (yet above) our own, and it’s not pretty or funny like an outside look at high society can easily be presented as. I’m not from that world and I’ve said no to it a few times but the description of the structure and expectation, the ‘training’/conditioning is insightful (just look at the top figures in government to see how/where they were brought up to treat each other and then how they treat everybody else and think it’s ok/natural/their ‘right’) and you realize Wodehouse for some reason took a different turn with this but it’s its very accuracy that can make it seem unreal.
Excerpt from blurb:
Though the setting is an English public school in the years before World War I, so sharp is Wodehouse’s ear for the way children talk that everyone will recognize familiar characters and situations, whatever their place of education.
Even once I got used to the language I would say it feels forced. If you can get past the first 3-ish chapters I think the book makes for an ok, filler read but if I had known it was going to be more about the everyday lives of public school boys (or girls for that matter and yes I didn’t pay attention to the blurb) than satire and had I not been a long term fan I probably would have left it on the shelf or left in unfinished.