Saturday, 13 April 2019

By Jeeves, what a Find!


Asked late in life for the secret to being a writer, PG Wodehouse flippantly said: “I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit.”

Sixty years earlier, however, the young Wodehouse needed more constructive advice.

The response that led him into a career as creator of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and a menagerie of other characters can be revealed after the discovery of a letter he wrote at the age of 16.

“How can one become a journalist?” asked “Mr Wodehouse, of Dulwich” in a letter to Chums, a boys’ weekly newspaper, published on May 18, 1898.

It received a lengthy reply from the editor that began, slightly pompously, “only if Providence has willed it” before giving more helpful tips.

The reply to Wodehouse in Chums magazine on May 18, 1898.

“The first requisite is not only that a man shall be able to write about the things he sees and hears, but that he shall be able to write about them in such a way that other people will be interested in his work,” the editor continued.

“If he have this gift, the rest is easy."

“If a man can write, editors will soon discover the fact and wish to employ him. It is the man who cannot write who is the nuisance to them."

"He deluges them and the waste-paper basket with his hopeless productions.”

The editor suggested that Wodehouse study the columns of “some journal that he likes” and attempt his own pieces.

“[They] should be brief; they should be bright; and they should deal with some subject a little out of the common,” he concluded.

Assuming that this is the Wodehouse, who was a student at Dulwich College at the time, the advice worked.

He soon started to write for The Alleynian, the college magazine, and his first bylined piece, a poem entitled On the New Football Ground, was published in 1899.

It had long been thought that this poem was the first time that Wodehouse’s name appeared beneath his own writing in print, but it is claimed in the latest Wooster Sauce, journal of the British PG Wodehouse Society, that the letter to Chums should be considered his debut.

Indeed, Don Taylor, whose research is reported in the journal, suggests that his debut may even have come a year earlier, with a piece of literary criticism about a short story in Chums.

“A letter reaches me from Mr Wodehouse,” the Chums editor wrote on March 17, 1897.

"I think that Rogues of the Fiery Cross is the best story I have ever read. It knocks spots off In Quest of Sheba’s Treasure, which I didn’t think was quite up to Chums’ usual standard’.”

It went on to ask advice on how to lose weight and whether 11.30pm was a “harmful” bedtime.

The editor replied that a couple of late nights a week were fine for “any lad under 21” as long as he was in bed by 10.30 on the other five.

“Until recently we believed that Mr Wodehouse’s first published words appeared in The Alleynian but now it seems that he may have started a year or two earlier,” Mr Taylor wrote in Wooster Sauce.

Of the letter in 1897, which did not include an address, he wrote: “We can’t be certain that this is PG Wodehouse but the date is plausible.”

He suggested that the careers advice letter was more certain.

“The mention of Dulwich is pretty conclusive.”

A decline in the family finances meant that Wodehouse was unable to go to Oxford when he left Dulwich in 1900.

He started work as a clerk at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, where he filled the ledgers with scribbled thoughts and plotted his escape.

He resigned in 1902 to take a job on the By The Way column of The Globe newspaper and published The Pothunters, the first of more than 90 novels and collections of short stories.

In 1938 it was reported that he was the most highly paid author in the world.

Chums was first published in 1892 with stories on such topics as football, Harrow School and Julius Caesar.

The last edition was published in 1941.

Wodehouse wrote a serial for the newspaper in 1908 called The Luck Stone under the pseudonym Basil Windham.

In 1933, the paper listed him at No 4 in Chums Gallery of Famous Men and asked for an interview.

Wodehouse suggested they speak instead to his daughter, Leonora, saying: “She knows more about me than I know myself.”

Neither Leonora, who told the paper that he was first published in The Alleynian, nor the Chums editor of the time seemed aware that the paper had given his career a vital spark 35 years earlier.

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