Wodehouse – editing out the War

I didn’t think P.G.Wodehouse had written much about the War. There’s The Swoop, or how Clarence Saved England , his parody of pre- War German-invasion-scare novels; and there is The Girl behind the Gun, a 1918 show that he wrote with Guy Bolton, to music by Ivan Caryll.

Otherwise I took it that he left the subject alone, sensing tactfully perhaps that it was beyond his comic scope, much as Max Beerbohm did.

But a while ago, while looking for something else altogether in the Strand Magazine for 1920, I came across The Man who Married an Hotel (billed by the Strand as “The first story in the funniest series ever written.”)

It begins:

Peace had come at last. The Great War, with all its horrors, – its spy plays, its war novels, its articles by our military expert, and its revues with patriotic first-act finales – had passed away like a dark cloud. The time of Reconstruction had arrived, and all the old problems had sneaked back like unwanted dogs from the background into which war had thrust them. There they all were, clamouring for attention, just as they had been five years ago. England was asking herself, “How about Ireland? How about Labour? And what on earth are we to do with Archie?
To be exact, this last question was the private property of the Moffam family. It exercised them to the exclusion of all others.

Fans of Wodehouse may have realised that this is the start of The Indiscretions of Archie, but not as we know it. Topical references that may have been suitable for magazine publication were excised when it reached book form (at least in all the editions I’ve seen, including those in that treasure-house of Wodehousiana, Nigel Williams Books, of Cecil Court.)

It makes me wonder how much about the War, by Wodehouse and by others, has been edited out of the record, especially in those hardback books on which most literary researchers rely. And how far has this editing process altered our notions of the War and its literature? I’ve been looking at magazines a lot recently, and have found a great deal that never reached the dignity of hard covers – sometimes because of quality, to be sure, but sometimes because its historical moment passed very quickly.

That musical The Girl Behind the Gun sounds like fun. The chorus of the title number goes:

Far away from the battle whirl
there is work to be done,
And that’s where you will find the girl
Behind the man behind the gun;
Brave and gay, there she toils away,
Tho’ her heart’s torn in two.
For tho’ the heart may ache,
Her nerve will never break
While there is work she can do.

The song I’d really like to hear, though, is Back to the Dear Old Trenches, a trio for three soldiers whose womenfolk are giving them more trouble than the German army would. Here’s an extract:

We’re going back to the dear old trenches,
Cozy trenches, good old trenches.
Life’s getting too exciting,
Trouble’s on our track,
That’s why you and I must go back, back back…

Far more pleasant than at present
Things out there are sure to be
Give me the trenches!
That’s the life!

Foeman’s rifles are but trifles
I would charge a battery,
But I’m afraid to meet my wife!

2 Comments

  1. Posted July 12, 2007 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Just being pedantic here, but surely “The Swoop!” wasn’t about the War, since it was written in 1909 … It is most amusing, however! I had just assumed that Wodehouse generally avoided topicality, but you’ve made an interesting discovery here.

  2. Posted July 12, 2007 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I should have made it clear that The Swoop was written in 1909. I still maintain that it’s about the War, though, in a prophetic-but-getting-it-wrong sort of way.


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