TWENTIETH CENTURY TOFFS REVISITED by PhillipTaylor [WorldCat.org]
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The inimitable P.G. Wodehouse : the story of his life and a treasury of his wit

by Mark Hichens

  Print book : Biography

TWENTIETH CENTURY TOFFS REVISITED   (2009-05-25)

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by PhillipTaylor

An appreciation by Elizabeth and Phillip Taylor, Richmond Green Chambers

 

In the more or less recent past, there’s been considerable criticism of those specimens of humanity known as the ‘toffs’.  Usually they are stereotyped as wealthy, elegant, snobbish, callow, shallow, charmingly witless and, except for the occasional intrusive and pesky American, they are indubitably English -- of course.  

 

Not for them the world of hard work!  They seem to breeze through their privileged lives generating class envy along the way, to most of which they are oblivious.

 

Of course, such grumbling and griping about ‘toffs’ often usually comes as the result of political bias.  One might argue that although ‘class’, as it used to be, has largely disappeared from British society, class consciousness lingers still.   Bearing all this in mind, no one that we know of has been as successful an anatomist of the English upper middle and upper classes of the recent past, as P.G. Wodehouse.

 

Drawn by his skillful pen and illuminated by his obvious humanity, his characters emerge as rounded human beings and rather endearing ones at that, each with his or her own peculiarities.  They amuse by what they say and do, but they are never dismissed outright as figures of fun

 

The achievement of P.G. Wodehouse, world famous creator of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, and Gussie Fink-Nottle and a legion of lesser lights, is to make toffs loveable, laughable and forgivable.  And now, yet another tribute to him has appeared in Hitchens’ s balance biographical work, split as it is into the story of his life, and a treasury of his wit in just over 200 pages.  Read it.   You’ll love it if you are new to Wodehouse or an old hand.

 

Both the title and sub-title are apt, except that it’s unlikely that any biographer will be able to plumb the depths of Wodehouse’s somewhat mysterious and enigmatic character.   His plays, musicals and novels were largely wildly successful on both sides of the Atlantic; he enjoyed his fame and the money that went with it.  But he was one of those people who is in the world but not of it. 

 

According to Hichens – and other biographers of Wodehouse- ‘Plum’, as he was called, liked nothing better than a quiet evening at home with his pipe and tobacco.  His wife, Ethel, clearly the opposite, was a fearsomely well organized and enthusiastic party animal. Her decisive, business-like brain was the perfect foil for the reclusive Plum who preferred an atmosphere of seclusion in which his imagination and droll wit could flourish.

 

So content was Wodehouse to detach himself from real life, that as Hichens explains, ‘his judgment on political matters was flawed’ – hence the tragedy of his incarceration in a German detention camp during World War II, where he allowed his captors to persuade him to give a series of broadcasts which at the time, were considered to be giving aid and comfort to the enemy.   Controversy still rages as to whether he was traitorous, naïve, or under threat.

 

Hichens’ book consists of two parts.  The first is the brief biography updated by what we know now.  The second is an excellent treasury of memorable quotations selected from Wodehouse’s fiction for their autobiographical implications. The result is quite delightful, especially if you are a fan of Wodehouse.  If you aren’t, this little gem of a book, brilliantly illustrated by Wendy McLerie, will introduce you beautifully to Wodehouse’s gentle, sardonic oeuvre.

 

 

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ISBN: 978 1 84624334 9

 

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