13 December 2010

Wodehouse, snails, and dramatic interest

Probably the greatest misconception about today's access to information is:
All today's easily accessed information from trusted sources will increase accuracy.
The opposite is the case. Especially when the mistake comes from a trusted source, the unintentional myth can grow to Fact so quickly that it is quoted everywhere as the basis for other arguments and other facts, going up the food chain as the food for theses—and unlike other adults—doesn't die, but lives on in a perpetuity paradise (like frogs being pot-ready couch-potatoes) as the basis of countless similes waged by bad writers, sloppy reasoners, and cliché collectors everywhere whenever they need to craft "common sense" copy to sell products, boxed, serviced, or electable.

So my eyes protruded when I saw this baby:
The phlegmatic snail
PG Wodehouse thought that snails were rather dull animals “lacking in sustained dramatic interest”. Others admire them.
— Peter Marren, "The weird world of the bug", BBC Wildlife Magazine, 3 September 2010
Let's drop salt on this misconception, but we don't have time to watch it wither. Onwards! to truth, in the Times of India:
The point about today's British general election is we missed it. It barely figured on India's collective radar. If anything, it was like the cow's waning 'audience-appeal' so entertainingly described by P G Wodehouse in his Blandings series on that fluffy-minded, pig-loving peer, Lord Emsworth. " It was a fine cow, as cows go, but, like so many cows, it lacked sustained dramatic interest." That was Wodehouse's The Custody of the Pumpkin, published 1924.
— Rashmee Roshan Lall, "Fine Cows and Englishmen", 6 May 2010
Indeed, in my own mixed marriage (Wodehousian/Heathen) I have often noted (to an audience deeply unappreciative of the knowledge) that Wodehouse was, perhaps more than any other author, dependent on the snail and that other mollusk, the slug—in character—in key scenes of high tension, drama, and romance.

What type of character varied, but it was never bovine. Not that cattle are dull, but the closest Wodehouse got to using one was the story about the cow creamer, which could never have been watched passing, even if one had wanted to. I could let Wodehouse's reputation stew in misconception in regard to snails, in revenge for him not appreciating the passions of cows any more than he did, the infinitely romantic, lonely and plaintive soprano song of a bull cutting through the still air on a starry evening when a cow is in heat across the creek, something he came closest to, but changed to horror in "Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps".

Snails, on the other hand, are often watched in Wodehouse's world. Snails could have populated his nightmares, his reveries, his pensive and lyrical moments. Although he could be faulted for being callous as to their individuality let alone their primacy as snails, he could never have been accused of being Grass, whose Diary of a Snail isn't about snails at all, but a cheap exploitative trick of cover sensationalism, because Snail sells.

Though no Wodehouse cover lures you with a snail, throughout his stories and novels there are many proofs that snails and slugs ruled high in his estimation as page 1 and penultimate Scene material.

Never phlegmatic
They feature in some of his most quoted lines. Here are just a few, with some technical notes concerning their roles.

para 1, sentence 2, "The Custody of the Pumpkin"
"It [the morning sunshine] fell on the baggy trousers-seat of Angus McAllister, head-gardener to the ninth Earl of Emsworth, as he bent with dour Scottish determination to pluck a slug from its reverie beneath the leaf of a lettuce."

Sustained dramatic interest:
"It was one of those still evenings you get in summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away."
— the very first story about Jeeves, "Jeeves Takes Charge"1916 (Carry on, Jeeves, 1925)

"Jerry Fisher's face was a study in violent emotions. His eyes seemed to protrude from their sockets like a snail's. He clutched the tablecloth."
that's the entire paragraph.
— "Keeping It From Harold" (1913)

"Ukridge's eyes met mine in a wild surmise. He seemed to shrink into his mackintosh like a snail surprised while eating lettuce."
— "Ukridge's Dog College" (Strand, UK -1923), "Ukridge's Accident Syndicate" (Cosmopolitan, USA - 1923)

"His head emerged cautiously, like a snail taking a look around after a thunderstorm."
— The Code of the Woosters (1938)

Audience appeal: even slugs have it.

"He expelled a deep breath, and for a space stood staring in silence at a passing slug. [then later in the scene] His brow cleared, his eyes brightened, he lost that fishy look, and he gazed at the slug, which was still on the long, long trail with something approaching bonhomie."
— Right Ho, Jeeves (1922)
"Valerie Twistleton had paused to stare at a passing snail – coldly and forbiddingly"
—Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939)

"She was gazing at me in a divinely pitying sort of way, much as if I had been a snail she had happened accidentally to bring her short French vamp down on, and I longed to tell her that it was all right,and that Bertram, so far from being the victim of despair, had never felt fizzier in his life."
— Right Ho, Jeeves (1922)

"His soul shrank into itself like a salted snail ..."
— Lord Emsworth and Others, Ch 1, "The Crime Wave at Blandings" (1937)

"I knew that England was littered with the shrivelled remains of curates at whom the lady bishopess had looked through her lorgnette. I had seen them wilt like salted slugs at the Episcopal breakfast table."
— "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo" 1926 (Meet Mr Mulliner -1927)

Psychological trauma
"His eyes were by nature a trifle prominent; and to Aline, in the overstrung condition in which her talk with George Emerson had left her, they seemed to bulge at her like a snail's."
— Something New

"George, protruding from the window like a snail, was entertained by the spectacle of the pursuit."
— A Damsel in Distress (1919)

Unhealthy Obsession
Even the people he writes about don't consider snails dull. They think of snails, and exercise themselves upon snails and other invertebrates—often to the point of ...
(Freddie to his uncle, Earl of Emsworth)"I know just how you feel about the country and the jolly old birds and trees and chasing the bally slugs off the young geraniums and all that sort of thing, but somehow it's never quite hit me the same way."
-Something New (1915)
"Both McAllister and I adopted a very strong policy with the slugs and plant lice"
—"Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey!" 1924 (Blandings Castle and Elsewhere - 1935)

"There were three things in the world that he held in the smallest esteem - slugs, poets and caddies with hiccups."
—"Rodney Falls to Qualify" 1924 (The Heart of a Goof - 1926)
High Drama
Hear [Lord Marshmoreton] as he toils. He has a long garden-implement in his hand, and he is sending up the death-rate in slug circles with a devastating rapidity.
" Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay
Ta-ra-ra BOOM—"
And the boom is a death-knell. As it rings softly out on the
pleasant spring air, another stout slug has made the Great Change.
— ibid.
Highest Romance, at the Point of Pronouncement:
"Love?" said Charlotte, her heart beginning to flutter.
"Love," said Aubrey. "Tell me, Miss Mulliner, have you ever thought of Love?"
He took her hand. Her head was bent, and with the toe of her dainty shoe she toyed with a passing snail.
— "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court" (originally collected in Mr. Mulliner Speaking -1925, and subsequently, in A Wodehouse Bestiary-1985)
And that is just a smattering of mollusk moments in the works of Wodehouse. I invite you to supply more. I hope I haven't made mistakes here myself. But if I have, please correct me.

A Conundrum of Worms
A worm gets a bit part as a tragic survivor, but worms are otherwise typecast in parts they don't deserve, especially since snails and slugs and aphids die in Wodehouse gardens, for the sake of pumpkins and flowers>

"Jane Packard turned like a stepped-on worm."
"The Heart of a Goof" (Divots -1926)

"that blighted worm Crispin Blakeney" and "I loathe the worm! I abominate the excrescence!"
"Chester Forgets Himself" (Divots - 1926)


Aunt Agatha's names for Bertie Wooster are "young blot" "an idiot nephew" and "a worm"
Not only that, but she both apportions deviosity to worms and—more shockingly, a lack of political bravery, possibly even an element of Quislingism—to flexible invertebrates, as illustrated by this line in a telegram to Bertie:
"Consider you treacherous worm and contemptible, spineless cowardly custard"
— Right Ho, Jeeves
The lack of respect for invertebrates continues, and it runs in the family.
"[Bertie] spoke with a sort of dull despair, and so manifest was his lack of ginger and the spirit that wins to success that for an instant, I confess, I felt a bit stymied. It seemed hopeless to go on trying to steam up such a human jellyfish."
— ibid.

In this next story, the author insults both worms and lawn-bowling readers who do know not a niblick from a niblet, in "The Awakening of Rollo Podmarsh" when he says:
"These subtitles are wasted on a worm, if you will pardon the expression, like yourself, who, possibly owing to a defective education, is content to spend life's springtime rolling wooden balls across a lawn."
Butterflies, however, are only lightly ticked off.
"Butterflies loafed languidly in the sunshine"
— "Chester Forgets Himself"

But passing back to snails

I challenge Mr. Marren here and now to tell us when and where Mr. Wodehouse said that he thought snails dull. I think that Mr. Marren has confused a cow with a snail, and if so, I would invite him to place himself under the foot of each, have each ramble upon his spine—and report the difference in sensation.

But, since I am not a writer writing in a Trusted Source, I might know even less than I think I know, and thus, be spreading another inaccuracy. If so, and if Wodehouse did say somewhere that snails are dull, lack audience appeal and the rest of that, may I be damned, but not as much as Mr. Wodehouse, who disappoints me so much that I hope he rots in the hell where authors suffer who have disappointed their readership with details of their private thoughts (which should never have been revealed). What an ingrate! If he really said that snails are dull, then he's like those authors who would be nothing without their editors but consider themselves geniuses. For Wodehouse without snails is like Chandler minus dames.

One can only surmise what an author really thinks

(or rather, one used to only be able to surmise. Nowadays authors tell us so much of what they think, that their stories and novels have waning audience appeal, but Wodehouse died before this trend) so I'm guessing here, but willing to bet that Wodehouse was forced to write about worms in a new respectful tone after a nightmare he had in which a worm possesses the cunning of Professor Moriarty. In "High Stakes", golfers are challenged by worm-casts.

a final note: Although I have raised eyebrows over Peter Marren's bit of Wodehouse/Snails "What he thought" celeb snippet, snails, bugs, and other invertebrates would highly approve his article in general. He isn't bored by them, nor does he think we should be. So do read "The weird world of the bug". It's fun. That he mixes up bugs with snails and others is something that they might take up with him privately.


Ian Boyter said...

I support this spirited defence of the snail's extremely interesting persona. I once saw a snail approaching a lamp post and, obviously undecided about which side to pass it on, split itself it two parts along its length and passed it on both sides at once, joining itself together as a single unit once it had passed the post. I very much doubt if a cow could do this so easily.

anna tambour said...

What a snail, Ian! You must have had some premonition of its talent since you stopped to watch. The closest incident that I can report involving a cow was when one by the name of Buckwheat hid behind a sapling somewhat thinner than a lamp post. As Buckwheat was larger than a beetle made by Volkswagen, only a small part of her was obscured, but she still thought I would not be able to see her because her eyes were behind the tree. When she peeked, I said, "Boo!" and she probably thought, "Damn, I shouldn't have stuck my head out."

Adam Browne said...

"Quotes on the internet are often misattributed." - Abraham Lincoln

anna tambour said...

Oh, now you've done it!

Mahendra said...

I discovered your amazing Blog quite by accident when I was hunting for Wodehouse comments on snails. Your post on Snails is just great! You must be a Plum fan! I posted a link to this PGW Snail blog on the Facebook, Drones Club (PGW fans) site. Thank you so much.

anna tambour said...

I have always said that humans can be divided into two lots: those who hunt for Wodehouse comments on snails, and the second lot (generally referred to as 'humanity'). Thank you for the pleasure you've given me in not only finding this post of mine, but in letting your group know about it. You are, in fact, the reader I always imagine when I write my fiction, too, such as the stories in my new collection. Wodehouse, of course, had a readership I can only dream of: the incarcerated. He wrote of the joy he got from all the fan mail from prisons all over the US in particular. I don't know why I mention this now to you other than thinking about readership and the serendipity of it. I've always found that people who appreciate Wodehouse have a take on life and how we're meant to live that is so wonderfully nose-thumbing. For oh yes, I am a Plum fan. I see from your interests: you are a medical man? So, a speculation from one of his private letters: "I wonder what an osteopath does if a patient suddenly comes apart. ('Quick, Watson, the Scotch tape.')"