W.S. Gilbert’s comic operas with Arthur Sullivan inspired generations of artists to come, including Pelham Greville Wodehouse, the creator of Bertie Wooster and his peerless butler, Jeeves.
(If you haven’t read the Jeeves and Wooster books yet, you are in for a treat! You can find them in print, as audiobooks and also as a fabulous television series featuring Hugh Laurie as Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. Check your library, Amazon, or Netflix.)
P.G. Wodehouse, known to friends and family as “Plum,” was born in 1881, when Gilbert was nearing the height of his popularity. The two only met once, when Plum was a boy. Unfortunately, their meeting didn’t produce the fondest of memories!
It happened like this:
In his youth, P.G. Wodehouse was taken to lunch at Grims Dyke, W.S. Gilbert’s handsome home in Harrow Weald in northwest London.
Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert: His Life and Strife, reported that “…halfway through the meal, Gilbert started to tell the sort of yarn that begins dully and ends brightly.”
Wodehouse confessed, in David A Jasen’s biography, A Portrait of a Master:
“I had a rather distinctive laugh in those days, something like the last bit of water going down the waste pipe in a bath. Infectious, I suppose you would call it.”
So there the young man sat quietly, listening to a story told by his idol, W.S. Gilbert – and if W.S. Gilbert told a story, it must be funny. But this story, in Plum’s opinion, was dull. What’s a young fan to do?
Plum decided he couldn’t let his host down. So, when W.S. paused in telling the story, the young man thought the story was complete. He let loose his loud, distinctive laugh.
Wrong move! The pause was just for dramatic effect, and Plum had spoiled the whole story by laughing before Gilbert got to the punch line. The other guests, seeming a little puzzled, as if they had expected something better from the author of the Mikado, all laughed politely, and conversation became general. Thanks to Plum, the whole story fell flat.
Pearson quotes Wodehouse:
“It was at this point that I caught my host’s eye, and I shall always remember the glare of pure hatred which I saw in it. If you have seen photographs of Gilbert, you will be aware that even in repose his face was inclined to be formidable and his eye not the sort of eye you would willingly catch. And now his face was far from being in repose. His eyes, beneath their beetling brows, seared me like a flame.
In order to get away from them, I averted my gaze and found myself encountering that of the butler. His eyes were shining with a doglike devotion. I had made his day. I suppose he had heard that story rumbled to its conclusion at least twenty times, probably more, and I had killed it.”
(P.G. Wodehouse once claimed that butlers were always gloomy because so many of their employers were sparkling raconteurs – and butlers were the ones who heard the same sparkling stories told the exact same way, over and over and over again. So the only one who was happy about the boy’s faux pas was the butler!)
In A Life in Letters, a collection of his correspondence, Wodehouse mentioned this story again.
In a letter in August 13, 1964 addressed to a Mr. Schreyer in Remsenburg, New York, Wodehouse said,
Dear Mr. Schreyer,
Thank you so much for your letter. I am delighted that you have enjoyed my books.
When I was your age, my two idols were WS Gilbert, the Savoy opera man, and Conan Doyle – with a slight edge in favor of the latter because I knew him through playing cricket with him, whereas Gilbert was a sort of remote godlike character to me. (I did meet him once. A mutual friend took me to lunch at his (Gilbert’s) house and I killed one of G’s best stories by laughing in the wrong place!)
Nowadays, a few brave souls have shared their Awkward Celebrity Encounters. I’d say that Wodehouse’s encounter with Gilbert qualifies as very awkward!
What do you think?