The Wodehouse Estate (Or the Importance of Permissions)

In the spring of 2010, I was seized—if that’s the word I’m looking for—with the idea of a mash-up between zombie fiction and the works of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, the English-born humorist and creator of the loveably dimwitted Bertie Wooster and his savant-like manservant Jeeves. I found the conceit behind, if not necessarily the execution of, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters delicious. Actually, I shouldn’t be snotty about this, since I’ve not bothered to read any of these Undead + Literary Classics portmanteaux, and I’m sure they’re brilliantly executed. But I wasn’t, truth be told, that interested in the exploits of creatures of the netherworld, having already experienced their charms on the New York City subway system. So I conducted the very minimal—and I mean, minimal—amount of research on this, as it were, continuously reviving genre.

What did intrigue me was the possibility of investigating what it was that made Wodehouse funny. All but one of the Wooster novels and short stories are written from Bertie’s perspective, and Wodehouse provides his narrator with an array of stylistic mannerisms that are instantly recognizable and frequently repeated, but are also what critics with nothing else to say would call “inimitable.” Actually, it’s in the conversations between Jeeves and Bertie that Wodehouse’s true brilliance lies, since the plots are perfunctory and the other characters, while vivid, are the standard tropes of English drawing-room comedy, if not folderol going back to Plautus and Aristophanes: idiotic leading men, brainy and scheming servants, terrifying matrons, red-faced military types, and an array of inept clergy, saucy secretaries, and dewy-eyed daughters of wealthy and intemperate industrialists. In shuttling between Jeeves’ formal, even pedantic speaking style and Bertie’s casual, upper-class argot, speckled with American slang and English nonce words, Wodehouse deliberately creates a kind of jazz of misquotation, shorthand, diversion, extended simile, and hyperbole that can lift ho-hum farce to dizzy comedic heights.

I tucked in to the task of composing a Wodehousian version of Night of the Living Dead with the glint of a particularly peckish cannibal’s eyes on sighting a cruise ship’s distress flare offshore. Like the captain of the metaphorical vessel, I knew there was a strong chance I’d land in trouble, since—unlike Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, or any of the other worthy literary titans whose work and characters had been disinterred to form these new forms of fiction—P. G. Wodehouse had only entered Elysium thirty-six years previously, and thus his literary estate and copyright were alive and kicking. I briefly flirted with the idea of changing everyone’s names and altering plot details, but that seemed about as fun as sticking the business end of a Number 2 pencil in my eye. Furthermore, I was having such a good time turning the drippy Madeline Bassett into a serpent-tongued monster and the reticent and herpetophiliac Gussie Fink-Nottle into a goggle-eyed Van Helsing that I decided to leave the trifling matter of plagiarism until I’d finished.

“Is that wise, sir?” murmured my conscience. “I believe the fashion these days is to eschew theft. One could develop a reputation.”

“Reputation be damned,” I retorted, with (I thought) an insouciance bordering on the debonair. “The creative juices must be satisfied.”

“Is that what they were, sir? Their identity was not immediately obvious.”

I dismissed my conscience, which can incline to the sniffy, and two months later I hit Command “S” for the last time, having composed a 50,000-word novel called Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, in which Bertie, Jeeves, Gussie, Stiffy Byng, and the Rev. Harold “Stinker” Pinker, among others, take on a horde of zombies led by Sir Watkyn Bassett and Roderick Spode, a.k.a. The Lizard King—a specimen of utmost loathsomeness who threatens global domination. Feeling cocky, I decided to try my luck with the Wodehouse Literary Estate.

I’m fairly fatalistic about getting one’s work into print, which is no doubt a consequence of being a publisher myself. (In fact, I think it’s a mandatory quality for the book industry, right underneath “must be willing to work for nothing” on the job description.) Nonetheless, I wrote what I thought was a fairly persuasive letter, chock-full of bonhomie, stating that I was bringing PGW to a whole new audience, and was happy to split the royalties or give the money to charity, and so on and so forth. All I needed, I continued cheerily, was the thumbs up, and we were good to go. Off tootled said letter with the manuscript snugly contained inside.

The missive was addressed to Mr. Barrett Hobson at Widmerpool and Flatfoot, executors of the Wodehouse Estate—a dusty pile in Belgravia, where the only sounds amid the cavernous halls were the patient yet slightly censorious ticking of a grandfather clock and the shuffling of ancient retainers, padding about the joint fetching leaden tomes on copyright law and the occasional snifter for the hardworking legal eagles.

It was one such ancient r. who delivered—white gloves bearing a silver salver, naturally—my envelope to Mr. Hobson, who that day was to be found in his favorite nook in the Stuffington Library. He was encased in a chair so easy that the vice squad had been put on notice, quietly going about the essential business of refilling a burnished hickory pipe with some Old Virginian, and quaffing a restorative snootful.

It was evident to my fertile imagination that something was bothering “Hobby”—a feeling that the frisson that had once sped up his spine when asked to handle reprint rights, the catch in the throat when an anthology permission was requested, were no longer to be found. Not only had his ship sailed, he feared, but he wasn’t even onboard. Moreover, the passengers who’d gathered at the railings were waving at him with something less than fondness, and the words that drifted to the dockside from B Deck weren’t entirely kind.

A light “ahem” and a glinting tray awoke Hobby from his reverie and there was my discreetly addressed envelope. He was about to brush it away—it was all too late, too much had been lost—but a fibrillation of hope stayed his hand, an echo of forgotten opportunities sighing through the serried Proceedings of the Bar Association. He took the envelope, reached for the gilt-edged opener presented to him for twenty-five years (that long?!) of selfless service to Widmerpool and Flatfoot, and began to read.

Within minutes, Rumor sped through the venerable halls, and soon there emerged from the gloom scuttling servants and partners to huddle outside Swaffington’s imposing oak door. Either Mugsy the cat was in heat or Hobson—yes, even Hobson of the downcast mien and clouded brow—was laughing again. Cue general rejoicing, superannuated jigs for joy, and heavy shades thrown open to allow light and tears to stream once more down the shadowed corridors of the Wodehouse Estate.

Of course, it didn’t happen like that. Instead, Barrett Hobson cast a skeptical eye from the windows of Dimbleby and Dorrit that overlooked the Strand, and thoughtfully stroked his Ronald Colman mustache, wondering why Barbara Stanwyck—or a facsimile thereof—had never walked into his office to turn his life upside down. Instead, his colleague Fran, with her sharp a-line dress and severe command of grammar, strode through his ever-open door and tossed him my tastefully stamped envelope. “This is more your style,” she announced and marched out. There was a time, Hobson reflected mournfully, that the arrival of post addressed to him and him alone would have filled him with anticipation. Perhaps a BBC/WBUR Serial, or offers from a well-upholstered actor for audio rights. Now it was merely dread. He opened my envelope and started to read. Out of the depths, the Kraken of amusement stirred. A smile began to inch its way across his frozen features and the thin, sallow lips relaxed. Perhaps life wasn’t so bad after all.

No, it didn’t happen that way, either. In reality, there was no envelope, beautifully spelled or otherwise, but an email with the attachment of the manuscript that managed to avoid the filters for sexual supplements and pleadings from unjustly toppled African dictators to end its disinterested journey in the no-doubt multiply-foldered inbox of Peter Straus of the Wodehouse Estate. Unlike his fictional doppelganger, Straus appeared not to be transported, a conclusion I deduce from the following reply that arrived in my inbox a couple of days later:

Dear Martin Rowe
I shared your note with Sir Edward Cazalet.
I am afraid to say that the Wodehouse Estate categorically gives NO permission whatsoever for this usage at all. Please do not send me the manuscript and please do not pursue the idea.
Your faithfully
Peter Straus

Sir Edward Cazalet is the grandson of P. G. Wodehouse and a high court judge. But that is where my fevered imagination parted with reality. I saw him as an august, white-haired gentleman in his mid-seventies, possessed of a commanding nose, a withering gaze, and the bushiest eyebrows ever to grace Her Majesty’s bench. Sir Edward would have read Peter Straus’s email when it was delivered to him on a piece of crisp foolscap by his trusty secretary, Maud.

Sir Edward’s magisterial brow furrowed, his lips pursed, and an impatient forefinger tapped the mahogany desk behind which he was enthroned. Stern of manner, flinty of demeanor, and trenchant in sentencing though Sir Edward might have been, something didn’t seem quite right.

“Call Straus,” he rumbled into the intercom.

Soon enough, the telephone leapt to attention in the latter’s office—cutbacks long ago having forced him to forego the services of a secretary to answer it—and Straus heard the familiar but still intimidating bark of Sir Edward down the line.

“Now look here, Peter,” intoned Sir Edward, with the false chumminess that Straus found so irritating, “about this Rowe fellow. Completely understand you have to say no, and all that. But can’t you be a bit less . . . well, dashed unpleasant about it?”

“But Sir Edward . . . ,” Straus bleated. “Thin end of the wedge, I thought. . . .”

“That’s the trouble with you, Peter,” continued Sir Edward, not one for hearing more of a case than strictly necessary for a summary judgment. “Too much thinking in the old noodle. Never good for a man. Muddles things. Now you just send this Rowe fellow an e-thingy, and thank him profusely and say ‘Jolly well done, and glad you like PGW, but no can do, for obvious reasons, etc. etc.’ Got it?”

“Yes, Sir Edward.”

“Topping. OK. Carry on.”

There was a click and the phone went dead. A day or so later, another real email arrived:

Dear Martin Rowe
Sir Edward Cazalet has asked me to write to you to explain our position more fully and to apologise if my earlier e mail appeared a touch abrasive—especially as you may have spent much time enthusiastically involved with the work. Indeed I understand you may have gone to a lot of trouble to write this novel and would not want to dampen your ardour for the magnificent oeuvre that is PGW: however it is I am afraid our absolute unconditional policy that no one can plagiarise or imitate PGW whilst he is still in copyright. So you must not take our blanket position as representing any personal opinions about your work.
You will therefore understand when I state that this has always been our cast-iron policy in regard to any applicant, however brilliant, who may seek to step into Wodehouse’s literary shoes.
Best wishes
Peter Straus

So that was that. Except, as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t. I might not seek publication, but what was to stop me printing my book privately and disseminating it for free to all who might be interested? I produced one hundred copies, and placed the book on, where it sat alongside many sweaty bytes of heaving, pounding erotica. It had made its liberal acquaintance with five hundred readers when I received another email, this time from the promisingly named Andrew Boose of Davis Wright Tremaine, the U.S. branch of the Wodehouse literary estate, and an individual all too real:

Dear Mr. Rowe,
We are attorneys for the Trustees of the W. Somerset Maugham Trust, which owns all rights in the works of Somerset Maugham. It has recently been called to our clients’ attention that you have written and are distributing the above referenced work, which, as you have acknowledged, uses one or more of the characters created by Somerset Maugham, and which therefore constitutes a derivative work based on the Maugham works. As such it is an infringement of a significant number of copyrights owned by our clients. . . .
You must immediatedly [sic] withdraw the book and any portions thereof from the internet and from any means of distribution, and you must agree that it will not henceforth be distributed in any manner whatsoever. . . .
Until such actions have been taken and confirmed we must reserve our clients’ rights with regard to this matter.

I could see there was a major flaw in Mr. Boose’s argument, and unable to resist the trap I leapt in. I helpfully pointed out that I was ripping off P. G. Wodehouse and not Somerset Maugham, who was of no interest to me, since Anthony Burgess had made a perfectly decent fist of ad hominem satire in his widely published and admired Earthly Powers. In response to my email where I stated that “the work in question contains no references to, or characters from, any of the works of W. Somerset Maugham,” Mr. Boose sent me a reply:

Of course it doesn’t. We represent both the heirs of P. G. Wodehouse and the heirs of W. Somerset Maugham, and for some unknown reason I substituted the name Maugham for the name Wodehouse in the email I sent you. I apologize, and I am quite embarrassed. In any event, I will resend the email with the correct names, and I hope to hear from you soon after you receive it.

An honest mistake, you’d think. But in my imagination, the reason for “Snifter” Booser’s substitution was transparently obvious. It was incompetence of the highest order, and the man needed to be canned. He was a pencil-pushing Bartleby; a sniveling, pock-faced upstart on the lowest rung of the literary ladder, sending out misspelled, misapplied, and misbegotten emails, who wasn’t man enough to admit how wrong—how very wrong—he’d been. How dare he trample on self-evident literary genius, deny the world the gift of laughter and pleasure simply to satisfy his grubby, greasy-pole-climbing ambition?

As promised, I got the email with P. G. Wodehouse find-and-replaced in, and I ceased and desisted. I could, of course, rewrite Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King with changed names, altered dialogue, and no reference to other plots, but that would only remove what little Joy remains in the project, shove her in front of a brick wall, and shout “Fire” to the assembled and legally armed, if wholly fictitious Andrew Booses of this world. As to the book: If it is present in the world at all, it is only because it makes an excellent coaster.

(By way of an update, the Wooster literary estate has decided to get in on the plagiarism act by commissioning Sebastian Faulks to pen his own Wooster novel—to mixed reviews. Apparently, the Wodehouse estate wanted to bring Wodehouse “to a younger readership.” The obvious question, therefore, is: Who is copying who?)

About martinrowe

I am the executive director of the Culture & Animals Foundation, the co-founder of Lantern Publishing & Media, and the author, editor, and ghostwriter of several works of fiction and non-fiction. I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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