25 February 2014

Something in the Water

by Terence Faherty

P.G. Wodehouse
In earlier posts, I've mentioned my admiration for two writers:  P.G. Wodehouse, the great humorist and creator of Bertie Wooster, and Raymond Chandler, one of the founders of the hard-boiled private eye school and the creator of Philip Marlowe.  I proudly claim both as influences on my own humble writing.  At first glance, Wodehouse and Chandler would seem to have little in common (besides me).  But there are interesting parallels.  Both men wrote popular fiction for a wide audience but attracted their share of admirers in ivy-covered halls.  Both were wonderful prose stylists, admired by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, despite the handicap of never having set foot inside a university.  And, speaking of schools, both went to the same one at almost the same time. 

Raymond Chandler
Seriously?  The very British and frivolous Wodehouse and the very American and serious Chandler at the same school?  Yes, Dulwich College, outside London, England.  In spite of the college part of its name, Dulwich (pronounced dull itch) is a public school (pronounced private school), a very exclusive prep school.  It was founded in 1619 by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe's favorite actor, Edward Alleyn.  Wodehouse arrived in 1894 and stayed until 1900.  Chandler arrived in 1900 and stayed until 1905.  So they might have just missed one another, if Wodehouse departed at the end of the spring term and Chandler arrived at the start of the fall term.  (In Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane, the mystery writer mentions Wodehouse, but doesn't say whether they'd met.) 

Dulwich College
Was there something in the Dulwich water that stimulated great prose writing?  Was there a particular headmaster or a teacher on the staff who inspired and encouraged these two students?  I'd love to know.  If there's a doctoral candidate out there who's stuck for a thesis topic, he or she should snag this one, delve deeply into the subject, and report back to me.  As an added inducement to potential deep delvers, here are some additional  parallels between the two men.

Both were separated from one or both parents at an early age.  Wodehouse was farmed out to boarding schools and relatives in England while his parents lived overseas.  Chandler and his mother were deserted by his father.  The pair moved to England in part because Chandler's mother hoped to educate her son more cheaply there.  After Dulwich, both men tried conventional jobs, Wodehouse in banking and Chandler in civil service, and both soon quit to try journalism.  Wodehouse made a success of that and honed his prose style while contributing to various papers and magazines.  Chandler didn't; he returned to America, worked his way up in the oil industry and only returned to writing when he lost his job due to the Depression (and his drinking).  He then honed his own prose style writing for pulp magazines.

Both men tried their hands at screenwriting in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success.  Both married but neither had children.  Wodehouse loved mysteries and had fairly catholic tastes, enjoying Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh (whose Inspector Alleyn spelled his name the same way as Dulwich's Edward Alleyn), Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  But then, mysteries were an escape for Wodehouse, not being his bread and butter.  They weren't an escape for Chandler, and he tended to be critical of other mystery writers, especially Golden Age writers like Christie.

C.S. Forester
In a recent post, I mentioned my love of coincidences.  While researching this brief column, I ran into another one.  Around the same time I was snubbing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in favor of Wodehouse and Chandler, another of my favorite writers was C.S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series, among many other popular novels (including some fairly noir crime stories).  No points for guessing where Forester spent his prep school days.  Yep, good old Dulwich, from 1915 to 1916.

I wish now that during my one and only trip to England I'd stopped by Dulwich and tried the local water.  It couldn't have hurt. 

4 comments:

janice Law said...

I think we can chalk it up to the founder, Allyn- clearly he was a man who knew good prose - poetry, too.

Anna Castle said...

I've never been a Chandler fan, but I adore Plum. I read Wodehouse before starting a first draft, to limber up the vocabulary. Oiling the inner workings, as it were. Getting a little literary inspiration, if literary is the word I want. Thanks for a fun article!

Terence Faherty said...

Anna,

I use Wodehouse to "prime the pump" myself, especially when I'm writing a Scott Elliott story. Thanks for your comment.

And, Janice, thanks for yours. I should have taken the founder's "spirit" into account.

Leigh Lundin said...

I should mention my mother was a major C. S. Forester fan while my father loved Wodehouse. And naturally I soaked up Chandler.