17 August 2013

Knuts and spats

Yesterday I finished reading Sophie Ratcliffe's compilation of the personal letters of P.G. Wodehouse, which is a remarkable survey of a life spent scribbling correspondence. How he found time to write letters amongst all the hundreds of writing projects he completed is a mystery. Reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters reminds me that I should read more of these epistolic works, because a writer's letters give such an insight into their demeanour and their work processes. I haven't enjoyed a similar book as much since devouring the letters of English author Fanny Burney (1752-1840), a skilled novelist and diarist of note.

Near the end of his life Wodehouse contributed a long letter from his house in Remsenburg, near the shores of Moriches Bay on the south coast of Long Island, New York. The correspondence was in response to the organisers of a Wodehouse seminar being held at Manor Park in Farnham, Surrey, in 1973, and discussed the criticism of the outdated social settings of his comic novels. Here he discusses how his 'dude' characters, the most famous of which are of course Bertie Wooster and the inhabitants of the Drones Club, ceased to populate the real world, instead living on in Wodehouse's fiction:

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[T]here has been no generic name for the type of young man who figures in my stories since he used to be called a knut in the pre-first-war days, which certainly seems to suggest that the species has died out like the macaronis of the Regency and the whiskered mashers of the Victorian age [...]

Two things caused the decline of the drone or knut, the first of which was that hard times hit younger sons. Most knuts were younger sons, and in the reign of good King Edward the position of younger sons in aristocratic families was roughly equivalent to that of the litter of kittens which the household cat produces three times a year. He was always a trifle on the superfluous side.

What generally happened was this. An Earl, let us say, begat an heir. So far, so good. One can always do with an heir. But then - these Earls never knew when to stop - he absentmindedly, as it were, begat a second son, and it was difficult to see how to fit him in.

'Can't let the boy starve,' the Earl said to himself, and forked out a monthly allowance. And there came into being a number of ornamental young men whom the ravens fed. Like the lilies of the field, they toiled not neither did they spin, they just existed beautifully. Their wants were few. Provided they could secure the services of a tailor who was prepared to accept charm of manner as a substitute for ready cash, they were in that blissful condition known as sitting pretty.

Then the economic factor reared its ugly head. Income tax and super tax shot up like rocketing pheasants, and the Earl found himself doing some constructive thinking.

'Why can't I?' he said to his Countess one night as they sat trying to balance the budget.

'Why can't you what?'

'Let him starve'

'It's a thought,' the Countess agreed. 'We all eat too much these days, anyway'

So the ravens were retired from active duty, and Algy had to go to work. 

The second thing that led to the elimination of the knut was the passing of the spat. In the brave old days the spat was the hallmark of the young fellow about town, the foundation stone on which his whole policy was based, and it is sad to reflect that a generation has arisen which does not know what spats were.

Spatterdashes was, I believe, their full name, and they were made of white cloth and buttoned around the ankles, partly no doubt to prevent the socks from getting dashed with spatter, but principally because they lent a gay diablerie to the wearer's appearance. The monocle might or might not be worn, according to taste, but spats, like the tightly rolled umbrella, were obligatory. I was never myself by knut standards, dressy as a young man (circa 1905), for a certain anemia of the exchequer compelled me to go about my social duties in my brother's cast-off frock coat and top hat bequeathed to me by an uncle with a head some sizes smaller than mine, but my umbrella was always rolled as tightly as a drum and though spats cost money, I had mine all right. There they were, white and gleaming, fascinating the passers-by and causing seedy strangers who hoped for largesse to address me as 'Captain' or sometimes even as 'M'lord'. Many a butler at the turn of the century, opening the door to me and wincing visibly at the sight of my topper, would lower his eyes, see the spats and give a little sigh of relief, as much to say, 'Not quite what we are accustomed to at the northern end, perhaps, but unexceptional to the south'.

Naturally if you cut off a fellow's allowance, he cannot afford spats, and without them he is a spent force. Deprived of his spats, the knut threw in the towel and called it a day.

- P.G. Wodehouse, letter to Norman Murphy et al, 19 May 1973, in S. Ratcliffe (ed.), P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, New York, 2011. 

See also:
BlogWodehouse in Hollywood, 12 February 2013
BlogWodehouse outwits the critics, 23 September 2012
Blog: The fine art of stage direction in musical comedies, 15 February 2012
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