July 29, 2005

Bertie and Jeeves as Babus

This is amazing. It seems that P.G. Wodehouse based his parodies of upper-class British speech, in part, on late 19th-century humorous stereotypes of babu English ("the ornate and somewhat unidiomatic English of an Indian who has learnt the language principally from books", according the OED). Apparently, F. Anstey's humorous sketches about Baboo Jabberjee, BA, influenced Wodehouse to the point that he recycled specific malapropisms, mangled quotations and other bits for use by Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and others. R. Devrai at Dick & Garlick points to an available extract from Richard Usborne's Plum Sauce, which quotes (some) chapters and (a few) verses.

A sample of Usborne's sample:

Wodehouse read all Anstey's stuff as a boy, including, as is obvious from his school stories, Vice Versa. But Baboo Jabberjee (which is quoted by name in Love Among the Chickens) was powerfully seminal to Psmith and the quintessential Wodehouse style of false concords. ...

Jabberjee writes:
'As poet Burns remarks with great truthfulness, "Rank is but a penny stamp, and a Man is a man and all that."'
This is a pleasant skid on the banana skin of education. Bertie and Jeeves, you remember, get tangled up in this same quotation at a moment of great crisis.
Rem acu tetigisti, non possumus, surgit amari aliquid, ultra vires, mens sana in corpore sano, amende honorable - these are gobbets of education that Jabberjee uses and Jeeves takes over. And (this is sad) we find that it was Jabberjee, and not Bertie, who first made that excellent Shakespeare emendation, only conceivable through the ears, only translatable through the eyes. Jabberjee writes: 'Jessamina inherits, in Hamlet's immortal phraseology, "an eye like Ma's to threaten and command".'

That last (wonderfully ironic) joke would not have worked in relation to an original-accent production, by the way, since Shakespeare's English was r-ful, and the original has Hamlet saying to the Queen his mother:

Looke heere vpon this Picture, and on this,
The counterfet presentment of two Brothers:
See what a grace was seated on his Brow,
Hyperions curles, the front of Ioue himselfe,
An eye like Mars, to threaten or command
A Station, like the Herald Mercurie
New lighted on a heauen-kissing hill:
A Combination, and a forme indeed,
Where euery God did seeme to set his Seale,
To giue the world assurance of a man.
This was your Husband. Looke you now what followes.

R. Devrai concludes: "Journalists like David Gardner have claimed to find echoes of P. G. Wodehouse in Indian English, but it seems more likely that the reverse is true: Wodehouse's style owes a debt to Babu bombast".

[via Shaswati's Blog]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 29, 2005 08:24 PM