My Teetotaling, Missionary Great Grandfather Brought PG Wodehouse to Shanghai. I Decided to Find Out Why.
It’s always a good call to be diverted from life by the comic brilliance of P.G. Wodehouse and his creations, the bumbling Bertie Wooster and his inventive valet Jeeves. Now is a particularly stellar moment. Ben Schott, the author of the bestselling collection of trivia Schott’s Original Miscellany, got the blessings of the P.G. Wodehouse estate to write an inventive new spy novel using Wooster’s characters, Jeeves and the King of Clubs (“an incomparable honour to follow in the patent-leather footsteps of the greatest English-language humorist.”) And an unlikely royal last week boosted sales of the quintessentially Brit series: Empress Michiko of Japan revealed that upon her upon her husband’s abdication next year, she eagerly plans to indulge in her stockpile of Jeeves books. The remarks caused a “Wooster Frenzy,” spiking sales from 100 books nationwide to clamoring for thousands. An Instagram Post from Japanese bookstore Isehara Shoten proclaimed: “We have Her Majesty’s beloved Jeeves series in stock!”
The mini-revival reminded me of a brief letter, unearthed when going through the papers of my great grandfather, a missionary named Henry Huizinga. The letter, dated 1922, was addressed to The Strand Magazine, and requested the rights to reprint a short story “Aunt Agatha Takes a Count” in an anthology of modern short stories for Chinese students. Squeezed into the corner of the letter, dashed off in pencil, was the reply: “Certainly. With the greatest pleasure. P.G. Wodehouse.”
The Gospel According to Bertie Wooster?
The letter and its request were a great surprise and sparked my own “Wooster Frenzy.” I love Wodehousean syntax, slang, and humor, the screw-ups of Bertie Wooster, the resourcefulness of his valet Jeeves, but was frankly mystified as to why my foreberer, a strait-laced missionary, wanted to introduce P.G. Wodehouse to Chinese students in the 1920.
Dr. Huizinga worked in India for twenty years, and then on to China, were he was an English professor at Shanghai College. His papers, including the letter, were donated to The Joint Archives of Holland, Hope College, Western Theological Seminary, where he received a degree in 1893. A doctorate from the University of Michigan’s Literature, Science and the Arts Department explains the Dr., always used by Dr. Huizinga.
The selection did not square with stories of Dr. Huizinga’s chilly temperament — he is best remembed officiating at his granddaughter’s WWII wedding and then steadfastly refused to throw rice upon the departing couple. “I do not engage in frivolities,” he said. Far more representative of the educator’s personality was a handwritten copy of a treatise preserved in a scrapbook, “The Results of the Use of Hard Liquor,” written in 1887 when the budding author was a temperance crusader at the mere age of fourteen.
First, I needed to track down the actual textbook containing the Aunt Agatha story. Dr. Huizinga’s “Missionary Education in India,” is available on Amazon and his Gospel of St. John in poetic verse found at the New York Public Library, but it proved challenging to track down “Modern Short Stories for Chinese Students,” published by The Commercial Press, Ltd. (Shanghai, 1933). Fortunately, the McPherson Library at the University of Victoria, B.C., owned a copy and graciously sent a scan of the Study Notes and Questions for “Aunt Agatha” from their collection.
“Jeeves, the valet, figures in a number of humorous stories, where the laugh is always with the servant,” wrote Dr. Huizinga, providing the comic setup. “The story is a big joke from beginning to end, with Mr. Wooster, the character who speaks in the first person, as the butt of all the fun.”
Ah. Was the story taught to be a subtle subversion of class structure?Highly unlikely. Ying Liu, the Asian Studies librarian at McPherson, saw a more straight-forward goal, explaining via email, that “The purpose of the book seemed to teach English indirectly.”
Yet the selection struck me as tone-deaf, considering the turmoil of the times. Ms. Liu agreed, that, yes, the Japanese invaded China the year the collection was published, yet cautioned only students from rich families were able to afford college. They lived, the librarian explained, “a different scenario.” As did Bertie Wooster.
“I had had to leg it, if you remember, with considerable speed from London because my Aunt Agatha was on my track with a hatchet…The thing hadn’t been my fault, but I couldn’t have convinced Aunt Agatha of that if I’d argued for a week: so it had seemed to me that the judicious course to pursue was to buzz briskly off while the buzzing was good.”
- Aunt Agatha Takes a Count
That makes sense. The anthology included P.G. Wodehouse to learn vernacular and somewhat idiosyncratic English. “The Notes and Questions” for class discussion approach the exercise with academic seriousness, forewarning students: “[m]any words and expressions are used in an unusual and humorous sense,” and while it providing a glossary, hinted another approach, “that it is not always necessary to look such words up in the dictionary: you have to guess at the meanings.”
Leg It: Use my legs, flee. Beat it is American slang with the same meaning
Buzz briskly off: Same as previous expression.
Bally insular: Having ideas prevailing only in the island of England.
Massaging the fin: Rubbing his hand. Humorous.
Popping the Watch: Pawning the watch.
The students were challenged to decipher various fun Wooster-isms like topping, blighter, gaspers, decanted, talking through your hat.
Like today’s modern book clubs, there are study questions designed to stir discussion and reflection, switching from vocabulary to the philosophical and ethical: “A Man’s Crossroads: When he has reached a determining position in life. Why was Wooster at the crossroads? Stiffish brandy and soda: Some people think they can meet danger better if they have taken a drink of strong liquor. Is this true?”
Bally Ho!? The exercise taught idiom and language, but was also a Trojan Horse, introducing Western culture and the teacher’s own moral code to his students. I emailed Robert Weber, Professor of History Emeritus Wheaton College, who studied Christians impact on Asian and African cultures, for his thoughts on missionary education. “The purpose was both moral and ethical education along with an effort to give Chinese an education on a par with the West in order to create a western elite class to lead China in the modern era,” replied Professor Weber. Hmmm…cultural bias and imperialism and social engineering, so it was not just about learning English.
Professor Weber’s remarks reminded me of a book that had trickled down to my possession, a copy of Dr. Huizinga’s “Who’s Who in China: Biographies of Chinese Leaders (1936).” Inside the back cover, Dr. Huizinga had written a list of names and page numbers under the heading, “University of Shanghai Alumni and Students.”
The biographies span from government ministers to musicians to educators. Daniel C. Fu (pictured), for example, continued his studies at the University of Chicago, became editor-in-chief of the Chinese Laborer’s Weekly in Paris, and returned to China to help start the “Mass Education Movement.”
Again, Professor Weber: “Indeed Shanghai College was a major effort in missionary education. My first Chinese friends after the post-Cultural Revolution opening of China were alums of SC. Sadly all but one have passed and that one I saw last summer in Xian and he is very frail.”
Reading the email, I was moved to make even the most tentative connection to Shanghai students who studied English in China almost a century ago. I hope that some enjoyed the zany inventiveness of P.G. Wodehouse for whatever the motives it was being taught.
Dr. Huizinga wrote, somewhat patronizingly, that the difficultly in compiling the book was that it hard to find a good “clean and wholesome,” humorous story for his students where they could “see the point.”
The point? The point of purloined pearls, fearsome aunts, controversial cummerbund choices? But maybe my great-grandfather did engage in frivolity, after all, concluding with these cautionary words spanning the decades: “[T]oo much explanation spoils the fun.”