In Praise of P.G. Wodehouse

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ITV / Everett

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster

I got a late start on P.G. Wodehouse. When I went out on a book tour earlier this year my wife stuffed a copy of Right Ho, Jeeves into my bag and told me I’d thank her later. At the time I didn’t really know who Wodehouse was. I knew he was a different person from G.K. Chesterton, but I wasn’t clear on what exactly the difference was.

My wife turned out to be right. Book tours are excellent things, and one is lucky to get to go on one, but they have a way of leeching away one’s will to live. The point of a book tour, basically, is to travel around telling everybody about how great you are, but you’re constantly underslept and hungover, and after awhile you start to have creeping doubts as to your own greatness. Around about city number 10 I finally opened Right Ho, Jeeves.

I don’t know if I’ve ever derived such an immediate sense of calm and well-being from any book as I did from Right Ho, Jeeves. It was like I was Pac-Man and the book was a power-up. I was ready to eat a ghost. I called my wife and asked her to FedEx the rest of her Wodehouse collection to my hotel in city number 11.

As it turns out, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse — what else would the P.G. stand for? — was an English writer born in 1881. He was a comic writer in an age of serious aesthetes: he was of the generation of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and the toweringly serious works of his famous coevals have gone a long way towards obscuring Wodehouse’s enormous gifts as a stylist. His subject was the foibles of the pre-war English aristocracy, which sounds limiting, but it was his subject the same way marble was Michelangelo’s subject. He could do anything with it. (He also co-wrote the book for Anything Goes. True fact.)

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Like I said, I’m very far from being a Wodehouse expert, but in my experience one of the hallmarks of Wodehouse’s oeuvre is its wonderful, almost eerie consistency of quality and tone and temperature: take a core sample anywhere and you will come up with something quintessentially Wodehousian. His work clusters around, and returns repeatedly to, several people and places. One of these is Bertie Wooster, the sweet-natured aristocratic idiot whose continued existence is made possible by his brilliant valet Jeeves. (They were played, in a respectful TV adaptation, by a manic Hugh Laurie and a huge, lunar Stephen Fry.) Another is Blandings Castle, home of the hapless but indefatigable Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth. There’s also the Drones Club, a fictional London mens’ club frequented by Bertie, and Wrykyn, an English public school where a lot of cricket gets played, and half a dozen others I haven’t gotten to yet.

Taken together these locations form a little universe, and while you’re reading Wodehouse you feel like you’re a native of it. Evelyn Waugh once said, “The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled,” and that isn’t as over-the-top as it sounds. There is something golden and innocent and Edenic about the world Wodehouse built: while it’s full of trivial people doing trivial things, it is itself not at all trivial.

(Waugh, another chronicler of the English aristocracy, half a generation younger, shares a lot of turf with Wodehouse, but he worked in a more melancholy vein. Waugh observed the sunset of the English upper classes. For Wodehouse the sun was fixed eternally at noon.)

If he’d built his world around tragedy Wodehouse would have the standing of a Proust or a Faulkner. As it is his world is a set dressed for comedy. A typical plot might involve Lord Emsworth’s prize pig (“She resembled a captive balloon with ears and a tail, and was as nearly circular as a pig can be without bursting”) suddenly going off her feed, as she does in the Blandings story entitled “Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey!” At the same time Lord Emsworth’s niece Angela has broken her engagement and transferred her affections to a less appropriate man. The genius of Wodehouse is in the way he gives the two narrative arcs exactly the same dramatic weight.

Naturally the two stories collide, and Angela and the pig end up solving each other’s problems, symmetrically. Even though Lord Emsworth and Angela feel genuine woe at their problems, you know that the safety is always on: in Wodehouse’s work no character is ever confronted with a grief so great that he or she cannot withstand it. When Bertie Wooster gets well and truly pissed off at his cousin Angela (a totally different Angela) he concludes their conversation thusly:

“Very good,” I said coldly. “In that case, tinkerty tonk.”
And I meant it to sting.

That’s literally the worst thing he can think of to say.

Likewise Bertie is often at his lowest mental state when attempting to recover from a hangover. Jeeves always mixes Bertie a special pick-me-up that restores him, and Bertie describes the sensation as follows:

“I remember Jeeves…once speaking of someone rising on the stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things. It was that way with me now.”

Has there ever been a more concise and eloquent description of the experience of throwing off depression? As deeply as Bertie might despair, his despair isn’t existential. He knows that he will rise again. And Wodehouse’s work has an effect very similar to Jeeves’ magical tonic. It allows you to dispense with the drama, and rise to higher things. It puts things in a comic perspective, which is always the correct perspective.

There’s something a little embarrassing about all this eternal coziness, but it’s not a sign of the poverty of Wodehouse’s spirit, but rather of its enormous strength. In real life Wodehouse wasn’t himself a pampered sot like Bertie, and he faced any amount of adversity over the course of his long life (he died in 1975), much of which he spent in the United States. The outbreak of World War II found Wodehouse in France, and he was interned by the Germans in Upper Silesia. He suffered, but he does not appear to have despaired: history credits him with this wry remark: “If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like…”

That’s not even my favorite Wodehouse-in-adversity quote. Apparently (the story appears in an essay by George Orwell, one of Wodehouse’s many famous admirers) when Wodehouse was first arrested by the Germans, he remarked, “Perhaps after this I shall write a serious book.”

But I’m happy to say that he never did.

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