P.G. Wodehouse

By: Amanda French
October 15, 2012

P. C. Wodehouse. Digital ID: 1544571. New York Public Library

The comic fiction of P.G. WODEHOUSE (1881–1975) is a testament to the joy of frustration. In lesser comedies, the sympathetic characters eventually get what they want — but in Wodehouse’s architectural stories and novels, the sympathetic characters are often denied what they have badly wanted, to their ultimate delight and relief. These conclusions are often engineered by Jeeves the omniscient valet, who knows what these poor souls need better than they do themselves. Even basic communication in Wodehouse is often frustrated. What could be a more classic plot device than a telegram reading only “Come at once”? In Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s deepest desire and function seems to be to frustrate not just his aunt Dahlia Travers but the very forward motion of the novel:

Before sitting down to the well-cooked, therefore, I sent this reply:

Perplexed. Explain. Bertie.

To this I received an answer during the after-luncheon sleep:

What on earth is there to be perplexed about, ass? Come at once. Travers.

Three cigarettes and a couple of turns about the room, and I had my response ready:

How do you mean come at once? Regards. Bertie.

I append the comeback:

I mean come at once, you maddening half-wit. What did you think I meant? Come at once or expect an aunt’s curse first post tomorrow. Love. Travers.

I then dispatched the following message, wishing to get everything quite clear:

When you say “Come” do you mean “Come to Brinkley Court”? And when you say “At once” do you mean “At once”? Fogged. At a loss. All the best. Bertie.

I sent this one off on my way to the Drones, where I spent a restful afternoon throwing cards into a top-hat with some of the better element.

Wodehouse himself was not nearly as lazy and comfortable as Bertie: he wrote 96 books over the course of his life, as well as poems and movie dialogue and song lyrics. He was accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War Two, and his reputation never fully recovered, though his books tenaciously remained in print. Unlike bachelor Bertie, Wodehouse was married, and he stayed married for sixty-one years; according to his biographer Robert McCrum, this was probably an open marriage, with Ethel Wodehouse free to bring her lovers to stay while Pelham Grenville, largely asexual, sublimated any baser desires he might have had in writing. If Wodehouse’s incessant writing was indeed his way of making hay from frustration, it seems to have done the job for both him and us.

***

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  1. “He was accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War Two, and his reputation never fully recovered, though his books tenaciously remained in print.”

    That may be so, in terms of his personal reputation, but he outlived the fallout from that fascinating, discordant episode in an otherwise apparently blissful life. The more I’ve read about it, the more unfair the suggestion that he was in any sense knowingly collaborating with his captors, but that is a discussion for other places and times.

    It seems that the capacity for blithering obliviousness, which invested the stories of Bertie and of Lord Emsworth with such wit and charm, was something the author knew so well because it was part of Plum’s own, sweet nature.

    The good news is that his books remained not only tenaciously in print during his peaceful, post-war golden years in America, but that they remain in print today. Name me a finer comic writer, living or dead.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Esoth, which is why I didn’t spend much time on the accusation at all. I probably should’ve linked to Orwell’s defense of Wodehouse at http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/plum/english/e_plum. And actually, it’s perhaps not even really true that “his reputation never fully recovered” — what a cliché! Lazy writing on my part. Probably truer to say that his reputation suffered for awhile there in the late forties and fifties but then did recover. I mean, they knighted the man in the seventies, for heaven’s sake. That’s a pretty clear recovery.

  3. Amanda, my comment was not intended as criticism of your post, but was offered to provide some brief and wider context for a period in Wodehouse’s life that remains as baffling today as when it occurred. It might be said that for as insular and strangely innocent a character as P.G., the inexorable reach of Nazi evil engulfed even him in his isolated and bucolic home, in a waking nightmare that was beyond his capacity to understand. It seems as if he could not comprehend such people and such things. Wodehouse was constitutionally incapable of responding in spirit or in kind to depravity and so remained resolutely his steadfast and sunny self, never minding that the world he found so much humor and joy in had descended into madness and barbarism around him.

    There’s a characteristically hilarious and pitch-perfect exchange, which McCrum quotes, between Bertie and Jeeves in a story published in 1921, which in hindsight is chillingly foreboding. Bertie, IIRC, is still abed and emerging from the previous night’s festivities when Jeeves begins his practiced restoration of Bertie’s tissues:

    “How’s the weather, Jeeves?”
    “Exceptionally clement, sir.”
    “Anything in the papers?”
    “Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir. Otherwise, nothing.”

    Would that it would have been so. Wodehouse was the antithesis of today’s arch, crude and mean-spirited genital comedies that often seem confined to humiliation and bodily functions. The singular exception, where Plum’s pencil becomes sharpened and genuinely wounding, was in his depiction of Roderick Spode, the puffed up, homegrown would-be fascist dictator. The entire concept that Spode so comically embodied was, in the author’s view, so ludicrous and ineffectual that even Bertie bests him in battles of nitwits.

    But Spode’s real life counterparts could not be so blithely dismissed, and Wodehouse had immeasurably more culpable company in not recognizing the gravity of the terrible threat they represented. One dispiriting aspect of the immediate and toxic fallout following Wodehouse’s broadcasts from Germany is that some of the leading light’s of those dark days who called for his prosecution, extending even so far as calling for his execution, had so much more to answer for themselves, in their response to that threat.

    Wodehouse remained ever after contrite and mostly silent about the episode, abandoning his efforts to explain himself and the peculiar error of his ways in a prison camp memoir, and instead retreated back to the magical fictional world he created and populated with memorable characters. It was what he was born for, I suppose, and his readers are the better for it even if the chance was lost for an intriguing story. It remains the stuff of a great, unwritten drama. My personal sense is that in the end he felt he had forfeited the right of conducting his self-defense with all his considerable gifts.

    Wodehouse was a man of hidden strengths and an impressive self-awareness for someone so strange in many respects, and he appears to have both recovered and learned from these deepest of wounds. Later in his life, some of those who had pilloried him came to regret it, and Wodehouse appears not to have kept score and was cordial. He methodically returned to his former life, though he would never return to England which seems somehow fitting. One of the things that has struck me about the more proportionate writings about the episode in all the years since, is the way that those around Wodehouse who loved him seemed to hurt and suffer for him more than he himself did. What I am ultimately left with is that within his long record of brilliant and sweet-natured work, is a subtly profound and positive view of human nature that Wodehouse believed in with all his soul, so much so that it survived and later thrived despite this lamentable episode. If Wodehouse’s fictional world was a place that never existed outside of his writings, it was nonetheless grounded in some often harried and overlooked better aspect of our natures. He came to be painfully aware of his personal inability to actually live in that blessed place of his creation, but he must have shared in the universal joy in visiting there.

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