(with apologies to P.G. Wodehouse)
“I say, Jeeves, these Wodehouse books are ripping. He’s got the stuff, what?”
“These dashed critics, complaining he writes the same thing over and over. Well, what I want to know is, what sort of a beef is that?”
“Man is an ungrateful animal, sir.”
“I mean, with all due respect to London and that Ben Jonson cove—if that’s the blighter I mean—I’d say if a man is tired of Wodehouse, he’s tired of life!”
Jeeves gave it as his opinion that the undersigned did indeed produce works of transcendent worth and drew my attention to the ten novels and 35 short stories he has written about me.
Anxious readers may be assured that no further pseudo-Wodehouse scribblings will blot this essay, though I shall make no apologies for drawing liberally from the master himself, before whose lyrical lines no lesser men than Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, George Orwell, Ogden Nash, Anthony Powell, Ronald Knox, and T.S. Eliot prostrated themselves. The beauty of Wodehouse’s world, spun out of the prose he wrote with as much grace and as little seeming effort as Fred Astaire danced, is so compelling that the man who is tired of it must indeed be tired of life.
The adoration of Wodehouse’s peers testifies to his powers of attraction. Belloc in his dotage read only his own works, The Diary of a Nobody, and Wodehouse. Orwell’s enchantment began at the age of eight, and while still in his nursery Evelyn Waugh gurgled over his older brother Alec’s impersonations of the character Psmith. The scholarly Monsignor Knox, putting aside the dry tomes required for his researches, plunged with relish into the Wodehouse oeuvre. T.S. Eliot’s admiration for Wodehouse was just “this side of idolatry.” Even the Kaiser, in post-war exile, so adored Wodehouse’s works that he read entire short stories in the original English to his loyal officers, who were, of course, forced to sit at attention for the duration. I have even heard of a married couple who, when they fell to quarrelling, would quell their anger by reading Wodehouse aloud.
The contemporary dispute between those whose leaden cry is for “relevance” and those who prefer spirited imagination may best be resolved by reflecting that the most loved author of this century wrote only of a world that, if it ever existed, died early in that same century (“my stuff has been out of date since 1914,” Wodehouse says, “and nobody has seemed to mind”). Wodehouse’s good friend Malcolm Muggeridge confessed the man himself, no less than his creations, was not of our world:
Wodehouse is ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict. He just does not react to human beings in that sort of way, and never seems to hate anyone — not even old friends who turned on him. The furthest he will go is to admit, like Charles Lamb, to imperfect sympathies, and to express the hope that this or that public personage might be induced to return to his padded cell. Such a temperament unfits him to be a good citizen in the mid-twentieth century.
One proof of this unfitness is the political incorrectness to be found in Wodehouse, whose characters lean heavily to white European stock, many of them rich to boot (“flush with the necessary,” as Wodehouse’s hero Bertie Wooster would say). Worse, Bertie regularly disapproves of the entire female gender after observing such fiends in human form as Stiffy Byng: “‘What a sex! What a sex, Jeeves!’ … You know, the more I see of women, the more I think that there ought to be a law. Something has got to be done about this sex, or the whole fabric of society will collapse, and then what silly asses we shall all look.” (In fairness, I should add that the fairer sex usually treats Wooster with contempt: “Show me a woman, and I’ll show you someone who is going to ignore my observations,” he complains.)
Wodehouse’s letters have recently been published by his authorized biographer, Frances Donaldson, who was a family friend from the age of 14. She appends to the letters an article of advice to the affianced wherein “Plum,” as Wodehouse’s friends called him, playfully lays bare the patriarchal nature of marriage. After warning young men against marrying women afflicted with such maladies as “Furor Interio-Decoratus” he concludes,
It may seem in the above that I have devoted myself too closely to the female side of the questionnaire, but a moment’s thought will show that that is the only side that matters. All husbands are practically perfect. The only thing you will ever find wrong with a husband is Ashma (the scattering of tobacco ash on carpets), and in these days of feminine smoking most wives have been down with Ashma themselves for years.
Other cultures are not respected, either. In a letter Plum admits he and wife Ethel “have come to the conclusion that we loathe foreign countries.” Wodehouse was also woefully unaware of the need to promote self-esteem in the young; one of his characters describes a certain child as “a kid who requires not education in Greek and Latin languages but a swift slosh on the base of the skull with a blackjack.” Invoking such unsettling passages, eminent Wodehousian Richard Usborne devotes an entire essay in his latest collection to the boys in Wodehouse’s fiction; he summarizes the author’s poetic outlook thus:
(1) All babies are tremendously ugly…. [One looks] like “a mass murderer suffering from an ingrowing toenail.” …
(2) Small boys are fiends, and those with long golden curls and innocent expressions should be beaten up by other boys or, failing other boys, grown-ups like Ambrose Wiffen.
(3) Bigger boys are monsters. Of his step-cousin … Bertie says: “There’s a boy who makes you feel that what this country wants is somebody like King Herod.”
(4) Girls need watching, too.
Wodehouse and the Fall of Man
Waugh famously observed that “For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no Fall of Man; no ‘aboriginal calamity.’ His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled. The chef Anatole prepares the ambrosia for the immortals of high Olympus. Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
Malcolm Muggeridge concurred, but he went on to pose the critical question, “Is the creation of such a world an evasion of reality? Does it represent (to use the current jargon) a lack of ‘commitment’? I do not think so, anymore than, when the founder of the Christian religion said that his kingdom was not of this world, that represented a lack of commitment. There are commitments and commitments.”
Alexander Cockburn — it is a measure of Wodehouse’s magic that it can touch even that cold-hearted Marxist — explained the relation of our world to Wodehouse’s just right when he said it “stands at a slight angle to the universe, unreachable by almost anything but laughter itself.” I would argue that the two realms touch more often than many critics have noticed. For example, nascent feminism is present in the Stiffy Byngs who terrorize would-be preux chevaliers like Bertram Wooster, and fascism appears explicitly in the character of Sir Roderick Spode, a caricature of Sir Oswald Mosley. The transmogrification of caricaturee into caricature illustrates how Wodehouse scales down the real uglinesses of our world to fit his own. Witness Bertie’s tongue-lashing of the dreaded Spode, leader of the “blackshorts,” in The Code of the Woosters:
He asked me if I had called him a slob, and I said I had.
“A fat slob?”
“A fat slob. It is about time,” I proceeded, “that some public-spirited person came along and told you where you got off. The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. There is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is, ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
Similarly, Wodehouse himself wrote one correspondent in 1939 that he approved Churchill’s warnings on Hitler: “I can’t help feeling that we’re being a bit too gentlemanly. Someone ought to get up in Parliament and call Hitler a swine.” Khrushchev he disliked as an “oaf” — and because coverage of the dictator’s visit to the U.S. interrupted his favorite TV soap opera. Socialism itself gets a drubbing in a letter to his beloved step-daughter, Leonora:
Jerome K. Jerome told W.W. Jacobs that he couldn’t understand why Jacobs was afraid of Socialism. He said that under Socialism all Jacob’s needs would be supplied. And Jacobs said he didn’t want his needs supplied. He said “I don’t want a lot of people messing about with me and doing me good, damn their eyes.” It seemed to sum up just what one feels about the thing.
One may add to these unprogressive views Plum’s distaste for the progressive income tax, especially as applied to corporations (“any corporation that gets away with its trousers and one collar-stud should offer up Hosannahs”), as well as to his own great wealth (in ’45 the IRS was pressing him for $120,000 in income taxes!). All in all, he was a West-hating deconstructionist’s Satan, and right-thinking lit crits are certain to leave poor Wodehouse’s corpus groaning and wincing, “like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.” He glimpsed this scene when he discovered English left-wingers viewed him as “a wealthy parasite”; he inquired of a friend, “Has it ever occurred to you that that is how authors are regarded in England? You, me, Shakespeare, all of us, just parasites. (Have you read any good parasites lately?)”
Again, the fictional world of Wodehouse is not as divorced from our own as many think. Waugh noted that while “seduction and adultery are unknown” among Wodehouse’s characters, “they are capable of most other moral lapses,” including rage, drunkenness, smuggling, robbery, arson, kidnapping, blackmailing. “They even resort to violence — quite a number of innocent and guilty alike, even the police, get knocked on the head.” The Wodehouse world, then, reflects our own, but the reflection comes from a curved funhouse mirror that expands peccadillos and foreshortens enormities.
In this way, our vale of tears becomes a bit of a puddle, and we can not only bear to see, but actually delight in seeing Bertie as God sees us: lovable, but oh so foolish and inept— and proud. In fact, the engine of the Bertie and Jeeves stories is fueled precisely by the pride-wounding frustrations that beset Bertie’s every scheme, especially those arising from good intentions. For instance, attempting to abscond with an item from Stiffy’s bedroom, Bertram is treed atop a chest of drawers by her small terrier Bartholomew, a “canine excrescence”; there Bertie recalls
Freddie Widgeon, who was once chased onto the top of a wardrobe by an Alsatian during a country-house visit, telling me that what he had disliked most about the thing was the indignity of it all — the blow to the proud spirit, if you know what I mean — the feeling, in fine, that he, the Heir of the Ages, as you might say, was camping out on a wardrobe at the whim of a bally dog.
The tragedy of his predicament even leads Bertie to profound contemplations on the problem of evil: “Reluctant as one always is to criticize the acts of an all-wise Providence, I was dashed if I could see why a dog of his size should be fitted out with the jaws and teeth of a crocodile.” Thus the heights of tragedy and the depths of despair a la Wodehouse. Yet the reader will not despair; he is much more likely to fall in love with Bertie, who proves William Lynch, S.J.’s assertion that comedy’s no-blest service is to remind us proud men that “in some important sense” we were once, and still are, “a bit of a monkey.”
A Drone and His Creator
Wodehouse’s own service to his fellowman lay in his dogged pursuit of his authorial vocation. Though he shared a great deal with his most famous character, his industry was one of their many differences, as these ably edited letters reveal. Unlike Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, a star in the firmament of the Drone’s Club, Plum was not a clubman, indeed not particularly gregarious at all; in one letter, he finds the prospect of a party that includes dancing “ghastly.” And also unlike Bertie — “one of nature’s bachelors” — he loved marriage, even to the point of doing the dishes (though Richard Usborne informs us he frequently misspelled his new bride’s name, including on their marriage certificate). Nor did he share Bertram’s and Jeeves’ affection for natty dressing (“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'” — “The mood will pass, sir”) but rather delighted in the informality of Paris.
Above all, Wodehouse parted company with Bertie, the world’s most infamous drone, in his staggering productivity and craftsmanship. The letters disclose that he could write three novels and 10 short stories in 18 months, and he once casually told a friend he planned to write six stories simultaneously. As a German internee during the Second World War, he wrote in a room with 50 other prisoners “playing darts and ping-pong and talking and singing,” typewriter balanced on his knees; under these favorable conditions he produced four books and 10 short stories. Between his ninetieth birthday and his death at 94, he wrote four new books, not counting the novel he took with him to the hospital to finish. Though bibliophiles are still counting, his output reaches to at least 96 books, 16 plays, lyrics to 28 plays, over 300 short stories, much humorous verse, the scenarios for six films, and, Donaldson estimates, hundreds of thousands of more words in letters. More sickening to a would-be drone like myself is Wodehouse’s love for re-writing; he thought nothing of thoroughly re-working his book Performing Flea just to adjust it to American tastes, and after re-writing the play Spring Fever three times pronounced it still in need of “a lot of work.” The only “pleasant part of writing,” he claimed, “is the fussing about with it and fixing it up when you have got something down on paper.”
No demons drove him to this toil; he devoted himself to writing for the same reason Flannery O’Connor gave, “Because I’m good at it.” No medieval monk was more devoted to his God-given calling, and Wodehouse’s long and happy life proves the wisdom of discovering one’s vocation and pursuing it.
A zealous craftsman himself, his letters teem with references to others’ slackness: LeCarre is “LOUSY”; some of Damon Runyon’s stories are “fine, but he never seems to wait till he gets a good plot but just goes ahead and bungs down anything.” Plum charges fellow lyricist Cole Porter with the same lack of craft:
The trouble with Cole is that he has no power of self-criticism. He just bungs down anything whether it makes sense or not just because he has thought of what he feels is a good rhyme…. I always feel about Cole’s lyrics that he sang them to Elsa Maxwell and Noèl Coward in a studio stinking of gin and they said “Oh Cole, darling, it’s just too marvelous.”
Despite his humility when re-writing, Wodehouse did sometimes indulge in self-praise. Re-writing Porter’s Anything Goes, he announced to collaborator Guy Bolton the birth of “a masterly couplet … ‘When the courts decide, as they did latterly, we could read Lady Chatterley if we chose, anything goes.’ (Darned sight better than anything old King Cole ever wrote.)” Yet such self-praise is the simple and honest delight of a boy who’s had a good inning at baseball (or cricket), and indeed, Wodehouse found joy even when interned by the Germans because he was able after 27 years to play, and play well, at cricket.
Obviously happiness, for Wodehouse and his heroes, is not dependent on crude material considerations but instead springs from their boyish love of life. Their joie de vivre is only possible because of the right-ordering of their souls, souls which, even if sometimes owned by a fellow “barely sentient,” as Aunt Agatha calls Bertie, nonetheless reflect a Christian vision of humility and love: “He was a humble, kindly soul,” Wodehouse says of his heroes’ real-life model, “who knew he was a silly ass but hoped you wouldn’t mind.” And anyway, “your drone can always work if he feels like it. It is very seldom, of course, that he does feel like it. He prefers just to exist beautifully.”
Alas, this taste for beauty and the graced leisure that makes it possible is now in short supply, most especially among our poets and critics. They resemble not impish boys but bitter, haggard old men who have, in Chesterton’s phrase, “lost their normal power of enjoying enjoyable things.” This faculty, Chesterton adds, “is always slipping away from men; and it slips away faster and faster in the modern mood of always looking for the latest thing.” This “hurry after happiness,” he concludes, “is itself unhappy.” It is not to be found, fortunately, among Wodehouse’s devotees, who could no more read too many Bertie and Jeeves stories than Wodehouse could see too many cricket matches.
Those who cannot slake their thirst for Wodehouse will be pleased with these two new tomes from Usborne and Donaldson, brought out in America by one of the nation’s leading collectors of Wodehousiana, James H. Heineman. Usborne’s essays conjure up the Wodehouse world quite well and also present the hilarious sight of a man surveying Plum’s oeuvre with the same scholarly fastidiousness as a Thomist commenting on the opera omnium of Aquinas. Usborne quotes the master promiscuously, and his story descriptions are nearly as delightful as the actual stories.
The best essay of the lot is “My Blandings Castle,” a poignant recollection of a country house not unlike Wodehouse’s mythical one, where Usborne as a young Oxfordian tutored a baron’s son over his holidays in the early 1930s. He confesses he himself was not to the manner born and so could only navigate the etiquette of country house life because of the tutoring he’d received from Wodehouse’s stories. Lord Hastings, his stern employer, was the twenty-first in his line of barons and had, as “one of his splendid subsidiary titles,” Seneschal of Aquitane. After painting a keen portrait of the house in its prime, Usborne tells of its post-war decline, though a postscript reveals a Norwich businessman has since renovated the house, parts of which “have already been rented for apartments, conferences, and the occasional Elizabethan-style dinner, with wenches, syllabubs, and mead.”
Other valuable items in this latest product from Usborne’s pen — which has also given us The Penguin Wodehouse Companion, Wodehouse Nuggets, and Wodehouse at Work — include the correction that Lord Emsworth’s prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, despite cover illustrations that picture her as “a pink-and-white porker,” is in fact a Black Berkshire. Usborne also informs us of the author of Types of Ethical Theory, a book which Florence Craye forced upon the hapless Bertie at the time of their first engagement. You may recall the passage Bertie comes upon at random: “The postulate or common understanding involved in speech is certainly coextensive, in the obligation it carries, with the social organism of which language is the instrument, and the ends of which it is an effort to subserve.” Contemplating this deep thought, Bertie retorts, “All perfectly true, no doubt; but not the sort of thing to spring on a lad with a morning head.” Thanks to Usborne we can now identify the graybeard who emitted those obtuse lines; it is one Dr. James Martineau, 1805-1900, who was also, unsurprisingly, a unitarian divine. Usborne admits he could not bring himself to wade through the book to find the exact page citation, for “it is a very long book, and Dr. Martineau is one of those philosophers who, for my money, disappear up their own hypotheses very quickly.” On the subject of divines, Usborne also gives us an excellent overview of Wodehouse’s men of the cloth in the essay “Laughter in Church.”
The only complaints I have about Usborne’s After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse are the lack of any page headings to identify which essay one is reading and the similar lack of any index. Happily, Frances Donaldson’s Yours, Plum has an excellent index, is intelligently organized and laid out, and includes four interesting appendices and 16 pages of photographs. (In one taken at the bar of Plum and Ethel’s Long Island house, we see not one but two cocktail shakers standing at the ready, endeavoring, no doubt, to give satisfaction.) Ms. Donaldson has also provided brief footnotes that identify nearly every play, novel, character, et cetera that Plum refers to in his letters; her editorial interjections on autobiography, such matters as Wodehouse’s war-time traumas are also well done.
Best of all, Donaldson chooses intelligently to give us only a representative sample of the correspondence, which results in a book that weighs in at only 269 pages and is organized mainly by topic — a much wiser choice than burdening the public with a 1000-page tome aimed at those pedants who desire exercise for the triceps, not the wit. Plum, who always aimed first to entertain, would approve.
The book’s greatest virtue probably lies in Plum’s letters to his adopted step-daughter Leonora; they form an admirable especially as other letters reveal that Wodehouse’s two semi-autobiographical works, Performing Flea and Bring on the Girls, were written to the demands of entertainment, not accuracy. Also, the letters make clear that Wodehouse’s special language, his “wild poetry of the absurd” as J.B. Priestley puts it, was his natural way of writing. “I am full of vim and venom just now,” he writes a friend, “as I am in the middle of the chapter of my camp reminiscences in which I reply to my critics, notably Mr. Harry W. Flannery, whom I propose to reduce to a spot of grease. I am living on raw meat, and human life is not safe within a mile of me.”
We also learn that Wodehouse loved Churchill’s books on World War I, thought Trollope “damned good” and Ira Gershwin “worth ten” of Lorenz Hart. More interestingly, we read, “what a repulsive man Shaw was.” Wodehouse met him twice; the second time “Ethel, silly ass, gave him an opening by saying ‘My daughter is so excited about your world tour,’ and he said ‘The whole world is excited about my world tour.’ I nearly said ‘I’m not, blast you.'” Indeed, it is hard to imagine a man more antithetical to Wodehouse than Shaw, who though also highly skilled in English prose was nonetheless a teetotalling vegetarian whose meticulosity apparently extended to the point of failing to consummate his own marriage.
Wodehouse the eternal boy stands, with Chesterton, four-square with the party of beer and liberty against the party of soap and socialism. Shaw, on the other hand, was the epitome of the meticulous man. And though we laugh at the meticulous man, Father Lynch reminds us that “if ever there was a non-comic man, it is he. For he recalls whence he was born, but with a refined if not a violent distaste.” Against this puritanism, Lynch adds, “the sins of Rabelais and the guilty conscience of Chaucer are much less remote from the truth” — and from the heart of comedy.
Wodehouse’s boyish good nature also explains much of the personality he reveals in his letters. His aesthetic sensibilities are those of a boy: renting an apartment in Paris, he is embarrassed by an “enormous” nude that “dominates the living-room” and so hides it in a spare room. And then there is his childlike love of his pets, who ate meat in wartime Paris while he and Ethel subsisted on vegetables. Even his terrific literary labors he describes with the air of the ambitious lemonade stand entrepreneur. True, he was excited by fame and touchy over the least criticism of his work, but all in the unbitter way a schoolboy frets over his popularity among his chums and longs to please. His occasional rebuke to those who criticized him goes no further than schoolyard rivalry; in the end, he is incapable of nursing grievances and has a child’s distaste for having any enemies at all. At one point he admits his literary judgment of others is unaffected by personal animosity against them. He even becomes good friends — “buddies” — with William Connor, who broadcast the most scurrilous wartime attack on him. (His only character flaw may be an immoderate love for the Pekinese he kept — surely a breed that explains why trash compactors were invented.)
Above all, he never entertains self-pity. A few humorous broadcasts he naïvely made while imprisoned by the Germans brought stern censure upon him, but he soon concludes, “I haven’t a twinge of self-pity. I made an ass of myself, and must pay the penalty.” (How innocuous were these infamous talks? The first one opens, “Young men starting out in life have often asked me, ‘How can I become an internee?'”)
Ironically, American intelligence officers later studied those broadcasts as examples of how subtly to air propaganda under an enemy’s nose. This is fitting, for Wodehouse’s heroes are always fighting against the small-minded, the bureaucratic, and the odd assortment of humorless magistrates and police. The pompous are skewered, and pedantic, newt-fancying expert-types, though not quite damned, are nonetheless regarded as illiberal and pathetic. Usborne puts it well: Wodehouse “backed young against old, prisoner against magistrate, nephew against aunt, chorus girl against star, curate against bishop, best-selling female novelist against precious pastels-in-prose writer or willowy poet.” Bertie Wooster may be, Orwell adds, “a sluggish Don Quixote” with “no wish to tilt at windmills, but he would hardly think of refusing to do so when honor calls.” In short, for Wodehouse, morality is found in the Code of the Woosters — also the code of the playground — never let a pal down.
In this way do friendship and charity cement the world Wodehouse creates, and that is why all intimates of Wodehouse look forward to another story by him as they look forward to an old friend. Bertie Wooster and P.G. Wodehouse are lovable as only mischievous, romantic, good-hearted boys can be.
Yet there will always be those congenitally unable to appreciate these delights. When Plum writes that “the New Yorker flatly states [Jeeves] has become a bore,” we know that disordered world-weariness is afoot. What, one wonders, would excite these critics instead? Wodehouse had his suspicions; he sarcastically announced, “I sometimes wish I wrote that powerful stuff the reviewers like so much, all about incest and homosexualism.”
Doubtless his letters, too, had they included such fashionable ugliness, would have met a warmer critical reception.
But even sympathetic reviewers now often mis-value him. Though originally thought a low writer for boys and their overgrown facsimiles, Wodehouse has today largely become a cultic high author, revered by aesthetes for his great industry and meticulous prose—the author of “delicious sentences,” says one critic, though “one hardly cares what happens to his young men in spats.” In the end, supposedly, it is all “mere piffle.” But Wodehouse’s prose is not piffle; it is only the road to his distinctive world, where friends are helped with their timeless problems of love and money and the high-spirited find joy despite dyspeptic magistrates, crocodile-impersonating terriers, blackshorted dictators-to-be, and raging aunts.
Of course, if you can’t enjoy that world and laugh, you can’t understand how Joyce Cary could say that laughter and prayer are the same thing. One Carmelite, however, asked after Wodehouse’s death to remember him at Mass, wisely replied, “Well, I will, since you ask me. But in the case of someone who has brought such joy to so many people in the course of his life, do you think it is necessary?”
Admittedly, the genius of that ordinary suburban schoolboy Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Knight of the British Empire, arrives, like Jeeves, from out of nowhere and shimmers in — our salvation. His stories are so good as to be almost impossible to explain. They merely exist beautifully; which is to say, they are divine. So if you’ve the heart for it, you’ll understand Ogden Nash’s reaction to news of yet another Jeeves novel:
Bound to your bookseller, leap to your library
Deluge your dealer with bakshish and bribery,
Lean on the counter and never say when,
Wodehouse and Wooster are at it again.