The Wonder Of Wodehouse

Reading & Writing

If a book can make you snort coffee out of your nose in Starbucks, I’d say it was a pretty funny one. Starbucks coffee is quite horrible, and the thought of it coursing down your nasal passages is a less than pleasant prospect.

But if I had to pick the funniest writer in the world, I wouldn’t think for one second. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) never intended to be anything than funny. He was a ridiculously prolific writer whose body of work included novels, short stories, plays, poems, song lyrics, and lots of journalism. And it’s interesting how many people who’ve never read him dismiss him out of hand. Forget TV versions – none of them capture his style. It’s the books that count.

Two great things should be pointed out about Wodehouse. First, his ability to misdirect a sentence every few pages seems to me the mark of a brilliant humorist.

Says one character; ‘I like a man to be a clean, strong, upstanding Englishman who can look his gnu in the face and put an ounce of lead in it.’

Or here’s the hopeless poet invited down to a country house for a weekend, desperate to make a good impression, who has been smoking in his room and goes to the lawn to compose bad poetry about his hostess;
‘He was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn’t be polished up a bit, when his eye was attracted to something that shone like summer skies or stars above and, looking more closely, he perceived that his bedroom curtains were on fire.’

For this leads to the second point, the effortlessly clever plotting of a master farceur. So when Jeeves and Wooster help out a friend who wishes to appear a hero in a girl’s eyes, they arrange to kidnap a child he will then rescue. Except that they kidnap someone else’s child by mistake.

Or when the pyromaniac poet above sets fire to his room, the flames are put out by his girlfriend’s other suitors, much to the annoyance of her parents, who were trying to burn the place down for insurance.

But is it too Deep English? (Sorry, the phrase has bugged me ever since an American reader applied it to my books.) My spouse hails from Auckland and is entirely mystified by these goings-on in country houses. Of course, there’s a lot more to Wodehouse than just Jeeves and Wooster, and I would recommend the Blandings books just as highly. In fact, his output rarely fell below average, which means that everything must have stemmed from his mindset rather than a created persona.

If you’ve never read Wodehouse, might I suggest ‘Weekend Wodehouse’, a collection of snippets to whet your appetite – not the Kindle version though, which is a misspelled farrago of errors.

Finally here’s Wodehouse on writing a long-running series;
It is now 14 summers since, an eager lad in my early thirties, I started to write Jeeves stories, and many people think this nuisance should now cease. They look down the vista of years and see the chronicles multiplying like rabbits, and the prospect appals them. But against this must be set the fact that writing Jeeves stories gives me a great deal of pleasure, and keeps me out of the public houses.’

Quite how I feel about Bryant & May.

9 comments on “The Wonder Of Wodehouse”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    According to a younger relative, the Starbucks roast was perfected to cut through the flavour of weed, hash, pot, “marge-wana”, whatever it’s called wherever. (Having been to a fair number of rock concerts with him, and an indoor Greatful Dead concert specifically, I can attest that pot smoke – even if you don’t smoke yourself – clings – and is far worse to get out of clothing, hair, and nasal passages than Indonesian clove cigarettes.) So, perhaps, this does explain the coffee’s original flavour, which I can’t drink black, but find quite good when made into a hot or cold latte, as this cuts the coffee’s burnt taste.
    (Admin: I’ve done the nose bit with Starbucks: you suddenly look and feel like a badly backed-up and embarassed milch cow.
    As to the excellent Wodehouse, I enjoy reading him in rationed doses – so overexposure to his farces doesn’t dull his very witty writing. Wodehouse’s “misdirected sentences” are absolutely wonderful. Reading along one is like unexpectedly driving off the rising end of an opening drawbridge and landing on the other side of a completely different bridge. Whoa! I wonder if he extemporized or carefully crafted these flights. He must have had the kind of mind that made sharp two-wheel turns naturally. I wonder how his book readings were.

  2. snowy says:

    ‘Plum’ was indeed, to use a much abused phrase a genius. And while those behind the adaptation starring F&L did their very best, the novels will never properly translate to the screen.

    The bulk of his charm is in his descriptions of scenes, the actions of characters, eg.

    ‘Jeeves shimmered into the room’,

    or the internal dialogue of protagonists, eg.

    ‘I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back’.

    He creates such a complex tapestry, that cannot be adapted for a visual medium. So much has to be cut out, that all that is left is a rather rustic and unvarnished frame spun about with the odd coloured thread, and the occasional flash of gold.

    He does give seem to reserve perhaps his best lines for his female characters, particularly the Aunts, eg.

    ‘The modern young man,’ said Aunt Dahlia, ‘is a congenital idiot and wants a nurse to lead him by the hand and some strong attendant to kick him regularly at intervals of a quarter of an hour.’


  3. Peter says:

    Don’t stop politely applauding PGW. Reminisce to a fare-thee-well please. At sixteen I barely ever made the foot of St. Marylebone Public Library steps before covering up a snort provoked by an irrestible sneak peek at the newest Wooster escapade.

  4. Cat Eldridge says:

    The Starbucks flavor is the seem one as it was in their very first coffeehouse in downtown Seattle which I had coffee before they turned in the monster they are now. The flavor comes from over roasting the beans, an all too common practice among Seattle based coffee companies both then and now.

    A Starbucks old timer (one of the first fifty hired) told me that the biggest problem with their coffee now is the up to month lag between it being roasted and it being brewed for your consumption.

  5. John Howard says:

    Oh I think “Deep English” is definitely the phrase here especially in the novels. I apologise for using that phrase but it does indicate a set of auto-understood background values that don’t need long description and can result in Wodehouse’s short, clean and very funny writing.

    Does your wife understand the goings on in the Agatha Christie country houses, if she reads them and does understand then mayhap it is the humour that has the depth.

    I have been reading him for 40 years and I am quite sure that all of us reading the blog hope that we will be reading your writing for the a similar amount of time…

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Yes indeed to all of that. I have a PGW at the moment for bathroom reading, complete with small pet dogs that bite people, complex plans to enable men to end up with the correct women, lakes to fall into, tea to arrive for and sunny glades to find lovers engaged with poetry (!?) Snorting is the inevitable result. I am also reading “Invisible Code” for the second time through. Joy unbounded.

  7. Steve says:

    It’s not very often that the written word causes me to literally laugh out loud. Exceptions are the J&W stories, anything by the late lamented Douglas Adams, and Admin – usually in the last case having something to do with Arthur.

  8. Murasaki_1966 says:

    Well, I’m Australian and I adore Wodehouse. I will be reading a novel or two of his on the way to London in October. I hope to pick up the Byrant and May novels I don’t have while we are there.

    May I share one of my favourite pieces of Wodehouse?
    From Uncle Fred in the Springtime

    ‘Don’t blame me, Pongo,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘if Lady Constance takes her lorgnette to you. God bless my soul, though, you can’t compare the lorgnettes of today with the ones I used to know as a boy. I remember walking one day on Grosvenor Square with my aunt Brenda and her pug dog Jabberwocky, and a policeman came up and said the latter ought to be wearing a muzzle. My aunt made no verbal reply. She merely whipped her lorgnette from its holder and looked at the man, who gave one choking gasp and fell back against the railings, starting eyes as if he had seen some dreadful sight. A doctor was sent for, and they managed to bring him round, but he was never the same again. He had to leave the Force, and eventually drifted into the grocery business. And that is how Sir Thomas Lipton got his start.’

  9. Alan Morgan says:

    He was a good sarf* London boy.

    *I’m sure he never said ‘sarf’.

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