What Is It About Wodehouse?


Time and again I’m drawn back to PG Wodehouse when I feel a little low. In that spirit, this column is an amalgam of previous articles together with new observations on an eternally amusing author.

‘Isn’t it all just upper class stuff?’ asked a friend. ‘Who needs that now?’

No, it’s not, I told him. That’s just the setting, in the same way that someone like the superbly funny Jonathan Coe might use such locations. The stories are universal stories of human failings and kindnesses.

Comic novels and stories traditionally occupy a low place on the literary totem pole, even when they make serious points. Arguably the most regarded American comic novel is Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’, followed by books by Updike, Irving and Dunne. In the UK the sprawling comic epic – the type American authors construct so well – is largely unknown, and some, like those by Sterne and Fielding, are now a struggle to read. I’d place Austen, Waugh, Bennett and Priestley together. I’ve not enjoyed Amis pere or fils but many have – and that leaves a podium at the centre reserved for Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975).

Perhaps that should be a hole rather than a podium, because for half of the 20th century Wodehouse was persona non grata. Having been imprisoned by the Nazis after the capture of Le Touquet, where he lived during the Second World War (he refused to leave in time to reach the safety of England), Wodehouse was branded a traitor for making a series of broadcasts to Americans over enemy radio in 1941. The content was not remotely political, and consisted mainly of ill-judged jokes and assurances that he was fit and well.

But the Germans were close to victory, so the timing was bad and the fact that he was using an enemy channel caused outrage. His books were removed from British libraries, the BBC banned his works and he became regarded as a traitor for not defying his captors.

Even the unworldly Wodehouse admitted that his actions had not been thought through, but he was forced to spend the rest of his life in the US, having been shunned by the country he loved. A few years ago the release of MI5 files detailing the agency’s investigation into the author’s so-called treachery concluded that he had not consciously assisted the enemy and that there were no grounds for prosecution.

However, the suspicion prevented public access to his writings, letters and diaries. Now the British Library says that the Wodehouse archive will join its 20th-century holdings, a collection that includes works by Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter and Angela Carter.

The documents include the writer’s manuscripts, photographs of him with the Hollywood elite in the 1920s and 30s and, most notably, intimate diary excerpts made during his time as a prisoner of the Nazis.

Wodehouse has long been regarded as a genius by his literary peers, for his extraordinarily sustained tone of joyful bemusement. He is not at all someone you feel you have to read, and translates hopelessly to other media, but I have never met anyone who did not enjoy reading at least one of his novels. They have the ability to brighten even the darkest days, thanks to Wodehouse’s ability to precision-balance funny sentences with beautifully constructed plots.

He was a ridiculously prolific writer whose body of work included novels, short stories, plays, poems, song lyrics, scripts and journalism. 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.’

The greatly missed Dan Terrell of these Comments pages said of Wodehouse’s “misdirected sentences”; ‘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.’

This leads to the second point, the effortless 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 are the books too Deep English? (Sorry, the phrase has bugged me ever since a reader applied it to my books.) There’s a lot more to Wodehouse than Jeeves and Wooster, and I would recommend the Blandings novels just as highly. His output rarely fell below average, which means that everything must have stemmed from his mindset rather than a created persona. Originality is a rare thing but consistency should be prized just as highly.

If you’ve never read Wodehouse, might I suggest ‘Weekend Wodehouse’, a collection of snippets to whet your appetite. 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.’

I couldn’t have put it better myself.



22 comments on “What Is It About Wodehouse?”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    There are so many plums in the Wodehouse pudding…
    “A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.”

    “One of the drawbacks to life is that it contains moments when one is compelled to tell the truth.”

    “It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.”

    Did he coin the phrase about most pleasureable things in life being illegal, immoral or fattening?

  2. Roger says:

    The Mr Mulliner stories and the early Psmith stories – not Wodehouse at his best, but still good by any standard – aren’t “upper class stuff”. I don’t thnk Wodehouse suffered obloquy after WWII in Britain for as long as you say: Orwell was one of his first defenders, but others followed suit. I think it was Waugh who pointed out that Wodehouse was like Johann Strauss – he always did the same thing, but he did it so well everyone liked it.

  3. Vincent C says:

    Thank you for a superb article about PGW. Malcolm Muggeridge was another of his defenders. Evelyn Waugh sang his praises “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.” His (PGW’s) response to Sean O’Casey’s belittling characterization of him as “English Literature’s performing flea” is a delightful example of turning the tables: “Thinking it over, I believe he meant to be complimentary, for all the performing fleas I have met have impressed me with their sterling artistry and that indefinable something which makes the good trouper.”

  4. Brooke says:

    Summer solstice is approaching and we need a human sacrifice — please forward name and contact information of “Deep English” reader.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    I’ve loved Wodehouse, Jeeves, Blandings, Psmith, the lot, for as long as I can remember. The various TV series might not match up to the books, but they are outstanding TV comedy. Chris didn’t mention the play ‘Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense.’ I saw it with Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan. It was one of the two finest comic productions that I’ve ever seen (the other is ‘The Lady Killers’).

    Someone who described so beautifully of certain aspects of English life could never betray it. Only an idiot would consider the possibility. And there’s no difficulty in guessing the newspapers and individuals involved. A more spiteful individual than Wodehouse would have lampooned them in subsequent works, but he was a gentler soul. Maybe his exile served. It might have been hard to write about his England when living in one that had become so very different.

  6. Trace Turner says:

    Wodehouse first entered my life in the 1970’s when our PBS station aired Wodehouse Playhouse with Pauline Collins and John Alderton and I have been a dedicated fan ever since. Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court and The Fiery Wooing of Mordred are among my favorites as well, Mr. Fowler. Sometimes, when I am a little weary of the real world, I open my well-worn volume of Meet Mr Mulliner and escape for a bit. I can recommend it as a tonic until someone really invents Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo.

  7. snowy says:

    Written sources from the period in question, viz: PGW and the followers of Spode-[Westphalia branch], are always worth reading. Particularly George Orwell’s ‘In Defence of P.G Wodehouse’.

    [Those with only the appetite for something lighter might favour ‘In Defence of English Cooking’ written by Orwell in the same year.]

  8. Helen Martin says:

    My Mother introduced me to PGW in the mid fifties and told me that the English considered him a traitor. She added that he never broadcast anything at all political and “probably had very little choice if he wanted to keep living. We’re not all heroes.” I loved the Jeeves and Wooster series we saw here on PBS with the great musical intro and the beautifully 1920s style drawings to go with it.
    He is perfect summer reading – or winter – or any other time when you want to laugh.
    By the way, thank you, Chris, for the autographed postal card from the Aye Write festival. Donald and I thought it would be fun to insert a foreign question into your Q and A. I couldn’t come up with a really good one in time, though.

  9. Jo W says:

    Thankyou,Chris,for nudging my memory. I’ve been wondering what books to take away with me and there in the ‘to be read again’ pile is The Mating Game. Somewhere in this home for the bewildered,I think there’s a Blandings Castle book. I must go and root it out, so that’s my day sorted.

  10. Jan says:

    The comment from Evelyn Waugh that PG Wodehouse’s work could release future generations from a captivity irksome than our own……well I second that. Trust me it’s true.

  11. Wim Es van says:

    “Oh Bertie, you know your Shelley!
    Oh, am I”

  12. Ruzz says:

    “She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season.”

    Favourite quotes are tiresome. But some are irresistible.

  13. Richard says:

    PGW was kind of hard to ignore at my school, I used to walk past his preserved study, desk and typewriter every day. I did find him a bit posh at that point, as I was still coming to terms with my promotion to the middle classes. It was the Fry and Laurie TV show that got me to explore the back catalogue.

  14. Ted Fontenot says:

    First, great American comic novelists start with Twain (and some say end with Twain). I further Thurber as a great comic story writer. However, I think overall America’s greatest comic novelist is now mostly forgotten, but once wildly popular with both readers and critics, Peter De Vries. Tremendously funny, in situations and as a wordsmith. And, like Thurber, a superb parodists (including a short parody of Wodehouse). I’d recommend starting with Comfort Me With Apples or Let Me Count the Ways.

    Thomas Berger had sterling comic sensibilities. Little Big Man is one masterpiece with comic incidents and Reinhart in Love, second in the four-novel Reinhart series, is truly unique in style and tone.

    Now to Wodehouse. A truly great writer, I think. I’ve read his post-school novels multiple times and even the early genteel, Jane Austen-lite, humorous stuff is fine. The Jeeves-Wooster and Blandings Saga novels are in a class of their own. Bertie’s first-person narration is like no other, a truly funny and indelible voice and character. The first four novels are of such a transcendent quality that they all can vie for the status of masterpiece of the series. And Wodehouse’s third-person omniscient narration in the best Blandings novels, Summer Lightning and Heavy Weather, is character in itself in its living refutation of the Joycean- Aristotelian godlike objective narrator paring his nails.

  15. snowy says:

    My favourite quotation still remains:

    “Whatever may be said in favour of the Victorians, it is pretty generally admitted that few of them were to be trusted within reach of a trowel and a pile of bricks.”

    [ From Summer Moonshine (1938) ]

  16. Readers in the UK might like to meet other Wodehouse enthusiasts by joining the PG Wodehouse Society (UK).
    Wodehouse’s reputation will receive another boost later this year when a memorial to him will be unveiled in Westminster Abbey.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    Martin, it was the Beverley Sisters who sang “It’s Immoral, It’s Illegal or It Makes You Fat” a comedy take on the trouble with all the best things in life. Having seen the “Bevs” twice on stage I can confirm that they were the best drag act in the business and as wonderfully camp as a row of pink tents. But I digress…

    “Beyond a Joke” is a play by Roger Milner about the Wodehouse’s in Paris in the War and their future exile. Far from helping them, Malcolm Muggeridge was portrayed as a villain of the piece, as was Mrs Wodehouse due to being a very pushy, bossy and selfish woman. I saw the play in 2000 at the Richmond Theatre. Anton Rogers was PGW and Angela Thorne was Mrs W. I would suggest that anyone interested in the story get hold of a script via French’s Theatre bookshop or Amazon.

    It must be remembered that PGW was knighted towards the end of his life so surely this says it all about his NOT being a traitor. My dad and many of his generation regarded PGW along with Gracie Fields and James Mason as traitors leaving the country during the war as “Gone with the Wind Up” Poor Gracie didn’t have much choice due to being married to an Italian who would have been interned if they had stayed. And Mason was a pacifist-perhaps a brave act due to public opinion at the time .

    It was Wodehouse, who I discovered in my early teen years, more than anyone else who made me the passionate reader I have been all my life. He described his books as Musical Comedies without the music.

    Anyway, back to the Bevs. Another great song they use to do (as did Flanders and Swan) was about all the rude words naughty young children might say in song form called “Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers.

  18. Doug Irvine says:

    I have found myself to quite depressed today. Strangeley enough my first choice as something to do to cheer me up is to start reading The World of Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. Now if I can find a reciepe for Green Swizzles I will be set.

  19. Honoria Plum says:

    A wonderful piece on Wodehouse — thanks so much for writing it.

  20. Wayne Mook says:

    I don’t think the class aspect can be ignored as some of the plots would not work set in another social strata. Being working class I never had any problem with this, they are joyous books. My first was ‘Aunts Aren’t Gentleman’ from my local library and I’ve never looked back, oddly enough at the same time I think I picked up Chandlers the Big Sleep. Two different but exotic worlds opened up to a young Mancunian, how wonderfully the mind can travel.


  21. Andrew Holme says:

    Quite correct that other media cannot capture the true ‘voice’ of the books. Having said that, I’ve always carried a deep regret that Laurel & Hardy never tackled a Jeeves story.

  22. Chris Everest says:

    I love the School stories and the Psmith stories … with the wonderful scent of mown grass and cricket pitches in summers long gone…

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