If one were to attempt to explain P. G. Wodehouse to someone who had never heard of him, one would have a most difficult task indeed. It is probably impossible, even in the abstract, to conceive of a novelist who could write more than ninety novels, covering seventy years of twentieth century history and dealing with the English upper and upper-middle classes, and never concern himself with a single political, economic, or social idea, never write of crime or violence except in the most juvenile fashion, and never write a single line that would bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. Yet, this is a reasonably accurate description of the literary career of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. For at least sixty of those seventy years, Wodehouse was one of the most widely read and best-selling novelists in the language; his works were translated worldwide, and he counted among his admirers persons as diverse as Evelyn Waugh and Great Britain’s Queen Mother.
Wodehouse, the creator of the famous Drones Club, would have stood little chance himself of election to that noted body, or, if he had managed to slip in, would regularly have been pelted with buns. The purveyor of innumerable laugh-filled tales was, as this biography makes clear, a preternaturally dull chap, almost completely devoid of close friends, who was of limited emotional sensibility. He was definitely not an Egg or a Bean.
Wodehouse was, and probably remains, the master of the light novel. Indeed, to many he is simply “The Master”—which also happens to be the title of Frances Donaldson’s opening chapter. His excellences, and they are real ones, are almost entirely those of form rather than content; in a way, his novels might almost be said to have no content. He probably had no more than three or four basic plots, and his characters are all stereotypes, but in almost every story there is something memorable, something to admire. As might be imagined, the books tend to blur in the reader’s mind; what one remembers are characters or episodes or even individual lines, while exact titles or even specific plot lines remain indistinct.
The excellences of Wodehouse are usually held to be three: character creation, style, and plot construction. The first two are treated to some extent in this book, but the third, while praised, is hardly examined in detail. Wodehouse’s characters, while stereotypical in origin, are often, like the characters of Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare, the ne plus ultra of the stereotypes. Such characters as Aunt Agatha, Lord Emsworth, Psmith, Mike, or Mr. Mulliner, while no doubt traceable to numerous literary or dramatic antecedents and variants, nevertheless emerge in their ultimate definitive glory in the pages of Wodehouse. What other writer, for example, can be said to have presented in final form an entire gallery of aunts? What else remains to be said of aunts? What other author, short of a Chaucer or a Shakespeare, can claim to have contributed two such characters as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster to the world of fictional immortals, characters who have passed into common folklore along with the everlastingly famous Blandings Castle? Jeeves and Bertie have moved beyond the world of the stereotype to that of the archetype, whose existence is no longer limited by the pages of novels. Like Falstaff and the Wife of Bath, they live forever in the minds of Wodehouse’s readers; Jeeves continues to shimmer in one’s imagination long after the details of the stories fade.
Many critics have cited Wodehouse as an exquisite prose stylist, but he is not exquisite in the sense that a Max Beerbohm is, emphasizing delicacy and tenuousness of connotation. Wodehouse’s prose is, in fact, fairly direct and vigorous. It is a humorous style, full of constant surprise; it is witty without being arch and fluid without being formless. It has been said that attempting to describe style is like trying to tattoo soap bubbles, but among the essential ingredients of Wodehouse’s style is his ability to combine high diction with slang, often in the same sentence, with a sense of ease which can only leave the reader admiring. Wodehouse is also a master of the literary allusion or quotation as adapted to the character of the speaker of the moment. Mostly these are the quotations and allusions that would have been part of the normal intellectual freight of the English public-school boy of the turn of the century—which is exactly what Wodehouse was. Finally, there is perhaps no more adept user in all of English literature of the wildly extravagant metaphor, so outrageous as to be hilarious; yet Wodehouse handles them with an ease that even John Donne might well have admired.
Donaldson presents the character-creating and stylistic virtues of Wodehouse well, mainly through extensive quotation, perhaps the only real way to suggest qualities of style, but Wodehouse’s excellence in plotting and construction, perhaps of necessity, is simply praised rather than analyzed. Donaldson makes it clear that it was plotting to which Wodehouse devoted the greatest labor, and when he felt that the plot was right, with all the loose ends tied, the actual writing of the book was relatively straightforward. Even though Wodehouse repeatedly used the same basic plots, he still took great care with each, making sure that his large cast of characters and his...
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