Few of P. G. Wodehouse’s novels are ever far from the school environment, for the plots of the later Jeeves and Blandings series of novels frequently derive from the desire of one schoolmate, usually Bertie Wooster, to help another. The early school novels, however, represent a distinct type within the body of Wodehouse’s fiction.
The school novels
Perhaps, as one scholar has observed, these eight school novels are no more than “bibliographical curiosities,” in that only the most ardent fan of Wodehouse would be led to read them after the later work had been written. Still, the works are different in tone and theme. The novels are set at Wrykyn College, which seems to closely resemble Dulwich, the author’s alma mater. The emphasis is on sports, and this emphasis gives a serious tone to the work. Boys are measured largely by their athletic skills. One might suggest that the ever-present sports motif was a symbol of the particular virtues of youth: comradeship, loyalty, and perseverance. Enlarging on these virtues, Wodehouse was following what was almost a cliché in the boy’s fiction of the time. The cliché, however, was one particularly congenial to the author, who once noted that he would never be able to write his autobiography, for he had not had one of the essentials in the background of an autobiographer—“a hell of a time at his public school.”
Wodehouse loved Dulwich College, and the eight school novels are a record of his affection. The schoolmasters are a decent group, the boys, with few exceptions, are generous and loyal, and the setting of the college is one of great beauty. The distinctive element in the novels is the happiness that pervades them, and the reader need only remember George Orwell’s, Graham Greene’s, and Evelyn Waugh’s accounts of their own school days to notice the sharp difference between Wodehouse and many of his contemporaries. The only curiosity about the novels is not the absence of horror and malice, but that no one in the school novels seems to have learned anything at Wrykyn. It should also be remembered that many of Wodehouse’s most celebrated idiots are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.
Wodehouse once said of his work: “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring life altogether.” The Blandings series of novels is perhaps the best example of the author’s determined resistance to “real life.” These twenty-odd novels are centered on the beautiful estate of Lord Emsworth, who serves as unwilling host to almost everyone who goes in and out of his ancestral home. Lord Emsworth is old and absentminded, and his affections are limited to his younger brother Galahad, his roses, and his pig, the Empress of Blandings. This pig, as Emsworth remarks several times in each of the novels, has won the silver prize for being the fattest in Shropshire County. Only Galahad can really appreciate the high distinction that has been conferred on the Empress, and one feels that even he is not very serious about the pig. The Empress, however, is the catalyst for very nearly all of the actions that take place in the novels. She is stolen, which makes it imperative to effect a rescue; she is painted an outrageous color and introduced into strange bedrooms to make the recipients of such favors “more spiritual” in their outlook; and, on one occasion, her portrait is done at the behest of Lord Emsworth.
This last episode in the life of the Empress occurs in one of the best of the Blandings novels and is a fair measure of the formula used by Wodehouse in the series. Full Moon, in which the portrait is commissioned, has all of the characteristics of the Blandings novels. Emsworth has the insane idea that the pig’s portrait should be done by an eminent painter, but they have all turned down his request. While this action is debated, Lady Constance, Emsworth’s sister, has come to the castle with a young lady in tow. Her intent is to keep the young woman away from the man to whom she has become foolishly engaged, foolishly because the fellow does not have any money, which is the essential requisite for a good marriage in the mind of Lady Constance. Galahad arranges to have the young man invited to the castle on the pretext that he is Edwin Landseer, celebrated painter of animal pictures, including “Pig at Bey.” Galahad’s ruse works for a while, but the young man’s painting is rejected by Emsworth, who complains that the painting makes the Empress look as if she had a hangover. The young man is ejected from Blandings but soon returns, wearing a beard resembling an Assyrian monarch. He makes a tragic mistake when he gives a love note to one of Emsworth’s other sisters, thinking that she is a cook. He is again thrown out. By the novel’s end, however, he has successfully won the hand of his beloved, and the sisters are all leaving the estate. Galahad has once more succeeded in spreading “sweetness and light” in all directions, except that of his usually irate sisters.
There are few variations in the Blandings series: At least one and sometimes as many as three courtships are repaired; the pig is saved from whatever has threatened it; the sisters have been thwarted, usually in about five ways, by Galahad; and Lord Emsworth has the prospect of peace and quiet in front of him at the novel’s end. Still, Emsworth, Galahad, the sisters, and a host of only slightly less important or interesting characters are among the most brilliant comic figures in the whole of English literature. In writing the Blandings novels, Wodehouse followed his own precept: “The absolute cast-iron rule, I’m sure, in writing a story is to introduce all your characters as early as possible—especially if they are going to play important parts later.” His other favorite maxim—that a novel should contain no more than one “big” character—is seldom observed in the Blandings series. Each of the characters has his or her own element of fascination, and each is slightly crazy in one way or another. As absurd and funny as is Lord Emsworth’s vanity about his pig, it is only a little more so than his sisters’ vanity about their social position and wealth. If the formula for this series does not vary, neither does the uniform excellence of all the novels in the series.
Jeeves and Wooster novels
More than a dozen novels use Jeeves and Bertie Wooster as the main characters. These novels have commonly been regarded as Wodehouse’s “crowning achievement,” but the author once noted that the idea of the latent greatness of Jeeves came to him very slowly. In his first appearance in a short story, Jeeves barely says more than “Very good, Sir.” Jeeves is the manservant to Bertie Wooster, who is preyed upon by aunts, friends, and women who wish to help him improve his mind as a prerequisite of marriage with him....
(The entire section is 2851 words.)