P. G. Wodehouse Essay - Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) (Vol. 2)

Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) (Vol. 2)

Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) 1881–

A popular English humorist, now living in America, Wodehouse has created, among other characters, the unforgettable Jeeves, Psmith, and Bertie Wooster.

Since 1902, when he published his first book, The Pothunters, P. G. Wodehouse has written at least sixty novels and volumes of short stories. For more than a half century he has been the most prolific and original writer of light social comedy in English and very probably in the world. His works have been translated into all the major European languages as well as into Czech, Swedish, Polish, and Chinese, and his following in this country and England alone—to say nothing of the hordes who are probably reading him in Chinese—must number in the millions. Yet it is highly doubtful if any critic, here or abroad, has read him with any diligence; at least I know of no critical discussion of his work that attempts at all seriously to investigate the peculiar quality of his comic gifts or to account for the phenomenally high favor in which they have been held for all these years by the reading public….

It is of course true that Wodehouse has suffered the effects of the traditional prejudice against the writer of light comedy and of the feeling common among critics that work which merely entertains can have value only to the simple-minded and the very young. There is also a very real problem involved in evaluating work that is intended merely to entertain and that performs that office to perfection. But I suspect that the critical neglect of Wodehouse is in a sense actually a corollary, rather than a condemnation, of his huge popular success, and may even represent the highest tribute that criticism can pay to it. The simple truth very likely is that Wodehouse has never needed the sort of entree into public recognition that criticism normally creates for writers, that there is scarcely anyone around sufficiently like him to enable criticism to exercise its comparative function, and that no serious question has ever arisen concerning his quality or his methods. Besides, it seems to be the case, in this country only slightly less than in England, that a great many people were brought up on Wodehouse, while as many others were brought up on the myth of having been brought up on Wodehouse….

Whether their actual locale is a Shropshire country house, an exclusive London club, or a wealthy bachelor's flat, all of Wodehouse's stories are played out in the moral arena of the public school. The school afforded him his first and last education in the conduct of life, just as it afforded him the setting for the stories with which, in the early years of the century, he began his career and won his first following—of schoolboys….

Of all Wodehouse's stories and novels those relating to Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are, to my mind, the most successful. They are the most complex structurally and the most consistent dramatically; they contain the greatest number of separately developed minor characters and situations; and they give the fullest range to Wodehouse's remarkable gift for creating a genuinely fresh comic diction. But above all they have Jeeves, certainly the greatest of Wodehouse's creations and a permanent member of the cast of great comic fictional characters of all time. In comparison with Jeeves, Ukridge seems pallid and one dimensional, very much as Bertie Wooster would seem if deprived of Jeeves. The formula of his adventures is always the same, as for that matter is the formula of Bertie's, but because this is so, our concern in both is not with the adventures themselves but with the manner of their resolution. We know beforehand that Ukridge will blunder and fail, his outlandish plans will go awry, but about Bertie we can never be entirely sure. There is the unknown quantity of Jeeves to allow for, and who can tell what Jeeves will come up with?… Psmith, on the other hand, perhaps because he combines in one person the virtues and vices of both Bertie and Jeeves, is a close competitor of Jeeves. Leave it to Psmith is an almost perfect book, and as a novel considerably superior to those having to do with Bertie and Jeeves that Wodehouse has written more recently in his career. But Wodehouse's mastery lies in the field of the short story, and there Jeeves is absolutely without a peer….

Wodehouse carries [his characters] skillfully forward along single and multiple lines of narrative exposition, but he never develops them. Unlike more realistic saga characters, they remain entirely unchanged by time and the fluctuations of fortune. We know them very much in the way that we know the principals of a morality play or an early eighteenth-century English novel—by a few fixed traits or humors—and our pleasure in them derives from the dependable recurrence of circumstances calling forth these traits, the satisfying experience of seeing happen what we knew all along was going to happen. Their situations are precisely as stereotyped as everything else in Wodehouse and belong to the large categories of problems and predicaments common to all his characters: the pursuit of matrimony (Bingo Little and the Mulliner nephews), the pursuit of undeserved leisure and success (Ukridge and Psmith), the escape from matrimony, success, and authority into a state of infinite adolescence (Bertie, Rocky Todd, "Old Sippy" Sipperley, etc.), and such general matters as those involving the precariousness of living off one's rich relatives and the various social embarrassments created by the class structure. All these are treated, of course, as burlesques by Wodehouse, but they are burlesques of genuinely human predicaments. The situations they take off are classic both in life and in literature. And in the same sense that the Decameron may be said to be a burlesque of conjugal love and Moll Flanders of the hypocritical pursuit of moral virtue, Wodehouse's work may be said to be genuine comic literature, less fully and seriously conceived than these, to be sure, but differing from them more in degree than in kind. This is not to suggest however, that Wodehouse is the social critic or satirist he is so often taken to be, particularly in this country where we tend to mistake almost any comic portrait of the English aristocracy for ridicule. There is nothing in his work to indicate that Wodehouse's attitude is anything but fondly indulgent toward the society he describes. No other attitude could possibly account for the real warmth at the heart of all that he has done, or for his remarkably long life as a popular writer in an age when to be both popular and funny is nearly always synonymous with being in some way petty and cheap.

John W. Aldridge, "P. G. Wodehouse: The Lesson of the Young Master," the introduction to Selected Stories by P. G. Wodehouse (© 1958 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House-Modern Library, 1958.

At this stage of his career, you can't review Wodehouse. You can only announce him. Blandings Castle, the locus of this Wodehouse etude ["No Nudes is Good Nudes"] first turned up in the master's works something like 35 or 40 years ago, and by rights it should have gone the way of the Ritz, Penn Station and personal courtesy. But Blandings still stands, by jingo, and Lord Emsworth (its dimwitted peer) is as single-minded as ever in his attentions to his prize sow, the Empress of Blandings. You will also find mention of "Chicago gangsters," and monkeyshines at the Plaza fountain, implying a commendable inattention to time's winged chariot.

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 8, 1970, p. 32.

Over the years [Wodehouse] and his work have provoked various reactions. Sean O'Casey once called him "English literature's performing flea," but Hilaire Belloc, back in 1934, said he was "the best writer of English now alive—the head of my profession." And, among writers of the modern English novel, he shares with Henry James the honorific of "the Master," although one acknowledges that in Wodehouse's case it was not bestowed without some sense of irony….

He is as far from being au courant as it is possible to be. In literary terms the best comparison I can think of is Ivy Compton-Burnett. While she is serious, even tragic, he is light and comic. But both construct worlds which are immediately recognizable as theirs, in which the conventions are severe, the range of possibilities limited, the cast of characters interchangeable, and the general outcome predictible. All the enjoyment is in the process….

Like graduate students in search of an undiscovered great author, there are readers who would inflate the importance and significance of Wodehouse. It is not necessary. In its proportions his life's achievement is secure, and as well as the great novels and writers it challenges the conventions of an iron age that would judge such work by inappropriate standards.

James Finn, "The Flea Forever," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 24, 1971, pp. 30-2.

Experienced Wodehouse readers will remain cheerfully secure in the knowledge that Jeeves will cleverly spring Bertie from these cataclysms [here, in Jeeves and The Tie That Binds]. So unique is the Wodehouse brand of humor, however, that to describe it is as thankless and bootless as describing the taste of the perfect martini. Wodehouse (pronounced Woodhouse) can be compared to no other novelist, living or dead. His literary ancestor, instead, is the Roman dramatist Plautus, and, like Plautus, he is the manufacturer of a thousand comically crossed connections.

And what characters to cross them! Bertie and Jeeves; bumbling Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings, his prize pig; the elegant sybarite Psmith, who believes that early rising leads to insanity; and that boozy American Biffen, who inspired one of the master's famous similes: "He quivered like a suet pudding in a high wind." Whatever it is, the Wodehouse formula is clearly simple—so simple that the secret will probably die with its creator.

Gerald Clarke, "Wodehouse Aeternus," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1971 by Time Inc.), October 25, 1971, pp. 91-2.

If there really is any recluse who hasn't heard the news, one can only urge him to run, not walk, to his nearest bookshop; for P. G. Wodehouse's birthday present to us is indeed a new full-length Jeeves story. In Britain it is called Much Obliged, Jeeves and in America Jeeves and the Tie That Binds: and it is absolutely, wholly, unquestionably, up to standard. One doesn't have to say "What a remarkable achievement for a man in his ninetieth year" (though, of course, it is a remarkable achievement). Unlike, one must admit, some of his recent novels, it displays to the full all the intricacy of plot, economy of effect and marvelous manipulation of language with which he was delighting his readers thirty, forty, fifty, years ago. It is his best book since The Ice in the Bedroom, which I reviewed in these pages on the occasion of his eightieth birthday: and, being about Jeeves and Bertie, it is even better.

Not much need be said about the plot, except to assure veteran readers that all the proper elements are present….

Wodehouse has said that what he is really writing are musical comedies without music, and foreigners read his books in translation mainly for the ingenuity of the plots. But, for us, the chief joy must always be the words themselves, not just occasional jokes but the inimitable phrasing of almost every sentence….

As Evelyn Waugh pointed out, it is nonsense to say that Wodehouse is old-fashioned, or dated, or Edwardian, either in the world he describes or in the language his characters speak. The blissful world of Wodehouse never existed, in any age, on this earth, and the language of his Eggs, Beans and Crumpets was never heard on human lips. "They are still in Eden," Waugh said. "The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled."…

Bertie Wooster himself—a character persistently underrated by the critics because they see him only in the strong shadow of Jeeves—is the epitome of Wodehouse's creation…. He is that profoundly Christian figure, the Fool of God….

When P. G. Wodehouse wrote his first novel Ernest Hemingway was not yet three and T. S. Eliot was rising fourteen. Now, like Sophocles, he brings us, in extreme old age, still another glorious, and gloriously entertaining, work of art. What can one say but thank you?

Anthony Lejeune, "The Blissful World of Wodehouse," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), December 17, 1971, pp. 1422-23.

As a performer of written period musical comedies, Wodehouse is unique…. Do you insist that there are intentional deeper meanings? I can't see why you should, when you're given something which is so beautifully right in its own terms. Admittedly the terms are artificial, but why should that be accusation. It's all meant to be artifice, and it's superbly done. Think of the way the jokes are varied: the understatement, the overstatement, the Marx Brothers joke, the Mr Bones joke, the bar-room joke, old and new: a dazzling choreography of jokes, and the variety lending impetus to the scenario. If you can't see it, you must be what Bertie [Wooster] calls a 20-minute egg.

Now to celebrate his ninetieth birthday P G has given us Much Obliged, Jeeves, a spring-song present for the winter, something which is … oojah-cum-spiff.

Oswell Blakeston, "The World of Wodehouse" (originally published in a slightly different version; revised for CLC by Oswell Blakeston), in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 18-19.

In a world trembling with uncertainties there is always Pelham Grenville Wodehouse…. [It] is impossible to imagine a world without him and his world, as unfaltering in its serene, happy lunacy as in the marvelous skill with which he presides over it….

The Wodehouse plots are precision instruments, and if you think you are going to learn more here about this one [Jeeves and the Tie That Binds] you are ready for a loonybin as crazy as Bertie's Aunt Dahlia's house at Market Snodbury in Worcestershire. But you will take my word for it, I hope, that the master's phrasing throughout is as deft, in that casual throwaway manner of his, as always.

John K. Hutchens, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, February 12, 1972; used with permission), February 12, 1972, p. 69.