Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) 1881–1975
Wodehouse was an English-born novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and editor who emigrated to the United States in 1910. His fictional milieu is upper-class England, and his characters are the stock characters of this caste. He derides its social and moral conventions with a unique farcical genius. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; obituary, Vols. 57-60.)
Future readers of Mr. Wodehouse's novels would be well advised to begin with those of his old age and work inwards towards those of his capacious prime. The Girl in Blue, for instance, is funny and well-written enough for anyone to start on, and in many ways it is characteristic of his work. Country house, hunt for disappearing valuables, strange butler, comic Americans, literary lady, benevolent aunt-like figure, village policeman, bohemian but athletic hero, trim and clean-cut heroine—they are all here. Addicts too will find it remarkably good, though what they look for in a new Wodehouse is something of much more specialized interest. First and foremost they are fascinated to see that this writer's gifts and productivity are still not exhausted. Then they watch for innovations: is the modern world making any impact on the traditional Wodehouse cosmography; have any of the old characters undergone interesting (if sometimes unintentional) new developments? Finally they note how and where the earlier books are most obviously superior.
In the present case the innovations are slight, and in some cases unsound….
The main thing to strike the hardened reader is that the plotting is a bit flimsy, the adventures of The Girl in Blue (by Gainsborough) being nothing like as intricate or as neatly constructed as they would have been in the 1920s and 30s. But the slight feeling of dissatisfaction which this brings towards the end of the book is hardly likely to be felt by the unspoilt.
"Starter," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 6, 1970, p. 1291.
A writer like Wodehouse who published over a hundred books cannot have been a Flaubert or a James Joyce, but in his own style and idiom he was a connoisseur of the mot juste, as careful to get the precise nuance of every Bertie Wooster slang phrase—so artfully contrasted with the stately idiom of Jeeves—as Joyce was to catch the precise accent of the various inhabitants of Dublin on that June day in 1904. Wodehouse in translation, like Dickens in translation, must lose some of his appeal. Bertie, Jeeves, Ukridge, Mr. Mulliner and the Oldest Member belong to the English-speaking world as much as Sam Weller and Huckleberry Finn.
[The quotation which illustrates] Wodehouse's political innocence also illustrates (as it was meant to do) his superb command of the English language for his immediate humorous purposes. It is the opening of a story … collected in Lord Emsworth and Others …:
The situation in Germany had come up for discussion in the bar parlour of the Angler's Rest, and it was generally agreed that Hitler was standing at the crossroads and would soon be compelled to do something definite. His present policy, said a Whisky and Splash, was mere shilly-shallying.
'He'll have to let it grow or shave it off,' said the Whisky and Splash. 'He can't go on sitting on the fence like this. Either a man has a moustache or he has not. There can be no middle course.'
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Clearly Rabelais and Wodehouse are worlds apart, in many ways. For instance, Rabelais is primarily an intellectual and Wodehouse often aggressively anti-intellectual; Rabelais is deeply committed to the reform of religious, political and social institutions, while Wodehouse remains serenely aloof from society's problems; Wodehouse's novels are based on plot and its ramifications, while Rabelais' are based on ideas; Rabelais delights in unbuttoned comedy, while Wodehouse's is always decorous; nearly all Wodehouse novels are built around a romantic love story, while Rabelais is presumably not interested in romantic love, since he never mentions it. But equally obvious, both are great humorists, whose comic worlds are poised on the indefinable dividing-line between reality and fantasy, and it is not really surprising that they have techniques in common…. [The] intention of this article is not to claim influence of any kind by Rabelais on Wodehouse, but simply to compare a few of their common comic techniques, specifically in the domains of plot, characters, intellectual gamesmanship and use of language. I am not claiming either that no other comic writers use these techniques, but that they show us an astonishing, and instructive, similarity of literary method between a Renaissance Evangelical humanist and a twentieth-century English gentleman. (p. 63)
There are few fundamental plot similarities, though both repeat their plots….
More importantly, both humorists' stories are at the same time authentic and parodic, and both derive from the epic….
Most of Wodehouse's plots, like Rabelais', are concerned with "faicts heroïques," and the basic story line is herofoils-villain, as it should be in an epic. Wodehouse's heroes, who unlike Rabelais' are usually foiling a villain in order to get a girl, are often presented as chivalrous knight-errants…. Comic references to chivalry are frequent in Wodehouse…. (p. 64)
Wodehouse's young men adhere to a feudal code of behavior, learned no doubt at their public schools (where many of them were football heroes), and even the unspeakable Ukridge never deliberately lets a girl down. There are done things and not-done things: Bertie may slide down a waterpipe to evade his Aunt Agatha, but he may not tell a ghastly girl that he doesn't want to be engaged to her. Gargantua and Pantagruel may in frivolous moments eat live bears or urinate on Parisians, but their relationship to father, God and subjects is always taken seriously.
We are, in fact, in a world of fixed class structures. People may change—Panurge from privileged companion to despised coward, or Bertie from vapid boulevardier to articulate philosopher—but the relative place of each man in society does not change…. And each author has his little list … of heroes and villains. Rabelais' villains are theologians, monks, doctors, lawyers and hypocrites; Wodehouse's include poets, newspaper proprietors, policemen, big-game hunters, successful financiers, all small boys, and most aunts. Or to put it more simply, both hate oppression, hypocrisy and smugness. And in both villains are usually unhappy—a basically Stoic outlook?…
Wodehouse's [heroes] are people who intrigue for the fun of it, ugly but kind young men, attractive nice girls, most butlers, most cats, and most members of the Drones Club. Both, moreover, despise humanity in the mass but are capable of great sympathy for individual members of it—as long as they do not try to step out of their place. (p. 65)
[Although] these two humorists have quite different attitudes to plot, there are certain resemblances worth noting. In each case a basically hackneyed plot outline is adorned with the zaniest kind of inventiveness…. Panurge's pranks are of the same undergraduate-rag type as those of the members of the Drones Club, Uncle Fred and Galahad…. [Wodehouse's characters] like Rabelais' … expend an extraordinary amount of effort for what seems like a trivial result. Perhaps Bobby Wickham is the best comparison to Panurge, since the creates havoc for the sheer fun of it, while Galahad and Uncle Fred are normally working, however deviously, toward a practical end. But in both authors action is often not 'real' action….
[The] devious machinations … are often … pointless….
Both authors make use of stock situations familiar to their readers. Rabelais' epic journey contains the regulation storm and fabulous monster, and Wodehouse's love stories the traditional misunderstandings and reconciliations. Both also enjoy turning a stock situation on its head…. (p. 66)
Both also like plots which turn on objects, to be defended, stolen or otherwise manipulated….
The general atmosphere in both fictional worlds is also more similar than might appear at first sight. Rabelais' characters love enormous banquets and gallons of drink—but so do Wodehouse's…. Wodehouse also has plenty of violence, though his comedy is much less ferocious than Rabelais'. (p. 67)
All critics are agreed that there is no sex and no obscenity in Wodehouse…. [There are only two passages, one in Jill the Reckless and another in The Prince and Betty, in which physical arousal is indicated]: undoubtedly sex is usually left to the intuition of the reader. Obscenity, however, is quite often implied, though discreetly…. Euphemisms and periphrases, indeed, abound in both works….
The gusto of Wodehouse's world may be rendered in more "classical" language, but is surely as vital and as infectiously enthusiastic as Rabelais'. Another general similarity is in the relationship between fantasy and reality. In both cases, improbable, even surreal, events occur in entirely realistic frameworks…. In both, time is similarly treated; though ostensibly linear, it is elastic enough to allow of lengthy flash-backs and improbably long pauses in the action. (p. 68)
I see a further similarity in each author's relationship with his readers. Rabelais often addresses his directly, and Bertie seems to do so even more than most first-person narrators. He worries about whether his regular readers will be bored by recapitulation of events they are already familiar with, and often asks rhetorical questions or appears to confer with his reader. Rabelais is often called a conteur, but he shares with Wodehouse the dramatic gift for staging a scene and creating characters by means of their speech....
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