P. G. Wodehouse Essay - Wodehouse, P. G.

Wodehouse, P. G.

Introduction

P. G. Wodehouse 1881–-1975

(Born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse) English-born American novelist, short story writer, memoirist, lyricist, screenwriter, playwright, and journalist.

Wodehouse is widely recognized as one of the foremost humorists and prose stylists of the twentieth century. His elaborate, farcical stories and novels are set most often in an upper-class, pseudo-Edwardian world of clubmen and country estates and present the comic adventures of characters drawn from the stock-types of English and American musical comedy. In particular, his most beloved characters, Bertie Wooster and his resourceful valet, Jeeves, have been ranked with the outstanding comic duos in literature. Wodehouse's accomplishments have earned nearly universal admiration from critics, including such writers as George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, Hilaire Belloc, and Sinclair Lewis.

Biographical Information

Born in Guildford, Surrey on October 15, 1881, Wodehouse spent two years of his early childhood in Hong Kong, where his father served as a magistrate. He was then sent back to England with his two older brothers to pursue his education. Short, infrequent visits by his parents, coupled with all he suffered under the strictures of various temporary guardians and eccentric schoolmistresses, shaped Wodehouse's increasingly introverted and bookish nature, and he found an outlet for his energies and interests in sports and creative writing. In 1900 he began training in London for a career in banking. During the next two years, he published some eighty items in various boys' magazines. By 1902 he had become a full-time writer, having already begun serializing his first novel, The Pothunters, in Public School Magazine and contributing to an anonymous humor column in the London Globe. In 1904 Wodehouse traveled to the United States and began his career as a musical-comedy lyricist, which he conducted while continuing to produce fiction.

By 1914 Wodehouse had married and settled in New York where he began selling stories and serialized novels to major American magazines. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he published an astonishing number of stories and novels, while finding time to write musical-comedy lyrics and plays and to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, becoming a very wealthy man in the process. While in England in 1939, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by Oxford University. The following year the Wodehouses were in Le Touquet, France, where they had taken a villa, when that nation was overrun by the advancing German army, and they were placed under arrest. Under German occupation, all the male residents of Touquet, Wodehouse included, were collected and transported to a series of internment camps. After eleven months, because of his age (he was almost sixty) and pressure applied for his release by readers in the then-neutral United States, Wodehouse was taken to Berlin, where he was joined by his wife. There they were assigned a hotel suite and, though kept under close observation by their captors, lived fairly comfortably. Soon afterward, several representatives from America convinced Wodehouse to deliver a series of radio broadcasts to the United States, to assure his audience there of his well-being and tell of his recent camp experiences. A series of five radio talks were taped, approved by government censors, and broadcast to the United States. Wodehouse's light-hearted but highly revealing portrait of life as an internee, subjected to his German captors' stupidity and inefficiency, was welcomed in America. Yet the talks were also heard in war-torn Britain, a nation undergoing daily privations and holding out under nightly bombing raids by the Nazi air force. In his native country Wodehouse was viewed as a traitor, for there the law deemed it a treasonous act for a British subject to broadcast over enemy facilities for any reason during wartime. Yet he was ably defended in print by a number of prominent people—notably, by George Orwell.

Wodehouse was eventually cleared by British intelligence authorities at the war's end. After his release by Allied investigators, he and his wife moved back to the United States, and he became a citizen in 1955. Wodehouse continued to write prodigiously, publishing an average of a novel every year for the rest of his life, not counting numerous short stories and autobiographical works. In America Wodehouse's popularity soared to its high prewar level, with British enthusiasm rising to match it by the 1960s. In recognition of the author's achievement, the Queen named him Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in January of 1975. Six weeks later, while in the hospital for treatment of a minor skin rash and while working on a novel (published posthumously in 1977 as Sunset at Blandings), Wodehouse died at age ninety-three.

Major Works

Wodehouse was a prolific writer who composed song lyrics, novels, and short fiction. While he is renowned for his high level of skill in all these genres, many critics consider him to be at his finest in his short stories; these concern the improbable activities of roughly seven major characters or groupings of characters. One of these is Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a lazy, get-quick-rich artist. A few steps up the social scale stands another major Wodehouse character, Mr. Mulliner. A fisherman given to stretching the truth to a greater extent than most, he occupies the bar-parlor of the Angler's Rest, where he regales awed listeners with preposterous tales of derring-do performed by his innumerable relatives. Another sportsman, a retired golfer known as the Oldest Member, narrates Wodehouse's acclaimed golf stories. Of roughly the same age as the elderly Oldest Member is one of the Wodehouse's most beloved characters, Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, the dithering lord of Blandings Castle. A man who wants only to be left in peace to potter about, tend his garden, and care for his prize-winning pig, Lord Emsworth is beset on all sides by domineering sisters, an overly efficient personal secretary, a volatile gardener, and a vapid son known to the world as a dog-biscuit tycoon. Another peer, Frederick Cornwallis Twistleton, Earl of Ickenham (better known as Uncle Fred), appears in several novels and in a story.

Wodehouse's best-known collection of characters comprise the Drone Club, a group of unmarried, upper-class young idlers who may be found typically at the racetrack, sponging loans off each other, spending rainy afternoons at the Club tossing playing cards into a top hat, or falling in love, always with comic results. Most the stories that feature members of the Drones are collected in the 1936 volume of short stories, Young Men in Spats. To many critics, one of the Drones stands above all the others as Wodehouse's greatest creation: Bertie Wooster. He narrates stories of the trials of his life in a hilariously slangy fashion, revealing, despite protestations to the contrary, his utter dependence upon his patient “gentleman's personal gentlemen,” Jeeves, to extricate him time and again from his troubles. Bertie and Jeeves have been compared with the most famous character-duos in literary history.

Critical Reception

The devices used by Wodehouse in his fiction have been explored and catalogued by several critics, notably linguist Robert A. Hall, Jr. in his The Comic Style of P. G. Wodehouse. Hall has identified and documented such workings as inventive word formations, transferred epithets, and comic misunderstandings among characters arising from lexicographic or syntactic confusion, among many others. Yet most critics and readers alike agree that critiquing Wodehouse's humor is, as Punch put it, like taking a spade to a soufflé. The majority of commentators have been content simply to applaud his accomplishment. A few commentators have posited the existence of satiric intent in Wodehouse's work while others have suggested the polar opposite: that he was simply an adoring chronicler of an outmoded and cruel class system. A few reviewers have found his comedy not at all humorous. Yet most critics and readers agree with Auberon Waugh, that Wodehouse created “a world of gentleness and simplicity where everything solemn or threatening is seen, in the last analysis, to be hopelessly funny.”

Principal Works

The Pothunters (novel) 1902

Tales of St. Austin's (short stories) 1903

Love among the Chickens (novel) 1906

Mike (novel) 1909

The Swoop! Or, How Clarence Saved England (short stories) 1909

The Man Upstairs, and Other Stories (short stories) 1914

Something New (novel) 1915; also published as Something Fresh, 1915

Piccadilly Jim (novel) 1917

My Man Jeeves (short stories) 1919

Indiscretions of Archie (short stories) 1921

The Clicking of Cuthbert (short stories) 1922; also published as Golf without Tears, 1924

The Inimitable Jeeves (short stories) 1923; also published as Jeeves, 1923

Leave it to Psmith (novel) 1923

Carry on, Jeeves (short stories) 1925

Meet Mr. Mulliner (short stories) 1927

The Small Bachelor (novel) 1927

Mr. Mulliner Speaking (short stories) 1929

Very Good, Jeeves (short stories) 1930

Jeeves Omnibus (short stories) 1931

Mulliner Nights (short stories) 1933

Brinkley Manor (novel) 1934; also published as Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934

Thank You, Jeeves (novel) 1934

Blandings Castle (short stories) 1935; also published as Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, 1935

The Luck of the Bodkins (novel) 1935

Mulliner Omnibus (short stories) 1935

Young Men in Spats (short stories) 1936

The Code of the Woosters (novel) 1938

Uncle Fred in the Springtime (novel) 1939

Joy in the Morning (novel) 1946

Full Moon (novel) 1947

Spring Fever (novel) 1948

Uncle Dynamite (novel) 1948

The Mating Season (novel) 1949

Nothing Serious (short stories) 1950

Pigs Have Wings (novel) 1952

Ring for Jeeves (novel) 1953

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (novel) 1954; also published as Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, 1955

The Return of Jeeves (novel) 1954

America, I Like You (memoirs) 1956; also published as Over Seventy, 1957

French Leave (novel) 1956

How Right You Are, Jeeves (novel) 1960; also published as Jeeves in the Offing, 1960

The Ice in the Bedroom (novel) 1961

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (novel) 1963

The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood (novel) 1965; also published as Galahad at Blandings, 1965

The World of Jeeves (short stories) 1967

A Pelican at Blandings (novel) 1969; also published as No Nudes is Good Nudes, 1970

Jeeves and the Tie That Binds (novel) 1971; also published as Much Obliged, Jeeves 1971

The World of Mr. Mulliner (short stories) 1972

The Golf Omnibus (short stories) 1973

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (novel) 1974

The Uncollected Wodehouse (short stories) 1976

Sunset at Blandings (novel) 1977

The Swoop!, and Other Stories (short stories) 1979

Wodehouse on Crime (short stories) 1981

Life with Jeeves (novel) 1983

Tales from the Drones Club (short stories) 1991

Enter Jeeves: 15 Early Stories (short stories) 1997

Criticism

Anthony Lejeune (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “Jeeve's England,” in National Review, December 11, 1995, p 132.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1961, Lejeune claims that The Ice in the Bedroom is “an exhibition of easy mastery, of familiar skill, as incomparable in its special way as Fred Astaire's dancing.”]

This year P. G. Wodehouse, whose world is ageless spring-time, celebrates his eightieth birthday; and his new book, The Ice in the Bedroom, gives us an opportunity to pay our respects. It is his best book for some while; an exhibition of easy mastery, of familiar skill, as incomparable in its special way as Fred Astaire's dancing. He has written scores of books just...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Pamela Marsh (review date 1967)

SOURCE: “The World of Wodehouse,” in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 60, No. 23, December 21, 1967, p. 11.

[In the following review, Marsh contends that Wodehouse's short story collection, Plum Pie,“may not contain top-notch examples of his skill, but it is still very good Wodehouse indeed.”]

P. G. Wodehouse invented his own 1920s—scarcely brushed by reality when he first wrote about them, comfortingly unaffected by the passing of time ever since.

His Plum Pie, a collection of short stories, is rather like the finale of a traditional British pantomime at Christmas time, with the characters gathering onto the stage together,...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Robert A. Hall, Jr. (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “The Transferred Epithet,” in Linguistic Inquiry, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 92-4.

[In the following essay, Hall analyzes Wodehouse's use of the transferred epithet, contending that it lends a comic effect to his fiction.]

I balanced a thoughtful lump of sugar on the teaspoon.

(P. G. Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning [1946] Chapter 5)

Hold on a minute—there must be something wrong here. Lumps of sugar aren't thoughtful, are they? What the narrator must mean is something like “I thoughtfully balanced a lump of sugar on the teaspoon,” or perhaps “I was thoughtful, and I...

(The entire section is 1072 words.)

Stephen Medcalf (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Innocence of P. G. Wodehouse,” in The Modern English Novel: The Reader, The Writer and The Work, edited by Gabriel Josipovici, Barnes & Noble, 1976, pp. 186-205.

[In the following essay, Medcalf praises Wodehouse for his innocence and originality, maintaining that his use of language “lies very much in one tradition of English writing, perhaps the most enduring and specifically English—humour.”]

C.S. Lewis, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, describes as one of the crucial events in his mental life the discovery of C.F. Alexander's distinction between Enjoyment and Contemplation. They compose an analysis of consciousness. As I read...

(The entire section is 7132 words.)

M. A. Sharwood Smith (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Very Irreverent P. G. Wodehouse: A Study of Thank You, Jeeves,” in The Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 203-22.

[In the following essay, Smith offers a thematic analysis of Thank You, Jeeves, maintaining that Wodehouse's irreverent approach to plot and characters is his defining characteristic.]

What characterises Wodehouse's fiction and provides the key to understanding his comic genius is the irreverence that pervades every aspect of his work, the characters, the plots and above all the use of language. Anything that represents authority becomes the victim of his humour. Thank You,...

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Melvin J. Lasky (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “P. G. Wodehouse's ‘Noo Yawk’,” in Encounter, Vol. 62, No. 3, March, 1984, pp. 71-4.

[In the following essay, Lasky explores the American adventures of another Wodehouse character, Psmith.]

Is humour good for anything else but a laugh? Nothing appears to be more pernicious among critics than to try to be serious about a joke. Koestler once tried it in a book and got the punch-lines regularly wrong. Freud wrote a psychopathology of everyday wit, and was in turn forever subjected to analysis-in-depth himself. Max Eastman explored the enjoyment of laughter, and the most memorable thing about it was the infectious dust-jacket featuring the handsome...

(The entire section is 3227 words.)

Eberhard Späth (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves: The Butler as Superman,” in Functions of Literature: Essays Presented to Erwin Wolff on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Ulrich Broich, Theo Stemmler, and Gerd Stratmann, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1984, pp. 269-81.

[In the following essay, Späth considers the character of Jeeves as a literary “superman,” and links him to the legendary archetype of detective novel hero.]

There can hardly be any doubt that the most intriguing character created by P. G. Wodehouse is that of butler Jeeves, even though, as the clever servant who, episode after episode, proves superior to his master, he is anything but original. From the viewpoint of...

(The entire section is 5546 words.)

Edward L. Galligan (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “P. G. Wodehouse: Master of Farce,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIII, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 609-17.

[In the following essay, Galligan applauds the continuing interest in Wodehouse's work and deems him the master of literary farce.]

P. G. Wodehouse wrote so much over so many years and made it look so easy that it was, in turn, easy for us to take him for granted and fail to recognize that he was a master of a difficult and valuable form—farce. Yet it is now obvious that he was a Master, but never an Old Master, always (even in his eighties and nineties) a Young Master, bubbling with delight and absolutely submissive to the demands of his form. The...

(The entire section is 4435 words.)

Michael Cohen (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Sport of American-Bashing in Modern English Authors,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall 1988, pp. 316-22.

[In the following essay, Cohen describes the mild nature of Wodehouse's anti-American humor, asserting that “his bashing of Americans is as unmalicious as befits an Englishman who would eventually become an American citizen.”]

In Evelyn Waugh's collection of travel pieces When the Going Was Good (1946), there is a scene at the tombs and pyramids in Sakkara. Waugh, who has already examined one of the tombs, emerges to find a party of Americans, led by an Egyptian guide, about to enter the underground caverns. He turns and...

(The entire section is 3167 words.)

Deepika Karla (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “A Reader's Guide to P. G. Wodehouse's America,” in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 7, 1989, pp. 32-44.

[In the following essay, Karla explores the “American connection” in Wodehouse's work.]

“It probably comes as a shock to most Wodehouse fans to learn that he has spent by far the greater part of his adult life in this country. The picture of Wodehouse that his readers invariably conjure up has him ambling across a crisp sward in Sussex or Shropshire, swinging a knobby walking stick and humming ‘Roses of Picardy.’ They find it almost impossible to picture him living in a room in Greenwich village or, as he did many years later, in a penthouse...

(The entire section is 5594 words.)

John Espey (review date 1991)

SOURCE: “Right Ho, Jeeves,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 21, 1991, p. 8.

[In the following review, Espey provides a positive review of an audiotape version of Right Ho, Jeeves.]

A completely unscientific but conclusive survey has convinced me that the names of the ineffable Bertle Wooster, whose education seems to have been based on Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and his impeccable gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves, named after a famous Warwickshire cricketer (“a fastish opening bowler and a good-hearted attacking No. 7 or so at bat”), are no longer even close to being household words.

Thus I am forced to introduce them...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)

William Trevor (review date 1993)

SOURCE: “Joy Comes in the Morning and Stays for a Generation,” in The Spectator, Vol. 271, November 20, 1993, pp. 50-1.

[In the following laudatory assessment of A Man of Means, Trevor praises the appealing nature of Wodehouse's fiction.]

‘I go off the rails,’ P. G. Wodehouse once wrote, ‘unless I stay all the time in a sort of artificial world of my own creation. A real character in one of my books sticks out like a sore thumb.’

It's a world that goes back to the Boer War, when Wodehouse's school stories were just beginning to entertain English schoolboys. Since then his thwarted aunts and bewildered earls, his mean men of commerce...

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Mary Lydon (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “First Love: Reading with P. G. Wodehouse,” in Profession, Vol. 94, 1994, pp. 21-5.

[In the following essay, Lydon recalls her initial pleasure reading Wodehouse's Jeeves stories.]

When my friend and colleague Elaine Marks invited me to write about a book, a text, a passage, or a line that, for whatever reasons, I had come to associate with what literature “is,” it seemed at first that I had been given the assignment of a lifetime. When it came to actually doing it, however, I found, to my surprise and dismay, that I was completely stumped.

No doubt what Roland Barthes tellingly calls the “aphasia native to humankind” (192; my...

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Laura Mooneyham (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Comedy Among the Modernists: P. G. Wodehouse and the Anachronism of Comic Form,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 114-38.

[In the following essay, Mooneyham investigates Wodehouse's place in modern comedic literature.]

The roof of the Sheridan Apartment House, near Washington Square, New York. Let us examine it. There will be stirring happenings on this roof in due season, and it is as well to know the ground. The Sheridan stands in the heart of New York's Bohemian and artist quarter. If you threw a brick from any of its windows, you would be certain to brain some rising young … Vorticist sculptor or a...

(The entire section is 10485 words.)

George Watson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “The Birth of Jeeves,” in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, pp. 641-52.

[In the following essay, Watson traces the origins and development of Wodehouse's major character, Jeeves.]

I

Jeeves was conceived and born in New York. At least P.G. Wodehouse was living there when he thought of him.

That may sound like an odd place to do it, but the facts are not in dispute. After two discontented years in a London bank and a little journalism, Wodehouse settled in Greenwich Village, off and on, in 1909. He had first visited America in 1904, drawn by its boxing tradition, but he soon came to believe...

(The entire section is 4788 words.)