Wodehouse, (Sir) P(elham) G(renville)
(Sir) P(elham) G(renville) Wodehouse 1881–1974
English-born novelist, short story writer, lyricist, dramatist, and critic.
Wodehouse has been hailed by many prominent authors and critics as one of the early twentieth century's greatest humorists and recognized for his command of writing and the English language. His elaborate, farcical plots, owing much to Sir W. S. Gilbert and William Shakespeare, are often set in an upper-class, pseudo-Edwardian milieu, featuring musical comedy-stock characters. Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, a team often compared to world literature's most famous duos, appear often in Wodehouse's canon, including his strongest novels, The Code of the Woosters and Joy in the Morning. Beginning in 1910, Wodehouse lived in both England and the United States; he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 10, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; obituary, Vols. 57-60.)
Well, Wodehouse and Bolton and Ken have done it again. Every time these three are gathered together, the Princess Theatre is sold out for months in advance. This thing of writing successes is just getting to be a perfect bore with them. They get up in the morning, look out of the window, and remark wearily, stifling a yawn, "Oh, Lord—nothing to do outdoors on a day like this. I suppose we might as well put over another 'Oh, Boy!'"
From all present indications, "Oh, Lady! Lady!!"—they do love to work off their superfluous punctuation on their titles—is going to run for the duration of the war, anyway….
If you ask me, I will look you fearlessly in the eye and tell you, in low, throbbing tones, that it has it all over any other musical comedy in town. I was completely sold on it. Not even the presence in the first-night audience of Mr. William Randolph Hearst, wearing an American flag on his conventional black lapel, could spoil my evening.
But then Wodehouse and Bolton and Kern are my favorite indoor sport, anyway. I like the way they go about a musical comedy. I love the soothing quiet—the absence of revolver shots, and jazz orchestration, and "scenic" effects, and patriotic songs with the members of the chorus draped in the flags of the Allies, and jokes about matrimony and Camembert cheese.
I like the way the action slides casually into the songs without any of the usual...
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When the meatier conversation at the party is over and you have drearily listened to the latest on Chiang Kaishek,… and the other topics which are regarded as conversation in these funereal days of repeal, how joyful it is to find that the host is not entirely a sadist, but is going to enliven the social seminar with a showing of clowns and magicians.
In the book world, the magicians are the authors of literate detective stories…. Yet greater are the clowns, and of these the greatest living is a man who at so early a period as his christening indicated the future by giving himself the completely Wodehousian name of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
Plenty of fictioneers have written two or three funny stories; I doubt if any other has so gone on, year by year, producing funny books, so that Wodehouse has become not an author but a whole department of rather delicate art. He is the master of the touchingly inane, of the tears that may be either sympathy with a blundering character or joy over his mishaps, of the ultimate and lordly dead pan. His new novel, "Summer Moonshine" …, might be criticized as merely another hodgepodge of blissfully idiotic English gentry, bulging country houses, and half-pint girls pursued by enterprising Americans who talk not so much in Broadwayese as in what Broadwayese might become if it were a little brighter.
But each of Wodehouse's leisurely cyclones is different enough...
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Some two or three years ago I was asked in the United States to broadcast a few words on my own trade of writing—what I thought of it and why I disliked it. (p. 342)
Now in the course of this broadcast I gave as the best writer of English now alive, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse.
It was not only a very sincere but a reasonable and well thought out pronouncement. Yet I got a vast number of communications asking me what I exactly meant. Not that those who had heard me doubted Mr. Wodehouse's genius…. No; their puzzlement was why I should call the author who was supreme in that particular line of country the "best" writer of our time: the best living writer of English: why I should have called him, as I did call him, "The head of my profession".
I cannot do better in such a brief introduction as this than take that episode as my text and explain why and how Mr. Wodehouse occupies this position.
Writing is a craft, like any other …; and mastership in any craft is attainment of the end to which that craft is devoted. A craftsman is excellent in his craft according to his degree of attainment towards its end, and his use of the means towards that end. Now the end of writing is the production in the reader's mind of a certain imaged and a certain emotion. And the means towards that end are the use of words in any particular language; and the complete use of that medium is the choosing...
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[Professor Alfred North Whitehead] once remarked that every philosophy is coloured by a secret imaginative background which does not officially form part of its doctrines. Obviously this is even truer of fiction, but it has perhaps been less noticed that it is truest of all of very low-grade "light" fiction…. As a rule, the more lowbrow the novelist the more thoroughly he gives himself away, like the people who relate their dreams every morning at breakfast….
It is curious that, much as Mr. Wodehouse is read and admired, this aspect of his work never seems to have been studied. He is before all else a "wishful" writer, a dream writer, giving utterance to a vision of life as he would like it to be lived. By their subject-matter ye shall know them, and the subject-matter of Mr. Wodehouse's books is almost invariably the Edwardian house party, the comic man-servant and the idle young man with private means. Behind the farcical incidents there is manifest a vision of life in which the dividends flow in for ever and ever, and the M.C.C. will outlast the Pyramids. I shall no doubt be telling Mr. Wodehouse's admirers most of what they want to know by saying that Quick Service falls into the Blandings Castle group…. The phraseology ("he could even get a certain amount of noise-response out of mashed potatoes") is about up to sample. But what is finally noticeable, as in all Mr. Wodehouse's books, is the complete parasitism of...
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[The question of tone] is troubling for anyone writing about Wodehouse. High seriousness about him brings to mind poor Professor Scully. This professor's attempt, in 1902, to describe a smile scientifically was quoted by Richard Usborne in his fine book Wodehouse at Work. Scully doggedly dissected "the drawing back and slight lifting of the corners of the mouth, which partially uncover the teeth, the curving of the naso-labial furrows …"
Wodehouse is peculiarly resistant to what we might term the naso-labial approach, which is possibly why critics have always had such a hard time with him. It is, of course, the work of a moment to knock together something about the master-servant relationship as displayed by Wooster and Jeeves, and the relevance of same to British social history. Such an approach is not actively harmful, but it suffers from naso-labialism—leaving the mystery of Wodehouse's genius intact.
Wodehouse wrote The Code of the Woosters just before the Second World War. He was living in Le Touquet and, at the age of sixty, was at the height of his powers. In the same period he wrote Uncle Fred in the Springtime and shortly thereafter … Joy in the Morning, regarded by many as preeminent in the Wooster-Jeeves cycle. (p. v)
The first thing [new arrivals in Wodehouse country] will want to discuss are the characters of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. The duo is as...
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Somewhere between the Romantic Revolution and the Great Victorian Exhibition of 1851 in England, suet pudding entered the English soul, after which it became almost impossible for that country to produce a pure artist. Despite generous help from Ireland, America and even Poland, any Englishman who had been to a public school felt and looked like a perfect chump, a tourist, in the world of Flaubert and Rimbaud.
It was almost as if these schools, founded in the 1830's, had it for their main object that Shelley and Byron would never happen again….
Hence the English aesthete from the Yellow Book nineties through Bloomsbury is a sorry figure: either a thick-skinned humorless survivor (or Sitwell) or a wounded bird, limping around the wounded-bird preserve with the others. While overhead soared the inverse aesthetes or anti-artists: Kipling, W. S. Gilbert, Conan Doyle, and preeminently the author of [Leave it to Psmith—P. G. ("Plum")] Wodehouse, a hack and public-school troubadour, who would have considered "art for art's sake" an unbearably soppy and pretentious sentiment, while he practiced it with an intensity that would have startled Flaubert.
It is only fair that such a barbarous school system, which had drowned so much talent in cold baths and laughter, should finally have coughed up its own kind of genius, and Wodehouse is absolutely the best it could have done. But a genius turned out by...
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A substantial cache of uncollected [material] such as David Jasen has got together [in The Uncollected Wodehouse] might seem surprising in view of Wodehouse's long and famous career as a writer and the many published volumes of his stories and occasional pieces. Yet here it is—juvenilia, early contributions to Punch, school stories, lyrics, romances in his inimitable vein—all the familiar Wodehousean offerings. And what is more, all up to scratch. (p. ix)
Wodehouse was not given to generalizing about his oeuvre, or to drawing attention to intimations of development in his fiction or characterizations. Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Aunt Agatha and the rest of his bright creations were as they were from the beginning, and any suggestion that they or their circumstances might change with the years—for instance, I once put it to him that Jeeves might be given a life peerage by a Labour Government—failed to register. If anything, he had a preference for his earlier over his later works, and I can readily imagine the satisfaction the present volume would have given him precisely because it consists largely of leftovers from long ago. Once I did ask him which of his books he liked best, and after some rumination he said that Mike had a special place in his esteem because it conveyed so well the scene and atmosphere of a cricket match. It was one of his very first novels to be published…. (pp. ix-x)...
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C. David Benson
[Wodehouse's last work, the posthumous] Sunset at Blandings, is actually only the preliminary typescript of the first 16 chapters (out of a planned 22), with the author's somewhat contradictory plans for ending and revising the work, plus notes and appendixes by Richard Usborne.
The material of the novel will be familiar to readers of previous episodes of the Blandings "saga" (altogether, 12 novels and 10 short stories). A young woman is shipped off to the security of Blandings to keep her from a poor suitor who arrives under an assumed name (elsewhere we are told that Blandings Castle has impostors the way other houses have mice); confusions, thefts, and discoveries ensue until finally love triumphs. Wodehouse has produced magic from this formula before, but not here. The writing lacks the sparkle and stylistic fullness of earlier volumes in which, according to Evelyn Waugh, are found "on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to each page."
The plot also fails to thicken into the nimble twists of old, nor is there a single memorable minor character here to rank with such past notables as the Efficient Baxter, the allegedly bad Bart, Sir Gregory "Tubby" Parsloe-Parsloe, or the disloyal George Cyril Wellbeloved, the Communist pigman. Even the major characters fail to satisfy. Lord Emsworth seems almost alert, while his Bohemian brother, Galahad, who has nothing but rosy health and a...
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Not George Washington makes its American debut after having appeared in England more than 70 years ago. From a wisp of a plot suggested by his friend Herbert Westbrook, P. G. Wodehouse wrote this spoof of diffident bachelors, journalists and ghost writers when he was 26 years old. Far from being the product of an apprentice novelist, it reveals how early Wodehouse fell firmly into step with the eccentrics of English comedy: Ben Jonson, Thomas Love Peacock, Ronald Firbank, and the young Aldous Huxley. As in their works, he introduces idealisms only to mock them; worldly values triumph despite the fortunes of the characters; and an astringent humor dissolves whatever is not hard and durable.
At its most brutal and amoral, this tradition is frequently so shocking that its elegance and comedy are not appreciated. But Wodehouse always was one of its more genial practitioners. His characters are too boyish to be really nasty, and he is less interested in withering satire than in playful parody. It is possible to read this book, for example, without noticing how unromantic and unsentimental it is: After all, the unscrupulous journalist who is its hero finally quits Grub Street to marry his love. The laughs ought to beguile even the dourest moralist. Still, it is merely on the surface that this novel is less harrowing than, say, one of Ronald Firbank's.
According to his biographer, David A. Jasen, who edited this...
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Light verse, for some reason, demands to be written in a rather old-fashioned way. The language can, and should, be as modern as you like, but it should still not merely scan and rhyme, but should do so with felicitous ingenuity. It should pour itself, without any contortions, into apparently complex molds. There is an enormous satisfaction in reading what could be, say, an extract from a legal document, full of whereases and notwithstandings, which the poet has contrived to arrange into triple-rhyming decasyllabic quatrains, with the odd internal rhyme for the hell of it.
This was the sort of thing that Wodehouse liked, together with the typical frills of English light verse, such as the sudden letdown from mock-romance to slang. He liked the idea of an established form being made to learn new tricks. He liked the unbuttoned, conversational style, moving within strict measures. (His novels, mutatis mutandis, could be described in very similar terms.) He liked the established but not yet ossified tradition—this one goes back beyond Byron, and includes Barham of The Ingoldsby Legends, C. S. Calverley, and of course the Gilbert of both the Savoy Operas and The Bab Ballads. Some of Wodehouse's own early verse [in Punch] is very Gilbertian, both in theme and style; and one of his very last pieces in Punch is in triple-rhyming dactylic heptameters with internal rhymes, the exact (and immensely difficult)...
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