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P. G. Wodehouse

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

If one were to attempt to explain P. G. Wodehouse to someone who had never heard of him, one would have a most difficult task indeed. It is probably impossible, even in the abstract, to conceive of a novelist who could write more than ninety novels, covering seventy years of twentieth century history and dealing with the English upper and upper-middle classes, and never concern himself with a single political, economic, or social idea, never write of crime or violence except in the most juvenile fashion, and never write a single line that would bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. Yet, this is a reasonably accurate description of the literary career of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. For at least sixty of those seventy years, Wodehouse was one of the most widely read and best-selling novelists in the language; his works were translated worldwide, and he counted among his admirers persons as diverse as Evelyn Waugh and Great Britain’s Queen Mother.

Wodehouse, the creator of the famous Drones Club, would have stood little chance himself of election to that noted body, or, if he had managed to slip in, would regularly have been pelted with buns. The purveyor of innumerable laugh-filled tales was, as this biography makes clear, a preternaturally dull chap, almost completely devoid of close friends, who was of limited emotional sensibility. He was definitely not an Egg or a Bean.

Wodehouse was, and probably remains, the master of the light novel. Indeed, to many he is simply “The Master”—which also happens to be the title of Frances Donaldson’s opening chapter. His excellences, and they are real ones, are almost entirely those of form rather than content; in a way, his novels might almost be said to have no content. He probably had no more than three or four basic plots, and his characters are all stereotypes, but in almost every story there is something memorable, something to admire. As might be imagined, the books tend to blur in the reader’s mind; what one remembers are characters or episodes or even individual lines, while exact titles or even specific plot lines remain indistinct.

The excellences of Wodehouse are usually held to be three: character creation, style, and plot construction. The first two are treated to some extent in this book, but the third, while praised, is hardly examined in detail. Wodehouse’s characters, while stereotypical in origin, are often, like the characters of Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare, the ne plus ultra of the stereotypes. Such characters as Aunt Agatha, Lord Emsworth, Psmith, Mike, or Mr. Mulliner, while no doubt traceable to numerous literary or dramatic antecedents and variants, nevertheless emerge in their ultimate definitive glory in the pages of Wodehouse. What other writer, for example, can be said to have presented in final form an entire gallery of aunts? What else remains to be said of aunts? What other author, short of a Chaucer or a Shakespeare, can claim to have contributed two such characters as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster to the world of fictional immortals, characters who have passed into common folklore along with the everlastingly famous Blandings Castle? Jeeves and Bertie have moved beyond the world of the stereotype to that of the archetype, whose existence is no longer limited by the pages of novels. Like Falstaff and the Wife of Bath, they live forever in the minds of Wodehouse’s readers; Jeeves continues to shimmer in one’s imagination long after the details of the stories fade.

Many critics have cited Wodehouse as an exquisite prose stylist, but he is not exquisite in the sense that a Max Beerbohm is, emphasizing delicacy and tenuousness of connotation . Wodehouse’s prose is, in fact, fairly direct and vigorous. It is a humorous style, full of constant surprise; it is witty without being arch and fluid without being formless. It has been said that attempting to describe style is like trying to tattoo soap bubbles, but among the essential ingredients...

(The entire section is 2,243 words.)