Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2851
Few of P. G. Wodehouse’s novels are ever far from the school environment, for the plots of the later Jeeves and Blandings series of novels frequently derive from the desire of one schoolmate, usually Bertie Wooster, to help another. The early school novels, however, represent a distinct type within the body of Wodehouse’s fiction.
The school novels
Perhaps, as one scholar has observed, these eight school novels are no more than “bibliographical curiosities,” in that only the most ardent fan of Wodehouse would be led to read them after the later work had been written. Still, the works are different in tone and theme. The novels are set at Wrykyn College, which seems to closely resemble Dulwich, the author’s alma mater. The emphasis is on sports, and this emphasis gives a serious tone to the work. Boys are measured largely by their athletic skills. One might suggest that the ever-present sports motif was a symbol of the particular virtues of youth: comradeship, loyalty, and perseverance. Enlarging on these virtues, Wodehouse was following what was almost a cliché in the boy’s fiction of the time. The cliché, however, was one particularly congenial to the author, who once noted that he would never be able to write his autobiography, for he had not had one of the essentials in the background of an autobiographer—“a hell of a time at his public school.”
Wodehouse loved Dulwich College, and the eight school novels are a record of his affection. The schoolmasters are a decent group, the boys, with few exceptions, are generous and loyal, and the setting of the college is one of great beauty. The distinctive element in the novels is the happiness that pervades them, and the reader need only remember George Orwell’s, Graham Greene’s, and Evelyn Waugh’s accounts of their own school days to notice the sharp difference between Wodehouse and many of his contemporaries. The only curiosity about the novels is not the absence of horror and malice, but that no one in the school novels seems to have learned anything at Wrykyn. It should also be remembered that many of Wodehouse’s most celebrated idiots are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.
Wodehouse once said of his work: “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring life altogether.” The Blandings series of novels is perhaps the best example of the author’s determined resistance to “real life.” These twenty-odd novels are centered on the beautiful estate of Lord Emsworth, who serves as unwilling host to almost everyone who goes in and out of his ancestral home. Lord Emsworth is old and absentminded, and his affections are limited to his younger brother Galahad, his roses, and his pig, the Empress of Blandings. This pig, as Emsworth remarks several times in each of the novels, has won the silver prize for being the fattest in Shropshire County. Only Galahad can really appreciate the high distinction that has been conferred on the Empress, and one feels that even he is not very serious about the pig. The Empress, however, is the catalyst for very nearly all of the actions that take place in the novels. She is stolen, which makes it imperative to effect a rescue; she is painted an outrageous color and introduced into strange bedrooms to make the recipients of such favors “more spiritual” in their outlook; and, on one occasion, her portrait is done at the behest of Lord Emsworth.
This last episode in the life of the Empress occurs in one of the best of the Blandings novels and is a fair measure of the formula used by Wodehouse in the series. Full Moon, in which the portrait is commissioned, has all of the characteristics of the Blandings novels. Emsworth has the insane idea that the pig’s portrait should be done by an eminent painter, but they have all turned down his request. While this action is debated, Lady Constance, Emsworth’s sister, has come to the castle with a young lady in tow. Her intent is to keep the young woman away from the man to whom she has become foolishly engaged, foolishly because the fellow does not have any money, which is the essential requisite for a good marriage in the mind of Lady Constance. Galahad arranges to have the young man invited to the castle on the pretext that he is Edwin Landseer, celebrated painter of animal pictures, including “Pig at Bey.” Galahad’s ruse works for a while, but the young man’s painting is rejected by Emsworth, who complains that the painting makes the Empress look as if she had a hangover. The young man is ejected from Blandings but soon returns, wearing a beard resembling an Assyrian monarch. He makes a tragic mistake when he gives a love note to one of Emsworth’s other sisters, thinking that she is a cook. He is again thrown out. By the novel’s end, however, he has successfully won the hand of his beloved, and the sisters are all leaving the estate. Galahad has once more succeeded in spreading “sweetness and light” in all directions, except that of his usually irate sisters.
There are few variations in the Blandings series: At least one and sometimes as many as three courtships are repaired; the pig is saved from whatever has threatened it; the sisters have been thwarted, usually in about five ways, by Galahad; and Lord Emsworth has the prospect of peace and quiet in front of him at the novel’s end. Still, Emsworth, Galahad, the sisters, and a host of only slightly less important or interesting characters are among the most brilliant comic figures in the whole of English literature. In writing the Blandings novels, Wodehouse followed his own precept: “The absolute cast-iron rule, I’m sure, in writing a story is to introduce all your characters as early as possible—especially if they are going to play important parts later.” His other favorite maxim—that a novel should contain no more than one “big” character—is seldom observed in the Blandings series. Each of the characters has his or her own element of fascination, and each is slightly crazy in one way or another. As absurd and funny as is Lord Emsworth’s vanity about his pig, it is only a little more so than his sisters’ vanity about their social position and wealth. If the formula for this series does not vary, neither does the uniform excellence of all the novels in the series.
Jeeves and Wooster novels
More than a dozen novels use Jeeves and Bertie Wooster as the main characters. These novels have commonly been regarded as Wodehouse’s “crowning achievement,” but the author once noted that the idea of the latent greatness of Jeeves came to him very slowly. In his first appearance in a short story, Jeeves barely says more than “Very good, Sir.” Jeeves is the manservant to Bertie Wooster, who is preyed upon by aunts, friends, and women who wish to help him improve his mind as a prerequisite of marriage with him. Wooster has been dismissed as silly and very stupid. Compared to Jeeves, perhaps he is both, but he is also extremely generous with both his money and time, and it is his unfailing willingness to help others that invariably places him in the precarious situation that is the main plot. Wooster is an Oxford graduate, but detective novels are his most demanding reading. He never uses a word of more than two syllables without wondering whether he is using the word properly. Wooster is the “big” character in the Jeeves series, and such a character, according to Wodehouse, is worth “two of any other kind.”
The marriage motif is very much a part of the Wooster and Jeeves saga, but frequently the central issue of this series is helping Bertie keep away from the wrong woman. It is not quite accurate to describe him as one of “nature’s bachelors,” for he has been engaged to nearly a score of females and is threatened with marriage in nearly every one of the novels in the series. Some of these women are insipid and poetic, others are coarse and athletic; the worst are intellectual women who want to improve his mind. He is assigned books to read that he finds boring and incomprehensible, told never to laugh aloud, and threatened, after marriage, with having his membership in the Drones Club revoked. Bertie is quite content with the state of his mind and soul. At the threat of marriage and all the other threats that the novels present, Jeeves comes to the rescue. In spite of Bertie’s chronic need of Jeeves’s aid, he is ostensibly the main character in the novels and one of Wodehouse’s most brilliant creations. It is through the eyes of Bertie that the reader observes and passes judgment on what is taking place in the novel. Such a process was an enormous technical difficulty for his creator: Wooster must be stupid and generous in order for the plot to develop, but not so stupid that the reader casts him off.
The character of Jeeves, perfect as it is, is one of the most traditional aspects of Wodehouse’s craft, for the wise servant of a stupid master is a hoary cliché. Jeeves has never been to Oxford, and he has no aristocratic blood flowing in his veins to spur him into action. His central motive for rescuing Bertie and the legions of others who come to him for counsel is a manifestation of what is called in this series of novels “the feudal spirit.” Though not a university man, Jeeves knows French, Latin, and the whole of English literature. He quotes freely from the Shakespearean tragedies, and even has at his disposal a host of obscure lines from obscure poets in Latin and English. He is not a gloomy person, but Benedictus de Spinoza is his favorite author. He is well acquainted with psychology, and his rescue of Bertie or others in trouble frequently derives from his knowledge of the “psychology” of the individuals in question. He is moved by the feudal spirit, but he is tipped in a handsome way by his employer for services rendered, and he accepts the just praises of all whom he serves.
The series is also distinguished by a host of lesser figures who threaten to jostle Bertie out of his role as the main character. Gussie Fink-Nottle is an old schoolmate of Bertie, and he is engaged to a particularly insipid woman, Madelaine Basset, a romantic intellectual. She has a poetic phrase for everything, and she drives Bertie and all who know her crazy merely by opening her mouth. Madelaine is one of Bertie’s former girlfriends, and she imagines that Bertie is still in love with her. The hero’s duty is to see that the pending nuptials between Gussie and Madelaine take place, but Gussie, who is even less intelligent than Bertie, keeps fouling things up. Bertie goes at once to his aid, but nothing works until Jeeves puts his brain to the trial.
Jeeves never fails in his destined role as guardian angel to Wooster, but the plots frequently have an additional twist. Jeeves, though not omniscient as a character, has recourse to a body of information that none of the others shares. As a butler and member of a London club for butlers, he has access to a private collection of anecdotes supplied by other butlers about their masters. It is a point of honor for a manservant to supply all vital information about his employer—tastes, eccentricities, and even weaknesses—so that others will be well advised before taking employment with the same person. The collection has something about almost every rich male in England, and when affairs take on a desperate note, Jeeves is dispatched to London to find out something about the adversary that might serve as blackmail. Thus, one of the silliest of Wodehouse’s creations, a proto-Fascist named Spode who is inclined to bully everyone and especially Wooster, is disarmed when it is discovered that he designs ladies’ underwear. As Wooster is being threatened with decapitation by Spode, he mentions the name of Spode’s company, Eulalie Soeurs, and the man is silent and servile, though it is only at the very end and with the bribe of a trip around the world that Jeeves tells Wooster the meaning of that magic phrase.
The Jeeves novels, then, have at least three plots running through them, and it is in his scrupulous concern for the development of the plot that the author exhibits one of his greatest talents. The key to Wodehouse’s concerns for the logic and probability of his plots derives, perhaps, from his lifelong interest in detective novels; Wodehouse frequently avowed that they were his favorite kind of reading. The plots of the great Wodehouse comedies develop like that of a superb mystery: There is not an extraneous word or action in them.
For most Wodehouse readers, the Blandings and Jeeves series of novels represent the highest level of Wodehouse’s art, but there are many other novels that do not fit into either category. In 1906, Wodehouse published Love Among the Chickens, which has in it the first of Wodehouse’s several “nonheroes,” Ukridge. Ukridge has almost no attractive qualities. He does not work; rather, he lives by his wits and is able to sponge off his friends and from many who scarcely know him. Another character who figures prominently in several novels is Psmith. The name is pronounced “Smith,” and its owner freely admits that he added the P to distinguish himself from the vast number of Smiths. The name is one mark of the young man’s condescending arrogance, but he is helpful toward all who seek his assistance. A Psmith novel usually ends with the marriage of a friend or simply a bit of adventure for the central figure. Psmith does not hold a regular job, and like many of the other young maleprotagonists in Wodehouse novels, he seems to be a textbook study in the antiwork ethic. The heroes in the Psmith series, like the central figure himself, are not ignorant or stupid men, but the novelist’s emphasis is on their old school ties and on physical excellence. They are, as one critic noted, “strong, healthy animals.” They are good at sports and they triumph over poets and other intellectual types. On occasion, they may drink heavily, but they make up for an infrequent binge by an excess of exercise.
Evelyn Waugh once suggested that the clue to Wodehouse’s great success was the fact that he was unaware of the doctrine of original sin. In the Wodehouse novel, virtue is inevitably triumphant, and even vice is seldom punished with anything that might be called severity. In Wodehouse’s catalog of bad sorts, one group alone stands out: intellectual snobs. In his frequent descriptions of such types, Wodehouse may have consciously been responding to the disdain with which intellectuals have usually treated his work; in turn, the author had almost no sympathy for the group that he often described as “eggheads.” Whatever may have been his motivation, the athletes and the innocents invariably triumph over those who carry on about their own minds or some esoteric art form. It is therefore hard to agree with critics such as George Orwell who find elements of snobbery in the Wodehouse novels. It is true that the creator of Blandings Castle loved big houses and grand vistas, but the aristocrats are too obviously flawed in intellect or temper for any to assume Wodehouse was on their side. It may be, however, that Wodehouse was an inverse snob in his treatment of intellectuals, both male and female. None of them succeeds in his fiction.
There is nothing like a consensus over the source or qualities of Wodehouse’s greatness as a writer. Scholars have traced Wooster and Jeeves back through English literature to authors such as Ben Jonson, but source studies do not account for Wodehouse’s genius. He has been called the laureate of the Edwardian age, but there is little resemblance between the Edwardian world and that of P. G. Wodehouse. For most readers, the triumph of a Wodehouse novel is in its artistry of presentation. All the aspects of fiction—good story, effective characters, and dialogue that is often brilliant—are present. Wodehouse once summed up his career as well as anyone ever has: “When in due course Charon ferries me across the Styx and everyone is telling everyone else what a rotten writer I was, I hope at least one voice will be heard piping up: ’But he did take trouble.’” Wodehouse did indeed take trouble with his work, but given the rich abundance of that work and the incredible smoothness of each volume, the reader would never know.
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