P. G. Wodehouse Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) (Vol. 1) - Essay

Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) 1881–

Popular English humorist, now living in America.

For many years up to 1940 there had been one living writer (in addition to several crime novelists) whose fiction pleased all classes. P. G. Wodehouse's humorous stories brought him a fortune and, from Oxford, an honorary doctorate; and though he lost favour with a large part of his public during the Second World War his post-war books were found hard to cold-shoulder, and his popularity, and the favour of the critics, had been recovered by 1960.

Although Wodehouse's stories are by no means lacking in literary merit, they belong to the low comedy tradition and their author is akin to a music-hall 'comic'. His kind is rare and no one has yet replaced him as a provider of fun. While it might be possible to concoct a thesis on the social content of Wodehouse's stories, any inclination towards satire is subordinated to the claims of happy nonsense.

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, p. 83.

In his way, [P. G.] Wodehouse is as daemonic a writer as Balzac or Dickens; at the behest of his daemon, he has devoted himself … to "the great cause of cheering us all up." (p. 7)

Wodehouse has only a few critics. Edmund Wilson once said that Dickens did not get the critical attention that he deserved in his own age because his very popularity caused him to be regarded not as a writer, but as an institution. Something of the same thing can probably be said of Wodehouse. (p. 8)

During a remarkably long and successful career, P. G. Wodehouse has spent a large part of his time making caricatures, hilarious but not unkind, of British institutions and national types. In the works of Wodehouse the London clubs and the stately homes of England, the publishing houses and the law courts, the universities and the Old Vic are populated by an outlandish lot whom he suitably describes as "eggs," "beans," "crumpets," "clothheads," "blisters," "pots of poison," and the like. One gets a hint of their absurdities and imbecilities in a recital of some of their names: Bertie Wooster, Bingo Little, Sir Roderick Glossop, Oofy Prosser, Pongo Twistleton. (p. 19)

In the last sixty years, Wodehouse has written so much comedy that thousands of readers must think of him as a comic writer only…. But Wodehouse was torn two ways for a long while. As late as 1940 Wodehouse's hero may be a romantic of the first water; it is only in the last twenty-five years that the Berties and the Pongos, the Bingos and the Tuppys have dominated Wodehouse's world. (p. 102)

Wodehouse is at his best as a writer of farce, by which I do not mean mere slapstick, though there is plenty of that in Wodehouse. If there is a vast deal of violence, there is no serious injury. Punches are thrown, but not so many as are threatened, and, generally speaking, the weapons used are the kind that make the most commotion and do the least harm…. Wodehouse's adaptation of certain devices of melodrama is of equal importance. The mechanics of melodrama—the sudden entrances and exits, disguises, secrets, discoveries, contretemps, coincidences—translate, in fact, very easily into farce. (pp. 119-20)

As a comic writer in the twentieth century, Wodehouse is remarkable for his innocence and purity. A recurrent figure in the novels is the old gentleman, respected, dignified, even eminent, who once was a black sheep, the principal in scandals unmentionable even in the family circle and fatal if published. The oats that such old men sowed were apparently of the wildest strain, the deeds that they did the most dark and sinister. And what did they actually do? They got drunk, made fools of themselves, and were thrown out of pubs, music halls, and other places of entertainment…. Wodehouse is sexually pure to the point of Victorianism. There is nothing in any of the novels to bring (as a character in one of them might say) the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty. (pp. 137-38)

Though Wodehouse's heroes are in their twenties and some of his character actors are in their sixties, they have a common state of mind which is that of the schoolboy. The splendors and miseries of school life fix the flavors and shapes of those of adult life. (p. 140)

In spite of Wodehouse's sound education and his wide reading, Wodehouse's world is, for several reasons, anti-intellectual. First, there is a long tradition behind him. Right in the middle of the Age of Reason, Lord Chesterfield said that English gentlemen should thank God that they had something better than their brains to depend upon. Second, Wodehouse is aware that many intellectuals regard him as a literary nobody, and that many have not even bothered to look into one of his books…. But more significant is the fact that for Wodehouse the intellectual view is equated with tragedy, pessimism, and negation. (pp. 142-43)

For all of his joking about American crudity, Wodehouse has always liked Americans. When other young Englishmen wanted to go to the Left Bank of Paris or to the Orient, he wanted to go to the United States, because to him it was the country of romance. In one of the novels, Wodehouse makes America not only more romantic than Europe, but also morally superior. (p. 151)

Wodehouse belongs spiritually to the world of Victoria and Edward VII, but he works in a tradition that goes back through more than three hundred years of English literature. Tracing the tradition, Lionel Stevenson points out that the themes and characters in Wodehouse have antecedents in English drama as early as Ben Jonson…. Wodehouse differs from his predecessors chiefly in that he is all amiability, whereas they have at least a strain of bitterness, viciousness, or cruelty. In consequence, he has effected a reformation of the gallant and the rake. With Psmith he removes most of the inhumanity from the type, and with Bertie he removes virtually all of it. In Wodehouse the hoax is still basic, but it is the kind of hoax in which no one is actually hurt, and the epigrams are witty, but not cynical. Young men consume cocktails by the trayful, but alcohol provokes them to nothing more dissolute than barley water would. If some of the young women are tough babies, there is no Millamant in Wodehouse, much less a Hoyden. (pp. 153-57)

If Wodehouse is a minor novelist, he has been an important influence on comic novelists of the twentieth century, some of whom are major figures beyond any question. Evelyn Waugh, for example, created a fictional world which, although differing vastly from Wodehouse's, still owes a great deal to it…. However different their attitudes and purposes, younger writers like Kingsley Amis and John Wain owe much to the techniques of farce which Wodehouse developed and with which he has operated for so many years. Indeed, Wodehouse has influenced English comic novelists who have just published their first or second book, and one such writer may well have the last word. Discussing his own work in a recent interview, Auberon Waugh said that he supposed he made jokes like those of his father and P. G. Wodehouse. Then he remarked that all English comic writers are so much influenced by Wodehouse that they must constantly try not to write Wodehouse's kind of comedy, in order that they may write their own. (pp. 180-82)

Richard J. Voorhees, in his P. G. Wodehouse, Twayne, 1966.