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Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) 1881–1975
Wodehouse was an English-born novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and editor who emigrated to the United States in 1910. His fictional milieu is upper-class England, and his characters are the stock characters of this caste. He derides its social and moral conventions with a unique farcical genius. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; obituary, Vols. 57-60.)
Future readers of Mr. Wodehouse's novels would be well advised to begin with those of his old age and work inwards towards those of his capacious prime. The Girl in Blue, for instance, is funny and well-written enough for anyone to start on, and in many ways it is characteristic of his work. Country house, hunt for disappearing valuables, strange butler, comic Americans, literary lady, benevolent aunt-like figure, village policeman, bohemian but athletic hero, trim and clean-cut heroine—they are all here. Addicts too will find it remarkably good, though what they look for in a new Wodehouse is something of much more specialized interest. First and foremost they are fascinated to see that this writer's gifts and productivity are still not exhausted. Then they watch for innovations: is the modern world making any impact on the traditional Wodehouse cosmography; have any of the old characters undergone interesting (if sometimes unintentional) new developments? Finally they note how and where the earlier books are most obviously superior.
In the present case the innovations are slight, and in some cases unsound….
The main thing to strike the hardened reader is that the plotting is a bit flimsy, the adventures of The Girl in Blue (by Gainsborough) being nothing like as intricate or as neatly constructed as they would have been in the 1920s and 30s. But the slight feeling of dissatisfaction which this brings towards the end of the book is hardly likely to be felt by the unspoilt.
"Starter," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 6, 1970, p. 1291.
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A writer like Wodehouse who published over a hundred books cannot have been a Flaubert or a James Joyce, but in his own style and idiom he was a connoisseur of the mot juste, as careful to get the precise nuance of every Bertie Wooster slang phrase—so artfully contrasted with the stately idiom of Jeeves—as Joyce was to catch the precise accent of the various inhabitants of Dublin on that June day in 1904. Wodehouse in translation, like Dickens in translation, must lose some of his appeal. Bertie, Jeeves, Ukridge, Mr. Mulliner and the Oldest Member belong to the English-speaking world as much as Sam Weller and Huckleberry Finn.
[The quotation which illustrates] Wodehouse's political innocence also illustrates (as it was meant to do) his superb command of the English language for his immediate humorous purposes. It is the opening of a story … collected in Lord Emsworth and Others …:
The situation in Germany had come up for discussion in the bar parlour of the Angler's Rest, and it was generally agreed that Hitler was standing at the crossroads and would soon be compelled to do something definite. His present policy, said a Whisky and Splash, was mere shilly-shallying.
'He'll have to let it grow or shave it off,' said the Whisky and Splash. 'He can't go on sitting on the fence like this. Either a man has a moustache or he has not. There can be no middle course.'
Mark Twain himself, in his most solemn, deadpan manner on the professional jester's platform, could not have improved upon that opening. But Wodehouse's concentration on the...
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growth or lack of growth on the Nazi dictator's upper lip was not intended to cover up the tyrannous nature of the Nazi regime, upon whose admirers in England he was to express his scornful opinion only a year or two later. The man who broadcast from Berlin in 1941 that in return for his freedom he was willing to hand over India and reveal the secret process of cooking sliced potatoes on a radiator was the same man who, inThe Code of the Woosters (1938), had made pretty plain his opinion of Roderick Spode, 'founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organisation better known as the Black Shorts.'
Primed by Jeeves on Spode's shameful secret (under the trade name of Eulalie he designs ladies' underclothing), Bertie is emboldened to address him as follows: 'The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People …' The reference to Mosley and his Black Shirts could hardly have been more explicit. (p. 314)
Writers like Dickens, with a fundamentally serious view of the responsibilities of the comic art, can go on from a Pickwick Papers to a Bleak House, but writers with a smaller range and a more limited artistry, like Wodehouse …, would indeed be foolish if, having struck oil, they moved on to unfamiliar ground. The intricacies of Wodehouse's plots are often tiresome, but we don't read him for his stories so much as for his narrative style and his dialogue, both of which recall the early Dickens as well as Huckleberry Finn and Three Men in a Boat. It is nearly always the early Dickens from whom P. G. partly descends. One of the rare exceptions is Ukridge's sponsorship of Battling Billson in Lord Emsworth and Others…. (p. 315)
R. C. Churchill, "P. G. Wodehouse: 1881–1975," in Contemporary Review (© 1975 Contemporary Review Co. Ltd.), June, 1975, pp. 313-15.
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Clearly Rabelais and Wodehouse are worlds apart, in many ways. For instance, Rabelais is primarily an intellectual and Wodehouse often aggressively anti-intellectual; Rabelais is deeply committed to the reform of religious, political and social institutions, while Wodehouse remains serenely aloof from society's problems; Wodehouse's novels are based on plot and its ramifications, while Rabelais' are based on ideas; Rabelais delights in unbuttoned comedy, while Wodehouse's is always decorous; nearly all Wodehouse novels are built around a romantic love story, while Rabelais is presumably not interested in romantic love, since he never mentions it. But equally obvious, both are great humorists, whose comic worlds are poised on the indefinable dividing-line between reality and fantasy, and it is not really surprising that they have techniques in common…. [The] intention of this article is not to claim influence of any kind by Rabelais on Wodehouse, but simply to compare a few of their common comic techniques, specifically in the domains of plot, characters, intellectual gamesmanship and use of language. I am not claiming either that no other comic writers use these techniques, but that they show us an astonishing, and instructive, similarity of literary method between a Renaissance Evangelical humanist and a twentieth-century English gentleman. (p. 63)
There are few fundamental plot similarities, though both repeat their plots….
More importantly, both humorists' stories are at the same time authentic and parodic, and both derive from the epic….
Most of Wodehouse's plots, like Rabelais', are concerned with "faicts heroïques," and the basic story line is herofoils-villain, as it should be in an epic. Wodehouse's heroes, who unlike Rabelais' are usually foiling a villain in order to get a girl, are often presented as chivalrous knight-errants…. Comic references to chivalry are frequent in Wodehouse…. (p. 64)
Wodehouse's young men adhere to a feudal code of behavior, learned no doubt at their public schools (where many of them were football heroes), and even the unspeakable Ukridge never deliberately lets a girl down. There are done things and not-done things: Bertie may slide down a waterpipe to evade his Aunt Agatha, but he may not tell a ghastly girl that he doesn't want to be engaged to her. Gargantua and Pantagruel may in frivolous moments eat live bears or urinate on Parisians, but their relationship to father, God and subjects is always taken seriously.
We are, in fact, in a world of fixed class structures. People may change—Panurge from privileged companion to despised coward, or Bertie from vapid boulevardier to articulate philosopher—but the relative place of each man in society does not change…. And each author has his little list … of heroes and villains. Rabelais' villains are theologians, monks, doctors, lawyers and hypocrites; Wodehouse's include poets, newspaper proprietors, policemen, big-game hunters, successful financiers, all small boys, and most aunts. Or to put it more simply, both hate oppression, hypocrisy and smugness. And in both villains are usually unhappy—a basically Stoic outlook?…
Wodehouse's [heroes] are people who intrigue for the fun of it, ugly but kind young men, attractive nice girls, most butlers, most cats, and most members of the Drones Club. Both, moreover, despise humanity in the mass but are capable of great sympathy for individual members of it—as long as they do not try to step out of their place. (p. 65)
[Although] these two humorists have quite different attitudes to plot, there are certain resemblances worth noting. In each case a basically hackneyed plot outline is adorned with the zaniest kind of inventiveness…. Panurge's pranks are of the same undergraduate-rag type as those of the members of the Drones Club, Uncle Fred and Galahad…. [Wodehouse's characters] like Rabelais' … expend an extraordinary amount of effort for what seems like a trivial result. Perhaps Bobby Wickham is the best comparison to Panurge, since the creates havoc for the sheer fun of it, while Galahad and Uncle Fred are normally working, however deviously, toward a practical end. But in both authors action is often not 'real' action….
[The] devious machinations … are often … pointless….
Both authors make use of stock situations familiar to their readers. Rabelais' epic journey contains the regulation storm and fabulous monster, and Wodehouse's love stories the traditional misunderstandings and reconciliations. Both also enjoy turning a stock situation on its head…. (p. 66)
Both also like plots which turn on objects, to be defended, stolen or otherwise manipulated….
The general atmosphere in both fictional worlds is also more similar than might appear at first sight. Rabelais' characters love enormous banquets and gallons of drink—but so do Wodehouse's…. Wodehouse also has plenty of violence, though his comedy is much less ferocious than Rabelais'. (p. 67)
All critics are agreed that there is no sex and no obscenity in Wodehouse…. [There are only two passages, one in Jill the Reckless and another in The Prince and Betty, in which physical arousal is indicated]: undoubtedly sex is usually left to the intuition of the reader. Obscenity, however, is quite often implied, though discreetly…. Euphemisms and periphrases, indeed, abound in both works….
The gusto of Wodehouse's world may be rendered in more "classical" language, but is surely as vital and as infectiously enthusiastic as Rabelais'. Another general similarity is in the relationship between fantasy and reality. In both cases, improbable, even surreal, events occur in entirely realistic frameworks…. In both, time is similarly treated; though ostensibly linear, it is elastic enough to allow of lengthy flash-backs and improbably long pauses in the action. (p. 68)
I see a further similarity in each author's relationship with his readers. Rabelais often addresses his directly, and Bertie seems to do so even more than most first-person narrators. He worries about whether his regular readers will be bored by recapitulation of events they are already familiar with, and often asks rhetorical questions or appears to confer with his reader. Rabelais is often called a conteur, but he shares with Wodehouse the dramatic gift for staging a scene and creating characters by means of their speech. And both treat their readers as "customers" (Bertie's word) who have paid for the book and thereby acquired certain rights over it. (pp. 68-9)
Wodehouse's protagonists are [like Rabelais'] larger than life, although the techniques used to characterise them may be different. Lord Uffenham, with his enormous pearshaped body, his eye-brows, huge feet and absent-mindedness, is typical; a few traits have been singled out for enlargement, so that the effect is of a two-dimensional caricature, as with Panurge's cowardice and Janotus de Bragmardo's self-satisfaction.
Both humorists have a fondness for truly horrible characters….
[Surely] Roderick Spode, Stilton Cheesewright or Captain Bradbury invite comparison with Picrochole or Loup-Garou by their single-minded determination to destroy the adversary. Such characters often appear to be eight feet tall in moments of stress, and in other ways behave like the ogres of folklore…. Still more revolting characters, perhaps, are those who are not physically enlarged, but in whom the trait singled out for exaggeration is repulsive to start with, like Percy Pilbeam's pimples or Honoria Glossop's laugh like "the Scotch express going under a bridge."
Among both lists of heroes I should perhaps have included "men with inquiring minds."… Intellectual curiosity, though directed to very different ends, is a characteristic of both authors.
There are closer resemblances in the interaction between characters. The Bertie/Jeeves relationship is not unlike the Pantagruel/Panurge one in reverse: Jeeves is the omniscent, condescending Stoic Wise Man, and Bertie the incorrigible optimistic fool. Panurge, who has been critically compared to Hamlet as a problematic hero, is a good deal closer to Ukridge, who like him is totally irresponsible, especially about money, always convinced that the solution to his problem is just around the corner, incapable of seeing himself as others see him, and always straight-faced when everyone around him is laughing. And Galahad Threep-wood and Uncle Fred are in many ways reminiscent of Frère Jean: always ready to rush with indefatigable energy into whatever fray is nearest, crushing the weaker-willed with scathing words, and creating mayhem always with the purest possible motives.
All Wodehouse people are "stock" characters in the sense that they are created to fill a certain function in the plot. They all behave consistently in recurring circumstances….
Both authors assemble in one book an astonishing diversity of characters who apparently belong in quite different literary genres. This is not so striking in Rabelais, whose characters appear successively in successive chapters, as in Wodehouse, where the average country house party includes an absent-minded elderly aristocrat, an obnoxious interfering middle-aged female, a forceful but stupid business-man, a super-efficient secretary, a drooping heroine, a knightly hero, two unscrupulous criminals and a pig. The juxtaposition of the different languages spoken by all these characters is perhaps funnier than the succession of such languages in Rabelais…. (pp. 69-70)
The resemblance [concerning intellectual parlor-games] is very intriguing for it implies more intellectual kinship than we should expect between the Renaissance and the modern writer. We should remember that Wodehouse received an … education based on the Classics and including such obsolete exercises as writing Latin verse, which was closer to Rabelais' education than we might imagine. In particular, like Rabelais, he learned about literature from ancient authors whose basic principle was not originality but imitatio—the imaginative use of topoi.
What do I mean by 'intellectual parlor-games'? First of all, the parody of literary traditions familiar to the reader. We have mentioned some aspects of their pastiche of the epic, and there are many others. They also make fun of courtly love conventions…. Wodehouse is often pastiching recent authors and literary trends unfamiliar to today's reader…. (pp. 70-1)
Such parodies are intellectual in-jokes, and so very often is the use of quotation, metaphor and cliché by both humorists. The only detailed discussion I have seen of Wodehouse's use of quotations does not even mention the essential fact that they are all to be found in a dictionary of quotations. Like Rabelais, he uses a compilation instead of the original source…. And in using these quotations both deliberately underline their nature as clichés or topoi…. Wodehouse, like Rabelais, delights in the juxtaposition of styles, and often in the combination of quotations from different sources into one sentence, which invites a type of guessing-game. (pp. 71-2)
Wodehouse's speciality is the mixed metaphor or simile, and the best of his are well up to Rabelais' standard. They sometimes take the form of straightforward juxtaposition of two metaphors ("locking the stable door after the milk has been spilt"). Or they may use startlingly eccentric description or comparison, like Wodehouse's "silent pool of coffee" or "sprung at it with the vim of an energetic blood-hound."… Still another variety dear to both is the quotation or cliché in lofty language which ends in colloquialism. (p. 72)
The intellectual gamesmanship here requires separating the constituent elements fast enough not to be held up in one's reading. Another aspect of the juxtaposition of styles is the disconcerting use of technical terminology in circumstances where the reader least expects it…. Wodehouse does it more often than one might think. Latin tags are frequent …, and we are sometimes treated to an enumeration of the Latin names of birds found in an English garden at dawn on a July morning, the technical names for the bacteria of milk, or the professional methods of distinguishing false pearls from genuine ones. And both are likely to slip Biblical quotations into almost any context, though of course Rabelais always does so with polemical intent, while Wodehouse's vicars and curates quote Scripture in order to impress their hearers and amuse the reader, and in other cases the quotation is so well hidden as to be almost invisible…. (pp. 72-3)
In all these cases: pastiche, quotation, metaphor and juxtaposition of styles, both novelists are playing games with a reader who is presumed to have the same kind of intellectual background and training which they have. A still more general resemblance is their use of cliché…. They are always conscious that language is composed of clichés, and they draw our attention to this fact in remarkably similar ways…. Often Wodehouse further underlines the nature of his clichés by pretending they are original (Lord Emsworth "was as blind, to use his own neat simile, as a bat"), or by pretending to get them wrong ("He is as rich as creosote, as I believe the phrase is"). This is a speciality of Bertie's, who often has to check with Jeeves that he has his clichés right. (pp. 73-4)
[Both] writers are debunking different levels of language in an analogous way, and expecting their reader to realise it….
One of Rabelais' specialities is fantaisie verbale, and although Wodehouse is not a rival here he uses it superbly on occasion…. And listen to Wodehouse when he really wants to play with language: "A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant." The inventive energy expended by Rabelais on synonyms for sexual activity is directed by Wodehouse toward insult. (p. 74)
Like Rabelais he enjoys taking words apart, or forging new ones. Everyone quotes the disgruntled man whom time had done nothing to gruntle, and Bertie is convinced that "already I am practically Uncle Percy's ewe lamb. That will make me still ewer." But such examples are rare; he prefers, again like Rabelais, the deformation of normal speech by people who are eccentric, or drunk, or merely foreign. (pp. 74-5)
As we might expect, hyperbole is a favourite device—one might say, a permanent habit of mind—of both authors. Characters are larger, and nastier, than life: meals are huge and so are reactions. In Wodehouse "a cascade of people falling downstairs" means two people, a startled woman's "eyes were now about the size of regulation golf-balls, and her breathing suggested the last stages of asthma," and Bertie when trying not to laugh "distinctly heard a couple of my floating ribs part from their moorings under the strain." Most of Wodehouse's characters habitually overreact, which helps to enlarge the trivial setbacks of their lives into disasters of epic proportions. In Rabelais only Panurge usually overreacts, and the comedy often consists in contrasting his overreaction with the normal behaviour of the others.
More surprisingly, Wodehouse is equally adept at litotes. He does not, like Rabelais, describe extraordinary scenes in a matter-of-fact manner, but he does sometimes juxtapose a genuinely horrific event and an underreaction…. The most regular user of litotes is Jeeves, who, when Bertie cries: "Jeeves! Hell's foundations are quivering!" will reply: "Certainly a somewhat sharp crisis in your affairs would appear to have been precipitated, sir." (p. 75)
A variety of periphrasis both are fond of is the comic use of irrelevant information to slow down the narrative or to annoy…. In Wodehouse this is one of Jeeves's specialities. He is forever holding up the action or breaking Bertie's train of thought by finishing quotations Bertie is not interested in, or providing information in too much detail. (p. 76)
[Despite Wodehouse's] constant parade of contempt for great literature and philosophy …, he is, like Rabelais, a profoundly intellectual writer in many ways. And finally, the basic resemblances between the two in all domains: plot and action, character and language, is that they are always debunking—pricking the balloons of tyranny, hypocrisy and pretention which threaten civilisation. Writing in anxious, turbulent times, they restore their reader temporarily to sanity, to a world where villains are foiled and purity of motive—and of language—must necessarily triumph. Evil is not ignored but exorcised by the comic techniques they share (and by many others they do not share), so that the final impression given is one of optimism, of confidence that the powers of darkness will not destroy us. This is without doubt a kind of conservatism, and a comparison of the conservative aspects of both would be interesting. It is surely heartening to see that at least in this case the French Renaissance mind and the modern mind are not so far apart. (p. 77)
Barbara C. Bowen, in L'Esprit Créateur: Special Issue—The French Renaissance Mind (copyright © 1976 by L'Esprit Créateur), Winter, 1976.