P. G. Wodehouse

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(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.)

Dorothy Parker

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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 "Just think, Harry is coming home again! I wonder if he'll remember that little song we used to sing together? It went something like this." I like the deft rhyming of the song that is always sung in the last act, by two comedians and one comedienne…. And all these things are even more so in "Oh, Lady! Lady!!" than they were in "Oh, Boy!" (p. 69)

Dorothy Parker, "A Succession of Musical Comedies: The Innocent Diversions of a Tired Business Woman," in Vanity Fair, Vol. 10, No. 2, April, 1918, pp. 69, 97.∗

Sinclair Lewis

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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...

(This entire section contains 525 words.)

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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 to make it as welcome as an old friend with a new anecdote, and at its appearance you remember its predecessors. Particularly you recall the loquacious Mr. Mulliner (in "Meet Mr. Mulliner" and several other collections) who, discoursing in the bar to such companions as the Half and Half, the Lemon Squash, and the Gin and It, soberly recounts the adventures of his nephew, the curate, after a drink of "Buck-U-Uppo," a tonic intended to nerve elephants on a tiger hunt. And you recall, from "Young Men in Spats" the one perfect comment on skiing: "Isn't there enough sadness in life without going out of your way to fasten long planks to your feet and jumping off mountains?"

Not since 1918 has there been, especially for responsible and informed readers, a sharper need of refuge in stories which have all the resounding surprise of a slapstick with none of its commonplaceness. With all his clowning, Wodehouse is the artist of the accurate and unexpected phrase. In "Summer Moonshine," we learn: "His manner was that of a stag at bay. Imagine a stag in horn-rimmed spectacles, and you have Elmer Chinnery at this moment. Landseer would have liked to paint him."

Mr. Chinnery, the fretful manufacturer of fish glue, was even luckier. He had Wodehouse.

Like The New Yorker magazine, Mr. Wodehouse is a more dangerous Communist propagandist than twenty Daily Workers. For he disposes of the gilded lily and the stuffed bodice not by misunderstanding them and frothing at the mouth, but by understanding them perfectly and smiling till the reader smiles with him, and that, to stuffiness, is deadlier than strychnine.

Sinclair Lewis, "Garland for Clowns," in Newsweek, Vol. X, No. 17, October 25, 1937, p. 37.

Hilaire Belloc

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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 of the right words and the putting of them into the right order. It is this which Mr. Wodehouse does better, in the English language, than anyone else alive; or at any rate than anyone else whom I have read for many years past.

His object is comedy in the most modern sense of that word: that is, his object is to present the laughable, and he does this with such mastery and skill that he nearly always approaches, and often reaches, perfection.

It is a test of power in this craft of writing that its object shall be attained by some method which the reader cannot directly perceive. (pp. 342-43)

There are various ways in which you may test the truth of what I here say about this master in my own craft of writing. One is to attempt an imitation. You will find you cannot do it. In all the various departments of his skill Mr. Wodehouse is unique for simplicity and exactitude, which is as much as to say that he is unique for an avoidance of all frills. He gets the full effect, bang! One may say of him as the traveller in the story, hearing Shakespeare for the first time, said of Hamlet: "Doesn't he pull it off?" Or again one may consider his inimitable use of parallelism. The use of parallelism is one of the special marks of leadership in English. For it has become one of the chief marks of English prose in its most sharp-edged form. Now in parallelism Mr. Wodehouse is again supreme. There is no one like him in this department. One may say of him what he might say of his own Jeeves, "There is none like you, none". Whether one quotes a single phrase such as "quaking like a jelly in a high wind" (for the effect of an aunt upon a young nephew), or of the laugh of another lady and its effect upon another young man: "it was like cavalry clattering over a tin bridge"; or any one out of a hundred examples, it is always the same success. Mr. Wodehouse has done the trick. In every case the parallelism has enhanced to the utmost the value of the thing described. It appears not only in phrases, but in the use of one single metaphorical word, and especially in the use of passing vernacular slang.

Then you may consider the situations: the construction. Properly the does not concern the excellence of the writer as such. It is the art of the playwright more than of the prose-writer pure and simple. But observe how admirably it is used in these hands! The situation, the climax, general and particular, the interplay of character and circumstance are as exact as such arrangements can be. They produce the full effect and are always complete.

There is yet another perfection which I note in him. It is one which most moderns, I think, would not regard as a perfection at all—Well! I differ from them. It is the repeated use of one set of characters. The English country house and its setting, the aged absent-minded earl, the young ladies and gentlemen with too much leisure or too little, too much money, of (contrariwise) embarrassment—all these form one set of recurrent figures, one set of "property" scenes. Another is New York with its special characters and special situations—particularly the suddenly enriched and the vagaries of their young, more human than their mothers.

There is the club of the young, idle, and very-much-to-be-liked young Englishmen of the wealthier sort, the pageant of the Drones (and, by the way, talking of clubs, what more exact bullseye has ever been hit by any marksman than the casual remark about the man being shown all the sights of London, "ending up with Bucks"?) Then there are the immortal, vivid glimpses of suburban life, for example the glorious adventures of the uncle who breaks loose once a year and showers gold upon the young man who jellies eels and his devoted would-be spouse: a lovely pair of lovers, as vivid as a strong transparency concentrated on one small screen—yet not a dozen adjectives between them.

Everything this author has seen he has observed; everything he has observed he has engraved; but, what is more remarkable than observation (which is common to many), or even than the record of observation (which is, though rare in any excellent degree, yet fairly well known) is the presentation of the thing observed so that it rises almost violently before the eye to which it is presented. (pp. 343-45)

Now my fellow-worshippers at this shrine which Mr. Wodehouse has raised to the glory of his country, that is, of English letters, may rightly complain that praise of a man's craftsmanship is arid praise…. Let me end therefore with something that is not a mere hymn of praise to Mr. Wodehouse's style (which I repeat and still maintain to be the summit of his achievement); let me end with something about him which is intensely national—I mean the creation of one more figure in that long gallery of living figures which makes up the glory of English fiction.

For the English people, more than any other, have created in their literature living men and women rather than types—and Mr. Wodehouse has created Jeeves.

He has created others, but in his creation of Jeeves he has done something which may respectfully be compared to the work of the Almighty in Michael Angelo's painting. He has formed a man filled with the breath of life…. I should like the foreigner or posterity (much the same thing) to steep themselves in the living image of Jeeves and thus comprehend what the English character in action may achieve. Talk of efficiency! (pp. 346-47)

If in, say, 50 years Jeeves … shall have faded, then what we have so long called England will no longer be. (p. 347)

Hilaire Belloc, "Introduction" (reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), in Week-end Wodehouse by P. G. Wodehouse, Herbert Jenkins Limited, 1939 (and reprinted in Hilaire Belloc's Prefaces Written for Fellow Authors, edited by J. A. De Chantigny, Loyola University Press, 1971, pp. 342-47).

George Orwell

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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 outlook. After reading him steadily for a quarter of a century I cannot remember a single one of his books in which the jeune premier really works for his living. His heroes either have private incomes, like Bertie Wooster, or they end up with some kind of sinecure job in the retinue of a millionaire. And that, however lightly he may choose to treat it, is obviously the way in which he considers it desirable for a young man to live. His whole vision of life was implicit in his first big hit, Mike….

When Mr. Wodehouse was led off into captivity by the Germans, he is said to have remarked to a friend, "Perhaps after this I shall write a serious book." I wonder. It might be very interesting if he did. But what I think is certain is that he cannot continue in the Psmith and Jeeves tradition very much longer. It is already decades out of date. Bertie Wooster is an Edwardian figure, the "knut" of the pre-1914 period, and, incidentally, a much nicer animal than the moneyed young man of to-day. But now the whole of that way of life is being destroyed too completely to survive even in fantasy…. I hope the Germans are treating Mr. Wodehouse decently, and I hope that later on he will write that serious book. Few writers of our time have used words more skilfully, or squandered better talents.

George Orwell, "Wishful Thinking and the Light Novel," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1940 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XX, No. 504, October 19, 1940, p. 384.∗

Alexander Cockburn

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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 momentous in literary history as the other great tandems—Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Of the two, Wooster is by far the more interesting. He is a character. Jeeves, to the end of his days, remains a type—the deus ex machina who saves the day when all seems lost, the great artificer who ties up the loose ends and who rescues Bertie from the consequences of his repeated follies. People have written about Jeeves the valet as a mother-surrogate for Bertie and, though a touch naso-labial, the imputation has some accuracy. Bertie never mentions his mother (or indeed his father) and reserves all his passions for his aunts: the terrible Aunt Agatha [and the jovial Aunt Dahlia]…. Bertie has no sex life and so indubitably Jeeves, in the mother role, is his closest confidant. But a mere foil to the Wooster magic is what he remains, a counterpoint for linguistic jokes.

"Very well, then," says Bertie to Jeeves, "you agree with me that the situation is a lulu?" "Certainly a somewhat sharp crisis in your affairs would appear to have been precipitated, sir." Wodehouse never tired of variations of this low/high joke about language where Jeeves' somewhat sanctimonious precision of speech is followed by the loose idiomatic torrent of Wooster's blather.

There's another fine example of Jeeves' reserve played off against Bertie's copious flow in the great scene in The Code of the Woosters in which both characters are trapped in Stiffy Byng's bedroom by the dog Bartholomew. It's unusual to find Jeeves in an undignified posture, but this is exactly the state the dog Bartholomew has reduced him to, perched on top of the cupboard. Bertie is crouched on the chest of drawers [outlining a risky escape plan to an unsympathetic Jeeves.] (pp. vi-vii)

The joke is in the folly of his rescue plan, and beyond that in the understated but clear designation of the relationship. Wooster is the master, Jeeves the servant. But Jeeves will not take orders inimical to his safety and Bertie would not dream of clinching a proposal with a command. The relationship is always nuanced, so much so that when Bertie, in another story, hears Jeeves describe him to a substitute valet as "mentally negligible" we feel an equivalent stab of distress at such plain speaking. Bertie knows he is mentally negligible and is ready to leave all serious thinking to Jeeves. But Jeeves' savage frankness on the subject of Bertie's mental equipment is altogether too blunt—a breach of etiquette.

But there is a mystery to Jeeves—the evident incongruity of this adroit and learned schemer working for an ass like Bertie. It's as though one suddenly found Bosola or another of those Jacobean adventurers dressed up as a butler and handing round cucumber sandwiches. Jeeves is a little like Iago, in benign retirement from villainy, redeeming himself with good-natured and stoic penance.

At all events he found the right master. Wooster is the greatest of all the Wodehouse characters—and the one in which Wodehouse achieved his most complex technical triumphs. Bertie, after all, is not only the narrator but also the central character. The reader laughs at Wooster as he thrashes around in the toils of circumstance, but he also laughs with Wooster because it is Wooster who is reporting on the aforementioned toils and how exactly he got enmeshed in them.

Above all it is Bertie who weaves the idiom of the stories; everything is cast in that unique language, a stew of half-remembered quotations, slang, repetitions, formulaic expressions. It is Bertie who dreams up the great similes and bleats out the dense word play. (pp. vii-viii)

Character … language … but also action. It's all very well to talk about Wodehouse's unfailing invention, but mere invocation of it is insufficient. Wodehouse was, after all, dealing with the most perilous of forms—farce. The slightest lapse in vigilance and not even Bertie's linguistic virtuosity could keep the reader's eyes on the page. (p. ix)

[As Wodehouse once] remarked, "In a Jeeves story every line has to have entertainment value," and the final, seemingly effortless concoction was produced with the toil and concentration that such a remark indicates. The Code of the Woosters is an excellent example of the structural complexity Wodehouse strove for.

Across the main plot line of Aunt Dahlia's lust for the cow-creamer come dashing the subplots: Gussie's problems with Madeleine Bassett; Stiffy Byng's hopes for marriage with Stinker the curate. There are the mechanisms that connect these threads in the narrative: the missing notebook, the cow-creamer itself, the monstrous Sir Watkyn's designs on Anatole, Aunt Dahlia's sublime chef. Study the conclusions of each chapter. Almost always the final line switches the plot, plunging the reader forward into some new portion of the labyrinth. Wodehouse never let his readers relax for a moment. Like Homer, he knew that relaxation meant inattention, sleep, or disconsolate grumblings that bards are not what they used to be in the old days.

Each Wooster-Jeeves novel has certain specific felicities. In The Code of the Woosters a prime point of attraction is indubitably the character of Sir Roderick Spode and his eventual neutralization through the agency of Jeeves. Spode was evidently modeled on Sir Oswald Mosley, 1930s leader of the British Union of Fascists. (pp. ix-x)

[The tongue-lashing Spode receives] may not be the fiercest piece of anti-Fascist prose ever composed, but for Wooster it was saeva indignatio at its most potent. We should remember Bertie's limitations and respect him all the more for his stand.

Other traditional characters in the Wooster-Jeeves saga are well displayed: Gussie Fink-Nottle, the lover of newts and seeker of the hand of Madeline Bassett:

"I broke the tank. The tank in my bedroom. The glass tank I keep my newts in. I broke the glass tank in my bedroom, and the bath was the only place to lodge the newts. The basin wasn't large enough. Newts need elbow room. So I put them in the bath. Because I had broken the tank. The glass tank in my bedroom. The glass tank I keep my—"

This is Gussie, reporting the newt mishap to Bertie. It's a high moment for the Wodehouse style; an epiphany, if you must, to be compared with King Lear's reflections on his own considerable reverses of fortune.

And there is Madeline Bassett, prime example of the soupy girl with whom Bertie was always trying to avoid a marriage enforced by circumstance. (p. xi)

[If the scene in which she likens the totally uncomprehending Bertie to Rudel] won't cause curvature of your naso-labials, nothing will. Wodehouse is not for you.

Wodehouse's status? It's been vouched for by every major English writer of the twentieth century with a spark of insight or talent. He stands as father of the style of Evelyn Waugh, too acute ever to get lost in the prejudices that marred the latter's delicacy of touch towards the end of his career. Wodehouse took a language forged out of second-rate fiction and narrative techniques from stage farce and created a world as timeless and as true as that of Homer or of Shakespeare. And despite his own self-deprecation, Wodehouse had his ambitions. Joy in the Morning, to be read immediately after The Code of the Woosters, deliberately invites comparison with Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Wodehouse popped in enough allusions and quotations to bend the reader toward such parallel. And he survives it. The Wooster-Jeeves cycle is the central achievement of English fiction in the twentieth century; an achievement impossible to imitate, because—as E. M. Forster remarked of the poet Cavafy—the cycle stands at a slight angle to the universe, unreachable by almost anything but laughter itself. (p. xii)

Alexander Cockburn, "Introduction" (copyright © 1975 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), in The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse, Vintage Books, 1975, pp. v-xii.

Wilfrid Sheed

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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 people dedicated to stamping out genius is necessarily a strange one, and Wodehouse, squirming around Parnassus with his hands in his pockets, must be at least the strangest since Jane Austen. (p. ix)

[His] work towers eccentrically above his life in the style of a James or Proust…. And one suspects that in his heart he felt, like Faulkner, that a good Bertie Wooster story was worth any number of old ladies.

Was the actual work worthy of [his] steely dedication? Not, it seemed, if he could help it. Nobody ever struggled harder to suppress his genius in the interests of amiable tripe. Leave it to Psmith is an interesting turning point, among several. Wodehouse had, at this time, been writing for more than twenty years, and had never really let himself go. (Forster's "undeveloped heart" goes for clowns too.) His comic gift would come prancing out for a page or two, but each time Plum would give it the hook. Psmith had first appeared in 1906, and seemed like the beginning of a comic avalanche; but Wodehouse put him back in the toy box and proceeded with romantic comedies of a pleasant but far from explosive nature. (p. xi)

Plum's early writing was a desperate pitch for a market, and any developments in craft were governed solely by public demand….

And so it might have remained if he hadn't discovered America not long before World War I…. Wodehouse especially loved the stage, and the American musical was about to develop into the formidably oiled machine which has since flattened us. And Wodehouse played a big part in this development….

Wodehouse's work in the theater had a profound effect on his novels, which he proceeded to write in the manner of a company preparing a play out of town. No one has ever written more efficient novels than Wodehouse, and a lot of this can be traced to their theatrical structure. He himself called them musical comedies without the music, and they are almost literally that, since he was writing musical comedies simultaneously with them. The Wodehouse golden age, which Leave it to Psmith helps to usher in, was, in fact, preceded by such feverish stage work that a less driven man might have given up print altogether in its favor. (p. xii)

Leave it to Psmith is an interesting transition book, because it still carries the trappings of romantic comedy with it into the uncertain future. The scene where the girls sit around discussing their chums' misfortunes has the frothy tenderness of an earlier Wodehouse. Likewise, Psmith's canoe wooing almost cries out for a Jerome Kern song to clinch it. And Aunt Constance is not allowed yet to be a perfect comic monster, but must remain a good woman underneath.

Even Psmith himself is not quite a finished character, but a compendium of mannerisms that will dissolve and issue into several comic characters, including the later Jeeves and the notorious Uncle Fred. This is a last chance to see Wodehouse among his blueprints and prototypes. The elements are ramshackle, as they still were in musical comedies, but they are all there, ready to be shaped over the next twenty years into a comedy so narrow and fastidious, so lacking in strain and the clown's need for approval and so ruthlessly unadulterated by other emotions that they deserve to be called classic art. (p. xiii)

Even the famous phrasing, which is a bastard mix of slang and classical quotation and any English phrase Americans might be expected to find funny, is a closed language. One knows instinctively what words and constructions he would not have used: not only for reasons of sound (at which he was pitch-perfect) but attitude. It is interesting to note how tyrannically Wodehouse uses language to steer us through objectively wretched situations like a guide with a fixed smile, or a nurse determined we shall enjoy ourselves.

Blandings Castle, for instance, is really the same old class-ridden upstairs-downstairs jailhouse that sensitive writers have been railing at for generations. Wodehouse gives only the merest glimpse of this (Eve Halliday, hired as a librarian, does not feel free to talk to one of the guests; Eddie Cootes, the gangster, is whisked off to a nether world called the Servants Quarters and can speak to nobody) before we are moved on by the iron grip of our determinedly sunny host. There will be no unpleasantness.

Thus the horrors of a class society, where dotty, monomaniac peers and their idiot sons littered the landscape and leeched off the rest of England, are magically made to vanish, to be replaced by the more manageable horrors of schoolboy convention. For instance, the only character outside the servants' hall who actually works for a living, namely, the secretary Baxter, is promoted into a monster, because he's too serious. Efficiency which is good in Jeeves is bad in Baxter. The author's commentary, which is as musically insistent as Jane Austen's, assures that we will feel this. Likewise, when the benighted Lady Constance does something decent by inviting a foreign poet to stay over, we know right away that this is potty and pretentious of her and that the poet will be a fraud. On the other hand, when Lord Emsworth, a ghastly bore, tells Psmith, a posturing wastrel, that the latter is all right because he doesn't look like a poet, we whole-heartedly agree that this is a good thing. Emsworth in fact can't follow a word Psmith says, but he knows a gentleman when he sees one. And since Psmith turns out in the end to be the son of the Smith of Corfby Hall (his uncle sold fish, but uncles like aunts must carry the sins of the parents), Emsworth's judgment is confirmed.

In short, our own liberal standards, if so they be, have been totally and painlessly reversed, and I can't imagine the most fanatical Marxist objecting (in fact, I know one and he doesn't). Aesthetes are another story, and I have heard more than one of them object to Wodehouse's brutal philistinism. It is not just that poets are mocked, but that they are mocked by the likes of Psmith, who is himself a parody of an aesthete. Public-school boys might not be allowed to be arty in those days, but they were allowed to make fun of being arty, and Psmith is a walking caricature of a Yellow Book dandy. Once or twice, in moments of impatience, Psmith shows the innate cruelty and exclusiveness of this type, which must have made life hell for artistic little outsiders. In fact, the Psmiths, for all their campy high style, were often the policemen of those public-school prison camps.

But Wodehouse will have none of it. Even his Psmiths will be nice. He swears they were, that he remembers no bullying, no boredom. And for a couple of hours we share his amnesia, a boon to Marxists and fascists alike. A real exorcism has occurred.

What makes it doubly all right is that although we are briefly adopting a schoolboy's values as to who's ripping and who's ghastly, there is no hint that these values meant anything special to our author, let alone that he would fight for them. They were just a capital viewpoint for telling some stories. His only business was art…. (pp. xiii-xv)

A couple of final points. Wodehouse's mastery of language has been so much discussed, and sources traced, that not much needs adding, except that an Anglo-American right then had the run of the world's two richest slang systems in their primes, which, laid on top of a classical education, gave him unrepeatable equipment. One fresh surprise for me was the parody of American slang used by the gangster and his moll. "I'll never forget you, Eddie! There's only one tintype on my mantelpiece" could have come straight from No, No, Nanette. Wodehouse was back in England when he wrote this book, and must have seen how Americanness could be made almost as funny as Englishness. And if the result is not quite successful in the Damon Runyon sense, the very attempt is pleasing.

Finally, the plot. Admirers are bemused by how seriously he took these plots, but surely Wodehouse was right about this. The movies of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen are recent reminders of how even the best jokes sprawl when the string breaks. Wodehouse's lines stand up sturdily on their own. "His crookedness was such that he could hide at will behind a spiral staircase" could turn up anywhere—and did. Like other Wodehouse stand-bys, it can be found with variations in several books. But he knew he was not superhuman: his second-line stuff needed help and got it. Character and situation always kept pace, sometimes too hectically, but ever on hand to prop up a joke. This in the end is what makes his books comic masterpieces and not just comic occasions.

In Leave it to Psmith the plot flirts with the detective novel, which was just then coming into its great flowering under Dame Agatha Christie. And this brings us back to the real-life Wodehouse for the last time. Although he read widely and intelligently, his taste for trash remained ravenous, and only his imperious sense of humor can have kept him from attempting straight detective stories himself. The offhand ingenuity of Psmith shows how he might have done at it. (pp. xv-xvi)

Wilfrid Sheed, "Introduction" (copyright © 1975 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), in Leave It to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse, Vintage Books, 1975, pp. ix-xvi.

Malcolm Muggeridge

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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)

I confess the nomination of Mike as his favourite work rather surprised me, as I should have expected him to see it as a charming early effort preparing the way for his world-famous Jeeves books. Yet on consideration I realised that it fitted in with his character and romantic disposition. The world of the twentieth century as it developed in his lifetime was little to his taste, and he sought a sanctuary from it in the fantasy of a schoolboy world such as is portrayed in Mike and other such stories—one or two in The Uncollected Wodehouse—in which games are the chief pursuit, to excel at them is the mark of a hero, and the playing-fields of Eton (in Wodehouse's case, Dulwich) are truly the dry-run for Battles of Waterloo to come. (p. x)

[It] would be the greatest possible mistake to regard Wodehouse as merely a purveyor of escapist literature to a dying class. Beneath the cheerful comedy and the prevailing good humour there is a sharp, clear, but possibly unconscious, satirical intent. When I once put this to Wodehouse he denied the imputation as hilariously as if I had detected Freudian or Marxist intimations in his work. The fact remains, however, that Wodehouse's picture of the English upper classes in a decomposing society, despite its whimsicality, is far more convincing than, say, Galsworthy's in his Forsyte Saga. People tend to believe that only what is serious is true, whereas in practice almost the exact converse is the case. Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff is, I am sure, far more like the average Elizabethan knight than anything to be found in Spenser's Faerie Queene, as Cervante's Don Quixote is a more authentic expression of the spirit of chivalry and knight-errantry than Tennyson's Sir Galahad. (p. xi)

Personally speaking, the most touching item in David Jasen's collection was Wodehouse's first Punch contribution, "An Unfinished Collection." It recalled to me so very vividly the moment when I found myself, out of the blue as it were, sitting in the editorial chair in the old Punch office in Bouverie Street and wondering helplessly what the magazine was about. I confess I never really found out, but in so far as I did begin to get a glimmering, it involved shaping up to a certain brand of English humour, doggedly held onto by the natives, of which Wodehouse's piece was a near-perfect example. In essence, it is a sort of mystique of failure—in "An Unfinished Collection" the narrator is a failed writer who collects rejection slips—whereby a whole variety of misfortunes, like having manuscripts returned, or being overdrawn at the bank, or having to help with the washing up, are luxuriated in to the point of being funny. The nearest American practitioner is, of course, Thurber, but not even he reaches the heights of masochism of the English variety. The whole edifice of Wodehouse's humour is founded on this glorification of failure and inadequacy, though naturally, with the passing of the years, it grew more sophisticated; Mike turns into Bertie Wooster and the precocious Psmith into Jeeves….

The publication of The Uncollected Wodehouse is an occasion for a different sort of celebration by all vendors of words—to use St. Augustine's apt expression—in honour of the greatest vendor of us all. (p. xii)

Malcolm Muggeridge, "Foreword" (copyright © 1976 by Malcolm Muggeridge), in The Uncollected Wodehouse by P. G. Wodehouse, edited by David A. Jasen, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1976, pp. ix-xii.

C. David Benson

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[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 noble heart to show for a lifetime of wine, chorus girls, and pranks, is not his usual clever self. Worst of all the Empress of Blandings, that "pig supreme," has retired and no longer competes for the Fat Pigs medal in the Shropshire Agricultural Show. All is in decline.

Yet any severe judgment would be unfair. The editor admits that only the skeleton of the final product was completed, little more than a fuller version of the scenario the author prepared for each novel. With Wodehouse at his best, as with the Empress herself, it is the fat alone that counts; but here the story seems almost to be taken seriously, as if the resolution of the plot and not its decoration mattered most….

This book will certainly be alright to the reader who already loves Wodehouse, but the uninitiated must be warned that Sunset at Blandings is not a good or even genuine Wodehouse novel. Wodehouse's own notes and plans for revision are chiefly interesting for how little they tell us about his art. Brief and purely practical, they identify what needs to be done ("can be improved") without revealing how. (p. 37)

Sunset at Blandings is chiefly useful for reminding us, if only negatively, how good Wodehouse can be at his best. In his earlier Blandings novels, as in the more famous Jeeves series, he creates some of the cleverest and yet gentlest comedy in English. This book shows that his vision ran pure to the end, with no trace of the bizarre and cruel strains found in modern humorists like Twain or Thurber. In his own way, Wodehouse clearly is a genius. This may seem too much to claim for a mere writer of funny books, "the performing flea" of English literature as Sean O'Casey sneered (an epithet which Wodehouse promptly used as the title for an autobiographical work), but it can be argued that with very few exceptions (Milton is perhaps the most obvious), the central tradition of English literature, from Chaucer through Shakespeare to Dickens, is a comic one. In fact, a good Blandings novel, in its complex plotting, generous humor, happy ending, and absolute command of language, suggests the happiest creation of Chaucer, his Nun's Priest's Tale; just as the Empress of Blandings is surely the most delightful animal in our literature since Chanticleer.

It would be interesting to know how 20th-century English literature will look a century or so from now; I suspect that P. G. Wodehouse will be ranked a good deal higher than many of the writers currently taken seriously by academic critics. Surely his craft will be appreciated—not only the inventive similes praised by Waugh, but also his mastery of sustained dialogue, and his ability to mix cliché and familiar quotation, English rotundity and American slang into a style that is at once full of comfortable echoes and uniquely his own. Sunset at Blandings barely hints at these achievements. For the great Wodehouse read Something New, Pigs Have Wings, or Full Moon in the Blandings series, or the Jeeves book Joy in the Morning or The Code of the Woosters. Then keep reading around in his enormously rich output. For if Wodehouse wrote nothing serious, as the title of one of his books has it, it is equally true that everything he finished was good. (pp. 37-8)

C. David Benson, "Books Considered: 'Sunset at Blandings'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 14, September 30, 1978, pp. 37-8.

Brian Thomas

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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 edition, Wodehouse made a point of reading Shakespeare all the way through at least once every year. The practice shows. There is an exuberance of language in Not George Washington that makes irrelevant the triviality of the subject and the author's sunny indifference to Important Issues….

The novel's several narrators each have the same giddy vigor of expression. But even though we can glimpse Wodehouse's wrists reaching into the puppets, their personalities are distinct. (p. 15)

[The hero] is James Orlebar Cloyster, a name as apt as any in Jonson's plays. For what suits Wodehouse men best is a cloister of bubbly bachelors who are absorbed in the childish pleasures of eating and drinking. They are always deceiving themselves that they have found the woman, but marriage means as little to them as it does to the roués in a Restoration comedy. When he must go to London to seek his fortune as a writer before he can marry Margaret, Cloyster is positively relieved. (pp. 15-16)

In his Introduction, Jasen shows that Not George Washington is in part autobiographical. The novelist, for instance, credits his hero with a romance bearing the Wodehousian title, When It Was Lurid, and with a piece he actually wrote himself significantly called, "Men Who Missed Their Own Weddings." The most salient likeness between creator and creation, though, is that both worked very hard and turned out a great deal of material on a wide range of subjects….

As in most Wodehouse novels, the plot is busy yet has the least number of moving parts necessary: Cloyster's conquest of London, his travails with the [ghost writers] he commissions and his rescue by his transcendantly resourceful fiancée. The froth splashes around an armature of steel.

I was surprised by how many "naturalistic" details there are in Not George Washington. Cloyster travels through several strata of contemporary London, affording us gritty views rarely associated with Wodehouse. There is a sodden bargee whom Cloyster uses as a ghost for his verse, an inarticulate lout who gets a reputation as "the modern Burns,"… and a few chapters set in a hall where Cloyster teaches lower class youths the art of boxing. Indeed, Wodehouse's rendition of the mishaps that befall "artistic" boxers when they confront a street brawler is as instructive as it is funny. Not that Wodehouse is Zola plus fizz; he simply paid more attention to the world around him than is commonly thought.

His characters, nonetheless, are cartoons. Margaret Goodwin is a maiden ablaze with love for her dissipated man, but we laugh and laugh and laugh. Such lack of depth is often condemned as a failing of the tradition Wodehouse inhabits, but he consciously, and cleverly, turns it to great advantage—often boobytrapping critics of his comic method. Listen to the opinion of Margaret's mother on [her daughter's romantic drama] The Girl Who Waited:

"That there is an absence, my dear Margie, of any relationship with life, that not a single character is in any degree human, that passion and virtue and vice and real feeling are wanting—this surprises me more than I can tell you…. You have proved that you happen to possess the quality … of surrounding a situation which is improbable enough to be convincing with that absurdly mechanical conversation which the theatre-going public demands. As your mother, I am disappointed. I had hoped for originality. As your literary well-wisher, I stifle my maternal feelings and congratulate you unreservedly."…

With accuracy of hindsight we can say, "Young Wodehouse shows a great deal of promise. We predict a long and productive career." (p. 16)

Brian Thomas, "A Ghost on Fleet Street," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 20, November 3, 1980, pp. 15-16.

Peter Dickinson

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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) meter of several Gilbert patter songs.

Wodehouse's first contribution to the paper was in prose, and therefore outside my brief—but I won't let that stop me, as it was an article that, as assistant editor of Punch, I was still rejecting, in one form or another, at least twice a year some sixty years later; it was the one about the man who is building up a unique collection of rejection slips which will be ruined by the acceptance of this very article. Wodehouse's was a variant on the main theme, but a not particularly variant variant. That first Wodehouse contribution was in September 1902, and by the end of the year he had three pieces of verse accepted…. (pp. 46-7)

What are they like? Could one honestly say that one detected a marked difference from other verses appearing around that time? I think not. [The then editor, Owen Seaman,]… liked verse smooth and correct; he didn't care for strong feelings or blunt attacks; he preferred superficial little poems about courtship and love (one of Wodehouse's is a "Gourmet's Love Song," about a man regretting all the things he can't eat because he has lost his appetite over a girl). Seaman also liked verses with a topical peg, a quote from a newspaper, or a current event. Wodehouse welcomed the return of Buffalo Bill Cody to London with a set of triple-rhymed verses, rhyming "tomahawk" with "from a hawk," and "fortuitous" with "displease, when we view it, us."… The year 1903 was much fatter, with forty-seven contributions—almost one a week—eighteen of them verse….

The chief thing that strikes one is the variety. One does not normally think of Wodehouse as a particularly versatile writer, rather as a man who early found two or three things he could do well, and then proceeded to perfect those performances until they were immaculate. But these early verses disclose other potential Wodehouses. There are, for instance, a couple of parodies of Kipling, a writer for whose verse one would have thought he had very little sympathy. There is an attack—quite sharp—on the self-promoting novelist Hall Caine…. (p. 47)

There is an antimilitaristic poem about a proposal to train boys at an early age in the arts of war. This must refer to the beginnings of Baden-Powell's Boy Scout movement, apparently not even christened as yet. If so it is the first appearance of Wodehouse's lifelong irreverence about Boy Scouts, which recurs in the decks, from The Swoop! (1909) to the last appearance of "young blighted Edwin," Boy Scout son of Lord Worplesdon, in Joy in the Morning (1947). But in that early poem the open note of scorn and even (within the limitations of the genre) of sorrow rings strangely now.

There are poems which are almost music-hall songs; one can imagine the ode celebrating the return of Sherlock Holmes being brayed out by a chorus line. And then, enchantingly, there are pieces, or casual phrases, which foreshadow the mature Wodehouse. The saga of the young man who one night, as if by accident, tied the absolutely perfect bow tie and ruined his life trying to do it again might easily have occurred in the Drones…. (pp. 47-8)

In the following few years the spate lessens to around one contribution a month…. The style remains much the same, and so do the subjects, but they haven't the gusto of the earlier pieces. Between the wars there is almost nothing from Wodehouse in Punch (in 1919 a neat poem about two civil servants who know each other only by memos; a mock-rustic ballad about warble-flies in 1930). Then Malcolm Muggeridge persuaded him back into the paper when he took over as editor in 1953…. Mostly [Wodehouse's] contributions were "Our Man in America" pieces—cockeyed reporting on the loopier aspects of the American scene—but once or twice a year he would send us a bit of verse. I find these late poems oddly moving, considering that was the last thing Wodehouse intended them to be. They are so obviously written for fun. They are leisurely and relaxed, very confident, largely nonsense and difficult to quote; [among them, the] "Song about Whiskers," whose argument, if you can call it an argument, was that America hadn't been the same since beards went out…. What I get from these last few poems is a sense of immense geniality, of pleasure in writing something he didn't have to write, and what's more in writing it for Punch, because that was the proper place for such things to appear in…. (p. 48)

Peter Dickinson, "Wodehouse's 'Punch' Verse" (reprinted by permission of the author), in P. G. Wodehouse: A Centenary Celebration 1881–1981, edited by James H. Heineman and Donald R. Bensen, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981, pp. 46-8.


P. G. Wodehouse World Literature Analysis


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