There is an author who might be described as the literary equivalent of Mark Twain’s British cousin. You will not find this author on the “Classics” shelf of your local Barnes and Noble, even though he was one of the most influential voices in 20th century literature and the most popular humorist writer of the 1920s and 1930s. And you may never have heard of him, even though he is included in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame for his work on Broadway, and forty years after his death, his written works (over 200 novels and short stories) are still being adapted for television and cinema. He stands in the line of British comic writers starting with Chaucer and leading us to Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, and Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. This man is P.G. Wodehouse, the most delightful author you’ve likely never read.
Wodehouse’s most popular set of works are the Jeeves-Wooster series of novels and short stories. These tales follow the doings of Bertram Wooster, a member of the British upper-class in Edwardian England. In the opinion of his Aunt Dahlia, Bertie is somewhere between “Attila the Hun,” and “just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot.” He makes it successfully through the day only by the saving grace of his butler, Jeeves.
Wodehouse’s humor operates on many levels. Consider the following from Right Ho, Jeeves, as Bertram narrates the process of drinking a “pick-me-up” Jeeves has prepared for dealing with a hangover:
“For perhaps the split part of a second nothing happens. It is as though all Nature waited breathless. Then, suddenly, it is as if the Last Trump had sounded and Judgment Day set in with unusual severity. Bonfires burst out in all parts of the frame. The abdomen becomes heavily charged with molten lava. A great wind seems to blow through the world, and the subject is aware of something resembling a steam hammer striking the back of the head…And then, just as you are feeling that you ought to ring up your lawyer and see that your affairs are in order before it is too late, the whole situation seems to clarify. The wind drops. The ears cease to ring…The sun comes up over the horizon with a jerk.”
Not only does Wodehouse describe the Last Judgment and the New Earth in the form of a “pick-me-up,” he does it flawlessly. It isn’t just hyperbolic or ironic. It isn’t just humorous conceit. The wording mixes common terms with poetic ones, Biblical allusions with estate law. The act of reading Wodehouse requires the reader to be as clever in reading as the author was in writing.
And Wodehouse’s dialogue is no less clever. Even where it fails, it does so intentionally. The baseline is set by Jeeves’s subservient “Yes sir,” and “Indeed sir,” and underscored by Bertram’s delusional self-aggrandizement. Then the punchline: when Jeeves says anything more substantial, he reveals the subtle intellect that has been carefully noting Bertram’s every infantile move, and calculating how to save Bertram from himself.
For example (spoiler alert), returning to Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertram ignores Jeeves’s advice with unexpectedly dramatic results. Bertram becomes engaged to one Gussie Fink-Nottle’s beloved, and inadvertently causes Gussie to become engaged to another’s fiancée. He ruins a prize-giving at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, and almost causes a magazine to go under. In the novel’s crescendo, Jeeves manipulates Wooster into sounding a fire alarm, arousing everyone from the house where they are staying. Jeeves then locks the doors and sends Wooster on a wild-goose chase by bicycle through the countryside to get the key, which Jeeves already has. By the time Bertram returns, as Jeeves explains:
“After your departure on the bicycle, the various estranged parties agreed so heartily in their abuse of you that the ice, if I may use the expression, was broken…”
The only necessity for the novel’s happy ending was for Bertram Wooster, its protagonist, to temporarily exit stage left. This sort of ending is not the painfully sweet gumdrop tosh that we have come to expect from lesser literature. It is a beautifully crafted plot. It arches with a narrative suspense that induces both cringing and laughter. It soars in the typical way for a Wodehouse tale.
Why, then, if these stories are so well written, is Wodehouse not standard reading, somewhere after F. Scott Fitzgerald, in our collection of 20th century masters? The answer is a drama in absurd scope only comparable to the plot of one of Wodehouse’s own stories.
In 1939 Pelham and Ethel Wodehouse were living in France to avoid double taxation by the Americans and British. “Oh, everything happened so suddenly,” Wodehouse would later state. “Until the Germans arrived there didn’t seem to be any danger at all.” Unable to bring their two dogs to England, the Wodehouses opted to stay in France during the German invasion, and suddenly found themselves sentenced to two years in a Nazi internment camp. Offered an early release by the Germans if he would be willing to broadcast from Berlin, Wodehouse agreed to do a short series discussing his life at the camp.
Although there were no specifically political references made during the broadcasts, the backlash against this decision nearly cost him his career. P.G. Wodehouse was accused of collaborating with the enemy, and though the British government’s inquiry into his wartime actions found him not guilty, he was disgraced. His books had already been pulled from many library shelves, and, as The Daily Mirror wrote at the time, “Wodehouse was funny no longer.” He never returned to Britain, and lived out his days in Long Island, continuing to write. It was not until shortly before his death that the British government offered a pseudo-apology in the form of a knighthood.
But through it all, Wodehouse remained the same. It isn’t that he doesn’t have time in his writing for existential brooding, death, violence, or sex—staples one and all of contemporary fiction—but rather that he did not regard these elements of life as important as taking life itself lightly. Wodehouse’s stories are written as he lived, which he summed up saying, “I really don’t worry about anything much. I can adjust myself to things pretty well.”
And this is our modern problem with Wodehouse, our third reason for not reading him. We don’t want in our books that which we can acquire from Netflix. We only have so much time to devote to our fiction. Happy, unquestioning tales feel like denial, and can be relayed to us by simple osmosis, living in a culture of the omnipresent sitcom. If we are looking for the unique issues that literature can address, spending our time reading Wodehouse feels like we might as well have chosen to watch television.
Actually watching Wodehouse’s adapted works on television shows us the flaw in this reasoning. While the characters and plot may be the same, the resemblance of any Wodehouse adaptation to its original text is along the lines of a can of tuna to the former fish.
For example, although the Jeeves and Wooster television series (starred by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie) carried enough ballast to float on the open comic seas, it does not do justice to the book’s well-layered humor. It isn’t yet another case of “the book was better.” The double entendres, the delusional first-person narration, the manipulation of form, the juxtaposition of absurd analogy with classical references and slang—in short, every element of Wodehouse’s writing that lends nuanced brilliance to his otherwise situational and slapstick British humor—is removed in the process of cinematic production. We are left with dialogue that occasionally falls flat and a plot about an idiot and his omniscient butler.
Although these books do not brood in any way, they do gently lure us into the uniquely literary act of self-examination. By reading the “I” of the character-narrator, we are forced to partake in Bertie’s antics, his own self-delusion. We may see it for what it is, but we are also “on the in,” poking fun, by proxy, at ourselves. And that is why we feel ridiculous analyzing and interpreting Wodehouse as we would other authors. It isn’t because the content isn’t present. It’s just that if you have to analyze it, you’ve already missed the point.
These works are the un-ironic, non-cynical counterbalance our canon of classics needs to find. Reading Wodehouse isn’t escapism any more than reading a story about an old man catching a fish written entirely in short sentences is realism. Of course there is death and sadness in the world; the man who was interned by Nazis surely saw it. But Wodehouse wrote to remind us that there is also love and rubber ducks and that even if an “intellectually negligible” character is the one walking in the garden or playing in the tub, we all should notice and delight in these things. The sun, in Wodehouse’s works, will always come up over the horizon with a jerk. And that is why his stories are not simply endearing; they are enduring, and worth reading today.
Clarke, Gerald. “P.G. Wodehouse, The Art of Fiction No. 60.” TheParisReview.org. The Paris Review, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
Wodehouse, P. G. Right Ho, Jeeves. Gutenburg.org. Project Gutenburg. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
Wodehouse, P. G. The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories. Gutenburg.org. Project Gutenburg. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.