I mentioned the books of P. G. Wodehouse, briefly, in the About Me page. I thought I'd talk
some more about him, even if only for my own self gratification.
We, his fans, sometimes call him 'Plum', from his Christian name, Pelham; but we most often refer to him by his other nickname: The Master. For that is what he was: a master of the English language; a wordsmith who had the ability to string out a comedic situation, over the length of a novel, the way Hitchcock could build tension over the length of a feature film.
His most loved books are the Jeeves and Wooster series. Set between the wars, Bertie Wooster is a sweet-natured but 'intellectually negligable' young man of the British upper classes who lives off a private fortune and idles his time away, never rising before 10 o' clock, either with his friends at the Drones (his private club), at a sprawling country estate, or in New York, to where he sails to escape the pressures of London life. His only real troubles are caused by meddlesome aunts and from avoiding the matrimonial intentions of England's many single women. He is accompanied through his stories, told in the first person, by his valet, Jeeves: an encyclopaedic 'gentleman's personal gentleman' who takes care of all his master's needs, while shaping him into a gentleman more suitable to be his employer and providing the strategies to extricate him from the many corners he finds himself in. More of them later.
He is often dismissed as unimportant. A few years ago, the BBC did a television series where they searched for the British people's top 100 books. None of Wodehouse's made it onto the list. I stopped watching at that point, and I wasn't alone, I am sure. Most of Wodehouse's books, and certainly his most popular ones, are more like our childhood memories of summers that were always sunny and seemed to go on forever: they are pleasant and harmless and full of joy. Not like real life at all.
Except, it isn't what Wodehouse writes about that makes him important. After all, I cannot say I read all the way to the end of one of his books because I want to know if Bertie Wooster will find a way out of marrying Madeline Bassett, or if Lord Emsworth will discover who's been trying to steal his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings; I read all the way to the end for the same reason I don't like to get out of the bath until it becomes luke-warm: I want to luxuriate. I want to enjoy the language, for that is where his genius lies: in his prose, dialogue, similes and even grammar.
Take the simple act of falling down a flight of stairs. In the following passage from Leave it to Psmith (the 'P' is silent), Lord Emsworth's secretary, the Efficient Baxter, hears a noise during the night and 'descends' the stairs to find out what caused it:
"One uses the verb 'descend' advisedly, for what is required is some word suggesting instant activity. About Baxter's progress from the second floor to the first there was nothing halting or hesitating. He, so to speak, did it now. Planting his foot firmly on a golf-ball which the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who had been practising putting in the corridor before retiring to bed, had left in his casual fashion just where the steps began, he took the entire staircase in one majestic, volplaning sweep. There were eleven stairs in all separating his landing from the landing below, and the only ones he hit were the third and tenth. He came to rest with a squattering thud on the lower landing, and for a moment or two the fever of the chase left him."
In his own tribute to Wodehouse, the actor and writer, Stephen Fry, says of a different example of Wodehouse's genius that if you are immune to such writing you are fit, to use one of Wodehouse's favourite Shakespearean quotations, only for treasons, stratagems and spoils. I think that applies in this case, too.
Something a Wodehouse novel and the Little Book of Calm have in common is that you can open both at random and find a nugget on any page. (The difference between the two, however, is that with Wodehouse you are rarely, if ever, disappointed.) For the purposes of this article I took a Wodehouse book at random — in this case, Joy in the Morning — and opened it at a random page in the hope of finding an example of dialogue. The following exchange is what I found (the only difficulty is knowing where to begin and where to end). Bertie and Jeeves are in Steeple Bumpleigh to visit Bertie's Uncle Percy. The cottage they had was burnt down by Edwin, the boy scout, who had been trying to do a good turn. Jeeves is then invited to stay at the main house, but Bertie, invariably out of favour with the family, is not. We begin with Bertie speaking:
"Well, I hadn't expected to be. Nevertheless, I was conscious of a pang.
'We part, then, for the nonce, do we?'
'I fear so, sir.'
'You take the high road, and self taking the low road, as it were?'
'I shall miss you, Jeeves.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'Who was that chap who was always beefing about gazelles?'
'The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well, it was sure to die.'
'It's the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don't mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?'
'Not at all, sir.'"
Bask in that for a moment before reading on. Take all the time you need.
You'll have noticed in the above dialogue that Wodehouse can weave classical poetry and Victorian turns of phrase into his writing and it is not possible to notice the seam. It also gives the reader a greater appreciation of the English language and its possibilities, encouraging us to refer to autumn as the 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness', and to allude to a 'concatenation of events' instead of the drier chain of them.
Wodehouse wrote through two world wars and the Great Depression. During the second world-war he was interned and suffered terribly in a camp where men died of starvation and disease or else committed suicide. While interned, he wrote a book, and not even a suggestion of what he was going through crept into its pages. This tells us something about the man.
Like many Edwardian public-school boys of the time, Wodehouse endured a cold, loveless relationship with his parents who were mostly absent administering the British Empire on the other side of the world. Brought up by aunts, he was happiest at school and, without wishing to over-intellectualise the matter, probably never stopped longing for that innocent Eden as he grew into adulthood and the harsh realities of the time, choosing to satire them, as he did mercilessly with the character of Sir Roderick Spode, the self-important leader of the Black Shorts: a man whose hyperbole when describing the injury he intends to do Bertie Wooster knows no bounds.
His irreverence makes its way into this exchange between Jeeves and Bertie (Jeeves begins):
"'I wonder if I might draw your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? He said "Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.'"
I breathed a bit stertorously. 'He said that, did he?'
'Well, you can tell him from me he's an ass.'"
Even if Wodehouse had written nothing but the Jeeves and Wooster series of books he'd be regarded as a genius. But he didn't rest on his laurels. His Blandings series of books, with the endearingly vague Lord Emsworth, his caddish brother, Gally, his disappointment of a son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, his formidable sister, Constance, his prize-winning pig the Empress, and a whole host of other characters are among the favourites of any lover of Wodehouse; as are the Psmith books and those of Mr Mulliner (a series of short stories where Mr Mulliner regales the patrons of the Angler's Rest with tales of his many ancestors).
The Code of the Woosters is generally regarded as his best work, but I urge you to begin with Right Ho, Jeeves, where you'll find what many critics regard as the finest piece of sustained comedy writing in English literature, where Gussie Fink-Nottle hands out prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school. (The Code of the Woosters begins where Right Ho, Jeeves leaves off.)
Wodehouse knew not to take the world, and indeed himself, too seriously, and he teaches us how to look upon it with the same glint of humour in our eyes. And his timeless writing allows us to leave this world briefly and enjoy another, more gentle, world of butlers, aunts, incalcitrant gardeners, befuddled Lords, love-sick sons, frightening sisters, single women looking to marry, single men looking to remain that way, constables, curates and boy scouts, where the worst thing that can happen to a man is that he finds himself engaged to two women at the same time and where everything turns out for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
And if anyone still wants to insist that all Wodehouse's books are the same, I'll pass on to you what Plum himself wrote on the subject:
"A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy."
I'll leave you now with some Wodehouse gems:
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.
I was sauntering on the river bank with a girl named something that has slipped my mind, when there was a sound of barking and a large hefty dog came galloping up, full of beans and buck and obviously intent on mayhem. And I was just commending my soul to God and feeling that this was where the old flannel trousers got about thirty bobs worth of value bitten out of them, when the girl, waiting till she saw the whites of its eyes, with extraordinary presence of mind opened a coloured Japanese umbrella in the animal's face. Upon which it did three back somersaults and retired into private life.
"I say,'' he said, "my father's missing.''
"On how many cylinders?'' asked Lord Bromborough. He was a man who liked his joke of a morning.
Marriage isn't a process of prolonging the life of love, but of mummifying the corpse.
Barmy went to the door and opened it sharply. There came the unmistakable sound of a barmaid falling downstairs.
Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.
The cab drew up before a house gay with flowered window-boxes. Lord Emsworth paid the driver, and stood on the sidewalk looking up at this cheerful house, trying to remember why on earth he had told the man to drive here.
I have only two things to say to you, Lord Tilbury. One is that you have ruined a man's life. The other is Pip-pip.
When two strong men stand face to face, each claiming to be Major Brabazon-Plank, it is inevitable that there will be a sense of strain, resulting in a momentary silence.
The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.
Say what you will, there is something fine about our old aristocracy. I'll bet Trotsky couldn't hit a moving secretary with an egg on a dark night.
Honoria . . . is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.