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P.G. Wodehouse: "The Greatest Trivial Novelist"

June 16, 1982

Central Press/Hulton Arhive/Getty

I write this piece from London, where, according to this morning's Times, the Queen Mother has just been to visit an exhibition of P. G. Wodehouse memorabilia at the National Theatre. She is an avid reader of Wodehouse, says the Times, and collects his books in her library in Scotland. So the Queen Mother and I have something in common after all: we are both Wodehouse fans.

But what exactly is it that we admire? When you try to describe Wodehouse's achievement it's hard not to make it sound hollow and a bit fatuous: ninety-six books, and not one touch of reality—no sex, violence, or rude language; no politics, race, or religion; no villains, no evil. Nothing you couldn't lend to your maiden aunt (if such things still existed), or leave round Balmoral for the housemaids to read. If there were a Nobel Prize for Inoffensiveness, Wodehouse would be the all-time laureate.

How can a writer be so inoffensive and yet so good? Other writers, pressed to explain why they admire Wodehouse, have generally found three things to praise. First, the style—"Wodehouse the poet," as Anthony Powell called him. Wodehouse didn't have a particularly wide range of stylistic tricks, but he used what he had flawlessly and ingeniously: the quick shifts between high-flown language and a peculiarly dated slang; the familiar literary allusions thrust into narrative passages too small for them; the extravagant figures of speech ("One has to regard a man as a Master," Evelyn Waugh said, "who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes on every page"). Certainly the style is a continuous pleasure. It is also, one should add, an impenetrable barrier between the Wodehouse world and reality—this can't be life, not in these terms—and that is its appeal.

Then there are the plots to praise. They are highly familiar, entirely predictable, and indeed are often repeated from one book to another (Hot Water, for example, was modeled on Piccadilly Jim, as Wodehouse cheerfully admitted). Ernest Newman shrewdly compared Wodehouse's brilliant use of standardized characters and situations to the commedia dell'arte, and though Wodehouse might not have thought of the comparison, he would have accepted the point: "I feel about my stuff," he wrote, "that it never contains what you might call surprises. . . . You are never likely to feel like Keats on first reading Chapman's Homer." But even without surprises there is pleasure; it comes from the perfection of his structures, every apparent accident, every coincidence, every thrown rock and purloined necklace in exactly the right place to advance the plot to the happy ending that we know is coming. This can't be life either: but how ingenious, and how tidy!

Critics who need stouter stuff than style and plot turn to the Wodehouse Myth. I'm sorry if that sounds a bit ponderous, but you will see what I mean in this quote from Waugh:

For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no 'aboriginal calamity.' His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.

You'd expect that from Waugh, the most persistently nostalgic of modern novelists (what, after all, is Brideshead but Blandings Lost?); but it is a view that one has to accept, even if not in Waugh's theological terms. One might perhaps say, in a more secular way, that Wodehouse invented a world of grown-up childhood, in which irresponsibility is a virtue, and responsibility a fall from grace. His most attractive figures are the anarchic characters. Uncle Fred, Galahad Threepwood, Lord Emsworth, and all those dauntless suitors; the least attractive (though you couldn't call them villains) are the aunts, psychiatrists, secretaries, and fathers of fiancées—the people who want to impose responsibility and rules upon the scatterbrained, the cheerful, and the hard-drinking.

The drinking is an important feature of Wodehouse's world: he never lost his faith in the restorative powers of a couple of quick ones, and he never punished his drunks with more than a hangover (which Jeeves could cure), or at most a few pink spots on the chest. Booze without consequences is, I suppose, another way of saying what Waugh was saying—it's the drinking man's version of Paradise.

A unique style, ingenious plotting, and a child's world with alcohol in it made Wodehouse a great comic writer. But not at first, and not all the time. One can, in fact, date precisely when the vintage Wodehouse began: it was in 1915, when he published "Extricating Young Gussie," the first Bertie Wooster/Jeeves story, and Something Fresh, the first Blandings novel. In these two books Wodehouse staked out his own personal territories—ostensibly a bit of Mayfair just north of Piccadilly and a piece of Shropshire, but in fact places that existed only in his "slightly cockeyed" imagination. And once the Wodebousian venue existed, the stuff poured out, and went on pouring for sixty years. I can't think of any other writer who stayed at the top of his form for so long.

About the life, all but one patch of it, there is nothing much to say. Wodehouse found success easily and early, made a lot of money, and married happily. In the years between the wars he and his wife lived a rootless, affluent, international life, in rented houses in New York, Hollywood, London, Cannes, Paris, where he worked away at his novels and at more than forty plays and musicals. It was evidently a pleasant life, though not an eventful or very interesting one.

And so no doubt it would have continued to the end, if the Wodehouses had not chosen to spend some time in the late 1930s in Le Touquet, and to stay on there in 1940, when most other English nationals left. In May of that year the German Army in its sweep into France reached the town, and Wodehouse was interned.

He spent just over a year in various internment camps in Belgium and Germany, a prisoner, but a fairly happy one. He liked the camp life, he said; it was like life at school. Like any schoolboy he complained about the food, and waited for parcels from home, but he grew healthier on the regular, active routine. He played cricket there for the first time in twenty-seven years, and was rather pleased with his bowling; and he also found time to write, and finished a novel, Money in the Bank.  He grew fond of his fellow inmates, and also of his captors: his internment journal, which Lady Donaldson quotes at length, mentions "our dear old sergeant" and a "charming German corporal," and concludes that "Germans are swell guys, and the only barrier between us is one of language."

In June 1941 Wodehouse was taken to Berlin and invited to broadcast his experiences as an internee. He gave five talks in all, which were broadcast to America, and later also to England. (All five are quoted, in what seem to be complete texts, in appendices to Lady Donaldson's book.) After the last broadcast Mrs. Wodehouse was allowed to join him, and for the next two years they lived together in Germany, in conditions of considerable freedom and comfort, in country houses in the summer and Berlin hotels in the winter. In 1943 they moved to Paris and lived there, in the Hotel Bristol, until the Liberation.

This is a highly condensed account of events that occupy more than a third of the biography, but it gives the basic facts. As for the broadcasts, they were attempts to be Wodehousian about internment—chirpy and full of little jokes, holding no grudges, the elderly humorist keeping his spirits up. There is nothing in them that a rational person could call treasonous, or even pro-German, nothing remotely like Lord Haw-Haw, or Ezra Pound, for that matter. It must have been a bit disquieting, hearing what appears to be the voice of Bertie Wooster trying to describe the German arrival in Le Touquet, and the jokes tend to fall rather flat, but it's hard to regard the broadcasts as wicked. As Fascist propaganda they were surely no more useful than Pound's were.

Still, it's not surprising that the British took a harsher view, and considered that Wodehouse had given comfort to the enemy. He was never tried, but the incident darkened his life, and made him an exile until his death. Even long after the war he could get no assurance from the British government that he would not be prosecuted if he returned to England, and so he ended his days at Remsenburg, on Long Island, though at the last moment the British did relent enough to offer him a knighthood (the Queen Mother's work, no doubt).

The whole episode is a sad one, reflecting only discredit on everyone connected with it. It is interesting, though, for what it suggests about Wodehouse the man, and also about the kind of writing of which he was so much a master. Throughout the German years, and for long afterward, Wodehouse behaved like one of his own characters—like the imbecile Bertie, or Lord Emsworth, that "vague and woolen-headed" peer whom he admitted he resembled. He never really did understand what he had done that was wrong, and though he regretted having broadcast, it was only because it had offended his readers. The moral issues of the war seem never to have penetrated his woolen head.

Obviously he was, like Lord Emsworth, a man who should never have been allowed outside the gates of Blandings, and for most of his life he wasn't. He lived and wrote inside his own insulated world, untouched by what was happening outside. He was unaffected by World War I (which he spent in the United States writing musicals), and with a little luck he would have been equally unaffected by World War IL And then the Nazis came and led him off into reality, where he behaved foolishly and insensitively. It is a sad but necessary conclusion that, gifted, amiable, attractive man though he was, he was morally retarded.

Wodehouse was the greatest trivial novelist in literary history: he created a world without real problems and without human depths, and he did it superlatively well. We call such art "escape" art, not as a pejorative term, but simply as a description of an important human activity. Escape art, as Auden once observed, is something we need, as we need deep sleep—it is the art that rests and restores us, and it is both necessary and valuable, though in the scale of human achievement it must stand below that other kind of art, the kind that disturbs and questions. If Wodehouse had had the capacity to disturb he might himself have been disturbed by the realities of the war in which he played such a demeaning role; and if he had, he would no doubt have emerged more honorably from his captivity. But perhaps he could not have written his novels if he had been morally aware; perhaps only a man whose imagination inhabited a childish, essentially amoral world could have invented Blandings. And which would you rather have, Wodehouse's novels, or one more sensitive, honorable man?

Lady Donaldson knew Wodehouse, and is a friend of his stepdaughter; she therefore writes her book as an insider and, in the long central section on the broadcasts, as an attorney for the defense. Her defense is essentially that Wodehouse was a pathologically inhibited, reclusive low-brow, unable to feel strong emotions, afraid of people, and socially incompetent. The reasons for this condition she finds in his childhood: like Kipling and Saki, he was sent home from the colonies to be educated in England, apart from his parents, lonely and unloved. The trouble is that though this seems to explain Kipling and Saki, there isn't much evidence for deep psychic wounds in Wodehouse: he married very happily, he loved his stepdaughter and his lifelong friend Guy Bolton, and in his fiction he treated the human race with a good deal more affection than it deserves. Like Lord Emsworth, he liked peace and quiet, and was bossed about by women, but I don't see anything pathological in that.

Apart from her psychologizing. Lady Donaldson provides some useful new material, especially letters and the broadcasts, though she leaves me convinced that there is a good deal more to be found, especially about the American years. She also offers in passing some generalizations on the differences between men and women that will offend feminists (my Wodehouse-collecting daughter will not be pleased to learn that women get little pleasure from the novels because they can't respond to "masculine humor"), and a view of "aristocratic virtues" that even monarchists will find excessive. Indeed, the whole book has a touch of Aunt Agatha about it—or it may be Lady Constance. Certainly it isn't going to be the definitive life.

But Plum survives his biographers. I'm saddened by the German episode, and surprised by some of the judgments of other writers, but 1 remain convinced of his essential good-heartedness; obviously Wodehouse was a man quite without malignity, who saw all men except tax collectors in his own amiable image. Perhaps amiability is a sign of shallowness; certainly Wodehouse didn't think deeply about anything except how to write novels that would be like musical comedies without the music. But that's enough, and we must be grateful to him for imagining his world: it remains the best place around to escape to.