Home Inspiration P.G. Wodehouse: the comedy and the controversy

P.G. Wodehouse: the comedy and the controversy

by Karl Coppack
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P. G. Wodehouse comedy controversy Right Ho Jeeves cover
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A thing I never know, when I’m starting out to tell a story about a chap I’ve told a story about before, is how much explanation to bung in at the outset. It’s a problem you’ve got to look at from every angle. I mean to say, in the present case, if I take it for granted that my public knows all about Gussie Fink-Nottle and just breeze ahead, those publicans who weren’t hanging on my lips the first time are apt to be fogged. Whereas, if before kicking off I give about eight volumes of the man’s life and history, other bimbos, who were so hanging, will stifle yawns and murmur “Old stuff. Get on with it.”

– The Code of the Woosters (1934)

So far in this series of writers who have influenced me, I’ve looked at George Orwell, Stephen King, Roald Dahl and a book about a poltergeist. The usual. Now it’s time for the funniest. I understand why people are reluctant to try P. G. Wodehouse. I was the same for years. Stories about lazy aristocrats and their drunken friends rank very low in the nation’s tastes as do borderline farces about stolen cow-creamers and accidental engagements. They belong to a distant age and our tastes are hardened from the days of music hall and garden parties. I’m here to ask you to improve your life. I’m here to persuade you to read Pelham Grenville Wodehouse — the master. That title wasn’t his own, it was Evelyn Waugh who once said,

One has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes on each page,

and it gives the lie that ‘Plum’ was just a writer of comedic fiction. Honore de Balzac not only adored him but never failed to sing his praises as a craftsman. True, the plots are ridiculous—they’re meant to be—but their style and form are nothing short of genius.

Let’s start with Wooster. Well, Jeeves and Wooster though it is Bertie who is the funniest of the two. Jeeves is more austere and clipped in his tone though he too has his moments.

There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’

“The mood will pass, sir.”

Bertie is not intelligent. He is more than aware of this and is reminded by a collection of equally low-IQ carrying friends and stern aunts. Jeeves is revered by all for his getting young Bertie ‘out of the soup’ through various plans and schemes. And there are plenty of them. But when we’re talking about problems, they’re not overly serious save for the odd spell in prison for stealing policemen’s helmets on Boat Race night. The biggest trial Wooster faces tends to be maintaining the status quo. He lives in Berkeley Mansion, Mayfair, drives a two-seater car, is a member of the Drones Club in Piccadilly and enjoys late nights. He does all he can to escape the clutches of his aunts (Dahlia is his favourite, Agatha is by far the worst) who want him married off to strong girls who will improve his mind. Lady Florence Cray, Madeline Bassett (‘that Bassett disaster’) and Honoria Glossop (‘a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge’) are usually in the frame and Bertie becomes engaged to at least two of them against his will. That may seem odd to modern readers. If a woman wants to be affianced to a man in this world, it cannot be undone by mere say so. Hence, Madeline is convinced that Bertie loves him and agrees to be his wife. It’s not enough to just say that he’d rather not. It wouldn’t be civil.

And this is where the genius comes in. You may think that that situation is the driving force of the story, but you’ll forget about it in five pages. On top of that incident (this one in Right Ho, Jeeves in 1934), Bertie has to contend with his shy friend Gussie Fink-Nottle being in love with Madeline, his cousin Angela breaking off her engagement with Tuppy Glossop over an argument about a shark, his Aunt Dahlia roping him into some scheme or other, her chef, the peerless Anatole (always suffixed with the term ‘God’s gift to the gastric juices’) giving notice, the small matter of the Market Snodbury Grammar School prize-giving (more of which later) and, most worrying of all, Jeeves’ ill-disguised disapproval of Bertie’s white mess jacket which he considers too garish. Jeeves, of course, solves all this including the jacket which is ‘accidentally’ burnt. You can cycle through all of that and be surprised that he’s still engaged to a woman who believes that stars are ‘God’s daisy chain.’ (‘Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort.’) And yet Wodehouse manages to cram them all in to such a degree where you can find yourself saying ‘Oh, I’d forgotten about Roderick Spode’s promise to break his spine.’

But none of that highlights the absolute joy of the Wooster stories. It’s not the plots. It’s the language. This maybe my favourite line ever.

On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me.

‘Aunt calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps.’ I can remember where I was sitting when I read that for the first time. It made me want to pack in any idea of being a writer. How can you keep up with people who can come up with that?

There are other stock phrases which I’m ashamed to say I drop into my own syntax. Winning a bet is ‘finding myself on the right side of the ledger’, eating something is ‘getting outside some bread and cheese’ and being drunk ‘as tight as an owl.’ Bertie doesn’t tell Jeeves to bring him his breakfast, he tells him to ‘unchain the eggs and b-.’ I love that. You might too.

Wodehouse’s life was not without controversy. During the war, while living in France, he was interned in Belgium where he shared a cell with three others. To pass the time he wrote the novel ‘Money in the Bank.’ After a few weeks he was flown to Berlin at his own expense with the Gestapo. It wasn’t long before he was making radio transmissions for the Nazis – five in all. As a result, many of his books were banned at home. In his defence, Wodehouse was, as George Orwell described him ‘a political innocent’ with absolutely no interest in world events. He missed his family and just did what was asked of him. There was nothing to suggest that he had any sympathies with fascism, nor did he promote any cause. His own Sir Roderick Spode (‘Code of the Woosters’ – 1934) even parodied Oswald Mosley, the leader of the fascist ‘Blackshirts’ at the time, with Spode being the leader of the Black Shorts’ as ‘there weren’t any shirts left.’ Far from being the leader of a super race, Spode is mocked as an outsider with awful habits.

Wodehouse was more interested in entertainment than division.

I never was interested in politics. I’m quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I’m about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings.

Some never forgave him for his own innocence. His former friend A. A. Milne was never far from the jugular.

Irresponsibility in what the papers call a ‘licensed humorist’ can be carried too far; naivete can be carried too far. Wodehouse has been given a good deal of licence in the past, but I fancy that now his licence will be withdrawn.

That wounded Wodehouse for the rest of his life. He was mortified that he be thought a traitor. After all, the broadcasts were mere interviews rather than polemical statements read over a radio microphone. He poked fun at both countries. As the broadcasts were not even available in the UK, no one knew for sure what had been said. It was the image of the great British writer cheerily chatting in Berlin which won the battle, which was the entire reason the Nazis moved him there in the first place.

He did get his own back on Milne, however. In a clear nod to Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books, he wrote in ‘Rodney has a Relapse’ (1949):

Do you know where Rodney is at this moment? Up in the nursery, bending over his son Timothy’s cot, gathering material for a poem about the unfortunate little rat while asleep… Horrible, whimsical stuff, that… Well, when I tell you that he refers to him throughout as ‘Timothy Bobbin,’ you will appreciate what we are up against. I am not a weak man, but I confess that I shuddered.

The letters page of the Daily Telegraph was a hotbed of anti-Wodehouse invective and only Orwell defended him by pointing out that such was Wodehouse’s ignorance in the face of a propaganda machine that he’d become his own Bertie Wooster.

Of course, I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn’t. I suppose prison life saps the intellect.

– Performing Flea (1953)

Sadly, his behaviour in the war will always be brought up.

Then there’s that word.

Wodehouse came from the days of music halls where minstrel acts were commonplace. Those acts were prefixed by the n-word and Bertie uses it a few times. There’s nothing to suggest hatred or superiority but it’s there, nonetheless. It’s in the passage I’m about to quote too. It’s indefensible, of course, but he wasn’t alone. H. P. Lovecraft had a black cat and a character called ‘N-Man’ while the opening scene Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables’ has a revolting scene where Holmes mocks a Black hired henchman. That despite Sir Arthur earlier handling the story of a Black child with surprising sensitivity. (‘The Adventure of The Yellow Face.’) Whereas Lovecraft was a white supremacist in his early days, Wodehouse had no such leanings. He saw no issue with the term because no one had told him otherwise. There’s currently an argument to edit and even re-write some stories, including ‘Thank You, Jeeves’ where Bertie briefly appears in blackface. But none of this takes anything away from the books and it’s a shame that such glorious works are looked at scornfully from some quarters and his reputation tinged. I’d rather celebrate his glory and return to his genius.

And here it is. The aforementioned Market Snodsbury Grammar School prize giving. Some background then. Aunt Dahlia wants Bertie, and more importantly Jeeves, to visit her at her Worcestershire home Brinkley Court to get him to distribute the prizes at the end of term. Wooster’s having none of it. He’ll get laughed at or his trousers will split or something, but he feels obliged when she threatens to never invite him up again. That would entail no more meals from Anatole (God’s g to the g j). He decides to rope in Gussie Fink-Nottle who loves ‘the Bassett’ but is too shy to tell her. He sells it to him by suggesting that she will be impressed as his confidence of dealing with a raucous audience. Now, Gussie doesn’t drink so Bertie’s idea of ‘having a few quick ones’ beforehand falls on deaf ears. He then asks Jeeves, with whom he’s fallen out, to spike some of his orange juice with gin, but he refuses.

Gussie thinks about Bertie’s idea and decides to have a few all the same. Whisky. Several gulps of it and is as tight as an owl when he runs into Bertie. When he heads back to his room, Jeeves informs ‘the young master’ that he decided to spike the orange juice after all and that it too has gone so Gussie gives a speech while absolutely hammered. Despite an uncomfortable n-word in there (minstrel shows were a thing at the time and called… well… that word) it remains arguably the greatest sustained piece of comic writing ever produced. Try to get past the n-word here (I know. Not easy) and read this. ‘Trousers as worn’ still makes me laugh.

The BBC recorded an adaptation of that scene a few years back with Richard Briers as Wooster and Michael Hordern as Jeeves. Both are ideal for their roles, and I can’t watch The Good Life anymore for thinking how strange it is that Bertie married Felicity Kendall.

If you haven’t tried Bertie and are keen to take my advice, you have my jealousy. I wish I could read them for the first time again. Throw yourself in and give them a chance. I’d start with The Inimitable Jeeves—a collection of short stories for which no prior knowledge of the Wooster universe is required.

What with one thing and another, I can’t remember ever having been chirpier than at about this period in my career. Everything seemed to be going right. On three separate occasions horses on which I’d invested a sizeable amount won by lengths instead of sitting down to rest in the middle of the race, as horses usually do when I’ve got money on them.

Your life, too, will be more ‘oojah-cum-spiff,’ what, what?
He’s the master and like his creation, Jeeves, he stands alone.


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