Devotees of P. G. Wodehouse, and I’m one, don’t respond well when he’s criticized. We have snap rejoinders. He wrote too many books? Hardly—why, he published only ninety-six in his long lifetime. He was repetitive? It’s called variations on a theme. His characters did not live in the real world? Would they have fared better in a realer one? You might as well point out that the beribboned Pekingese at the national dog show would founder if set loose in the jungle.
Evelyn Waugh’s praise of Wodehouse, offered for a BBC broadcast, in 1961, got the matter exactly right: “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” Waugh wasn’t promising what so many blurbists promise for other novelists: life-changing visions, staggering epiphanies, insights to free you from the nightmare of your existence. Waugh’s artful “irksome” goes to the nub. Wodehouse is an anodyne to annoyances. He’s a tonic for those suffering from bearable but burdensome loads of boredom, from jadedness of outlook and dinginess of soul.
He came honestly by the lightness of his books. As Sophie Ratcliffe’s new “P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters” makes clear, Plum (as he was known to his friends) was preternaturally buoyant. Ratcliffe has collected and extensively annotated correspondence that begins in 1899, when Wodehouse was a schoolboy in London, and ends in 1975, when he died, of a heart attack, while living on Long Island. In its five-hundred-plus pages, it’s hard to find more than a couple of occasions when he indulged in anything like self-pity. If in public he adopted an antic smiling-clown face, it masked only the settled grin of a man who relished the deep daily joys of exercise, his pet dogs, semirural landscapes, and an evening cocktail.
I’ve read probably twenty of Wodehouse’s books of fiction—a number large enough to swallow the œuvre of most writers, but nothing more than a taster’s sampling of the Wodehouse smorgasbord. I tend, at this point, to go back to old favorites rather than pick up new ones. I’m fond of Rupert Psmith (“The p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) and fonder still of Mr. Mulliner (to whom I was introduced by an English poet who urged me on by promising, “Oh, you’ll love those stories! Mulliner’s this terrific boozy old bore who never shuts up”), but it’s Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, to whom I regularly return. In addition to their appearance in thirty-five short stories, there are ten full-length Bertie and Jeeves novels. They’re timeless. We’re caught up in an inexhaustible cycle: Bertie “lands in the soup” (which often means that this rich, insouciant bachelor feels he’s being railroaded into marriage) and unflappable, impeccable Jeeves, he whose brain is so massive that it bulges the back of his head, who “moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly-fish,” ultimately rescues his feckless master, all without tearing, or even rumpling, the social fabric. Here and there, some usually unwelcome global-news item irrupts into the narrative, but mostly the outside world fails to impinge. The Great Depression, World Wars, political and social upheavals—these scarcely penetrate the walls of the Drones Club, where the idle Bertie consorts among friends with nicknames like Pongo and Oofy and Catsmeat. There’s a striking consistency of tone and outlook, a reassuring unchangingness, running from the first of the novels (“Thank You, Jeeves,” from 1934) to the last (“Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen,” from 1974). It’s a gag that never spoils.
Even so, I sometimes find myself wishing that the Bertie and Jeeves books were even better than they are. None has the reach and inventiveness of, say, Waugh’s “Decline and Fall” or “A Handful of Dust.” Perhaps Waugh, with his grasping ambition and outraged moral gravity, offers an unfair, apples-and-oranges comparison. But you also wouldn’t want to compare any of Wodehouse’s airy books with Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest,” which is likewise a soufflé throughout but which, in its unsurpassed wit and quotability, sits comfortably on a bookshelf beside “A Comedy of Errors” or “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
The B. & J. books (Bertie’s love of abbreviations can be a little infectious) often betray the speed of their construction. I recently reread the ten novels and two collections of B. & J. stories. Taken as a unit of a dozen, they reveal the inconsistencies of detail and motivation of an author who refuses to be incommoded by previously premised facts and conditions. While the books are full of appealing redundancies (I can’t be reminded too often of Bertie’s sole professional claim: “When Aunt Dahlia was running that ‘Milady’s Boudoir’ paper of hers, I contributed to it an article, or piece as we writers call it, on What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing”), there are far too many expedient repeats, too many hand-me-down plot devices and overlong one-liners.
The weaker of the books can feel workmanlike—a characterization that Wodehouse surely wouldn’t have strenuously objected to. As Robert McCrum tells us in his biography of the writer, “Wodehouse: A Life,” the man lived to work. It’s one of the delightful ironies of his career that the creator of perhaps the idlest enduring character in English literature was himself a demon for labor. (Wilde, in “An Ideal Husband,” introduces Lord Goring as the idlest man in London, but the remainder of the play belies this affectionate censure.)
Much of Wodehouse’s appeal lies in a remarkably smooth serving up of a verbal stew of rather lumpy elements: English slang, American slang, literary allusions, needless abbreviations, mixed metaphors, fussily precise details about trivialities … He loved outlandish similes, particularly those drawn from the natural world: “She uttered a sound rather like an elephant taking its foot out of a mud hole in a Burmese teak forest”; “She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression”; “The fact that he was fifty quid in the red and expecting Civilization to take a toss at any moment had caused Uncle Tom, who always looked a bit like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow, to take on a deeper melancholy.”
Bertie and Jeeves first emerged, in highly popular magazine short stories, in the nineteen-tens, an extraordinarily hectic period in Wodehouse’s life. (While publishing fiction at the rate of a book a year, he also had a buzzing career as playwright and lyricist on Broadway. In a letter written in the summer of 1918, he notes, “I shall have five plays running in New York in the autumn, possibly six.”) As the roles of the two characters coalesced, a rare thing happened: they became indissolubly and lastingly linked in the public imagination. Bertie and Jeeves became touchstones and reference points.
Most often, this sort of bonding springs from romantic love, and in the English novel I suppose the most beloved pairings are Elizabeth and Darcy, in “Pride and Prejudice,” and Catherine and Heathcliff, in “Wuthering Heights.” (The marriage of Jane and Rochester, in “Jane Eyre,” seems less a triumph of romantic love than one of Gothic, erotic-psychological jousting.) But in many ways the most memorable English couples are non-romantic: Holmes and Watson, Peter and Wendy, Scrooge and Cratchit on a peculiar, particular Christmas morning that is in fact every Christmas morning. Add to these Bertie and Jeeves. I ran my recent Wodehouse marathon by way of the handsome, affordable hardcover editions published in recent years by Overlook Press, whose dust-jacket copy refers to Bertie and Jeeves as “twentieth-century fiction’s most famous comic characters.” Hard to quibble with that.
In time, Jeeves became more quietly imposing, Bertie more reverent toward him. (The Bertie of “Right Ho, Jeeves,” who could declare that Jeeves “has lost his form” and “wants his plugs decarbonized,” gradually disappeared.) Their relationship became subtler. In the earliest stories, Bertie often rewards Jeeves by giving him cash, sometimes in a specified amount, but as ministration and recompense enter a psychological realm, this sort of crass transaction vanishes.
Bertie and Jeeves belong to the genre, far more English than American, of the farcical comic novel. In such books, when characters fail to conform to our expectations, we don’t think of them as showing some other, hitherto unsuspected side of themselves. Rather, we feel that the author is mistaken. This is the domain of the caricaturist, whose sure and slashing strokes have a purity of outline that feels inevitable. It’s as though the literary archetypes were always there, waiting for Wodehouse to perceive and portray them. So, for instance, when, in an early story, Bertie relates how Jeeves—that totem of imperturbability—came undone at a glimpse of Bertie’s pal Bingo disguised behind a false beard (“I saw the man’s jaw drop, and he clutched at the table for support”), we tut-tut. “Know your characters,” we long to tell Wodehouse. (The true Jeeves would emerge in time: “I shot a glance at Jeeves. He allowed his right eyebrow to flicker slightly, which is as near as he ever gets to a display of the emotions.”) Likewise, when we read of Jeeves being temporarily affianced, we conclude that Wodehouse doesn’t yet understand his most famous creation. A Jeeves who would propose marriage to a woman, for any reason—her riches, her beauty, her pedigree, her cooking—is an ersatz Jeeves.
The Bertie and Jeeves partnership gets better as it goes along, in part because Wodehouse learned to trust that his reader was in on the joke. Just as he gradually realized that we didn’t need to see money exchanged to understand that Jeeves finds ample rewards in caring for Bertie, Wodehouse discovered that Bertie needn’t be an absolute numbskull to make Jeeves’s braininess funny. In the last of the Jeeves novels, Bertie actually quotes poetry to Jeeves, and, though the poet in question is Ogden Nash (Jeeves responds with Herrick), the quotation itself is aptly chosen. This is a funnier Bertie than the one who isn’t sure what “plausible” or “etched” means, and who doesn’t seem to know who wrote “Macbeth.” Wodehouse came to see that Bertie could show a modicum of dash and savvy and still be a complete idiot. Even if, with a flâneur’s absorbency, Bertie has picked up a few stylish French bon mots, like preux chevalier and espièglerie, there is still plenty of room for stupidity.
Jeeves was born to minister to Bertie. Or, as Bertie puts it, in what for him is a moment of profound reflection, “I’d always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves, and haven’t got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on.” The parallels with J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” are striking. (One of the greatest ironies of “Peter Pan” is that the boy who shuddered at puberty and romantic love engendered so many literary descendants.)
Jeeves is a surrogate Wendy, brought in to supervise someone who would otherwise be a Lost Boy, but one with an important difference. Peter’s waiflike figure embodies the notion that one must remain diminutive to avoid the dreariness and loss of magic that maturity necessarily entails; if adulthood is a dismal graveyard, puberty is its initial death sentence. Hence, like Peter, you must never learn to read, for reading means a coercive communing with—to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase—the best that has been said and thought in the world. You stay a child by remaining in Neverland, where you dance with Indian braves and feast on imaginary foodstuffs.
Bertie, by contrast, not only eats real food but does so with a gastronome’s combined gusto and nicety. When he draws up an ideal menu, in “The Code of the Woosters,” it includes “Suprême de fois gras au champagne” and “Timbale de ris de veau Toulousaine.” More to the point, his drinks are far from imaginary. He’s fond of a post-lunch cocktail. And a pre-lunch cocktail. Eye-openers and nightcaps, pick-me-ups and settle-me-downs—he quaffs them all.
His existence is a reminder that one can leave Neverland and embrace all the trappings of adulthood while still avoiding its fatal trap. You can don a tux and attend fancy dress balls; you can sip Martinis and pluck your cigarettes from a jewelled case; you can even get engaged with some frequency—and still remain a child.
“You don’t mind me calling you a nanny?” Bertie asks at one point. “Not at all, sir,” Jeeves replies. Just as Peter and the Lost Boys had Wendy to tuck them into bed at night, Bertie has Jeeves to rouse him from bed in the morning with tea and kippers and a miraculous restorative (recipe unknown) that rinses away hangovers. Drink up. You can find Neverland secreted right there, in the industrious, workaday heart of London. You needn’t leave the real world to leave it behind.
Brad Leithauser’s most recent novel is “The Art Student’s War.” His collection of new and selected poems, “The Oldest Word for Dawn,” was published last year. He is a frequent contributor to Page-Turner.
Above: P. G. Wodehouse
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