P.G. Wodehouse: A Literary Biography

by Benny Green
The Rutledge Press, 256 pp., $12.95

P. G. Wodehouse
P. G. Wodehouse; drawing by David Levine

Among the writers who are celebrating the centenary of the birth of P.G. Wodehouse this year, Benny Green seems to me the most spirited and cogent to have appeared so far. He calls his book “a literary biography,” which is exactly what is called for in dealing with a surprisingly scholarly master of comic folly, who in spite of poor eyesight seems to have done nothing but write all day, almost from the cradle until his ninetieth year. If he had another secret life behind his writing he was preoccupied enough to make it impenetrable. He was clearly a professional but one with the gift of imperturbable and deedy innocence.

He remained a schoolboy for life but without the sentimental morbidities of, say, Barrie or Milne’s tinklings from the kindergarten. If he has a literary coeval, this is “perhaps”—as Mr. Green says—the Max Beerbohm of Zuleika Dobson. Not perhaps at all: this is real insight. Wodehouse was certainly an Edwardian and much influenced by the D’Oyly Carte opera, and one recalls that the age was remarkable for producing a number of comic writers of ingrained “English light humor”; like a dry white wine it nourished the assumptions, malice, and comforts of F. Anstey, Saki, one book of Jerome K. Jerome’s, the Grossmiths, and W.W. Jacobs. They were “English” in the very sap of that conceit: they traveled well in America in their time, especially Wodehouse himself, though I have found lately that flocks of American students have never heard of him. This is sad but understandable. The age of lightheaded imperial innocence began to vanish after 1914 and we have grown up in the black laughter of outrage, enhanced by the obsession with sex. One can only say that laughter for its own sake is never passé for very long: we still laugh at Goldsmith and Restoration comedy after a spell of sneering at their subjects, their oaths and delivery.

It has been said, especially of light comedy, that its writers are apt to be trapped by period and the presumptions of its manners and vernacular; that none of us has known a butler or “gentleman’s gentleman,” a rich sillyass with a monocle, like Wooster, or a barmy peer like Lord Emsworth; that their idiotic world is dead. One has heard it scathingly argued that these fools are socially and politically deplorable, propaganda for reactionary causes and against what used to be called “the challenge of our time.” Our nostalgia ought to be for the future. The argument is crabbed. The kingdoms of fantasy and mirth are long-lasting and not of this world; and their inhabitants make circles round our respectable angers. The strength of Wodehouse lies not in his almost incomprehensibly intricate plots—Restoration comedy again—but in his prose style and there, above all, in his command of mind-splitting metaphor. To describe a girl as “the sand in civilization’s spinach”…

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