Somewhat as if Robinson Crusoe tried to tell Man Friday about Yorkshire pudding, it’s hard to explain Wodehouse to the uninitiated. He evolved a comedy of manners and a mannered style that came into perfect fluency and equilibrium by the early Thirties. In the early Fifties that tautness of control began to slacken. I myself believe that he reached the summit of his careful art with The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938, and Joy in the Morning, largely written as the Germans were preparing to invade France, polished as they bore Wodehouse off from Le Touquet to internment in Germany, and published after the war. His latest biographer, Frances Donaldson, believes the peak came earlier, with Thank You, Jeeves, in 1934. Wodehouse himself preferred Quick Service, published in 1940.
It is not a dispute of much importance. By the mid-Thirties Hilaire Belloc was broadcasting to America his view that Wodehouse was “the best living writer of English” and there are at least half a dozen books in the decade surrounding that dictum to which admirers can reach, if asked to furnish proofs of Belloc’s veracity.
Cultism—and there has long been a Wodehouse cult with powerful adepts guarding the mystery—often leads to facetious overstatement. A bad sign is when worshipers start calling the object of their veneration “the Master.” But Belloc had it right all the same in stressing Wodehouse’s virtues as an artificer of language, rather than as the creator of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Emsworth, Mulliner, Ukridge, Psmith, and the rest of them. Few writers were so self-conscious in the refinement of language. Wodehouse loved to read trash, just as in his later years he loved to watch it on daytime TV, and in the dense allusive utterance of Bertie Wooster one can find a meditation on the banality, coarsened tempi, images, and conventions of late Victorian and Edwardian literary discourse which scarcely suffers from being set next to the great explorations of cliché in Joyce’s Ulysses. Wodehouse was as determined a mannerist as Wilde in the guying of conventional discourse. His best books are the apotheosis of the artificial, yet like Wilde his fluency and ease of idiom rendered this artifice natural and altered English diction, hence British culture.
It is instructive to read aloud dialogue from The Importance of Being Earnest and follow with exchanges between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves or Bertie and Gussie Fink-Nottle, et al. The rhythms are remarkably similar. Both writers get their effects—Wilde much more sharply—from reversals of conventional idiom and conventional attitude (e.g., “Was your father born to…the purple of commerce or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?”). For the more conventional and conservative Wodehouse the critique was more narrowly of language than of society, so the paradoxes and parodies were more technical whereas in Wilde’s case they were more substantive.
I do not recall Wodehouse discussing Wilde in his letters, which is surprising, given the extent of his stylistic debt, My own view is that Wodehouse’s almost pathological prudery in sexual matters, a reticence sublimated in the jocular male partnerships employed in his fiction and the loyal epistolary male friendships of his life, caused him to shy away in extreme nervousness from mention of Wilde.
Wooster says there are those who like to find girls in heliotrope pajamas in their beds and those who don’t. He belonged to the latter category, and Wodehouse seems to have thought that was the sensible outlook to have. The girls esteemed by Wooster—e.g., Stiffy, Bobby—were boys, to all intents and mentionable purposes. Girls of the other type—Madeline Bassett—were boys too, only “wets,” reading poetry and no doubt ending up as dissidents in Thatcher’s Cabinet. There is a third, Amazonian category—Honoria Glossop springs imposingly to mind, as indeed does the present British prime minister herself. Donaldson’s remarks about Wodehouse’s sexuality—quoted below—are pertinent.
One way to evoke Wodehouse at his best is once again to remember Wilde at full stretch in The Importance of Being Earnest, where speed of exposition, mastery of structure, combined with fluency and inventiveness in idiom, carry the reader at top speed and without pause through farcical imbroglio to ultimate resolution. The Code of the Woosters contains a main plot, three subplots, two separate love interests, two major villains. Yet there is no moment when the reader is left hanging as Wodehouse switches scenery and redeploys. The language, all of it contained within Bertie’s first-person narrative, is at full tension throughout, with the famous similes resplendent. The beauty lies in the deftness, pacing, linguistic aplomb: early Waugh with better manners and without the edgy madness and social bad faith.
But then Wodehouse was more poised because, unlike Waugh (or indeed his other great admirer, Orwell), he did not like England very much and consequently had a better prose style. In his Life of Raymond Chandler Frank MacShane quotes Chandler’s little essay in his notebook on English and American style:
[American style] is a fluid language, like Shakespearian English, and easily takes in new words, new meanings for old words…. Its overtones and undertones are not stylized into a social conventional kind of subtlety which is in effect a class language. It is more alive to cliches. Consider the appalling, because apparently unconscious, use of cliches by as good a writer as Maugham in The Summing Up, the deadly repetition of pet words until they almost make you scream…. English, being on the defensive, is static and cannot contribute anything but a sort of waspish criticism of forms and manners…. The tone quality of English speech is usually overlooked. This tone quality is infinitely variable and contributes infinite meaning. The American voice is flat, toneless and tiresome. The English tone quality makes a thinner vocabulary and a more formalized use of language capable of infinite meanings. Its tones are of course written into written speech by association. This of course makes good English a class language, and that is its fatal defect. The English writer is a gentleman (or not a gentleman) first and a writer second.
Chandler went to the same British public school (Dulwich) as Wodehouse. Both of them made most of their money in America and had to take care of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Wodehouse made his first crossing in 1904, broke into the US magazine market in a big way in 1915 and into the theater shortly thereafter. Wodehouse got the best of both worlds: the fluidity, the alertness to cliche, the detachment that held him free of waspishness. Wodehouse’s style was highly formalized, yet he certainly remained always a writer first and a gentleman second. Oddly enough, Chandler made Marlowe a gentleman in the end, which proved his stylistic undoing. At a critical moment Wodehouse behaved like a writer and not at all like a gentleman, which nearly proved his undoing too.
This moment had to do with Wodehouse’s notorious broadcasts from Berlin in 1941, an episode that takes up a substantial portion of Frances Donaldson’s book, and provides it with nearly all of its drama. Aside from the matter of the broadcasts, Wodehouse’s life and professional career were of a simplicity and general uneventfulness that would not, in a rational world, provoke a critical and biographical industry. Enthusiasts already have Richard Usborne’s work, in Clubland Heroes, and two other volumes; a biography and bibliography by David Jansen; and a respectable covey of other studies. Frances Donaldson’s biography avails itself of new letters provided her by relatives and friends. She sets forth the known facts conveniently enough, excavates new ones, uses what memories she has as a family friend and as a particularly close acquaintance of Wodehouse’s beloved stepdaughter Leonora. She only falters when she attempts critical appreciation of Wodehouse’s work—a subject on which she has nothing particularly illuminating to add.
Born in 1881, Wodehouse lived through a moderately unpleasant childhood when he was separated from his parents for long intervals, delightful schooldays at Dulwich which he later described as the happiest time of his life, and a brief sojourn in a bank before becoming a full-time writer. He published his first novel, The Pothunters, in 1902 and his last, The Cat Nappers, in 1975. Only in 1911, 1941, and the years from 1943 to 1945 did he fail to provide either his British or his American audiences with a new book in the intervening seventy-three years. In the first half of his career he was also collaborating, mostly with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, in a profusion of musical comedies put on in the Teens and Twenties. A wife, a few close friends, and an unending succession of pets—mostly Pekingese dogs—refreshed his emotional life, but from the end of his teens to his ninety-fifth year he devoted almost every day of his prolonged existence to writing or to thinking about writing, and there is no evidence to suggest that he had much interest in doing anything else.
The immensity of his literary production is not perhaps as unrivaled as Donaldson appears to believe. Simenon’s output—until his retirement—was similarly prodigious. But it is hard to think of another writer who worked so tranquilly with such copious success within so narrow a range, unless we are to consider a detective-story writer such as Agatha Christie, whose entire oeuvre scarcely contains a single memorable line.
Wodehouse lived to work, well beyond the point where he had to work for a living. He had a vast contempt for writers “with only one book in them” and believed with Arnold Bennett that an audience could be won and retained only if the author’s name, on a new dust jacket, was constantly obtruded upon the readers’ attention. Just as another great producer and hero of Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle, Scribbled in railway stations, trains, and cars so too did Wodehouse never stop working. Briefly arrested by the French at the end of the Second World War, he occupied some of his time in the police station polishing off another chapter.
He described himself as an “objective” rather than a “subjective” writer, perceiving his task as the satisfaction of magazine editors, publishers, and readers. He regarded prattle about “artistic self-expression” as disgraceful egoism. Indeed nothing Wodehouse said about himself can be regarded as particularly trustworthy. He readily made up stories, or fabricated views, when pestered by interviewers and admirers about such matters as the origins of Jeeves or his verdict on this or that writer or book. Publishing some of his correspondence with his friend William Townend he had no compunction in smartening it up for the reader. For him it was all a matter of professionalism, and if his critical judgment told him that his audience would prefer to hear that Jeeves was based on a real-life butler called Robinson rather than a stock type in the British comic tradition he would alter the truth with just the same alacrity as he would obey the editors of the Saturday Evening Post when they asked him to restructure the first chapter of The Code of the Woosters.