P. G. Wodehouse: A Biography
by Frances Donaldson
Knopf, 369 pp., $18.50
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 …