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” enlarges and decorates the imagination.
Of course, the society into which Wodehouse was born in 1881 has its importance either as an influence or as a springboard. I am old enough to have known the rather rueful beginning of the end of his period and, by chance, to have lived in his sainted Dulwich, and to have been briefly educated at what was called the Lower School—lower in social class, and more productive of bank clerks than colonial governors, than was his Dulwich College, the subject, incidentally, of one of Pissarro’s romantic Anglophile paintings. The “romance” and pleasances of what was then one of the most vernal London suburbs, and the niceties of its local snobberies, are well known to me. (The College’s second cricket team would condescend to play our first once a year and often beat us. They, we used to say, had expensive coaches!) We belonged to the same Elizabethan foundation, Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift.
I felt the Dulwich dream of the time and did not much repine because it was certain not to be realized, though we copied items of its swank. One or two of our senior boys could cause a stir by playing at being dressy Bertie Wooster and putting on a monocle to annoy the masters. (Some learned writers to the London Times have claimed that the monocle was added by vulgar illustrators—probably from the Lower School—and not by Wodehouse himself.) Our envy—when we were schoolboys—was chiefly centered on the illusion that at the college they could get away with more “ragging” and more extravagance of a gentlemanly kind than we ourselves could. Mr. Green has a delightful account of the prospects before our betters in Wodehouse’s day. Both father and son were destined for Hong Kong:
By 1867 imperial traffic was brisk, as the British wandered the surface of the planet in search of either divine missions or increased dividends, or, better still if it could be arranged, both at the same time. Off they sailed down the sea lanes…, the brevet colonels flushed with the proud apoplexy of a recent mention in dispatches; horse-faced subalterns whose toothy sibilance would soon be whistling across the promontories of the North-west Frontier; staff majors grimly pursuing the carrot of a KCIE; ruddy adjutants whose leaden gallantries might before long be rattling the teacups of some half-forgotten hill station; reverend gentlemen dedicated to the export of their religion to areas which had known their own when the English were still daubing their rumps with berry juice…all these men resolved to reconciling somehow the opposing ideals of playing the game and pinching someone else’s property, and miraculously succeeding, at least in part.
Public Schools with their devotion to sport and their insistence on a solid grounding in Greek and Latin and even modern languages—Mr. Green mentions the effect of this excellent education on Raymond Chandler, who was at Dulwich after Wodehouse. (Chandler remarked that a classical education saves you from being fooled by pretentiousness.) The creator of Wooster was a star athlete and boxer and editor of the school mag to whom the composition of crisp rhymed couplets in Latin and Greek was second nature. Characteristically the eupeptic Wodehouse thought the college was bliss, boyhood was bliss, the suburb of Dulwich heaven, and he scorned people who said life at English Public Schools was hell. There were only two flaws. His father lost his money, and he was forced to chuck Oxford or Cambridge and to go and earn his living in a Lombard Street bank, from which he was sacked early on for an outrageous act in the traditions of Dulwich “ragging”; he defaced and tore out the first page of that sacred object in banking life, a new ledger. Clearly, like his insuppressible Psmith, he had been taught nerve.
The other flaw—if it was really a flaw, for, a eupeptic by nature, he scarcely mentioned it—was that like so many of the imperial sons he was sent home from abroad to be boarded out at holiday institutions or other families and especially with aunts. One thinks of the long list of English writers to whom this occurred: Kipling, Maugham, Saki, Orwell, wounded men all who scarcely knew their mothers. Did Wodehouse settle for a paradise of childlike laughter because of this deprivation? Does his general ferocity about aunts—except the one called romping Aunt Dahlia—come from this? Perhaps so.
On the other hand many of those half-abandoned boys were not as afflicted as some critics think they ought logically to have been. The only faint distress Wodehouse records is boredom with his elders, which is surely a normal affliction. The only places he liked, after Dulwich, were places like rural Shropshire, Lord Emsworth’s mosseaten paradise. One thing about the eternal schoolboy is his exceptional spryness in plotting his own cheeky and ingenious way, doing what he liked at once, which was to scribble and earn his living. He got off the ground in early school stories. Mr. Green says:
By a freakish collusion between temperament and experience, those schooldays left Wodehouse with a commitment to the schoolboy sensibility to which he remained forever steadfast, and which had the unexpected effect of making his work unique. For although Psmith insisted on breaking out, he took with him the intellectual and emotional luggage of a schoolboy. He and his followers may have been at large in the world of great affairs, but they arrived there still acting and reaching like the fifth-formers they would always remain. That is why there can be no sex in Wodehouse’s world, only romance, no morality, only posture, no dogma, only laughter…. Only Wodehouse [among scores of writers] pursued the odd idea of disguising his fifth-formers as responsible citizens and letting them loose among grown men and women.
And he quotes J.B. Priestley’s admiring judgment about Wodehouse’s lifelong character:
There is no sign of a mature man here. Together with his talent for the absurd, this explains his success.
The Drones Club was a schoolboy’s ideal. So is every pretty, sly, sexless girl who knows how to make circles round any romantic fool—provided she does not wear glasses and has not been to the London School of Economics or Cambridge and has not read Freud. From housemaid to debutante—she has to retain the savoire faire and the legs of the chorus.
The prestige of the school story—in which Wodehouse began his career—seems to be a special curiosity of English life, for generations. I rather think the taste has now gone, but it harks back to Victorian traditions of character building: Tom Brown’s Schooldays and most obviously Frederick Farrar’s book Eric, or Little by Little. When Wodehouse tore that page out of the sacred ledger at the London bank he tore up the old school tradition. Mr. Green detects a moralistic opponent in Wodehouse’s work: the famous, but distinctly down-market stories of the Magnet and Gem examined by George Orwell and written for us lads of the Lower School who would never be more than pseudo gentlemen or “cads.” But when Wodehouse left the bank to write popular sketches and quips for the newspapers and then went off to New York, on a boyish impulse, nominally because he wanted to meet a few American boxers, he in fact turned his skills to writing lyrics for the new kind of musical comedy.
Mr. Green is an authority on this arcane aspect of his hero’s life, which is little known to fans of his subsequent novels. On reflection, one sees that a classical scholar would have his sort of skill in playing with language of all kinds, and knowing how to make the lines short but true, light humor being one of the graces of a good education of the classical kind. But when he broke into the impertinent joy and invention in Leave it to Psmith, he found himself as a writer. The pompous Sir Roger is seen “wolfing up” his chicken fricassee and “handing up his dinner pail for a second instalment”; the awful Honoraria Glossop, who has the voice of “a lion tamer” appalls Wooster because she looks like what the law calls an “act of God. You might as well blame a fellow for being run over by a truck.” A professor has an eye “like a haddock” and his wife “the look of a woman who had bad news round about the year 1900 and never really got over it.” (The phrase “round about” has that sense of a great leap into timeless space which is present in all his fantasies.) Wooster worships his brainlessness as he worships his ties and is given to prosaically knowing obiter dicta passages that end in grotesque explosions of precision:
It is a peculiar thing in life that the people you most particularly want to edge away from always seem to cluster like a poultice.
When he meets a girl at a station, Wooster’s clichés are lyrical:
You are as fresh and blossoming—if I may coin a phrase—as a rose. How do you do it? When I arrived I was deep in alluvial deposits and have only just managed to scrape them off.
Comic writing, at its best, is an inverted poetry. As for blasts of introspection, does anything equal Lord Emsworth’s discovery that the one thing his ancient family had somehow lacked was “a family curse,” but now thank God, he has got one: his son.
Mr. Green quotes Frank Swinnerton as saying that Wodehouse’s great gift in language and invention is “an irresistible air of improvisation” which has the paradoxical effect of putting dash into the sly sententiousness of Edwardian prose. In sheer pace he outdoes his contemporaries. It is in this and his stirring-up of fantasy, as A.J.P. Taylor rightly says, that Wodehouse ranks with Firbank and Congreve. One of the tests of such a remark is to see Wodehouse slowed down on television. This is a visual and oral disaster. His people were not meant to be seen or even heard, but have to be inducted from the ridiculous page; and anyway his people completely fox the modern actor or actress, who overdress the accents.
Mr. Green goes carefully into the row about the notorious broadcasts to his American friends from Germany when he was taken prisoner in France. The talks were harmless, innocent, and Wodehouse has long ago been forgiven even by the official classes and the law. He was as foolish in this episode as any of his grown-up schoolboys. He suffered and saw what an ass he had been. It is to the great credit of Malcolm Muggeridge that he came intelligently to Wodehouse’s defense; but in Orwell’s defense of Wodehouse Mr. Green acutely sees that Orwell errs when he says that Wodehouse had an upper-class blindness to the threat of Nazism. Long before, in one of his stories, Wodehouse had made a savagely hilarious attack on dictators. Benign as he was, Wodehouse got his own back on enemies like the one-time ambassador in Paris and on A.A. Milne.
It does strike one that his time in the German prison camp unseated Wodehouse’s judgment: also that in his long years in the United States he lost something of his native ground—as indeed the great Henry James may be thought to have done in Britain and Europe. Yet, when we think of Wodehouse’s long and flourishing years in the United States, it strikes us that his fantastic England depended on his being distant from it, and even if not copied the American vernacular does loosen the waistcoat. His England, his romantic fools and villains, depend for their lives on being absurdities. If this is so, why do the British, who devoured and still devour his books, recognize themselves? I heard Auberon Waugh say the other afternoon that perhaps in their poetic moments the British secretly idle in the dream of being Psmiths, Woosters and Jeeveses and Emsworths in disguise. The never-never-land is irresistible. It abounds also in Dickens. Even the pose of making fun of ourselves may disguise a private ideal. All nationals seem to have another self, preoccupied with sustaining illusions. Isn’t this what comedy is about?
December 3, 1981