Books June 2012

The Escapist

P. G. Wodehouse’s comic gift was built on his brilliant capacity for repressing unpleasantness.
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In September of 1936, six months after Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, P. G. Wodehouse published a story titled “Buried Treasure.” This short tale begins with a conversation among pub-goers:

The situation in Germany had come up for discussion in the bar parlour of the Angler’s Rest, and it was generally agreed that Hitler was standing at the crossroads and would soon be compelled to do something definite. His present policy, said a Whisky and Splash, was mere shilly-shallying. “He’ll have to let it grow or shave it off,” said the Whisky and Splash. “He can’t go on sitting on the fence like this. Either a man has a moustache, or he has not. There can be no middle course.”

Five years later, Wodehouse, residing at a posh hotel in Berlin, agreed to write and transmit a series of broadcasts for German radio about life as an internee. His hosts’ objective was to score a propaganda victory in the officially neutral United States, where Wodehouse’s books were extraordinarily popular. In the first broadcast, he said:

Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, “How can I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.

In the half decade between the fictional conversation at the Angler’s Rest and his light-as-a-feather account of his own experiences, Wodehouse had, as he noted, experienced the German invasion of France, the loss of his house in that country, the separation from his wife and beloved dogs, and internment in Belgium and Germany. What ensued was a sustained public campaign against his “traitorous” behavior in the English press and Parliament, and his decision, once the war culminated, to permanently relocate to the United States.

If this tumult left him slightly disjointed, he remained, as he might well have put it, essentially jointed. From a more “engaged” or serious person living in a time of war and atrocity, such imperturbability would perhaps have been commendable. In Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, an undoubtedly gentle soul, it was a sign that his habit of inventing Edenic universes was not limited to the printed page. Evelyn Waugh once wrote of Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, that they inhabited “a world as timeless as that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland.” Wodehouse, too, was timeless, but distinctly so: he could appear untouched by his era, untouched by his times.

This admittedly thumbnail sketch is delightfully complicated by Sophie Ratcliffe’s exemplary editing of a new collection of Wodehouse’s letters. The assembled trove does not demand a complete reconsideration of the sender, but it begs for an analysis that Jeeves might label as more suitably refined. Wodehouse’s critics have tended to condemn his guilelessness for landing him in the soup, while his admirers have celebrated or fallen back on this very innocence, often in the service of exculpating him for the broadcasts. But the letters—together with a close analysis of his fiction—reveal that Wodehouse not only was a canny appraiser of class distinctions and of the ironies underlying the Anglo-American relationship; he also detected that fascism signaled, in its absurdity, how sinister it actually was. His repression of this knowledge at the crucial moment of the century may make him a bloody fool; but a capacity for denial is not synonymous with being starry-eyed. Indeed, it is quite unlikely that the premier comic novelist of the past 100 years was really a complete naïf.

Wodehouse’s correspondence, which begins in 1899, before the death of Queen Victoria, and ends in 1975, just before his own death at age 93, conveys both the scope and the narrowness of his life. There need not be any contradiction here: Wodehouse wrote nearly 100 books over eight decades, while simultaneously engaging in one solid marriage, a limited number of friendships, and a private life consisting of reading, writing, and golf. (The Overlook Press is releasing all of Wodehouse’s books in handy, exceptionally handsome new hardback editions; this marks the first time that an American publishing house has released the entire oeuvre—surely what Bertie, via Jeeves, would admit is the mot juste.) Wodehouse spent considerable time in the United States writing movie scripts and musicals before the war, and he seemed to find in America an energy and verve that were lacking in Britain. After the war, he made his residence on Long Island his permanent home.

“Do you hate Dickens’s stuff?,” Wodehouse writes in a letter to Denis Mackail, a longtime friend. “I can’t read it.” Wodehouse is in most regards as different from Dickens as a poached egg is from fish sauce, but when one tries to explain the former’s achievement to the tragically uninitiated, Dickens is a sufficient analogue. Whether they concern Bertie and Jeeves, or the Blandings Castle set, or the members of London’s Drones Club, Wodehouse’s stories all form part of what is essentially the same world: an Edwardian England teeming with butlers, great houses, trimmed lawns, and top hats. The ingeniously filiated plots are set in motion by the smallest of difficulties: stolen beloved pigs; insecure young aristocrats in G-rated love triangles; aunts demanding too much from their nephews’ sunny bachelorhood. The reader is liable to lose track of various strands—following the itinerary of a pinched cow creamer is more difficult than one might imagine—but the ultimate effect is complete immersion in the author’s universe. Dickens, with more gloom and sentimentality, managed, over many fewer books, to accomplish something similar. In one of his riper novels, Summer Lightning, Wodehouse’s preface begins,

A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained “all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.” He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

Wodehouse’s claim to immortality is certainly Bertie Wooster, the hapless, lazy, wealthy, Eton-and-Oxford-educated young man who is completely reliant on his brilliant manservant to save him from disastrous marriages and beckoning relatives. Idle aristocrats, however, are not inherently appealing; Wodehouse’s masterstroke was to make Bertie utterly sweet. It is true that even the villains in Wodehouse are ridiculous rather than evil, but Bertie’s narration is superb because his fundamental decency shines through. He is not particularly smart (“You know your Shelley, Bertie!” “Oh, am I?”), but he can see through cant and absurdity, and even his pomposity is self-deprecating:

The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their minds. [She was a] droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and rabbits. I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that the stars were God’s daisy chain. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort.

Several of the letters fortify the sense that Wodehouse was a rather sheltered and insulated figure, “quintessentially English” in the most provincial sense. In 1925, he writes to his beloved stepdaughter, Leonora,

Mummie and I have come to the conclusion that we loathe foreign countries. We hate their ways, their architecture, their looks, their language and their food … We both want dogs and cats and cows and meadow-land. Directly you get out of England you get nothing but spiky palms and other beastly shrubs.

This is self-evidently overstated: Wodehouse was already living abroad, and had registered the splendors of France and America. Other missives complicate the picture: to Mackail, he writes,

If only [my critics] would realize that I started writing about Bertie Wooster and comic Earls because I was in America and couldn’t write American stories and the only English characters the American public would read about were exaggerated dudes. It’s as simple as that.

This, too, is certainly exaggerated, but it does show his canny grasp of America’s particular brand of Anglophilia. Wodehouse longed for a bucolic English past while simultaneously recognizing that the wish was in some manner childish, appealing primarily to those who had never experienced it.

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