The Escapist

P. G. Wodehouse’s comic gift was built on his brilliant capacity for repressing unpleasantness.

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.

His comments on serious subjects tend to take a humorous form, but are nevertheless often rather acute, as in this letter to Mackail on McCarthyism:

Are you following the McCarthy business? If so, can you tell me what it’s all about? “You dined with Mr. X on Friday the tenth?” “Yes, sir.” (keenly) “What did you eat?” “A chocolate nut sundae, sir.” (Sensation.) It’s like Bardell vs. Pickwick.

(His Dickens was worthwhile after all.) Again wading into Anglo-American distinctions, he writes, of meeting H. G. Wells:

His first remark, apropos of nothing, was “my father was a professional cricketer.” A conversation stopper if ever there was one. What a weird country England is, with its class distinctions and that ingrained snobbery you can’t seem to escape from. I suppose I notice it more because I’ve spent so much of my time in America. Can you imagine an American who had achieved the position Wells has, worrying because he started out in life on the wrong side of the tracks? But nothing will ever make Wells forget that his father was a professional cricketer and his mother the housekeeper at Up Park.

This makes a fine accompaniment to some of his early stories’ comic focus on wealth disparities in pre–welfare state London, although Wodehouse’s endless worries about his taxes—and his sustained quarrels with the relevant authorities throughout the letters—somewhat overshadow the leveling impulse brought about by his narratives of spoiled rich kids and resourceful servants. (Wodehouse himself had been born into the Victorian “gentry,” but his family’s eventual financial difficulties thwarted his dream of attending Oxford.)

The matter of Wodehouse’s political instincts still arises because of the broadcasts, and the famous public defenses of his character mounted by, among others, Waugh and George Orwell. Wodehouse himself admitted, in a letter from 1946, that his stuff had been “out-of-date” since 1914, and Orwell, in his superb broadside, noted

Wodehouse’s complete lack—so far as one can judge from his printed works—of political awareness. It is nonsense to talk of “Fascist tendencies” in his books. There are no post-1918 tendencies at all.

This uncautious comment ends up actually understating Wodehouse’s perspicacity. (Orwell, in the rest of the essay, did craft an extremely convincing defense of Wodehouse’s wartime actions, and made some very astute points about his comic sensibilities.)

The prime example of Wodehouse’s discernment is the absurd fascist Roderick Spode (described thusly: “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment”). Based on Oswald Mosley, Spode traipses about in black shorts trying to rally Britons to the call of fascism. In an essay for this magazine several years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote, “It’s quite impossible that the man who had invented Sir Roderick Spode in 1938 was prey to any covert sympathy for fascism.” Undeniably true; but Spode also proves that Wodehouse saw through the designs of an ideology that managed to capture the imagination of much of European civilization. This is a step beyond simply not being a sympathizer. Look again at Wodehouse’s quote on life as an internee; there is more there than meets the eye. (Spode, incidentally, is said to possess “the sort of eye that can open an oyster at twenty paces.”)

Wodehouse’s remarks about fascism in his letters are typically dressed up in his language of choice (Hitler is called a “swine”), and—even if he was in plenty of good (or rather bad) company—he sometimes underestimated the threat of war until frightfully late in the 1930s. But he does seem to have diagnosed the menace beneath fascism’s bluster. Here he is in a letter from 1939:

The ghastly thing is that it’s all so frightfully funny. I mean, Hitler asking the little nations if they think they are in danger of being attacked. I wish one of them would come right out and say “Yes, we jolly well do!”

That this same man went along with the German government’s propaganda efforts shows that his comic gifts were matched only by—indeed, were built on—his penchant for repressing unpleasantness.

And those gifts are what survive him. There are, to begin with, Wodehouse’s names: Pongo Twistleton, Boko Fittleworth, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, Stilton Cheesewright, J. Chichester Clam, Cyril Bassington-Bassington. There are his uses of language, where he showed the elasticity of English:

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

[He] looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say When!

And finally there is his dialogue:

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’”

“The mood will pass, sir.”

This is fine banter, but Benny Green, an early biographer, noted that, unusually for a comic novelist, Wodehouse generally wielded commentary upon direct speech, rather than the speech itself. He was fundamentally an observer. This hints at a certain passivity, but as these letters show, he could turn his observations into gold. As Bertie was fond of remarking, “It takes all sorts to make a world.”

By Sophie Ratcliffe (editor)

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.