Escape to Wodehouse

January 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm (BBC, class, comedy, history, Jim D, literature, Orwell, parasites)

Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in - Evelyn Waugh

Most of the people whom Wodehouse intends as sympathetic characters are parasites and some of them plain imbeciles, but very few of them could be described as immoral - George Orwell

Wodehouse is back on TV (BBC 1, Sundays), in the form of the Blandings stories about Lord Emsworth, his fearsome sister Constance, the ambitious secretary Baxter and Emsworth’s prize sow, The Empress.

Those of you not already aux fait with the Wodehouse oeuvre will have gathered just from the above, that this is pretty lightweight stuff, completely devoid of any pretensions to social commentary or psychological insight. It’s pure entertainment and – more to the point – pure escapism.

Wodehouse’s published writings began in the very early years of the last century and continued right up to his death in 1974, when he left an unfinished manuscript that was published posthumously as Sunset at Blandings. But (as Orwell pointed out) the world of Wodehouse was outdated even by the 1920’s: Emsworth was a throwback to a bygone Edwardian age and Bertie Wooster really died in the corner of some foreign field round about 1915.

Wodehouse’s reputaton has by now just about about recovered from his appalling misjudgement when, living in France in 1941 and having been interned by advancing German forces, he agreed to broadcast some lighthearted “chats” on Nazi radio. These were apolitical in tone and content, but naturally laid him open to the charge (made most forcefully by ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror) that he’d been a willing tool of Goebbels’ and had agreed to broadcast in order to get himself released. George Orwell considered Wodehouse to have acted like a bloody idiot, but wrote an essay (In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse, February 1945) that strongly defended him against charges of treachery. It turns out that the British authorities reached the same conclusion, but decided not to tell him, and Wodehouse spent the rest of his days brooding in self-imposed exile in America.

When considering what was undoubtably a dreadful error on Wodehouse’s part, it is worth remembering that he was the creator of Sir Roderick Spode, a thoroughly unpleasant bully and demagogue who turns up in several of the Wooster stories, described as “founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a fascist organisation better known as the Blackshorts.” Not conclusive proof perhaps, but pretty persuasive evidence that Wodehouse had no love of fascism.

But why on earth would any person of even vaguely leftist inclinations actually enjoy these farcical tales of dotty aristocrats, domineering aunts and over-privileged wastrels?

The sheer escapism has a lot to do with it: I know that I am very far from being the only leftie who’s found solace at Blandings Castle and/or the Drones Club when life’s become difficult one way or another. Then there’s the sheer craftsmanship of his plots, and -especially – his use of language.

When Bertie Wooster describes “Aunt calling aunt calling to aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps” you know you’re in the hands of a writer of comic English to rank alongside Wilde and Dickens. Which, come to think of it, may be why BBC 1’s effort on Sunday was just slightly disappointing: the irreplacable descriptive and narrative voice of Wodehouse himself was missing.

13 Comments

  1. Red Deathy said,

    Well, firstly, we need to remember that Wodehouse was writing from afar, he was playing up to US readerships prejudices/views of England. there’s auto-parody as well as unintentional critique: after all, the Drones Club is hardly a positive invention for these useless fellows, and it is the worker Jeeves who revolves all the problems…

    • Harsanyi_Janos said,

      “Well, firstly, we need to remember that Wodehouse was writing from afar, he was playing up to US readerships prejudices/views of England.”

      For much of his career; Wodehouse was not “writing from afar.”

    • Andrew Coates said,

      As long term supporter of the Heralds of the Red Dawn I find the portrait of Blandings a vindication of our programme, “massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy”.

  2. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Something else we agree on.

    My one infallible rule for judging the quality of a newly encountered bookshop or library is whether and how far the Wodehouses outnumber the Virginia Woolfs.

    (Of course a whole shelf of well-thumbed Wodehouses and not even the lonely never finished copy of To The Lighthouse or Orlando that is to be found on so many middle class bookshelves is not necessarily a good sign – but on the whole someone who has all the Wodehouses and no Woolfs is probably going to be a more amusing companion than someone with all the Woolfs and no Wodehouses…..).

  3. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    And I’ve never really seen the point of Wodehouse TV adaptions – radio of course can retain the authorial voice but actually seeing these fantastic figures and impossible represented as Stephen Fry or whoever just completely pricks the bubble for me,

    Pity he didn’t leave behind a viciously obstructive and greedy estate to spare us all this,

    Anyway must dig out my Blandings Omnibus,

  4. Sue R said,

    Isn’t part of the point that Jeeves, the ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ is the brains, and Bertie, the scion of an ancient family, is the ass? There is one short story where they discuss ‘nature vs nurture’, from what I remember, Jeeves diplomatically reassures Bertie that nature wins every time.

  5. Sarah AB said,

    It’s been a while since I read any of the Blandings novels but aren’t there a lot of cross class (as well as transatlantic) romances in them? Not that that is revolutionary, but it’s quite a marked feature I think. By contrast one of my guilty pleasures, Georgette Heyer, is acutely class conscious – in one of her novels a pair of children swapped at birth grow up into their ‘natural’ class roles, despite nurture.

    It occurs to me that it is always the girl who is of lower rank in Wodehouse’s romances, I think – the more conservative/acceptable pattern.

    Virginia Woolf is not a great favourite of mine.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      I compared Wodehouse to Woolf due to the alphabetical propinquity and their being poles apart stylistically (did poor Virginia ever tell a single joke?).

      Another interesting comparison is with another W – Waugh who is I think at his best as funny as Wodehouse but is both much deeper and infinitely nastier in political and personal terms.

      And the issue of cross class relationships is actually very revealing – Wodehouse does indeed build multiple books around charming cross -class romances because he is writing comedies of manners for a middle class mass audience – but for Waugh the mixing of even the upper middle class and the real aristocracy almost always ends in disaster for one or both parties,

      In fact Waugh’s treatment of class is hardly comprehensible without reference to his own biography as a pathologically self-loathing social climber living in a revolutionary age – whereas the charm of Wodehouse is that you need to know nothing about him whatsoever other than that he wrote books.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      I also suspect that to much of Wodehouse’s female audience marrying some aristo (or slightly more realistically a doctor or other professional) was the only imaginable route out of the drudgery of housework and typing pool and nursing and shopwork or schoolteaching

      indeed an Eliza Doolittle figure (and the many heroines of romantic novels who make rather less dramatic social vaults by marrying the handsome doctor or dashing army officer) was probably as potent a symbol to Edwardian and interwar women as Katie Price and suchlike ‘celebrities’ are to ours – both offering those without any rational hope the illusion that anyone can be magically swept up out of the gutter and elevated to fame and fortune,

      And not just Wodehouse but countless novels and films and plays of his era play at various levels on these pre-feminist fantasies of escape.

      • Red Deathy said,

        Of course, Eliza Doolittle didn’t actually escape (or, at least, not very far)…

  6. Salutation Recipes said,

    As Hilaire Belloc said, “to criticize him was like taking a spade to a soufflé”. He’s a gem.

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