P. G. Wodehouse, Master of Comedy

Stephen Fry (left) as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie a...

Stephen Fry (left) as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster in the TV series Jeeves and Wooster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn…

Like the fragile butterflies that most of them are, the characters in Wodehouse’s stories seem only to come out in the summer. Apart from the occasional heat storm, the sun shines ever on the ivy-covered ramparts of Blandings Castle, and Bertie Wooster rarely requires to raise the hood on his two-seater when tootling off to visit Aunt Dahlia. In a way this was an accurate reflection of the times: the Edwardian period, that brief but fruitful summer that was the Belle Epoque, was to be followed by world war, and major social and economic upheaval. The first signs of the autumn to come can occasionally be glimpsed in the texts, but in the main we enjoy the Indian summer of a strange world with its peculiar customs and quite remarkable priorities.

Characterisation is sketchy, to say the least; in fact, most of the Wodehouse creations are pretty interchangeable. One critic was foolish enough to complain that a book contained “all the old Wodehouse characters under different names”. The response was magnificent:

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.

What the critic had totally failed to realise was that the lack of characterisation isn’t important, any more than the lack of originality of the plots, which generally encompass the theme of two young people falling in love, hearts being sundered, reconciliation towards the middle of the story, quickly followed by a new breach, and a final glorious triumph of True Love at the end. Details, such as the accidental theft of a rare Egyptian scarab, or (generally imagined) plots to kidnap that most noble of beasts, Empress of Blandings, or Bertie Wooster’s own misadventures, are – well, hardly afterthoughts, more variations around the central theme.

What is important are the sparkling, witty castles in the air he constructed on these sturdy, unwavering foundations. The writing is light and airy, eminently readable while at the same time never taking the reader for a fool. We see the Berties, the Algernons and the Lady Constances for the shallow things they are, while nevertheless being unable to refrain from sympathising with their ridiculous plights. The humour is wry, gently understated, totally free of malice. The sentences are economical and incredibly effective. Yet, like a perfect soufflé, this light and toothsome concoction was the result of much hard work.

P.G. Wodehouse was a master wordsmith and a self-deprecating comic genius, possibly one of the greatest English writers of all time, and certainly among the best post-Victorian society has produced. Highly successful writers, comic and otherwise, have acknowledged their debt to him: Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Evelyn Waugh, Salman Rushdie… Even George Orwell, a man not noted for his sense of humour, may have objected to Wodehouse’s politics, or rather his lack of them, but nevertheless made a spirited defence of Wodehouse following a slight post-WWII misunderstanding which includes an excellent analysis of the man’s work and why it is funny (read it here).

All books highly recommended, except perhaps Sunset at Blandings, which was still being written when Wodehouse died at 93 and remains in a highly unpolished state. There is no particular requirement to read in any order, either. So you can just walk into your bookshop and select the first one off the shelf, secure in the knowledge that you are acquiring comic gold, to be savoured at leisure while drinking tea (or a whisky-and-soda, if you happen to be Galahad Threepwood) on the lawn on an English summer afternoon.

The Empress of Blandings was a Berkshire sow, now an endangered breed. See the Berkshire Pig Breeders’ Club website for more information on these delightful and intelligent animals, as any farmer I’ve met who’s raised pigs has confirmed.

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