Wodehouse in America

D.A.N. Jones

  • P.G. Wodehouse: A Literary Biography by Benny Green
    Joseph, 256 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 907516 04 1
  • Wodehouse on Wodehouse: Bring on the girls (with Guy Bolton), Performing Flea, Over Seventy
    Penguin, 655 pp, £2.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 14 005245 3
  • P.G. Wodehouse: An Illustrated Biography by Joseph Connolly
    Eel Pie, 160 pp, £3.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 906008 44 1
  • P.G. Wodehouse: A Centenary Celebration 1881-1981 edited by James Heineman and Donald Bensen
    Oxford, 197 pp, £40.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 19 520357 7
  • The World of P.G. Wodehouse by Herbert Warren Wind
    Hutchinson, 256 pp, £5.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 09 145670 3

Lying in bed with a cracked rib, I have been much consoled by these genial books about Wodehouse. The only dangerous one was Wodehouse on Wodehouse, since I was compelled to laugh aloud, boyishly, provoking the old knife-in-kidney sensation. Should any other member of the Ukridge idiot school chance upon this review, after being tipped off his bike by a London omnibus, let him heed this warning, as he lies in bed with his cracked specs and cracked rib. The belly-laugh is no laughing matter. The rib will respond to a Wodehouse joke with the painful predictability of a clapometer or a studio audience, even before the punch-line.

Turn to the other books in this centenary collection. They are more into smiles than guffaws. They are subrident or subrisible. My Greek master told me in my boyhood that the Greeks had a good word for ‘smile’ but the nearest the Romans could get to it was subridere, which means ‘to laugh at somebody quietly’. This may be true; or, perhaps, he was just laughing quietly at the Latin master.

It is permissible to smile, or laugh quietly, at Wodehouse buffs, British and American. P.G. Wodehouse: An Illustrated Biography is a jolly picture-book compiled by Joseph Connolly, who runs the Flask Bookshop in Hampstead and claims to have ‘an unrivalled collection of Wodehouse first editions’. He has a list of such editions at the back of his book, with the latest prices. This is what ‘bibliophiles’ call a ‘bibliography’. They get quite excited: ‘The Pothunters. Ten black-and-white illustrations by R. Noel Pocock ... Soon after I estimated The Pothunters at “up to £100” in Collecting Modern First Editions, an American collector offered me $500 for my own copy ... So what is it worth?’ Bibliophiles are like that, always asking what it’s worth, in cash terms. Lord Emsworth didn’t worry what his pig was worth. Gussie Fink-Nottle and Ken Livingstone love their newts for themselves, not for their market value.

P.G. Wodehouse: A Centenary Celebration, 1881-1981 is also lumbered with a bibliography, which takes up half the pages. Still, there are some handsome pictures on first-class paper, the result of a collaboration between the Oxford University Press and the Pierpont Morgan Library. There are also 25 essays, some of them lazily written but four of them, at least, rather good. Three of the four are by Richard Usborne, the king of the traditional Wodehouse buffs. The other is by Benny Green, the new broom.

Oxford University and the Pierpont Morgan Library are both relevant to Wodehouse’s life. He did not attend a university, though he would have liked to: but he has been much honoured by Oxford men. ‘Auctor magicus,’ chanted the Public orator, when he received his honorary doctorate, ‘Concinnus, lepidus, puri sermonis amator!’ Hilaire Belloc put it into plain English: ‘the best writer of English now alive’. Richard Usborne maintains this Oxonian tradition: his is the Wodehouse of English clubmen, the old Roman comedy of dotty noblemen and ingenious servitors, the world of Jeeves and Lord Emsworth. It was Oxford that turned Wodehouse into a national symbol.

In fact, though, Wodehouse spent most of his life in the land of Pierpont Morgan. When he left school he darted across the Atlantic, as soon as he could, working for organisations like ‘the Superba-Lewellyn motion picture studio at Llewellyn City’. I quote from Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin and will continue to do so.

In the West End of London – say at the Drones Club in Dover Street, of which he was a popular member – you would have encountered him without surprise. In the executive building of the Superba-Llewellyn he seemed out of place. You felt he ought not to be there ... His pleasant, somewhat ordinary face suggested amiability rather than astuteness ...

This is where Benny Green comes in. He is not so interested in Jeeves and Emsworth, dukes and crumpets. It is Wodehouse as an Englishman in America that takes this author’s fancy. Benny Green sees Wodehouse as a powerful influence on Broadway and a suffering victim in Hollywood. He makes his case admirably in P.G. Wodehouse: A Literary Biography.

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