Nothing nasty in the woodshed

John Bayley

  • Yours, Plum: The Letters of P.G. Wodehouse edited by Frances Donaldson
    Hutchinson, 269 pp, £16.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 09 174639 6

Wittgenstein had a phrase about the ‘great heart of Beethoven’, the rider to which was that it would make no sense to talk about the ‘great heart’ of Shakespeare. So much the worse for Beethoven, might be the sentiment of a non-philosopher who did not share Wittgenstein’s passion for music. But his point has its ramifications. Like Tolstoy, whose didactic tales he revered as the best that mere literature could do, Wittgenstein was distinctly a non-Shakespearean. He distrusted and feared literature’s rich dishonesty, its endless begging of the question. Writers disappeared into their own dreams and vanities: their great hearts were not on display.

Did Wittgenstein read P.G. Wodehouse? Probably not, but had he done so he might have got on with him very well, as he did with the conventions of early cinema. With such things you knew where you were, and a philosopher likes that: Gilbert Ryle, so it is said, thought Schopenhauer and Wodehouse the most sensible authors he knew, and the two who wrote the best. When not studying the one he was relaxing with the other. As well as writing a hundred-odd sensible books, Wodehouse also wrote some highly sensible letters, like this one to his stepdaughter Leonora, known as Snorky, who had consulted him about names for her forthcoming baby.

I’m glad you’re feeling better. Jolly sensible taking that three weeks in bed. Nothing like it. Stephanie. Oke with me, though Mummie says it reminds her of the Rector of Stiffkey. I once knew a girl named Stephanie Bell. I like the name.

A touch of the great heart about that one? No pretences, suspicious forthcomingness, concealed reservations. Snorky certainly knew where she was with Plum, and he loved her fondly without any further complexity of feeling. His responses always seem to have been both immediate and final, like the effects in his own books. In 1956 he reminded Richard Usborne, author of Clubland Heroes, of the source of a quotation.

Smiling, the boy fell dead. Mr Usborne, really! I thought everyone knew Robert Browning’s poem ‘An Incident in the French Camp’. Young lieutenant comes to Napoleon with the news that they have taken Ratisbon. Napoleon quite pleased. He notices that the young man isn’t looking quite himself.

‘You’re wounded!’ ‘Nay,’ the soldier’s pride
Touched to the quick, he said:
‘I’m killed, Sire!’ and his chief beside
Smiling the boy fell dead.

There is no suggestion of a score off Usborne: the ‘I thought everyone knew’ has nothing snide about it, no secret pleasure in being one up. The moment is like one out of his books, and that means like one of the books themselves. The repetition of ‘quite’ is exemplary; and as recalled and presented by Wodehouse, the episode is as if Bertie Wooster has at last found a way of doing something spiffing for Jeeves. He isn’t feeling quite himself but never mind: we can’t let Aunt Dahlia down; the plot must thicken; the show must go on.

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