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No thank you, Jeeves

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A few years ago, NewSouth Books provoked controversy by issuing an edition of Huckleberry Finn with the N-word (which appears more than 200 times in the novel) altered to ‘slave’. Who would be bowdlerised next? Conrad? Kipling? No one seemed to think of P.G. Wodehouse and yet, rereading Thank You, Jeeves (1934) a few days ago, I was shocked to discover his repeated use of the N-word. After all, the world of Wooster and Jeeves is a faux-Edwardian comic idyll in which near everyone is a splendid fellow or a thoroughly decent chap, and anyone who isn’t receives his comeuppance.

Thank You, Jeeves begins with Bertie Wooster announcing his newfound love of the banjolele and leaving London for the countryside after his neighbours complain about the noise. He rents a cottage from his friend Chuffy (Reginald Chuffnell) who tells him: ‘There’s a troupe of n****r minstrels down there this year. You could study their technique.’ Wooster himself uses the word a further six times, but that isn’t the full extent of the racism in the novel, as he proceeds to black up with shoe polish to escape from a boat, disguising himself as one of the minstrels whom, critically, we never encounter. Once on dry land, Wooster finds he cannot remove the polish and hides in the bushes until, driven by hunger, he raps on the back door of Chufnell Hall. The scullery maid answers, screams, and starts ‘to roll about and drum her heals at the floor … frothing at the mouth’. ‘I had never realised before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life,’ Wooster observes:

I mean to say, Bertram Wooster with merely a pretty tan calling at the back door of Chuffnell Hall would have been received with respect and deference … But purely and simply because there happened to be a little boot polish on my face, here was this female tying herself in knots on the doormat and throwing fits up and down the passage.

These lines are quite promising: in an extremely unlikely turn of events, Bertie Wooster has experienced racism. Will he go on to consider the injustice of it all? Not likely. Part of Wooster’s charm is his refusal to disturb the passive equilibrium of his own mind. He has the apathy of the truly privileged, and though never pompous, the heir of the Wooster millions is in no way progressive.

When Wodehouse was interned by the Nazis in 1940, he made five notorious broadcasts for German radio. He was branded a traitor in Britain, and spent the rest of his life in America. In the years that followed, many English writers – including George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Francis Wheen and Auberon Waugh – came to his defence, citing Wooster’s opposition to the fascist Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters (1938). But the evidence doesn’t stand up to close inspection.

As he tells his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, Wooster has never heard of Spode’s organisation, ‘The Saviours of Britain’, because he doesn’t read the papers. And when Fink-Nottle explains, Wooster’s initial objection is aesthetic rather than political. He cannot believe someone would ‘disfigure the London scene’ by ‘swanking about in footer bags’ and showing his ‘bare knees’. After he meets Spode, however, it quickly becomes personal. Wooster, a confirmed idler, views the authoritarian Spode less as a threat to democracy than as a moustachioed version of his Aunt Agatha, of whom he says: ‘I dare say there are fellows in the world … whom she couldn’t intimidate, but if you’re a chappie like me, fond of a quiet life…’

This sums Wooster up; the gentlest of comic adventurers, the most passive of heroes, he is loved for his refusal to take life, or himself, too seriously. But there’s no getting round the fact that he’s racist – not in the manner of Roderick Spode, seething with fury and malice, but in a more passive way. It’s no defence to say that Wooster’s attitude, and the use of the N-word, were widespread in 1930s Britain. That’s the problem. Racism is more than a question of character; it’s also a matter of culture.

Robert McCrum called Wodehouse ‘the laureate of repression’. Like Wooster’s racism, Wodehouse’s repression was a cultural failing as much as a personal one, and it is surely no coincidence that Orwell, Hitchens, Waugh and Wheen (none of whom mentions the use of the N-word in Thank You, Jeeves, or the problem of the minstrels) were all products of the English public school system, coming to the defence of one of their own. Wilful blindness to racism runs deep in British society, and remains a major obstacle to the anti-racist cause. By ignoring racism, we re-enact it.


Read more in the London Review of Books

Fatema Ahmed: P.G. Wodehouse · 3 November 2005

Chrisopher Hitchens: Wodehouse and Wilde · 3 December 1992

E.S. Turner: After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse · 4 April 1991

John Bayley: The Letters of P.G. Wodehouse · 25 October 1990

D.A.N. Jones: Wodehouse in America · 20 May 1982

Comments

  1. suetonius says:

    I have no doubt that Wodehouse was a racist. The fact that Britain in the 30’s was racist is of course no excuse, not really. Certainly not for Orwell, Waugh and Hitchens. The comparison to Twain is no good though, since Twain was not a racist. He was the opposite. His use of the n word had nothing to do with racism, he was writing what you would have heard. Many of the characters who use the word are racist characters, though Huck is not. I cannot see how changing the word accomplishes anything.

  2. maxleggett says:

    I have that book, I was astonished by all the references to n…..r minstrels. It must have been current useage in New York at the time. It doesn’t appear anywhere else. I took a pen and scratched out all the n…..s and the book became readable. It’s not the best Jeeves story, but once you get rid of the N it’s decent. That Plum never made any similar comments in any other of this works indicates innocence. Mind you, he was innocent to the point of idiocy when he wasn’t writing.

  3. Locus says:

    “Literature published in the DDR is humanist. It serves the ideas of peace and friendship among all people. Books help the workers achieve a high level of education; they impart moral and ethical values for character development.”

    DDR Short Political Dictionary

    • Locus says:

      …and lest you think I am simply being mindlessly anti-communist, I am not. I could equally have cited the wretched literary discussions in Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s, centering on which books to excoriate and then censor, on grounds of their unacceptable content. “To ignore the sin is to repeat the sin,” is how they might have written your last line.

  4. Higgs Boatswain says:

    I fear Rajeev Balasubramanyam may be guilty of the most elementary of undergraduate errors: confusing the voice of a literary character with that of his or her creator. I have absolutely no idea whether P.G. Wodehouse was a racist, but it seems a pretty thin argument to suggest that he must have been indifferent to racial prejudice simply because his most famous literary creation affected a blithe indifference to discrimination. Bertie Wooster is a boob: a socially-oblivious fool constantly getting himself into difficulties from which he has to be extricated by his social inferiors. On my reading (and not just mine), Wooster is a gentle but scathing satire of his social class. I’m prepared to assume that Wodehouse was smart enough to intend that his readers would understand Wooster to be not-very-smart-at-all. What value would an indictment of racism have from the mouth of such a trivial person? (Note, incidentally, that while Wooster employs the slang ‘nigger,’ Jeeves uses the more neutral – if still dated – ‘negro’).

    I think the use of the ‘n-word’ (an excruciating euphemism) can be defended, if not justified, on the grounds of contemporary usage (see also other contemporary authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and of course Joseph Conrad, the author of ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’). And while probably all of these authors shared to some extent the racial myopia of their age and social class, Bertie Wooster’s merry prattling seems pretty scant evidence for laying a charge of racism against P.G. Wodehouse.

  5. Joe Morison says:

    You are judging the man by language as it was used over a hundred years ago. Since Martin Luther King the politically correct word has gone from ‘negro’ to ‘coloured’ to ‘black’ to ‘African American’ to ‘person of colour’ all the way back, if Beyonce’s Lemonade flavours the future, to ‘negro’; we’ve had rap appropriate ‘nigga’ and we’ve had Chuck D shouting in songs “Your not n…” (the only reason I haven’t spelt it, is that I don’t know how he did).
    I think making ‘nigger’ starred is ridiculous. As is suggesting that Wodehouse was racist because he used it. What matters is what sort of person he was; one of the reasons his fans love him is that we’re sure he was lovely, that if he’d been alive today he would have been profoundly disgusted by racism.

    When they were little, I told our girls that their mother (who was born in Barbados and loves Wodehouse) was brown, I was pink, and that they were gold. Our elder is now 30; I texted her about Lemonade and added that ‘negro’ is still so taboo that Apple’s spellcheck doesn’t offer it even after ‘negr’ has been put in. I added my opinion, which she knows well, that there will never be a satisfactory word for an idea so useless in its application, a social construct without underlying truth which we hope soon to be leaving behind us. She put the text up on social media where her friends seem to have liked it.

  6. rae donaldson says:

    My mother grew up in a working class area of Manchester in the 20s and 30s where meeting a person of colour would have been a rare thing indeed. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that the family cat was called Nigger? In the 60s when I was growing up in the same area I would occasionally hear her use the word when talking about fabric in a particular shade of brown. She never in my hearing ever used it- or any other racial slur- in reference to people. By then the area had an Afro-Caribbean community, from whom some of my closest friends were drawn. They were always welcome at our house, just as I was always welcome at theirs. According to the argument of this piece my mother and her family were racist. Simple, isn’t it, when you simple seek out the use of a word and then make all sorts of assumptions about the people-or fictional characters-who’ve used it? Simple-minded, actually.

  7. Graucho says:

    So we all have to go running around painting the white roses red because the queen of political correctness will chop off our heads. Other items that have to be airbrushed are the name Guy Gibson gave to his black labrador and anti-semitic references in Just William stories. This is the sort of thing Stalin did with inconvenient truths. There were some pretty ugly attitudes abroad in the 1930’s. Global slumps don’t always bring out the best in people. Whether Wodehouse was a racist or not is beside the point, he wrote as he saw and heard. History and literature are a permanent record of human experience, the good the bad and the ugly. They must be preserved warts and all, to bowdlerise is to vandalise a precious resource.

  8. ledmatt says:

    OED: “nigger minstrel n. now hist. = blackface minstrel ”

    In other words, what was more recently known as a black and white minstrel. Wodehouse was using the normal terminology of his day. It may seem offensive now, but then so does “coloured”, a term that was considered polite a few years ago.

  9. semitone says:

    Calling Orwell, a scholarship boy who went on to write scathingly and perceptively about the public school experience (not to mention Down and Out in Paris and London), a “product of the English public school system” protecting one of his own … it’s just so lazy.

  10. Graucho says:

    On the last point, what is endemic in British culture isn’t blindness to racism, it’s a sense of humour. We will forgive someone almost anything if they make us laugh. This is a more plausible motive for Wodehouse’s defenders than the public school old boys union.

  11. This piece is a study in speciousness. First Wodehouse’s ‘notorious’ broadcasts were the affable ramblings of an a-political and out-of-touch writer to his American fans. He was a celebrity and was telling his audience how he was getting on. He neither secrecetly supported nor voiced public support for the Nazis. As for his use of the n-word. This no more makes him ‘racist’ than it did Mark Twain.

    Balasubramanyam’s argument runs as follows:

    1) “NewSouth Books provoked controversy by altering the N-word to ‘slave’ in Huckleberry Finn.”

    2) “Who would be bowdlerised next?”

    3) I was “shocked” to find Wodehouse used the N-word in Thank you Jeeves.’

    4)’…Wooster himself uses the word a further six times, but that isn’t the full extent of the racism in the novel, as he proceeds to black up with shoe polish to escape from a boat, disguising himself as one of the minstrels whom, critically, we never encounter.’

    Rajeev, you should get out more. Wooster is using the language of his time. It gives no indication of any point of view regarding race.

    Balasubramanyam’s response to this reminds me of Blackadder’s Prince George’s reaction when he attends the theatre and takes the murder on stage to be an actual murder (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3E3_JvCO-I). Not in the sense that Wooster is exhibiting real racism and we should treat it as fiction but in the sense that Balasaubramanyam has no idea how to critically respond to drama and in particular to the use of period language from a period when ethnic groups were identified with occupations or dispositions. Freighting Wooster with the prejudices of his age and reacting to the text like a Millenial student no-platforming an alt-Right visiting speaker to her college’s debating society is about as crass a reaction as one can imagine.

    5) Wooster blacks up and gets a bad reaction from the maid at the back door in Chufnell Hall.

    Balasubramanyam comments.

    “Will he go on to consider the injustice of it all? Not likely. Part of Wooster’s charm is his refusal to disturb the passive equilibrium of his own mind. He has the apathy of the truly privileged, and though never pompous, the heir of the Wooster millions is in no way progressive”.

    Then to close his argument Balasubramanyam brings in Wodehouse’s ‘notorious’ broadcasts into play.

    He discounts defence of Wooster by the likes of Francis Wheen, Auberon Waugh, Christopher Hitchens, and George Orwell by pointing out that Wooster’s objection to Roderick Spoke isn’t political but aesthetic.

    Dear Lord. Wodehouse has certainly taken a Wildean view of aesthetics here – i.e. that it stands in for morality. The reaction at the back door is a send up of fear of dark skinned people and quietly subversive. Also remember Wooster’s love of jazz.

    Balasubramanyam would have Wodehouse be a didact. In that respect is epitomises what Wodehouse so excelled at sending up. His reading of Wodehouse, is nothing short of illiterate. His understanding of Wooster is somwhere between Aunt Agatha and Flroence Craye.


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