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