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.

Before we come to that, though, let us glance at an American clubman’s book, The World of P.G. Wodehouse by Herbert Warren Wind, a New Yorker writer, described on the blurb as ‘America’s most distinguished golf correspondent’. His book is a tribute, written in good American lapidary prose. We might have hoped for some account of Wodehouse’s relationship with golf: but Mr Wind is too serious for that. His book is the most handsomely designed and the dust-cover shows Wodehouse at the wheel of a splendid motor (‘a shimmering AC’, according to Joseph Connolly), looking like Lord Peter Wimsey. Connolly also records that Wodehouse crashed this car, in the Ukridge manner, and never drove again. But let that pass. Herbert Warren Wind is a serious man.

Here is his most serious sentence – and I am not smiling now. ‘During the Second World War he underwent one of the cruellest experiences that can befall a man: he was unjustly charged with being a traitor to his country.’

What happened in 1941 was that Wodehouse, after being interned by Germans in Belgium, was encouraged by neutral Americans to deliver broadcasts about his experiences on the Nazi-controlled radio, for the benefit of his American admirers. To the embattled British this was horrible. Wodehouse was gently mocking about the Nazis when he should have been trying to kill them. I was ten at the time, used to sharing my Wodehouse books with my father (Wodehouse is the sort of writer that boys share with their fathers) and I remember reading in the Daily Sketch that Wodehouse had forgotten ‘the Code of the Woosters’ and had adopted the motto of Jeeves: ‘I always endeavour to give satisfaction, sir.’ Suddenly, Wodehouse wasn’t funny any more.

While the Daily Sketch, a feeble Tory tabloid, did the whimpering, the Daily Mirror went off with a bang. This Labour tabloid was – and still is – something of a barrack-room lawyer, ever ready to associate the nation’s troubles with the failings of the officer class. Wodehouse was identified with the upper-class ninnies in some of his books: he was accused of being a ‘drone’ – although he was, of course, a very hard-working professional writer. The Daily Mirror columnist, ‘Cassandra’, denounced Wodehouse’s broadcasts, with the encouragement of the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, an upper-class politician keen to dissociate himself from other Tories who were held to be soft on Nazism.

It may seem strange that the Anglo-American comedian should have been so important. An old dust-cover, reproduced on Benny Green’s new dust-cover, gives the clue: ‘Another book of laughter by our national humorist.’ For our national humorist to have anything to do with the Nazis was as damaging to the nation’s soul as anything alleged against Edward VIII.

Wodehouse had been an emblem of Britishness for the smug, Daily Telegraph elements in the United Kingdom: his work was ‘the sort of thing foreigners don’t understand’ – like cricket, Gilbert and Sullivan. Malcolm Muggeridge has told an improbable story, repeated in several of these books, about a German spy who misunderstood Wodehouse and landed in Britain wearing spats – accessories almost unknown outside the Drones Club. This may be true, I suppose. What is certain is that British readers liked to believe that only they could understand their national humorist. Consider the wartime movie, Pimpernel Smith, in which the stupid and wicked German reads out a passage of Wodehouse, alleging that it is unfunny: ‘so how can ve onderstand zis nation of madmen?’ British audiences laughed smugly.

The hero of that movie was a sleepy, gentlemanly don who suddenly turned up trumps in the anti-Nazi struggle, like a Percy Blakeney, an Albert Campion or a Peter Wimsey. (It happens that the hero was played by a schoolfellow of Wodehouse’s, the Hungarian Leslie Howard: he is mentioned in Wodehouse on Wodehouse.) The British public wanted Bertie Wooster or P.G. Wodehouse to act out the Leslie Howard part, the sleepy English gent who suddenly comes to life and sends the Nazis flying. But all Wodehouse could do was to be gently, unaggressively, mocking.

He was defended by dissident members of the public-school and/or varsity class, Malcolm Muggeridge and George Orwell. They were both inclined to patronise Wodehouse. They did not quite see the point; knowledgeable about upper-class humbug, they were less at home with ‘the national spirit’ and the working class. Neither could argue with ‘Cassandra’ of the Mirror. But Benny Green can. He is (among many other things) one of the best of the Mirror’s present-day columnists and he knows just where to hit ‘Cassandra’. He can also rebuke the patronising Orwell, who suggested that Wodehouse’s comedy lies outside politics. Benny Green points to Wodehouse’s creation of the fearful British Fascist, Roderick Spode, a parody of Oswald Mosley. This satire fits in prettily with Benny Green’s feeling that Wodehouse is an inspiration to anyone who is hostile to bullying and bossiness – from Louis B. Mayer or Oswald Mosley, from ‘Cassandra’ or Duff Cooper. Where Wodehouse delicately points his toe against a bossy ankle, Benny Green jumps in and stamps on the bossy boots.

There are three aspects of Wodehouse particularly well discussed by Benny Green: Wodehouse, the national emblem accused of treachery; Wodehouse, the master and victim of American popular culture – and both song-lyrics and film-scripts count as ‘literature’; Wodehouse, the happy public-school boy – rare among good writers. All three match with the trilogy of oblique autobiographical sketches bound together in Wodehouse on Wodehouse; and Benny Green has made good use of these. They were all first published in the 1950s and were not reprinted until 1980.

One of them is called ‘Over Seventy’ and claims to be a response to an inquisitive letter from an American journalist called J. P. Winkler who specialised in asking septuagenarians: ‘Just exactly how do you feel?’ Wodehouse was skittish in his reply, perhaps more malicious about Americans and interviewers and Time-style prose than he might have been in his younger days. He applauds Evelyn Waugh’s treatment of interviewers, and breaks into Gilbertian verse to celebrate Waugh’s ejection of tiresome people from the Daily Express. (Wodehouse’s relationship with the Waughs – Alec, Arthur and Evelyn – must be somebody’s thesis.)

‘Over Seventy’ was first published in 1957 when Wodehouse was 76. It is not as funny as the first book in the trilogy, ‘Bring on the girls’ (1954). This is a fanciful memoir about his life as a Broadway lyricist in the early years of this century, stuffed with British jokes about America. He claims that ‘the English school’ was recognised as essential to freeing the Broadway show from the Viennese – and that Jerome Kern had to pretend to be an Englishman, when crossing the Atlantic with a showbiz magnate, saying things like: ‘Coo! Lord-love-a-duck! Makes a chap think a bit, that sort of thing, what?’ ‘Bring on the girls’ was written in collaboration with Wodehouse’s long-term friend and partner, Guy Bolton (an American born in Britain), and I think Bolton kept him close to the real workaday world, nicely caricatured, rather than letting him soar off into that Never-Never-Land of Blandings Castle fantasy, which so many Wodehouse buffs prefer. Structuralists may recognise the ‘reflexive, autonomous, metafictive’ side of Wodehouse: but his observation of reality also deserves to be appreciated.

Admittedly, the third item in Wodehouse on Wodehouse contradicts me. In ‘Performing Flea’, Wodehouse writes: ‘I go off the rails unless I stay all the time in a sort of artificial world of my own creation. A real character in one of my books sticks out like a sore thumb ...’ This need not be taken literally. Wodehouse is putting himself down. ‘Performing Flea’ consists of a collection of letters written to his old schoolfriend, Bill Townend, between 1920 and 1952, together with extracts from a journal Wodehouse kept when interned by the Nazis. Townend put it together in 1953, partly to defend his old friend against the charge of collaborating with the enemy. It could be misleading – simply because the letters are written to Townend, a not oversuccessful ‘serious’ writer, who needed to be helped (and not patronised) by the internationally famous comedian. One might get the impression that Wodehouse was not only a keen Old Boy but positively obsessed by his old school; that he was often thoughtfully, modestly concerned about the difference between his own comedies and ‘serious’ writing.

Those happy schooldays seem cosy to some readers and exotic to others. ‘Can you think of one first-class writer who enjoyed going to a public school?’ I asked an Eton master, quite recently. ‘P.G. Wodehouse,’ he replied, promptly. (‘Oh, Dulwich is different,’ I said, feebly. ‘South London, you know ...’ And indeed Dulwich must be different, to produce all those accomplished popular writers – C. S. Forester, A.E.W. Mason, Raymond Chandler, even Dennis Wheatley.) The image of the happy public schoolboy, perhaps, contributed to the myth of Wodehouse as a symbol of his nation, ‘Our National Humorist’. To London grammar-school boys, though, like Benny Green or myself, the old-school-tie bit is not compelling. When reformers tinker with our old schools and petitions are got up in protest, we are inclined to say: ‘No. They will probably improve it.’ Benny Green told me once: ‘I had a lot of trouble at my school. The headmaster was against jazz ...’ His interest in Edwardian literature began when he played truant to see the film of Kipps; later, he was punished for reading H. G. Wells during a Latin lesson – and he still thinks he ought to have been congratulated. So Wodehouse’s love for his school is strange, and charming. I share his liking for Latin, and Benny Green shares his interest in cricket scores (as he shares Bernard Shaw’s interest in boxing): but there is something larger than these particulars about Wodehouse’s school spirit.

Green admires Wodehouse’s school stories, noting that they are more grown-up, less sanctimonious, than his predecessors’. But I don’t think Wodehouse was unique in his time. I have a bound volume of the Captain (1908-9) which I bought because it contained a serial by my old favourite, Lieutenant Charles Gleig, author of Contraband Tommy and The Middy of the Blunderbore. Gleig’s tone is quite different from that of modern juvenile literature. He suggests: ‘Of course you want to join the Royal Navy and you must try to obey your officers; but, my lads, you must remember that some of those officers will be frightful fools, like some of your parents and your teachers and the local policemen. I can tell you that from my middle-aged experience.’ In the same volume there is a serialisation of Wodehouse’s The New Fold, starring Psmith. He has the same tone as Gleig: they are telling boys about adult life, warning them against the bosses.

This volume of the Captain puts Wodehouse into his historical context. The New Fold is about young men forced to work in a dreary bank when they would rather be back at school. Psmith, the comedian, and Mike, the straight man, divert themselves by protecting a rather silly old clerk, who spouts Socialism on Clapham Common, from a malignant bank manager who is standing as a Tory candidate, concealing his past as a Red revolutionary in the Tulse Hill Parliament. Psmith and Mike bribe policemen and punch working-class Tories ... This is not fantasy. It is an everyday story of South London folk, with thoughtful observations. Psmith, the monocled dandy, is better at mixing with the populace than is Mike, the cricketing square. ‘Mike, like most boys of his age, was never really happy and at his ease except in the presence of those of his own age and class. Psmith, on the contrary, seemed to be bored by them, and infinitely preferred talking to somebody who lived in quite another world ...’ (We think of Wodehouse himself, escaping from his London bank, heading for Broadway.)

The readers of the Captain fell in love with Psmith. There are letters demanding more Psmith, imitations of his lordly style: ‘I was ushered into the presence of Comrade Moneybags, the Money Monarch, the Brass of Britain, the Cash of the Country ...’ There is, surprisingly, a letter from a boy asking how he can get a job in a bank, like Psmith’s. There is a poem by a grown-up woman, over 20, asserting that the excellence of Psmith proves that she is not too old to read the Captain. There is an article by an idealistic boy, called ‘The Aim of Socialism’, which begins: ‘Although Mr Wodehouse’s description of Socialism is justified by the excellent use he makes of it, I fear that it will only increase the delusion entertained by most people with regard to that much-libelled policy ...’

This is 1909. One cannot in 1982 imagine a popular magazine for boys containing such grown-up stuff – nor a humorous writer provoking such a serious response. The Captain is evidence for my belief that Wodehouse was a realist, as well as a fantasist, and that he was not unique among boys’ writers but very much in tune with the spirit of his age.

The most important part of Benny Green’s book, though, must be his account of Wodehouse’s relationship with the performing arts in America. The book starts with a quote from Ira Gershwin: ‘I must tell you about this wonderful, charming man, Wodehouse.’ We are persuaded that Wodehouse was one of the men who humanised the American musical theatre, rescuing it from Viennese operetta, preparing the ground for Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls. There is another excellent, though less cheering, section about Wodehouse’s experiences in Hollywood. Green waxes indignant about the maltreatment of Wodehouse by people whom he describes (with Psmithian eloquence) as ‘those picaresque merchant-bandits endowed by circumstances with the oxymoronic status of Jewish philistine’! This is fierce. In the Mulliner stories, those tales of crazy America recounted in a sleepy English pub, the Hollywood moguls come over as more funny than horrible: one feels that Wodehouse had more laughs than kicks.

Benny Green has a strongly protective attitude to his hero. He expresses a sort of working-class compassion for this public-school boy, separated from his parents, suffering under aunts (like Kipling and Saki), put into a bank instead of going to university, bossed around by Germans, British patriots and ‘Jewish philistines’. Probably Benny Green is right to be so cross. Perhaps the whole nasty business of the ‘Nazi-collaborator’ accusation stems from the fact that Wodehouse was too often amused when he ought to have been indignant.