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.

Malice and snobbery seem to have fallen off Wodehouse unregarded, playing absolutely no part in his life, just as they are absent in the novels. He knew nothing of their source, or how they operated. William Connor, the Daily Mirror’s Cassandra, notoriously attacked him in the war for broadcasting ‘on behalf of the Germans’ when he was interned after the French debacle: a particularly malicious lie, because Wodehouse was obviously sending no more than reassuring messages to American friends and public. Always eager to disapprove, and to spurn a fallen idol, the public welcomed the story, and Wodehouse was, as he put it, in the dog house for years. But he replied by writing his usual sort of letters to Connor, who seems to have been gratified to have his author, as it were, after eating him. He had originally sneered at Wodehouse’s Christian names, Pelham and Grenville, and Wodehouse wrote to him as ‘Dear Walp’, suggesting that his initials stood for ‘Walpurgis Diarmid, or something of that sort’. The suggestion of establishment grandeur in his given names, which only a malicious snob would impute, is lost by Wodehouse, and turned into a mutually jokey fantasy from the world of Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright and Gussie Fink-Nottle.

Intellectuals, and journalists looking for worms in the apple, find it hard to forgive Wodehouse for being so apparently sunny and straightforward. Surely there must be some dark secret somewhere? Reviews of his letters have contained such phrases as ‘something withheld’ – ‘wears too fixed a smile’ – ‘self-suppression everywhere’. These seem to be symptoms of reviewer’s terror, a well-known complaint like athlete’s foot, which hamstrings the reviewer’s normal responses through the fear that he must have missed some quite obvious point all his colleagues will have picked up. It must be said that Wodehouse’s books might be much more interesting if there were things lurking in the background – instead of the pulse beating its happy rhythm on and on, unconscious of history and society and change and all the rest of it. Or rather not unconscious. The letters do wonder at times ‘whether they will think my sort of story out of date nowadays ... but I don’t believe people care a damn, so long as the story is funny.’ He may be ‘archaic’, assuming a state of affairs as out of date as Three Men in a Boat: but ‘I believe that people will jump at something that takes them away from modern conditions.’ ‘I read a book about Dickens the other day which pointed out that D was still writing gaily about stagecoaches etc, long after railways had come in. I don’t believe it matters and I intend to go on hewing to the butler line, let the chips fall where they may.’

Ah, but the difference is that the Wodehouse world lives because it never existed. Like the young French lieutenant, Bertie falls dead as he smiles: it is his métier. No one believes in Blandings Castle any more than in heaven and the saints, which is why the idea of them is so restful. Like the saints, Wodehouse was single-minded: to ask what he thought of it all would be like asking St Francis if he was really so attached to brother mouse and sister sparrow. The act of devotion is what counts.

My war history has been a simple one. I have just sat in my chair and written all the time. When the Germans occupied Le Touquet I was in the middle of a Jeeves novel, Joy in the Morning. I continued plugging away at this for exactly two months, when they took us all off in a van to internment. After a few weeks spent in prisons, barracks etc we were dumped down at the lunatic asylum at Tost in Upper Silesia, where it was possible to resume writing and I started a new novel called Money in the Bank ... I had to write in pencil in a room full of men playing darts and ping-pong, which made it a slow job. After my release my wife joined me, bringing me what I had done of Joy in the Morning. I finished this ...

The hermit’s point was being a hermit, not lamenting what was going on in the world. Suffering is indeed permanent, obscure and dark, and if Wodehouse had been conscious of it, could he have gone on doing his thing? That might be the difference between him and the saint. In The Borough Crabbe has a parson of whom he writes that

Never a man has left this world of sin
Quite so unchanged as when he entered in.

That may be bitter, but there is a surly admiration in it too.

For it is rare not to pretend to feel what you don’t, and not to seem chastened by experience into the role of bien pensant. To Usborne Wodehouse mentions his childhood, much of it spent with aunts while parents were in Hong Kong, and in rectories where the rector’s wife dumped him on the housekeeper or butler while she confabulated with the Lady Bountiful at the Great Hall. There was some basis to Jeeves country, and PG himself was like Jane Austen and many other people in having some grand though distant connections at one end and ordinary humble ones at the other. None of that seems to have interested him, or perhaps like sex and other matters it never entered his head. He was the reverse of clubbable, and indeed resigned from the Garrick. He hated company – the face of Bertie’s Uncle Tom ‘wore the strained haggard look it wears when he hears that guests are expected for the weekend’. That is from a letter to Denis Mackail, while his wife was sprucing up their house at Remsenburg, Long Island, and building a bar. ‘She really loves solitude as much as you and I do, but she has occasional yearnings to be the Society hostess and go in for all that “Act Two, The Terrace at Meadowsweet Manor” stuff.’ Women are funny, of course, but dogs seem to keep them happy. Wodehouse’s own sex life is an open book, as suggested in another letter to Mackail:

there always seems such a lot to do. Work in the morning, at twelve watch a television serial in which I am absorbed, lunch, take the dog to the post office which covers two to three, brood on work till five, bath, cocktails, dinner, read and play two-handed bridge, and the day is over. The same routine day after day and somehow it never gets monotonous.

St Benedict might have said the same of his rule.

He read everything, and not to take himself ‘away from modern conditions’. Plotting wasn’t his natural flair, and Marquand’s novels gave him the occasional idea for one. He was somewhat in awe of his friend Denis Mackail, brother of Angela Thirkell and like her a best-seller. Their names remind one that the status of what used to be called ‘escapist’ literature has subtly changed. No doubt there is still plenty of one sort of the old style, as indicated by the success of Mills and Boon: but the reading public hardly recognises the fact that sex and brutality and fearless realism are now pretentiously exploited to achieve the same ends. We still jump at something that takes us away from the conditions of our lives, but prefer to think it is Life we are getting, things as they really are. There is also a certain resemblance between Wodehouse and a modern master like Beckett. Both are, verbally speaking, performing fleas, but with Beckett you have the illusion that you are, as Plum might have put it, getting the goods on life. Jeeves and Wooster never pretended to give you that. There is no ‘human interest’ in either writer, but his admirers would shy away from Beckett being described as ‘a master of English prose’, the accolade freely given to Wodehouse. The vocabulary of appreciation changes our mode of response from age to age.

Raymond Chandler went as a schoolboy to Dulwich the year Wodehouse left, and there is a reference to him in the letters as a writer to be admired and read more of. C.S. Forester was at the same school and Wodehouse would have known about him too, for he zealously kept up with all the school’s sporting activities and its old boys. Not too fanciful to discern a resemblance, in terms of mastery of English prose, between all three writers: but the other two combine their skills with daydreams – being a private eye or captaining a ship of the line – in a way that discloses interior personality, the secrecy of a human case. Nothing like that happened with Plum.

Frances Donaldson has done a superb job of editing and writing an informative and perceptive introduction. She arranges the letters under the heading of subject and recipient, which gives a much better and clearer impression than the usual chronological hodge-podge, and it is a method that might be commended to all compilers of literary correspondence. One section, headed ‘Spiritualism’, is very brief, containing two letters of a couple of lines each to William Townend, a friend of long-standing. One says: ‘I want to talk to you about Spiritualism. I think it’s the goods.’ The other, two years later, in 1927:

That was rather queer about the planchette and Kate Overy. Do you remember she and her brother both committed suicide. I knew her fairly well. Have you had any more results?

Planchettes were quite the thing around 1927 – see ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ – and so was communication from the great beyond. Wodehouse received several letters dictated by Townend to a medium after his death. The message was that ‘life continues here in the most delightful way,’ and communication ran from 1967 to 1970, a few years before Wodehouse died. ‘To what extent Plum believed all these things is not known to anyone.’ So the editor remarks, adding that books on Spiritualism, including Townend’s favourite, The Wisdom of the Gods by H. Dennis Bradley, were found in his study after Wodehouse’s death. Bertie would have made a joke of it, but Jeeves would have understood.