Oh, Lionel!

Christopher Hitchens

  • P.G. Wodehouse: Man and Myth by Barry Phelps
    Constable, 344 pp, £16.95, October 1992, ISBN 0 09 471620 X

We know from his immense correspondence that P.G. Wodehouse was at once omnivorous and discriminating in his reading (garbage in; synthesis out – a good maxim for any young reader-for-pleasure setting out on life’s road). He cited authors as various as Lion Feuchtwanger and Rudyard Kipling, and didn’t bluff about a book he hadn’t read. And we know that he was excessively fond of the theatre. But he never alluded to the author of these ensuing lines, which come from Act One, Scene One of an imperishable stage moment, when the young master is discovered by his manservant while trying out the piano:

Algernon: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
Lane: I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

This bit of business, with a line being perfectly lobbed and beautifully returned over the social net, inaugurates a play in which: 1. The butler always has the last, crisp word. 2. Young men stutter cretinously when left alone with the adored object. 3. Country houses (‘How many bedrooms? Well, that point can be cleared up afterwards’) are an essential retreat from the cares of Mayfair and Piccadilly. 4. Aunts are mythical monsters (‘Never met such a Gorgon ... I don’t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one’). 5. Preposterous rural churchmen are on hand to supply authenticity (‘My sermon on the meaning of manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion’). 6. Ridiculous matrimonial entanglements are resolved, by absurd accidents of genealogy and dowry, leading to a massed chorus of happy endings.

Oscar Wilde doesn’t get so much as a walk-on part in Barry Phelps’s hearty, upbeat, point-missing celebration of the man he rather tryingly calls ‘The Master’. This further omission helps to materialise Alexander Cockburn’s surmise that ‘Wodehouse’s almost pathological prudery in sexual matters, a reticence sublimated in the jocular male partnerships employed in his fiction and the loyal epistolatory male friendships of his life, caused him to shy away in extreme nervousness from mention of Wilde.’ Phelps touches on this recoil himself, recording Wodehouse’s distaste for Beverly Nichols as an interviewer and quoting a letter from Wodehouse to Bill Townend, saying: ‘Can you imagine giving lunch to celebrate the publication of a book? With the other authors, mostly fairies, twittering all over the place, screaming “Oh, Lionel!” ’ This may make George Orwell seem rather naive for having made the otherwise useful observation that: ‘how closely Wodehouse sticks to conventional morality can be seen from the fact that nowhere in his books is there anything in the nature of a sex joke. This is an enormous sacrifice for a farcical writer to make. Not only are there no dirty jokes, but there are hardly any compromising situations.’ It’s the idea of ‘sacrifice’ here that seems, on consideration, to be the disputable one.

In this oddly-sorted book of facts and reminiscences, Phelps does occasionally contrive to sharpen the outlines of our existing profile of PGW. It’s melancholy but unsurprising, and oddly reassuring in view of the foregoing, to discover that Wodehouse’s sexlessness arose from a frightful case of the mumps in early youth. So that at least his passivity was not the outcome of any repression or trauma. It enabled, in some fashion, an essential part of him to remain childlike. While this is no psychohistory (no mumps doesn’t necessarily equal no Gussie Fink-Nottle) it does help us in considering a possible connection between the knowing and the innocent in modern English comic writing. To take another coincidence which, likewise ignored by Phelps, was pouncable-upon as I came across it: ‘Wodehouse also helped C. Aubrey Smith, later Sir Aubrey and a Sussex and England cricketer when Plum was at Dulwich, to found the Hollywood Cricket Club ... The club became the social centre for the British colony in Los Angeles.’ That was in 1931, more than a decade before The Loved One and Sir Ambrose and the tragi-comedy of Anglo-American manners. (And one might also mention the ‘Bide-A-Wee’ pet shelter to which the Wodehouses donated a small fortune, to say nothing of the cemetery in which they buried six Long Island pets.) Anglo-American cultural tensions, as it happens, didn’t trouble PGW overmuch. He developed a pretty thoroughgoing indifference to England and the English, of a sort which mocks his more roast-beef retinue of affected acolytes. He displayed none of the condescension with which Waugh, for example, approached Anglo-American locutions, and he never scorned to lard his discourse with terms like ‘Rannygazoo’, ‘Hornswoggle’ and ‘Put on dog’.

Phelps earns his keep by faithfully tracking these entries (many of which went straight from novelty to redundancy to antiquity and are only preserved by ‘Plum’ having taken notice of them) and other taxonomies and lexicographies: ‘Wodehouse invented many phrases, such as “Down to Earth”, which are now so much part of the English language that we assume they are of ancient provenance instead of being only a few decades old. Other examples are “To have a dash at something”, “Dirty work at the crossroads”, “Foggy between the ears”, “Loony bin” and that splendid back-formation “Gruntled” ... The OED refers to his work 1255 times!’ Here is a twinge, conveyed among other things by that last exclamation mark, both of what is compelling and of what is exhausting in Wodehouse idolatry. None of the above hits are real chartbusters except perhaps ‘gruntled’, (‘He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled’), which is drawn from The Code of the Woosters yet which Phelps sources as – gawd-’elp-us – a find by Gyles Brandreth and further sources as – gawd-’elp-us again – Pelham Books. The atmosphere of a jolly buff’s reunion, complete with painful Drones impersonations and ritual bread-throwing, lies heavy about this work.

As Phelps puts it in his no-nonsense style, having discovered that Wodehouse once spoke well of a Tom Sharpe effort, ‘that The Master should commend such bawdy black humour is superficially surprising, given his dislike for anything raunchy, but he must have appreciated that he had met another comic master who could also make the language dance to his bidding.’ Well, I mean to say, really. This dance business seems to be on the Phelps brain, since later he avers, or asserts: ‘If your criteria for great literature require Sturm und Drang with penetrating insights into the human predicament then Wodehouse is not great literature. If those criteria include total mastery of written English, the ability to make it dance to your bidding with a poetic beauty and to any job desired and to give joy to readers across the entire spectrum, then Wodehouse is great literature.’

Golly. So the good end happily and the bad unhappily, because that is what Fiction means and anything else would be too brainy. If Phelps thinks that there is no Sturm und Drang in Bertie’s confrontation with Sir Roderick Spode and the Black Shorts, he must be a hard man to please. Or perhaps an easy one – he refers twice to a master short story writer called O’Henry and says of Agatha Christie that she is among those ‘whose mastery of plot is unbettered and whose use of language to achieve their aims is total’.

There’s a reactionary growl underlying all this good clean fun interpretation. Phelps believes that Wodehouse said the last word on socialism in one of his Psmith juvenilia stories – ‘It’s a great scheme ... You work for the equal distribution of property and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.’ He also defines this as ‘satire’. But much more satirical, surely, is Wodehouse in the fine maturity of Right ho, Jeeves, where Aunt Dahlia speaks woundingly of the fabulously wealthy Uncle Tom as having ‘just had a demand from the income-tax people for an additional fifty-eight pounds, one and threepence, and all he’s been talking about since I got back has been ruin and the sinister trend of socialistic legislation and what will become of us all.’

Wodehouse was here being, among other things, self-satirising. He was, all through his life, absolutely obsessed with money and with the necessity of preserving it from the clutches of the Revenue. This theme permeates his letters and took up much of his time with agents, lawyers and accountants; long surviving his access to prosperity. As is so often the case, the consciousness arose from penury in boyhood and from the crushing disappointment of the cancellation of his Oxford entrance due to a sudden crisis in the family funds. These were all vested in India. ‘What made the blow even worse was being withdrawn from the scholarship exam at the last moment. In the face he showed the world young Wodehouse accepted the decision with good grace and clothed it in humour, writing of the rupee – in which Ernest’s pension was paid – jumping up and down and throwing fits. “Watch the rupee” was, he claimed, the cry in the Wodehouse household and expenditure had to be regulated in the light of what mood it happened to be in at any moment.’ Perhaps this supplies another reason for Wodehouse’s possible repression of The Importance of Being Earnest. Does not Miss Prism say to her pupil:

Cecily, you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational. Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side.

(The play was first performed in 1895: Wodehouse’s Oxford misfortune occured in 1899.) Phelps strains for effect by writing as if there were a vast anti-Wodehouse consensus, split into two factions. The first faction, one might be led to believe, cannot forgive him for his ‘unpatriotic’ wartime broadcasts from Berlin. The second faction cannot abide his élitist focus on butlers and wastrels. Thus we are given yet another vindication of ‘Plum’ for his evident innocence about the broadcasts, and then a story (which I must say was new to me) about Wodehouse being sponsored for his knighthood by the superannuated trade-union bureaucrat Walter Citrine. (Phelps spoils this by foolishly going for unironic paradox and describing the fuddled old carthorse as ‘a red-in-tooth-and-claw socialist’.)

The fact is that there are only a few mysteries and controversies left. One of these – a very minor one – Phelps proposes to solve by instructing us that Jeeves (first name Reginald as was revealed by Bertie in a moment of almost unpardonable familiarity) took his name from Percy Jeeves, a Warwickshire fast bowler felled in Flanders in 1916. A second enigma, and one that I should very much like to see cleared up, concerns Wodehouse’s motive in giving the name ‘Roderick’ to both Bertie’s chief male nemeses – Glossop and Spode. Evelyn Waugh hung the name Cruttwell on several posturing idiots in his early fiction, and apparently by this means induced a nervous prostration in an Oxford figure of the same name upon whom he sought revenge. The ‘Eulalie’ business teaches us that Wodehouse well-kenned the power of humiliating nomenclature. But I still have no Roderick data on which to base a solid speculation.

This is all footnoting. Between Wodehouse and Wilde there is an enormous gulf apparently fixed. Both died in exile, having been meanly treated by a culture that prides itself above all on having a broad and keen sense of humour. Both were vilely baited by the pseudo-lions of a cowardly establishment. Both were tougher eggs than they looked, and both thought the class system an absolute scream. It would be encouraging to think that an unacknowledged, latent tie existed between the louche Irishman and the reticent minor public schoolboy, because only by brooding on such connections can we hope to save the idea of English humour from the drawing-room and saloon-bar conscription that is eternally levied upon it by bland, Loamshire wits like Mr Phelps.