No snarling

Fatema Ahmed

  • Wodehouse by Joseph Connolly
    Haus, 192 pp, £9.99, September 2004, ISBN 1 904341 68 3
  • Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
    Penguin, 542 pp, £8.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 14 100048 1

On my father’s bookshelves, tucked between yet another novel by Somerset Maugham and J.B. Priestley’s account of a journey to Mexico with his archaeologist wife, was a copy of Carry On, Jeeves. I had never heard of P.G. Wodehouse and racing through these stories of a master and his manservant I was surprised to find that, so far as I could tell, they were seriously funny and devoid of serious meaning. There was no more Wodehouse at home; my father took a dim view of frivolous books. But my local library took a dim view of the contemporary unless it was slightly unfashionable or too popular to ignore – and the shortage of more recent fiction left room for two whole shelves of Wodehouse. I read nearly 50 books before the supply ran out. I wouldn’t really recommend this: prolonged exposure to Wodehouse can stop you taking anything seriously. Worse still, it can stop other people taking you seriously.

Biographers of Wodehouse have fallen into two camps: outright fans and well-disposed (but essentially sane) observers. Joseph Connolly’s biography is a harrowing example of the former; denied permission to quote from Wodehouse’s work he compensates by adopting a jaunty tone. Unlike Wodehouse, however, but like many would-be imitators, he falls into the trap of sounding patronising and long-winded: ‘P.G. Wodehouse was born in 1881, which surprised no one very much as he had been expected for some time . . . He was over six feet tall, and had two large hands and feet on the ends of the limbs you would expect.’

All the biographical attention – five full biographies and many literary/biographical studies – would have puzzled its subject. ‘What infernally dull reading an author’s life makes. It’s all right as long as you are struggling, but once you have become financially sound there is nothing to say,’ Wodehouse said during the preparation of Over Seventy (1957), his ‘sort of autobiography’. His own period of struggle was brief. Once he had broken into the American magazine market in 1915 – the Saturday Evening Post was particularly generous – he fully exploited the opportunity to sell his work twice, first to magazines and then as books. (The Post bought his first serial for $3500; in 1922, it paid $18,000 for Leave It to Psmith.)

The main facts of his life are these: Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881, the third son of a Hong Kong magistrate. He was sent home to England at the age of two and lived with a succession of relatives; at the age of five he went to boarding-school. Robert McCrum calculates that ‘in total, Wodehouse saw his parents for barely six months between the ages of three and 15.’ After he left Dulwich College, to which he remained deeply attached for the rest of his life, his father got him a job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He worked there for two years and left when he was able to support himself as a writer. His first novel, The Pothunters, was published in 1902. From 1904 onwards he made regular trips to the United States and spent all of the First World War there. He had a long career as a lyricist, his most successful collaboration being with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern: ‘Wodehouse and Bolton and Kern are my favourite indoor sport,’ Dorothy Parker said. In the 1930s he earned vast sums during two short spells as a Hollywood scriptwriter ($2500 a week in 1930; $1500 a week in 1934). His personal life was as uneventful as only that of someone who published more than ninety books in 73 years can be. He married in 1914. He and Ethel had a joint bank account (which Ethel controlled), separate bedrooms, no children and many Pekinese dogs.

Since Wodehouse’s death in 1975 there have been two authorised biographies. Frances Donaldson’s, published in 1982, is warmer about the man than the work. She was a schoolfriend of Wodehouse’s beloved stepdaughter, Leonora. But she was a surprising choice for official biographer after her remarks in a 1967 memoir of Evelyn Waugh: ‘Although I had known Plummie Wodehouse all my life, I had never been able to read his books. I cannot see the point of them.’ Fifteen years later, she was still far from convinced: ‘Women as a whole do not care for masculine fantasy.’

McCrum, the second authorised biographer, steers a course between the extremes of cultish enthusiasm and disdain. He acknowledges the researches of more dedicated ‘Wodehousians’ and admits that Wodehouse’s fans ‘range from the idolatrous to the merely obsessed’. There’s a hint of embarrassment at being in their company when he goes on to cite a long list of famous admirers including T.S. Eliot, Auden, Dorothy Parker, Wittgenstein and Cardinal Hume. McCrum’s store of unexpected detail makes clear Wodehouse’s determination to be a writer. He was a faithful recorder of encounters with strangers and overheard conversations. From 1901: ‘Bus driver: Been 17 years in the Army (Bodmin, India, Burmah, India, Burmah, Malta, Gibraltar, Soudan – relief of Gordon – and Transvaal): says that a bus driver could write a “reel ’istory” of the things he sees from his box seat.’ Of a waitress in 1904: ‘Hours 3 to 6.30, but has to stop late if people come: wears dress that cost £6, belongs to proprietor, but is given it at the end of season.’ McCrum is explicit about money where Donaldson is silent or ignorant, and plausibly suggests that Wodehouse’s lack of interest in sex was due to a 1901 attack of mumps which may also have left him infertile. Best of all, his brisk account of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts takes up only a fifth of the book.

The only truly eventful episode in Wodehouse’s long life was his internment in Germany in 1940 (he and his wife were slow to leave their house in the South of France, worried that their Pekinese would be quarantined) and the five broadcasts he made on German radio after his release in 1941. The important points are that Wodehouse did not agree to give the broadcasts in exchange for his release and that no one familiar with the text of the talks could accuse him of Fascist tendencies, as the Daily Mirror columnist ‘Cassandra’ did on the BBC. In the House of Commons Anthony Eden expressed his regret that Wodehouse had ‘lent his services to the German war propaganda machine’: this was nearer the mark.

Wodehouse’s biographers convict him only of exaggerated innocence. This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. ‘Do you know,’ he wrote to his old schoolfriend Bill Townend in April 1939, ‘a feeling is gradually stealing over me that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present . . . No war in our lifetime is my feeling.’ He was not alone in this lack of prescience, but few of his fellow optimists could have come up with the following analogy: ‘Doesn’t all this alliance-forming remind you of the form matches at school . . . I can’t realise that all of this is affecting millions of men. I think of Hitler and Mussolini as two halves and Stalin as a useful wing forward.’ The tendency to cut the unfamiliar or unpleasant down to size is evident in many of his letters. Of Scott Fitzgerald, he wrote in November 1923 to his stepdaughter: ‘I believe those stories . . . about his drinking are exaggerated. He seems quite normal and is a very nice chap indeed . . . The only thing is that he goes into New York with a scrubby chin, looking perfectly foul.’ He described George Orwell (whom he met in 1944) as a ‘gentleman beachcomber’.

Wodehouse’s writerly fans include some of the arch-blimps of Eng. Lit.: Hilaire Belloc called him ‘the best writer of English now alive . . . the head of my profession’; Evelyn Waugh said that ‘one has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page.’ But it was Orwell who produced the first perceptive analysis of the work from outside the cult. In his essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’, he points out that ‘a thing people often forget about Wodehouse’s novels is how long ago the better-known of them were written.’ This was true when Orwell wrote it in 1945; it becomes more disturbing when you realise that Wodehouse’s best-known character, Bertie Wooster, first appeared in 1919, and was still a member of the Drones Club more than fifty years later. ‘You’re quite right about my books being early Edwardian,’ he wrote to the novelist Denis Mackail in 1945. ‘I look upon myself as a historical novelist.’ He went public on the subject in the preface to Joy in the Morning (1947), the Jeeves and Wooster novel he was writing when he was interned. Identifying his characters as examples of the Edwardian ‘knut’ (a more philistine version of the dandy and a stock figure of music-hall fun), he explains the two forces behind the knut’s demise: younger sons of the aristocracy being forced to work and the passing of the spat.

The First World War would be a better answer but it’s exactly the sort of explanation that’s out of place in Wodehouse’s world: you can’t be flippant about the war. I know of only one direct reference to the First World War in Wodehouse and that’s in a resolutely whimsical context: the Duke of Dunstable’s nephew, trying to ingratiate himself with his uncle by agreeing to steal Lord Emsworth’s pig, asks admiringly what Dunstable did in the Great War. The Joy in the Morning preface continues defensively as Wodehouse explains that what makes his characters seem ‘creatures of a dead past is that they are genial and good-tempered . . . In these days when everyone hates everybody else, anyone who is not snarling at something – or everything – is an anachronism.’

The genial and good-tempered Wodehouse heroes fall into two categories: those who want to be left alone (Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth) and those who like stirring things up (Psmith, Ukridge). The peace-seekers have a number of enemies. Bertie Wooster’s include his Aunt Agatha, who ‘eats broken bottles and wears barbed-wire next to the skin’; intellectual girls who want to marry him and improve his mind; jealous he-men who love the intellectual girls and want to break Bertie’s neck; and old fogeys who want to put Bertie in prison or an asylum. Lord Emsworth is harassed by domineering sisters, officious secretaries (often in league with a domineering sister) and neighbouring aristocrats who covet his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. Bertie is the author of many memorable images: ‘She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.’ But he is articulate only as a narrator. He never says anything memorable in conversation; as a character interacting with other characters he is an idiot. In Thank You, Jeeves he discovers Pauline Stoker, a former fiancée, in his bed and wearing his ‘heliotrope pyjamas with the old gold stripe’. Bertie the narrator comments: ‘The attitude of fellows towards finding girls in their bedroom shortly after midnight varies. Some like it. Some don’t. I didn’t.’ In real time all Bertie comes up with is: ‘What . . . what . . . what?’ There’s a tempting parallel with Wodehouse’s own manner here; McCrum quotes Wodehouse’s editor at Vanity Fair who remembered him as ‘self-effacing, slow-witted and matter of fact . . . I never heard him utter a clever, let alone a brilliant, remark.’

Wodehouse shows signs of impatience with this convention in The Code of the Woosters (1938) where Bertie drops some of his best witticisms to Jeeves: ‘It’s no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.’ But Jeeves is on the home team and doesn’t count. No one else ever learns of Bertie’s metaphor-rich inner life.

It’s no accident that the two most helpless heroes had the longest run. Wodehouse claimed that his inability to write about American subjects when he first went to the US was the only reason he started to write about ‘Bertie Wooster and comic earls’. They offered other advantages, too: an unperceptive character can have the same adventures again and again. Wodehouse agonised over his plots, reusing old ones if he thought he could get away with it and asking friends for new ones. ‘Have you any short-story plots to dispose of?’ he asked Townend in 1928. ‘I need a Lord Emsworth and an Ukridge.’

As plots got harder to come by, the cleverer characters who needed to be given more to do gave way to less energetic creations. Wodehouse’s most enterprising characters are Ukridge and Psmith. Both were early creations and both were based on real people. Ukridge was inspired by a friend of Townend’s who owned a chicken farm, but also draws on Wodehouse’s friend and early rival Herbert Westbrook, who would borrow his friends’ clothes and plan improbable schemes. Ukridge first appeared in Love among the Chickens (1906), but comes into his own in short-story form. Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge is expelled from school for breaking out at night to go to the village fair. He goes in disguise but forgets to remove his school cap. The mixture of bravado and strategic oversight is typical. Ukridge is undeniably vulgar – he makes his friend and chronicler James Corcoran wince by calling him ‘laddie’ and ‘old horse’ – and badly dressed: ‘Over grey flannel trousers, a golf coat and a brown sweater he wore like a royal robe a bright yellow macintosh.’ Wodehouse explained that ‘the keynote of the series is that he and all his pals are devilish hard-up’ and the consequent plots are some of Wodehouse’s most inventive. Ukridge’s schemes range from training Pekinese dogs for the music-hall stage to managing a boxer too kindly to knock out his opponents. All his schemes fail but he never loses his restless optimism or his ‘big, broad, flexible outlook’.

Ukridge has a well-dressed counterpart in the one glamorous lead in all of Wodehouse. In a letter to Townend in 1936, Wodehouse explained how he used his regular characters: ‘In writing a novel, I always imagine I am writing for a cast of actors. Some actors are natural minor actors and some are natural major actors. It is a matter of personality. Psmith, for instance, is a major character. If I am going to have Psmith in a story, he must be in the big situations.’ Psmith – the p is silent ‘as in phthisis, psychic and ptarmigan’ – first appeared in Mike, in 1909. Mike is a very dull novel unless you like reading long accounts of imaginary cricket matches. The eponymous hero attends Wrykyn, a school modelled on Dulwich College. After a year of sporting success, his father forces him to go to a smaller school. Here he meets Psmith, who has just been expelled from Eton: ‘A very long, thin youth with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece.’ He wears a monocle. Psmith is a refreshing foil to the hearty and unimaginative Mike. ‘Cricket I dislike,’ he says, ‘but watching cricket is one of the finest of Britain’s manly sports.’ (To satisfy the schoolboy reader, Psmith turns out to be a very useful bowler.)

Three further Mike and Psmith books follow in which Mike is pushed out of sight to allow Psmith more scope for activities too exciting for his stolid sidekick. In Psmith Journalist (1915), Psmith accompanies Mike on an improbable Cambridge University cricket tour of America. Mike disappears for much of the novel while Psmith takes over a family magazine called Cosy Moments and turns it into a crusading ‘antidote to yellow journalism’. The normally debonair Psmith is shocked by the conditions of tenement dwellers and takes up their cause: ‘His lot had been cast in pleasant places, and the sight of actual raw misery had come home to him with an added force.’ In other brushes with reality, Wodehouse includes a New York gang leader called Bat Jarvis who has 23 cats (the real gang leader Monk Eastman kept a pet store and, McCrum says, ‘would often venture out with a cat under each arm’). After his adventures in New York, it’s jarring to find Psmith at the end of the novel back in Cambridge ‘in pyjamas and a college blazer’.

Psmith is Wodehouse’s only deliberately witty character. He even has a small measure of self-awareness. In Leave It to Psmith (1923) he wonders why he is attracted to Eve Halliday : ‘It seemed to him that in addition to being beautiful she brought out all that was best in him of intellect and soul. That is to say, she let him talk oftener and longer than any girl he had ever known.’

Women in Wodehouse also fall into categories: virtuous chorus girls who marry ineffectual but well-born young men; drippy poetry-readers; sexually aggressive intellectuals who read Nietzsche; tomboys who like playing practical jokes; or aunts. They all dominate their fiancés or husbands, except the intellectuals, who end up with thuggish would-be dictators or explorers they enjoy being dominated by. Psmith pursues the resourceful Eve Halliday on a surprisingly equal footing. He first sees her sheltering from the rain under a shop awning:

Fawn stockings, obviously expensive, led up to a black crepe frock. And then, just as the eye was beginning to feel that there could be nothing more, it was stunned by a supreme hat of soft, dull satin with a black bird of paradise feather falling down over the left shoulder. Even to the masculine eye, which is notoriously slow to judge in these matters, a whale of a hat.

There follows the only purely dramatic scene in a Wodehouse novel. What makes it so striking (and unusual for Psmith ‘on whom conversation always acted as a mental stimulus’) is that it takes place in near silence:

‘Excuse me.’

A hatless young man was standing beside her, holding an umbrella. He was a striking-looking young man, very tall, very thin, and very well dressed. In his right eye there was a monocle, and through this he looked down at her with a grave friendliness. He said nothing further, but, taking her fingers, clasped them round the handle of an umbrella, which he had obligingly opened, and then with a courteous bow proceeded to dash with long strides along the road.

The umbrella is one he has stolen from a fellow member of the Drones Club, an act he justifies as ‘Merely practical Socialism. Other people are content to talk about the Redistribution of Property. I go out and do it.’ Psmith calls everyone ‘Comrade’ but apart from his pangs of social conscience in Psmith Journalist, there is little more to this than archness. Psmith was inspired by Rupert D’Oyly Carte (the son of the Savoy Opera impresario), who wore a monocle and addressed his fellow pupils as ‘Comrade’. When asked about his health, he would answer: ‘Sir, I grow thinnah and thinnah.’ Psmith retains some of this superciliousness but only exerts it over reasonably resilient victims. The umbrella, for instance, is stolen from the Hon. Hugo Walderwick, who can presumably afford another one. Leave It to Psmith takes its hero to Blandings where both he and Eve try, independently, to steal the same diamond necklace. Psmith is delighted by the discovery of their shared interest: ‘We both have a taste for stealing other people’s jewellery. I cannot see how you can very well resist the conclusion that we are twin-souls.’

The discovery of Psmith was both the high point and the end of my teenage fascination with Wodehouse. Leave It to Psmith is his last appearance. Psmith always seemed too grown-up to be a schoolboy, and he was eventually too grown-up for his creator. Wodehouse explained that there could be no more novels ‘because I can’t think of a plot. A married Psmith, moreover, would not be the same.’ Psmith’s ambition and competence is a threat to the Wodehouse universe; by the next Blandings novel, Summer Lightning (1929), it’s as if he had never existed. Evelyn Waugh famously declared in his tribute to Wodehouse on his 80th birthday that ‘for Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man . . . the gardens of Blandings Castle are the original gardens of Eden from which we are all exiled.’ Paradise, like farce, is a place where nothing ever changes and nobody grows up.