While growing up, I was occasionally subject to my father’s gentle reproaches for not reading PG Wodehouse’s (“Plum”) novels. His ultimate compliment to a witty turn of phrase was “This is just Wodehouse”. My preference then was for, what I now consider to be, turgid non-fiction books. This changed last summer when my best friend and reading companion had chanced upon Plum’s works in India, arguably home to the most avid Wodehouse readers. Unable to contain his excitement, he forcefully nudged me to delve myself into Plum’s idyllic world of goofy aristocrats, overbearing aunts, officious magistrates, articulate butlers and bumbling Earls. Since then, I have been afflicted by a Wodehouse mania that has resulted in a depletion of Plum’s stock at Alpha Books and personal finances. I have read close to ten works of his, a taster into his oeuvre but hardly enough to be satiated. As Evelyn Waugh remarked, Wodehouse’s world never grows stale.
A prolific writer and arguably the twentieth century’s finest humourist, Wodehouse wrote more than 90 books about several comic characters ranging from the elegant socialist Psmith to the mischievously avaricious opportunist Ukridge. Nevertheless, the two characters who endeared themselves to the public and subsequently endured in their imagination are Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.
Jeeves is a quick-thinking valet whose ability to discern the “psychology of the individual” has been enhanced greatly by his predominantly pescatarian diet. His primary duty, apart from serving regular alcoholic restoratives to his master Bertie Wooster, was to get him out of seemingly intractable or as Plum might say injudicious scrapes. I use the word “seemingly” only because no complexity, whether it is fixing the marriage of newt-fancying Gussie Fink Nottle, solving the dietary irregularities of the Empress of Blandings (a pig) or purloining a cow creamer from a magistrate is left unresolved. In Wodehouse’s world, deus ex machine (“God out of the Machine”) – a literary device that introduces a person or plot development to provide an unforeseen but contrived solution to an insoluble difficulty – is liberally used to tie up loose ends.
Even if the conclusion is entirely predictable, Wodehouse carefully choreographs the entrances and exits of his stock characters to comedic effect. Plum gives Fate a free hand to play with the fortunes of his characters and subvert readers’ expectations. In his plots, the problems that characters have to confront resemble amoebic reproductive patterns. Successfully clamping down on one issue will result in two more fissuring up to the surface. Confession: I was trying to mimic Wodehouse’s style of using ludicrous and original similes. Move over “as light as a feather” and “as fickle as English weather” (Not British weather since including Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would lessen meteorological volatility). Wodehouse’s similes were delightful (“She had more curves than a scenic railway”) and disarming (“Some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant – better left unstirred”). They also distinguished him as a writer who could use the classical education he received at Dulwich College to tickle the funny bone (“The butler was looking nervous, like Macbeth interviewing Lady Macbeth after one of her visits to the spare room”). Another favourite of mine which might not strictly qualify as a simile is this one: “Unlike the male codfish, which suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons”. However, if I were to rely on some bestial imagery, it would be a gross simplification to pigeon-hole Wodehouse as a one-trick pony. Wodehouse is a close second to Wilde’s use of epigrams (one-liners). These are some of the more memorable ones: a) “And she’s got brains for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need” b) “The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun” c) “He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat but no more”.
Still, his main calling card was what PN Furbank, an English scholar and writer, called his “comic pretence of verbal precision, an exhibition of lexicology”. This exchange between Jeeves and Wooster characterises this style perfectly (“Jeeves,” I said, “don’t keep saying ‘Indeed, sir?’ No doubt nothing is further from your mind than to convey such a suggestion, but you have a way of stressing the ‘in’ and then coming down with a thud on the ‘deed’ which makes it virtually tantamount to ‘Oh, yeah?’ Correct this, Jeeves.”). This highfalutin fussiness and dogmatic pursuit for precision in the trivial is a recurrent feature in many of the rib-tickling exchanges between the two.
Unfortunately, the sombre truth is that Wodehouse’s works are not being widely read today. His admirers and avid readers are based mainly in the Indian subcontinent. A cursory look at the Facebook pages dedicated to celebrating Plum’s works will inform us of how readers of a particular demographic and ilk are enjoying his novels. Tragically, his quintessentially British humour or what Christopher Hitchens calls the “Gold standard of English wit” has lost favour in his home country. I have only met a handful of Wodehouse readers in university and even that is only possible if my freezing left hand is nestled in my jacket pocket. Thankfully, the PG Wodehouse Society in the UK, established in 1997 has been publishing a quarterly magazine entitled “Wooster Sauce” and organising a variety of events – golf days, cricket matches, walks around Bertie Wooster’s London for members. I wish their revivalist movement the best of luck!
Also, Wodehouse’s stock has been diminished further by prudish literary aficionados who are dismayed to find that his work lacks gravitas and does not deal with real-life complexities. They quibble that Wodehouse’s work is repetitive with little variation. This is misguided. Wodehouse was keenly aware that he was not reflecting the everyday concerns of the British. As he said, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether, the other is going right down into life and not caring a damn!” It is precisely Wodehouse’s gaiety and frivolity that have made his works so special. Of course, it might seem tempting to criticise his work as jaded just because he uses the words “pterodactyl”, “wanly” and “injudiciously” one time too many. However, beyond these superficial commonalities, some seemingly similar novels in the Jeeves series have subtle but significant variations around the prospect of Bertie being engaged to Madeline Bassett. In fact, the repetition only serves to deepen the affinity and affection that readers have for the characters. Despite all this, if critics still nit-pick, I will advise them and to the many others who have yet to pick up their first Plum book to follow Stephen Fry’s advice and bask in the sunlit perfection of Wodehouse’s world without analysing it.