Friday, July 29, 2011

Favourite Novelists: PG Wodehouse and What He Taught Me

G.K. Chesterton died yesterday. PG Wodehouse is now the greatest living master of the English language.
--TH White
It's so hard to talk about Wodehouse, because he was a strictly comic writer. His books contain absolutely nothing intended to give offence or even to approach it. The list of subjects he avoided is probably longer than the subjects he touched upon. He handled everything deftly, lightly, with a disarming charm. Everyone loves Wodehouse: when Douglas Wilson, Reformed theologian, went on a debate tour with Christopher Hitchens, bigoted atheist, they found common ground in this writer. The lowbrow love him and the highbrow do not exclude him from the canons of greatness on account of his popularity. Communists love him. Libertarians love him. The Americans love him, the British revere him, and the Indians go crazy for him.

Only one other author I know of—Jane Austen—enjoys such popularity long after contemporaries have faded into oblivion. And like Jane Austen, it can be tempting to believe that the only reason Wodehouse is so universally popular is that he is universally harmless. After all, the man who tries to please everyone usually ends up losing his soul in an attempt to pander to every taste. And yet nobody who had read him would accuse Wodehouse of this.
I know almost nothing about what the great Plum believed, beyond the scanty clues he has dropped in his works. He kept his own personal hopes and fears to himself; he must have been a private, even a shy, kind of man. But a man's books are his fruit, and by a man's fruit it is possible to know him.
It has long been my firm belief that Wodehouse's books are as much a product of Christendom as is Westminster Cathedral—and in much the same tradition. There are clues everywhere. Kindly clergy. Benificent bishops (addressed by the plucky young curate-hero as “Bish”). Rollicking revival meetings. Sweet young Salvation Army officers. Bertie Wooster's Bible Knowledge prize and the resultant proliferation of quotes from the Authorised Version of the Bible. The Reverend Harold “Stinker” Pinker, a lovable curate who must be seen to be believed on the rugby field. Even the interior decorating of Wodehouse's country estates is Biblical in tone:
I could see that she was looking for something to break as a relief to her surging emotions ... and courteously drew her attention to a terra-cotta figure of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. She thanked me briefly and hurled it against the opposite wall. --The Code of the Woosters

Plot points and jokes from Wodehouse's works further anchor his books within Christendom. Engagements and marriages end each successful romance, all of which are squeaky clean. When a girl turns up to stay at Bertie Wooster's lonely country cottage at midnight, the unfortunate but chivalrous Bertie tries to get a rest first in his motor-car and then in his garden-shed. When Monty Bodkin's prospective father-in-law refuses to let his daughter Gertrude marry a young man who doesn't work for a living, the independently wealthy Bodkin immediately gets a job as a secretary, anxious to qualify properly. Although not all of them are very bright, Wodehouse's young men are often physically courageous and always, always scrupulously chivalrous and honourable. Masculine Christianity (such as the Rev. Stinker's) is favourably compared with melting, emotional sentimentalism (such as Madeline Basset's, whose theology fails to extend beyond a firm belief that the stars are God's daisy chain). And the delightful subplot to The Mating Season tells the touching story of a devout housemaid separated from the man she loves by his staunch atheism.
Though an all-round great, Wodehouse's main strength lies in the area of metaphor and simile. His figures of speech are joyous, startling, hilarious, and regular—two to three per page.
And as he, too, seemed disinclined for chit-chat, we stood for some moments like a couple of Trappist monks who have run into each other at the dog races.
I’d always thought her half-baked, but now I think they didn’t even put her in the oven.
She gave a sort of despairing gesture, like a vicar's daughter who has discovered Erastianism in the village.
I started back to the house, and in the drive I met Jeeves. He was at the wheel of Stiffy's car. Beside him, looking like a Scotch elder rebuking sin, was the dog Bartholomew.
Many a man may look respectable, and yet be able to hide at will behind a spiral staircase.
A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant.
One of the first lessons life teaches us is that on these occasions of back-chat between the delicately-nurtured a man should retire into the offing, curl up in a ball, and imitate the prudent tactics of the opossum, which, when danger is in the air, pretends to be dead, frequently going to the length of hanging out crêpe and instructing its friends to stand round and say what a pity it all is.
Even Wodehouse's brilliant wordplay displays a theological presupposition: that simile and metaphor can be used at all to transmit meaning. As I have mentioned before, it was the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the advent of modernism that attacked Christ, the Word, by stripping language of much of its meaning. Metaphor suffered greatly through this linguistic reductionism. Wodehouse's use to simile—vivid, colourful, loud, and joyously funny simile—shows a deep respect for words and the way they can be used to communicate far more than appears on the surface; that and a consummate craftsmanship.
But one of the most interesting aspect of Wodehouse's writing is the setting. His books take place in an idyllic, almost an Edenic, idealised version of 1930s-1950s England. It isn't that there is no sin or no conflict in his stories, or that his characters are perfect. But the tone that pervades all his books can only be described—to quote Wodehouse quoting some other fellow—as God being in His Heaven and all right with the world. Evelyn Waugh, the great Catholic novelist, saw it too:
For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no "aboriginal calamity." His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.
I'm not sure if I agree with Waugh. Wodehouse's writings strike me more as taking place in some blithe eschatalogical future. But here's what I think is going on. Most people will tell you that story requires conflict. What does that mean for storytelling in the eschaton, when swords have long been beaten into ploughshares? Will we be limited to historical fiction, since conflict would be anachronistic in the New Jerusalem?
Or is conflict anachronistic in the New Jerusalem? Can a good story exist in a world without sin? I wander perilously close to realms of unsupported speculation here, but I think the answer might be yes, and I call the works of PG Wodehouse as primary witness.


Anonymous said...

Dear Suzannah,

Thanks for this wonderfully perceptive meditation on Wodehouse ("Favorite Novelists: PG Wodehouse and What He Taught Me"). I recently read an essay from a 2005 issue of First Things title "God & Bertie Wooster." It was much longer than your post, but I think yours is every bit as insightful.

I've read six of the Jeeves & Wooster books, and four of the Blandings Castle ones. Having just finished the earliest of the Blandings offerings, "Something Fresh," I am almost prepared to say that I enjoy the Blandings books just a smidgen more the the J&W ones. I'm curious whether you prefer one series over the other. Of course, they're both delightful. I am struck by how different the narrative voice is from one to the other. The Blandings novels show even more than the J&W books what a master of the English language Wodehouse was. One gets a sense of a first rater writer at every level, especially sentence construction. I also enjoy the way the Blandings narrator treats his characters and their foibles with a genuine forbearance and affection.

Thanks again for your post!

Dan Harlow

Suzannah said...

Thanks for the encouraging comment. I find it so difficult to choose between the Jeeves and the Blandings books. For one thing, my very favourite Wodehouse book (Leave It to Psmith) is a Blandings book. But then all my runners-up--Right Ho, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, The Mating Season--are Jeeves novels. Hard, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Wodehouse was, as at least one of his biographers has noted (McCrum, 2004), agnostic on matters of religion and faith.

But I shall remain silent on the shockingly illiterate claim that modernism stripped "language of much of its meaning".


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