‘”Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?” Said Wilfred. “ffinch-farrowmere,” Corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.’
When I was about eight, my mother, in an attempt to wean me away from my obsession with detective fiction introduced me to the world of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, creator of the Bertie Wooster and Blandings Castle novels (amongst others). It was rather like, as the man himself might put it, trying to cure an alcoholic by introducing him to brandy.
Today there are only a few works within the cannon which I have not read (and these are the few of over a hundred books that are now out of print), and when re-reading them I am still struck with loving admiration by the beautiful verve and skill of a great wordsmith. He is truly “The Master”, the foremost comic novelist of the twentieth century. He leaves his near contemporaries – say, Evelyn Waugh or E.F. Benson – in a different, lower league. The sheer breadth of his literary achievement ranges from novelist and writer of short stories to Broadway lyricist and playwright. And the curious thing is that, despite the fact that all of his one hundred plots are nearly exactly the same, he is still read avidly and loved by devotees.
Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, in 1881 and educated at Dulwich College. Studying Classics at Sixth Form, he failed to get a scholarship to Oxford and instead went to work for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now HSBC), a job which he understandably hated and which he left to become a freelance writer. Someone once said to me that writers are the children of the world and, let us just say that Wodehouse was an exceptionally good writer: there was an emotional naivety to him that both fuelled his comic world and led to personal tragedy. The garbled linguistic skills that led him to pronounce his first name as 'Plum' continued in his writing as he mashed together different strands of great writers whether it be Horace, Tennyson or Shakespeare. For example, the line 'One man's caviar being another man's major-general, as the old saw says.' (from Jeeves in the Offing) is a mixture of two lines, “One man's meat is another man's poison” and “For the play, I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas caviar to the general” - both from Hamlet.
It is perhaps in this flippancy that lies the reason for the slight Wodehouse has received from academics, a curious omission, especially considering his defenders include George Orwell, W.H. Auden and Kipling (Kipling thought Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth and The Girl was the most perfect short story in existence). Even Waugh, whose angst and irony - according to critic and academic Stephen Medcalf - made him a candidate for high seriousness, publicly deferred to Wodehouse. It is even more curious considering the obvious delineation there is in his work from ancient comedy and the importance of that dramatic structure on Western culture.
Beyond language, the place to call for the classical in Wodehouse is obviously the theatre. You can particularly see a lot of Wodehouse in New Comedy, the genre which evolved from 5th Century Aristophanes through Menander (c. 342–291 BC) to the Romans Plautus (c. 254–184) and Terrence (195/185–159 BC).
New Comedy was, unlike its predecessor, devoid of harsh political content and focused more on parental/familial roles. This was down, at least in part, to differing political structures and societal ideologies that had evolved after Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The eventual advent of Rome perhaps led to a simplicity of world view, a less philosophical and searching attitude in the “popular” arts than Hellenistic abstraction. Likewise two thousand years later, Wodehouse was a reflection of the changed and changing social trends of inter-war year. At the zenith of his writing career, he represents a non-ideological Anglo-Saxon cultural pragmatism: his novels are situational and personal, rather than savage and philosophical (which is perhaps more in line with a Waugh/Aristophanic view of comedy). Like New Comedy, Wodehouse’s works were comedies of manners; they gently poke the affectations and pretensions of a social class, represented by archetypal, stock characters.
Wodehouse’s work is also descendant of Plautus and Terence via French playwright Moliere, Restoration comedy, such as Johnson’s Volpone, and Shakespeare (think Much Ado About Nothing). Despite the far greater popularity in performance of Aristophanes, it is this lineation from New Comedy that comes through the twentieth century novels into modern (Anglo-Saxon?) comedies, such as Fawlty Towers, Frasier and Curb Your Enthusiam. Terrence, Wodehouse and Larry David all have a plausible claim to be the funniest men alive of their times.
Satire is too strong a word to describe Wodehouse. Yet there is a subversive playfulness to the “comedy of manners”. Comedy of manners lacks true satire's social purpose. Wodehouse/New Comedy poke fun at their feckless archetypes without malice or viciousness. Even villains, such as the Sir Roderick Spode, the “amateur Dictator” and parody of Oswald Mosley, or Wooster’s hideous Aunt Agatha (“She eats broken glass and wears barbed wire next to the skin”) are treated with near affection. Moreover Wodehouse's work either consciously or unconsciously takes it basic plot structures and devices from Plautus and Terrence which feature entangled love lives of the dramatis personae. For while New Comedy was not known for any originality of plot structure, plot devices - that which twist a tale to a known end by comic means - are a different matter. And although in the darkest hour, the chances of a welcome resolution are remote, there is always a happy ending and only the very bad are left unsatisfied. Even Spode in the end gets the girl. Although since she thinks that “the stars are God’s daisy chain”, there some form of subverted justice.
The formula of New Comedy is an obvious basis for Wodehousian sit-com, a mixture of conservative realism with subversive farce. Generally what happens is that a young man wants to marry a young woman (or vice versa). There is opposition (or potential for), perhaps from a parental (and/or authority) figure. The plot device,whatever it may be, results in the opposition being lifted and the happy ending. Thus a new order emerges. There is conflict but it resolved. There is rebellion but it is inadvertent or releuctant. The plot device which allows the happy ending also allows the creation of a “new society”, either willing or unwillingly. In Wodehouse’s world, the authority figure is generally an aunt or an uncle (perhaps Plum’s own childhood was too idyllic for him to use parental representations) but the lovers are the central figures. In New Comedy (or, in many cases, Aristophanic comedy) the “new society” is represented by a festival or celebration, in Wodehouse, it is generally represented by the official engagement of our couple and the (however reluctant) acceptance by elderly relatives.
The exact relationship between Menander, Plautus and Terence is open to dispute. The difficulty here is that only one play (Dyskolos) from Menander survives in complete form. Many of Terrence’s and Plautus’ plays are imitations of Menander or constructed from a number of his plays. However that is not to say – like many classical imitators, such as Horace and Virgil, - that they did not develop the genre at all. While Xanthias in Aristophanes’ Frogs is the first extant example of an extended role for a slave, Plautus is seen to extend on from Menander the idea of the servant being a foil for comparison and beyond. Plautus seems to actively take delight in the slave (servus dolosus), rather than the “central” persona being the object of heroic comparison. Sometimes it is as if the three comedians are subconsciously are trying to outdo each other in their cleverness. While Di Exapaton offers two plot tricks, Plautus alleged derived play Bacchilades offers three. The Code of the Woosters goes further still, having as many plot twists as chapters. Whereas Menander introduced the slaves as a contrast to an obtuse archetype, Wodehouse perfects the servus dolosus with Jeeves, who is in many ways the hero of Wodehouse’s books and the subject of adulation for his intellect.
Here is one of the pure joys of Wodehousian comedy to my mind. Despite the stock character of English aristocrats and the Arcadian country house locations, he is essentially a moral egalitarian in human outlook. As the layer upon layer of plot twists, turns and complications propel the personae towards greater and greater calamity, it is the seemingly socially inferiors (valet, servant or even “spare” son) who keep their heads and provide resolution. Despite his socially elevated status, Bertie Wooster would be helpless without Jeeves; while second son Galahad (condemned to life as a spare) disentangles the complicated love-lives which go on in the grounds of Blandings Castle while his brother, Lord Emsworth, looks on bewildered and their sisters (nine in total) act as blocking matriarchs. It is also a world where the son of a Duke can marry a chorus girl, or an Earl's niece can marry a struggling artist. Even the nobility are liable to elope with a barmaid or chorus girl from their errant youth. It is this polite insurrection against the real, stratified world where you can see the influence of ancient comedy: it is a world where establishment figures, such as magistrates and policemen, are roundly mocked and always perfectly ludicrous. Their pomposity is frequently subjected to ritual and rebellious humiliation.
Plum’s most recent biographer, Robert McCrum states: “Wodehouse certainly knew his Plautus and Terence.” Yet the man himself claimed that, “For some reason Plautus and Terence never came my way.” Perhaps something to do with the complicated, colloquial Latin of the plays. However the fact that they never came his way does not necessarily mean he was not influenced by them.
Despite what many see as the “quintessential Englishness” of Wodehouse (We, in fact, know it is Classical), Plum spent the last thirty years after World War Two until his death living in America and France, not returning to his native land. The reason was the tragedy of naivety which led him, having been captured in the Nazi advance into France in May 1940, as a prisoner of war in Poland (“If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like…” ), to broadcast the infamous “Berlin Broadcasts” of 1941, where he gave five talks on Nazi radio. The broadcasts, in the frenzy of the war effort, led to him being accused of treachery in storm of allegations. The finger-pointing and braying led to ridiculous accusation such as that he spent the war years staying in “luxurious hotels” in Berlin and Paris, at the expense of Hitler’s Nazi Party. Public libraries removed his books from their shelves and destroyed them. Many of his accusers had not even bothered to read or listen to the broadcasts, which were mainly light-hearted accounts of his capture and life in internment. What was seen as collaboration was in fact the “simple flippant, cheerful attitude of all British prisoners.” Plum – “English literature's performing flea” - was just trying to show the world the prisoners' resilience. Despite protestations through official channels, he was condemned in the court of public opinion. Recent M15 files, released under the 50 year rule, find that even at the time he was found innocent (witnesses also testified to his good intention) but was not allowed the natural justice of defending himself in public.
So like Oedipus at Colonus, Plum was an exile from his native home. Yet, unlike Oedipus he was guiltless except for the charge of an innocent lack of political sophistication. As the 1947 Foreign Office files themselves said: “Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent.” To lack guile is perhaps not a bad charge of which to be accused. Slowly his reputation began to recover as his defenders circulated their version of the innocence of Plum. And still he wrote – more Blandings Castle novels, more Bertie Wooster novels – yet all of this he wrote without seeing the social changes that were going on in the world. His novels were contemporaneous, but Wodehouse, now an old man, was stuck in the pre-War years. There is a scene written from exile where Bertie Wooster is caught in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in London. It is both hilarious and also tragically anachronistic.
It is always possible to put too great an emphasis on how the “Berlin matter” affected Wodehouse, but he was an almost child-like man and to be so viciously accused without any recourse must have struck at his essential decency, as it would most people, and the fact that the slight stain lingered until his death, on Valentine's Day 1975, would have hurt enormously.
Forty years on, Wodehouse is still enjoyed by his many fans. TV has brought his work to new audiences, while recent works by Sebastian Faulks have revived his characters. Wodehouse would have eschewed an attempt to put his cannon to literary criticism. There was no room in his Eden for such serpents. While his works probably do "lack seriousness" - and is all the better for it - not to show the intelligence of the world and the influences is also crime.