C.A. Wolski is a writer in Los Angeles.
From the June 2001 issue of TIA.
If art is man's spiritual nourishment, then the luminous comic fiction of P.G. Wodehouse is spiritual champagne. In more than 300 stories and 90 novels, Wodehouse presents a bright never-never world where there was no fall of man-a comic universe that emphasizes life's benevolence.
For a Wodehouse hero, life is about enjoying oneself-eating good food, drinking good drink (always of the alcoholic sort), and smoking good tobacco. Life is meant to be enjoyed and savored. And although he never faces a truly malevolent threat, a Wodehouse hero is always in danger of having his pursuit of enjoyment-his core spiritual value-thwarted by some dour, non-fun-loving antagonist.
The typical Wodehouse hero is an Edwardian aristocrat of the idle-rich set who is surrounded by nuptial-mad girlfriends, domineering aunts, soft-headed friends, and phlegmatic butlers-whom they rely on to get out of the jams caused by the girlfriends, aunts, and friends. Plots revolve around the hero trying to extricate himself from an engagement to some horrible young thing, being blackmailed by an aunt into petty (but harmless) larceny, or helping a friend get out of an engagement. In some cases, a bit like a comic Job, the hero is set upon by all three situations at the same time-while never losing his verve or wit.
It is easy to dismiss Wodehouse's work as fluff, considering that the plots revolve around characters stealing cow creamers and prize pigs and trying to escape the clutches of soft-headed girls and menacing, officious romantic rivals. Wodehouse himself described the way he wrote as "making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether."
But there is more to Wodehouse than meets the eye.
Though the reader can't take Wodehouse's plots literally, his absent-minded baronets and young men in spats are, in their own way, serious about the values they're pursuing. The comedy comes as much from the trivial values being pursued (cow creamers, prize-winning pigs, antique golf clubs) as the wrong-headed ways in which they are pursued (petty larceny, blackmailing by means of embarrassingly ridiculous secrets, kidnapping of willing victims and prize pigs). But these characters, for all their lunacy, are serious about what they want and what drives them.
In our normal, everyday universe, both these characters' values and the way they pursue them would result in visits to a psychiatrist's couch or a jailer's cell. But Wodehouse's universe exists, as it were, in a parallel comic universe-and in that world, these values seem completely obvious and the pursuit of them is a harmless adventure.
Explaining Ayn Rand's approach to her comic story "Good Copy" (in The Early Ayn Rand), Leonard Peikoff writes
she concluded [that] a story written specifically to project pure "benevolent universe" should be written as though all problems have already been answered and all big issues solved, and now there is nothing to focus on but ... unobstructed excitement, romance, adventure.
Similarly, Wodehouse's characters face a world in which there are no big problems to be solved-but there is a constant string of small problems to launch their comic adventures.
In The Code of the Woosters for instance, Bertie Wooster is blackmailed by his Aunt Dahlia into stealing an antique cow creamer. In the real world, blackmail is a serious threat to one's values. But in Bertie's world, the "blackmail" consists of the threat of being cut off from the gourmet meals served by Dahlia's cook, the legendary Anatole.
Wodehouse's uncanny ability to make the reader understand why Anatole is an important value to Bertie sets both the comic tone and the stakes for the hero.
This was not the first time she had displayed the velvet hand beneath the iron glove-or, rather, the other way about-in this manner. For this ruthless relative has one all-powerful weapon which she holds constantly over my head like the sword of-who was the chap?-Jeeves would know-and by means of which she can always bend me to her will-viz., the threat that if I don't kick in she will bar me from her board and wipe Anatole's cooking from my lips. I shall not lightly forget the time when she placed sanctions on me for a whole month-right in the middle of the pheasant season, when this superman is at his incomparable best.
The convoluted way Bertie attempts to solve his problem-going from point A to point B by way of point Z-sets up the comic tension, but the reader roots for Bertie no matter how soft-headed he appears, because the reader has his own "Anatoles" he fears losing.
Bertie values his access to Anatole's cooking, his bachelor status, and his nights out at the Drones Club. Unfortunately, as a consequence of his easy, Dionysian life, his ability to defend his values is limited. Enter his butler, Jeeves.
Jeeves is the real hero of the Wooster stories. He is the thinking, Apollonian complement to Bertie. An honest fellow, Bertie knows that he does not have the brainpower to extricate himself from his messes. He admits as much in the story "Jeeves Takes Charge":
Lots of people think I'm much too dependent on him. My Aunt Agatha, in fact, has even gone so far as to call him my keeper. Well, what I say is: Why not? The man's a genius. From the collar upward he stands alone, I gave up trying to run my own affairs within a week of his coming to me.
In this story, Jeeves proves his worth by helping Bertie escape the clutches of his current fiancée, Florence Craye, who is bent on forcing Bertie to give up nights at the Drones Club and master books like Types of Ethical Theory (a real book, by the way) and its chapter on "Idiopsychological Ethics." In other words, Jeeves literally saves Bertie's life and everything he holds dear-namely, his bachelor lifestyle-by causing the break-up of his engagement to the diabolical Craye.
The comic pairing of Jeeves and Bertie is an artistic necessity. Wodehouse had experimented with a composite Jeeves-Wooster character, Psmith (the "p" is silent, as in ptomaine), but it was an artistic dead end, as Wilfrid Sheed notes in his introduction to Leave it to Psmith. Psmith was, on the one hand, too smart to get into comic jams, and on the other hand, not smart enough to stay out of trouble. Wodehouse solved the problem by splitting Psmith in two. Bertie epitomizes the good-natured gadabout, a fellow rich enough, and in a world benevolent enough, to accommodate him. Jeeves, Bertie's keeper-servant, epitomizes the thinking-working man. Jeeves is a hero who, no matter how put upon, can always solve any problem and teach his "master" a lesson at the same time (such as why a confirmed bachelor should not adopt a child-as chronicled in the story "Bertie Changes His Mind").
If Bertie is the consummate playboy, Jeeves is the consummate professional. He is efficient, loyal, and ambitious. Jeeves values his job and sees Bertie as the ultimate challenge-sort of the butler's Mount Everest. And as trying as Bertie can be, Jeeves has a real affection for his employer, as Bertie has for his employee.
Ironically, it is this affection and Jeeves's professionalism that usually ignites the comic tension of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. For instance, in "Right Ho, Jeeves," Bertie returns from a trip to Cannes (without Jeeves) with a white mess jacket. Jeeves reluctantly concedes that the jacket may be appropriate for Cannes but insists it is not appropriate for London-causing a rift between the duo.
In the matter of evening costumes, you see, Jeeves is a hidebound reactionary. I had had trouble with him before about soft-bosomed shirts. And while these mess jackets had, as I say, been all the rage-tout ce qu'il y a de chic-on the Cote d'Azur, I had never concealed it from myself, even when treading the measure at the Palm Beach Casino in the one I had hastened to buy, that there might be something of an upheaval about it on my return.
Jeeves is doing his job, trying to preserve what dignity Bertie has. Unfortunately, Bertie's independent spirit gets the better of him and the inseparable duo spend most of the novel working at cross purposes. The mess jacket incident fuels the comedy and the plot. Bertie, in a fit of pique, decides to take into his own hands the matter of Gussie Fink-Nottle's engagement and his Aunt Dahlia's gambling debts, among other problems-all with disastrous outcomes. Yet the forthright optimism Bertie exhibits throughout his setbacks keeps the story's tone and sense of life from turning malevolent.
Many Wodehouse protagonists are in Bertie's mold, such as Clarence, Lord Emsworth, the absent-minded baron of Blandings, who only wants to be left in peace to raise his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings. Of course, he is rarely successful, and most Blandings stories center on the threat of pig-napping.
But other Wodehouse heroes are working men and women who know what they want and how to get it-though they also have a light heart and a quick tongue. In Piccadilly Jim, the hero is a former newspaper reporter with a sullied reputation who leaves England for New York to become respectable-only to find he must impersonate himself and continue his disreputable ways, in spite of himself. In Psmith Journalist, Psmith comes to the aid of Billy Windsor, a would-be muckraker working on a dubious New York newspaper. Psmith helps the energetic Billy turn the vapid tabloid into a hard-hitting journal. A Damsel in Distress finds composer George Bevan-modeled on Wodehouse's friend, George Gershwin-enamored of Lady Patricia and embroiled in the affairs of her scatter-brained family. Like the other go-to heroes, George goes on the offensive both to win Patricia's hand and to set the insulated world of her family on the right track.
Considering how badly most women are portrayed in his novels and stories, Wodehouse, at first glance, could be considered a misogynist. Bertie's fiancées typically fall into two camps, the Florence Crayes and the Madeline Bassetts. Craye wears the pants in the relationship. She is hard-driven, enjoys beating her boyfriends at sporting events, and is generally bossy. Bassett is a wide-eyed, empty-headed innocent prone to emotional gushing. But Wodehouse's prolific body of work contains every type of woman, from spunky barmaids to level-headed Americans. Americans generally and American women in particular come off well in Wodehouse's stories. Piccadilly Jim's Ann Chester is typical of his American women: level-headed, independent, clear of mind, and fun-the perfect partner for the hapless baronets and suspense writers populating Wodehouse's universe.
Despite their differences, all of Wodehouse's characters share a common sense of life. They are the sort of men and women who rise above the petty and the mundane, and who regard everything-except good food, good drink, friends to have fun with, and a Jeeves (or a good American woman) to look after you-as unimportant. But legitimately serious characters, those who do the truly important work in life, are never the villains in Wodehouse's fiction, nor are they the butt of his humor. Instead, Wodehouse antagonists are those who focus on the insignificant and the petty, those whose sense of self-importance is unearned-making them ripe to have an Emsworth justly shoot them in the seat of the pants with an air rifle, eliciting relieved cheers and laughter from the reader.
Not all readers will be able to sympathize with Wodehouse's heroes, and some may regard them as too flighty and ineffectual. But the light, breezy way Wodehouse writes can mask the serious side of his fiction.
Wodehouse shows a world where heroes cannot be touched by the misfortunes of everyday living. It is a world where men might value strange and trivial things, but they pursue those values with all the tenacity of which they are capable-and, against a comic series of adversities, they always triumph. And that makes Wodehouse's fiction seriously funny business.
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