A little more than a couple of months ago I had fondly ruminated on the thirtieth anniversary of Wodehouse’s passing – I use the latter word advisedly, since it is more likely than not that he would have frowned on so prosaic and pedestrian a word as death. And as a master craftsman, in his own time he had coined many a picturesque mot for this, the only certainty in an otherwise uncertain life. Besides, it is just as likely that he would have taken umbrage (if umbrage is what one takes) at being pronounced dead: a man so supremely and exuberantly a celebrant of Life had little use for the Dark One (he very appropriately consigned him to Russian novelists of the Dostoevsky school).
The generation which went to school and college in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – to wit, mine – had a certain literary regimen, in addition to the standard fare that it swotted for exams. This diet varied in minor details with individual taste (always expansive, never restrictive), but the common, unvarying factor was Wodehouse. So most of us affected the argot and airs of Wooster, Psmith, Uncle Fred or Ukridge, greeted each other with cheery “What ho!”s, addressed each other as Old Bean or Old Fruit or Comrade, described our schools as ‘scaly establishments’ or the ‘House of Usher,’ and occasionally asked some of our more indulgent teachers why they were looking like ‘bereaved tapeworms’ or why they were alone and pale loitering.
It was an elaborately constructed world, where the principal pleasure was derived from the countless comic possibilities of the English language.
What we were tapping was the kernel of Wodehouse’s genius, the perennial spring of his imagination which invested the entire classical cosmos, from the Graeco-Roman and the Biblical down to the inexhaustible staple of Shakespeare with an air of delightful absurdity.
For half of Wodehouse’s fun has its roots in his classical upbringing: it lies in the ingenious use of quotation, the clever employment of epigram in bizarre or grotesque contexts, the reduction of historical, scriptural or literary figures to the level of burlesque. Dulwich trained its sons well (Raymond Chandler was another Old Alleynian), but it is debatable whether ‘the fruit of an expensive education’ (as Psmith calls it) was foreseen in quite the form it took in its most famous scion. When Lorenzo spoke of ‘the man that hath no music in himself’ it is unlikely that either Shakespeare or the masters at Dulwich had imagined it in the context of Bertie Wooster’s essays on the banjolele and the resultant complaints from his neighbours:
“Jeeves! What was it that Shakespeare said about the man that hath no music in himself?”
“Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, Sir!”
Or that Marcus Aurelius would be summarily dismissed as an ass in absentia for his reflections on the Great Web of fate.
The Americans get their comeuppance too:
“Jeeves…who was Barbara Frietchie?”
“A lady of some consequence, Sir, in the war between the American colonies.”
“Do you think she scratched when she was itchy?”
The braiding of allusion and absurdity, the weft of outrageous but apt simile or metaphor (“aunt calling to aunt like mastodons across a medieval swamp”) with the stereotypes of the age - the silly-ass Englishman, the formidable butler, the club, the notoriously dotty nobility, the perennially impecunious younger sons, perpetually on the run from the fringe of the London underworld, above all the aunts (an obvious borrowing from Saki’s Clovis, it would appear) – it is this fabric, rich in texture but light as girls’ summer dresses that is the abiding draw, the never-failing hook.
And that is the other noticeable thing in the Wodehouse Canon: a complete absence of winter snows and chills. Like Vincent Starrett’s eternal 1895 for the Sherlockian, the Wodehouse season is an eternal summer – with perhaps a spring variant in one or two books. The sun is forever shining on Shropshire, always beaming benignly on the Home Counties. If you have the soporific balm of cricket in the early stories, romance buzzes contentedly with the bees in the later ones. Even the odd snake in the grass – Baxter, for instance – is more of an annoying pest than consummate evil. It is as though Nature herself were a laughing participant in whatever revels or rascality were afoot.
But it is not the plots – or rather, plot, since almost all the stories are variations on more or less the same theme – which are the highest scorers: the ultimate winner, the last hero, is the English language. Wodehouse didn’t write for the less than literate: the pleasures of his splendid table are reserved for the connoisseur. The allusions would make no sense to one unacquainted with the original sources; his turns of phrase, so quintessentially English, would leave the novice or the indifferent cold. It is this latter fact which explains why one occasionally hears things like, “What do you find so funny in Wodehouse?” Any attempt at answering that (assuming murder hasn’t summarily disposed of the questioner and the question in the interim: Wodehousians are famously fanatical) would be akin to describing the attributes of an exceptionally fine vintage to someone whose palate has been dulled by moonshine.
“P G Wodehouse not bad. Not good, but not bad.” (The Clicking of Cuthbert)