P G Wodehouse – the pasha of plot, the czar of characterisation, the maestro of metaphor, the sultan of simile and the indisputable lord of the language.
Writers of every genre have enriched English literature with their genius. Some have been admired for the intricacy of the plots, others for their finely etched characters. A few have won rave reviews for the language while some have been applauded for the style. But rarely has an author been universally acknowledged for the complete mastery of the language, plot, style and characterisation.
Yes, the wizard in question is Pelham Grenwille Wodehouse – the pasha of plot, the czar of characterisation, the maestro of metaphor, the sultan of simile and the indisputable lord of the language.
Calling him a humour writer is doing gross injustice to him. His genius cannot be shackled in genres. He is a master of his craft and a craftsman with an artistry rarely seen in English language or literature.
Before delving into his writing it will be interesting to get a glimpse of what his contemporaries thought of him:
As Stephen Fry, one of the greatest authorities on Wodehouse writes, “The greatest living writer of prose”, “the Master”, “the head of my profession”, “akin to Shakespeare”, “a master of the language”… If you had never read Wodehouse and only knew about the world his books inhabit, you might be forgiven for blinking in bewilderment at the praise that has been lavished on a “mere” comic author by writers such as Compton Mackenzie, Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, Bernard Levin and Susan Hill. But once you dive into the soufflé, once you engage with all those miraculous verbal felicities, such adulation begins to make sense.” Had his only contribution to literature been Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle, his place in history would have been assured. Had he written of none but Mike and Psmith, he would be cherished today as the best and brightest of our comic authors. If Jeeves and Wooster had been his solitary theme, still he would be hailed as the Master.
If he had given us only Ukridge, or nothing but recollections of the Mulliner family, or a pure diet of golfing stories, Doctor Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse would nonetheless be considered immortal. That he gave us all those – and more – is our good fortune and a testament to the most industrious, prolific and beneficent author ever to have sat down, scratched his head and banged out a sentence.”
Wodehouse rarely took himself seriously. While any other writer, with such a sterling repertoire would have probably have gone around with at least a slight swelling of his head, “English literature’s performing flea” as Sean O’ Casey famously termed him, merrily mocked himself. According to one critic he did that because: “he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn’t it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?”
His endearingly self-deprecating attitude is evident when he writes why he has never written his autobiography:
“The three essentials for an autobiography are that its compiler shall have had an eccentric father, a miserable misunderstood childhood and a hell of a time at his public school, and I enjoyed none of these advantages.”
His reply to his critics too was in his inimitable style – gently ironic, faintly pejorative but supremely effective:
“A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning.
With my superior intelligence, I have ‘out-generalled’ this man by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy”.
(From preface to Summer Lightning (1929)
WRITINGS and CHARACTERS:
Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing ninety-six books in a career spanning from 1902 to 1975. His works include novels, collections of short stories, and a musical comedy. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by “series”:
• The Blandings Castle stories recount the lives and times of the upper-class inhabitants of the fictional rural Blandings Castle. The star ‘performer’ in these stories is undoubtedly the eccentric Lord Emsworth, obsessed by his prize-winning pig, the “Empress of Blandings“. In 1915 Wodehouse published Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings novels and continued writing about the castle and its inhabitants till his very last work – Sunset at Blandings, which was posthumously published in 1977.
The other characters who adorn these delightful tales are Emsworth’s sister, the formidable Lady Constance; the Efficient Baxter, Emsworth’s secretary and a hound from hell; Emsworth’s brother, Galahad, the last of the Pelicans; the younger son, Freddie, the bane of his father’s life and many more.
* The Drones Club stories are about the mishaps of certain members of a raucous social club for London’s idle rich. Born in the Jeeves stories, it became its own informal series of short stories, mostly featuring club members Freddie Widgeon or Bingo Little, plus a cast of recurrent bit players such as Club millionaire Oofy Prosser. There are dozens of individual stories about members of the Drones, and two principal collections, Eggs Beans and Crumpets and Young Men in Spats. The title of the first derives from the Drones’ habit of referring to each other as “old egg”, “old bean”, “my dear old crumpet” and so on. The Drones Club is a refuge for the idle young man about town. Such beings are for the most part entirely dependent on allowances from fat uncles. An archetypal member would be Freddie Widgeon, intensely amiable, not very bright up top and always falling in love. The only Drone who is distinctly unlikeable is Oofy Prosser, the richest and meanest member.
* The Golf and Oldest Member tales are woven around one of Wodehouse’s passions, the sport of golf, which all characters involved consider the only important pursuit in life. The Oldest Member of the golf course clubhouse tells most of them.
* The Jeeves and Wooster stories are narrated by the wealthy, ‘mentally negligible’ Bertie Wooster. Bertie, the second richest member of the Drones Club is also its most likeable one. A number of stories and novels recount the improbable and unfortunate situations in which he and his friends find themselves and the manner in which his ingenious valet Jeeves is always able to extricate them. Collectively called “the Jeeves stories”, or “Jeeves and Wooster”, they are Wodehouse’s most famous. Jeeves made his first appearance in 1917 in the short story “Extricating Young Gussie” and continued featuring intermittently in Wodehouse titles till Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen in 1974 – the last published work of the genius. Incidentally the masterly episode (taken from Extricating Young Gussie) where Gussie Fink-Nottle presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school is frequently included in collections of great comic literature and has often been described as the single funniest piece of writing in the language.
Much has been written about Jeeves. His imperturbability, his omniscience, his unruffled insight, his orotund speech, his infallible way with a quotation…in short, his perfection. He is quite patronising towards his master. “Oh, yes, he thinks a lot of you. I remember his very words. ‘Mr Wooster, miss’ he said ‘is, perhaps, mentally somewhat negligible but he has a heart of gold’ (Thank You Jeeves, 1934).
However, Jeeves character comes into its own because of the contrast with Bertie – who is quite opposite in many ways – simple, naïve, not as well read and one who invariably lets his heart rule over his head. Together the ‘gentlemen’ and his ‘personal gentleman’ are a perfect foil for each other.
Aunts a regular feature in a Jeeves story/novel and their relationship with Bertie result in twists and turns in the plot and some terrific turns of phrase by the protagonist:
‘My Aunt Agatha, for instance, is tall and thin and looks rather like a vulture in the Gobi desert, while Aunt Dahlia is short and solid, like a scrum half in the game of Rugby football. In disposition, too, they differ widely. Aunt Agatha is cold and haughty, though presumably unbending a bit when conducting human sacrifices at the time of the full moon, as she is widely rumoured to do, and her attitude towards me has always been that of an austere governess, causing me to feel as if I were six years old and she had just caught me stealing jam from the jam cupboard: whereas Aunt Dahlia is as jovial and bonhomous as a dame in a Christmas pantomime.’ (Much Obliged Jeeves, 1971)
‘On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter, but the courage that one brings to them, I pulled myself together.’ (The Mating Season, 1949)
• The Mr Mulliner yarns are about a long-winded pub raconteur who tells outrageous stories about his family, all surnamed Mulliner. His sometimes unwilling listeners are always identified solely by their drinks, e.g., a “Hot Scotch and Lemon” or a “Double Whisky and Splash”.
• The Psmith stories, feature an ingenious jack-of-all-trades with a charming, exaggeratedly refined manner. The final Psmith story, Leave it to Psmith, overlaps the Blandings stories in that Psmith works for Lord Emsworth, lives for a time at Blandings Castle, and becomes a friend of Freddie Threepwood. It can be clearly stated that Wodehouse’s first great creation, and for some his finest, was Psmith (the “P” is silent). Much as Jeeves was to extricate Bertie time and time again from the soup, so Psmith is the eternal saviour of stolid, dependable Mike Jackson, his best friend.
• The Ukridge tales are about the charming but unprincipled Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, (pronounced Stanley Fanshawe Ewkridge) always looking to enlarge his income through the reluctant assistance of his friend in his schemes. The second Wodehouse immortal (after Psmith) Ukridge calls his friends “old horse”, uses exclamations such as “Upon my Sam” and is eternally in search of funds. The master of the scam, he forever embroils his chief biographer, Corky, in a series of terrible money-making schemes. But Ukridge is, for all that, deeply loveable; his amorality and blithe disregard of others do not irritate. Imperishable optimism and a great spaciousness of outlook inform the spirit of these stories. He is capable, when occasion demands, of splendid speech:
‘Alf Todd,’ said Ukridge, soaring to an impressive burst of imagery, ‘has about as much chance as a one-armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild cat’s left ear with a red-hot needle.’ (Ukridge, 1924)
• The Uncle Fred stories feature the eccentric Earl of Ickenham. Whenever he can escape his wife’s chaperonage, he likes to spread what he calls “sweetness and light” and others are likely to call chaos. His escapades, always involving impersonations of some sort, are usually told from the viewpoint of his nephew and reluctant companion Reginald “Pongo” Twistleton. Several times he performs his “art” at Blandings Castle.
Wodehouse novels have plots that are a crazy collage of confusion and chaos. For instance take The Code of the Woosters (1938). The scene is Totleigh Towers a territory fairly familiar to most Wodehouse fans. The cast of characters includes, apart from of course Bertie and Jeves, the cheery but redoubtable Aunt Dahlia, the ‘nuts about newts’ Gussie Fink-Nottle, the maudlin Madeline Bassett, the stick in the mud Sir Watkyn Bassett, the bossy Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng, the amiable Rev. H. P. “Stinker” Pinker, the dictatorial Roderick Spode and lesser ones Constable Oates, and the dog Bartholomew.
According to Lenhard L. Ng, assistant professor in the Mathematics Department at Duke University and an avid Wodehouse buff this is a wonderful novel, full of high spirits and plot twists. Bertie accidentally steals Bassett’s umbrella; Gussie loses a leather-bound book containing insults, to disastrous results; various people try to steal a cow-creamer; Stiffy blackmails Bertie by threatening to sabotage Gussie’s and Madeline’s engagement; Jeeves and Bertie scramble on top of furniture to avoid Bartholomew; and Spode is thwarted by the word “Eulalie.” Whew!! As plots go this is some page turner!
To illustrate the genius of Wodehouse in crafting plots let us take, what is considered by many critics as his most exquisite creation: Leave it to Psmith.
Its protagonist is my favourite Wodehouse character – Psmith, extremely tall, extremely thin, with a monocle in his right eye and a sartorial elegance that is close to perfection. He is possibly the only male character created by Wodehouse who can be called a true hero. He is intelligent, charming, nonchalant, confident and can comfortably thrive on chaos.
If the protagonist is a true hero then the setting too is ideal – the Blandings castle. With its usual medley of colourful and crazy characters it is a delectable paradise that offers a non-stop mirth fiesta. The inimitable Lord Emsworth who is passionate about his garden and has still not graduated to his obsession ‘Empress of Blandings’ – his prize pig – flits in and out adding his own touch of pandemonium to the affairs. Freddy Threepwood, Lady Constance, her husband Joe Keeble, two impersonators Miss Peavey and her boyfriend Eddie Cootes, the Butler Beach, the Efficient Baxter – the only ‘serpent’ in the garden of Eden – and of course the young, beautiful and spirited Eve Halliday, the love interest of both Psmith and Freddy.
The plot is as complicated as it can get: Psmith has fallen in ‘love at first sight’ with Eve. When he comes to know she is going to be at Blandings Castle he impersonates Ralston Mctodd, a modern poet and lands there. There is also a parallel thread – Freddy hires Psmith to steal his aunt Contstance’s pearls, on behalf of Joe Keeble. Freddy’s share is a thousand pounds which he needs to launch himself as a bookie. Joe wants the money to send to his step daughter Phyllis who is a dear friend of Eve and whose husband Mike is an even dearer friend of Psmith! Eve too wants the pearls so that she can help out Phyllis. Miss Peavey and Eddie Cootes (with the intention of impersonating Ralph Mctodd) too move in. Finding Psmith firmly ensconced as the poet, Cootes confronts him and Psmith is forced to enrol him as his valet. Things get more and more hilariously insane till the denouement. Psmith uses his intelligence and insouciance, guts and gumption to emerge triumphant. He gets the pearls (not for the money but for his best friend and his wife), Phyllis and Jackson the money and the Efficient Baxter is chucked out. And the icing on the cake – Psmith and Eve are united and he is made secretary to Lord Emsworth. Joy and happiness finally reign supreme in Blandings Castle.
To the uninitiated the plot might look like some kind of mad caper but it is anything but that. Each thread is sewn seamlessly to create a fabric of humour, gentle satire and a gripping storyline which according has few parallels in English literature. Each page ripples with humour – which is there both in the language as well as the situation, the characters as well as the incidents. Psmith’s nonchalance – his uncanny ability to juxtapose the sublime and the ridiculous makes his character truly endearing. The other players too create a world that one would want to visit again and again. Even if Wodehouse had written just this one book he would have become immortal. Leave it to Psmith offers an instant cure for ennui and depression.
As far as sheer mastery over the English language is concerned Wodehouse is the winner all the way, with the others not even also-rans. Out of the huge treasure trove Wodehouse has to offer a few gems of artistic genius are produced here. These include examples of brilliant metaphors, scintillating similes and tongue in cheek rip offs on Shakespeare, Greek Mythology, the scriptures et al.
It was one of those cold, clammy, accusing sort of eyes – the kind that makes you reach up to see if your tie is straight: and he looked at me as I were some sort of unnecessary product which Cuthbert the Cat had brought in after a ramble among the local ash-cans.
Wodehouse as a writer does not have the intellectual snob value of a Kafka or a Camus or even a Rushdie. As he himself wrote in In Over Seventy (1957):
“I go in for what is known in the trade as ‘light writing’ and those who do that – humorists they are sometimes called – are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at.
But one should not be under the delusion that what he wrote was in any way less difficult and challenging writing than that attempted by the so called heavy weights of English fiction. His innings spanned more than seven decades and he almost struck a century of titles. If the length of his innings was awesome and his prolificacy was staggering so was his ability to hook and mesmerise generations of readers.
Today a hundred years after he first started writing his popularity is unabated. One goes to any good book store and is sure to find an entire rack or more devoted to the writings of Wodehouse. He may not be included in the echelons of writers who write on agony and angst, who create a realistic collage of life – but he is one craftsmen who writes in a genre which is the most difficult – humour. To sustain this style of writing for so long and over so many words is a mindblowing achievement. Take the case of the Blandings saga. It started with Something Fresh in 1915 and continued till Sunset at Blandings which was a work in progress in 1975 when the master died. The style of writing, the inimitable humour, the deft characterisation and the crazy plots – the freshness of Something Fresh is still there when the ‘Sun set’ at Blandings – if this is not the mark of a maestro than what is!
Wodehouse was a wizard of words whose magic transgresses all boundaries of time and space. His appeal is enduring, endearing and eternal.
1. What ho! My hero, PG Wodehouse” by Stephen Fry (Jeeves actor), The Independent, 18 January 2000 – Recollections and appreciation
2. McCrum, Robert (2004). Wodehouse: A Life. London: Viking.
3. Usborne, Richard: (2003). Plum Sauce: A P. G. Wodehouse Companion. New York: The Overlook Press, page 137–207
4. “P. G. Wodehouse interview” by Gerald Clarke, The Paris Review, Winter, 1975
5. Belloc, Hilaire: Introduction to Weekend Wodehouse, 1939.
6. Meredith, Scott: Introduction to the Best of Wodehouse, New York, 1949.
7. Usborne, Richard: Wodehouse at Work, 1961.
8. Waugh, Evelyn: An Act of Homage and Reparation to P.G.Wodehouse, 14.7.1961.
9. P. G. Wodehouse: French, R.B.D., Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh and London, 1966.
10. P.G. Wodehouse Books.com – Guide to PG Wodehouse: bibliography, history, articles, films/TV, quotes
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