P. G. Wodehouse
“My favourite Jeeves and Wooster story is the one where Bertie helps a stupid friend of his, almost gets married, gets into some kind of scrape in a country house, and then is rescued by Jeeves, whom he thanks by throwing away an unsightly item of clothing.”
P. G. Wodehouse is generally considered to be the funniest writer who ever lived... except for people who've never heard of him, people who don't like his stuff, and people who are still upset over that business during World War II.
Early Life[edit | edit source]
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in Surrey, England in 1881. His parents were strict in their policy of naming their children after local towns. Pelham Grenville's siblings included Farham Epson, Reigate Godalming, Woking Leatherhead and Dorking Egham.
He enjoyed a standard British upbringing: his father was a magistrate in Hong Kong, and both Wodehouse's father and mother lived there while their children were brought up by nannies and educated in boarding schools back in England. Any suggestion that a boarding school education generally led to a warped sexuality is entirely missing from Wodehouse's work. (See right)
His father, wanting the best for his son, attempted to set him up in one of Britain's most lucrative trades: colonisation. He sent P.G. to a naval school in the belief that you can never have enough seamen. However, P.G.'s eyesight would put paid to his chances of extending the British Empire (but happily also keep him out of World War I).
Colonisation also bit his father on the bottom: his pension was paid in Rupees, and when the Indian currency's value plummeted, he suddenly felt the inspiration to set his son up as a banker. However, Wodehouse rebelled and became a newspaper columnist, which in those days was still a professional occupation, not one paid entirely in Likes on Twitter.
At the age of 23, Wodehouse moved to the USA and hit upon a formula that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his life: selling his version of life on one side of the Atlantic to the other.
Living in New York City, he triple-handedly popularised the genre of plays known as musical comedy. Noting that Anglophile WASP's were gobbling up Gilbert and Sullivan's witty upper-class British guff like pigs at a trough, he wrote a number of hit plays including "Knickers and Stockings", "Rugger Buggers On Sticky Wickets" and "Prince Albert's Prince Albert".
In 1929 he moved to Hollywood, where he wrote several movie scripts, none of which were ever used. However, his time on the West Coast only lasted a year after he made the cardinal sin of exposing Hollywood as being a bit rubbish. Tinseltown has long since changed, but in the 1920s, it was customary for studios to employ countless writers to produce countless rewrites, succeeding only in squeezing all life and spark out of a script.
Despite that, Wodehouse used his time to write 4 novels and 123 short stories while under contract, all the while pocketing $2,000 a week. Not bad for 1929, what?
Wodehouse's to-ing and fro-ing between the UK and the US came to an end in 1934, when both countries attempted to tax his earnings, the so-called Spitroast Tax. He fled to France - possibly on a boat to escape the clutches of an aunt who wanted to marry him off - the same year that a young Adolf Hitler declared himself Führer.
But surely that beastly cove wasn't likely to have an effect on old Pelham?
Jeeves and Wooster[edit | edit source]
Despite his success in other areas, Wodehouse's living was always underpinned by his tales of rich bachelor Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves. Between 1917 and 1974, he wrote approximately 263 Jeeves and Wooster stories.
Style[edit | edit source]
Wodehouse employed a number of tropes and literary devices throughout his Jeeves and Wooster novels:
- Abbreviate words, especially in turns of phrase which are relatively common, and especially when repeating the turn of p.
- Employ unheard-of British slang to delight American readers: an alcoholic drink is "a snooter", eating is "putting on the nosebag", things are "bally good" or "bally bad", irritated people are "pipped" and crises can be described as "rummy" or "a bit thick".
- Throw in a few stories set in New York and references to American cinema and slang.
- Quote or mangle a line of poetry, possibly with Jeeves' correction. Repeat it to aunt.
- Refer to nodding and shaking the head by replacing the cranium with a suitably clumpy fruit or vegetable. "She shook the pumpkin" ideally, but beans and lemons are also permissible.
- Include numerous references to fish. Jeeves looks like a fish. His intelligence comes from eating lots of fish. A poor fellow or girl can be a poor fish. Liken people to jellyfish.
- Write, "If X is the word I want" after using a word, when it always is the word you want.
- Refer to men as chaps, fellows, coves, blokes, birds and bimbos. Use the word "man" chiefly in the expressions "My good man" or "old man".
- Make sure that in any financial transaction, Jeeves makes an amazing profit, thus assuaging the reader's possible disgust at the concept of servants.
- Avoid taking the Lord's name in vain, use "By Jove" as an exclamation or even to emphasise the thrust of the sentence. We made it to ten, by Jove!
Plot[edit | edit source]
The novels all have an identical plot:
- Bertie is persuaded by his Aunt Agatha/Dahlia that he ought to marry a rich woman.
- He is dispatched to a country house somewhere in Gloucestershire to propose to said W.
- He meets his old friend Gussie Fink-Nottle - a newt-fancier who has difficulty counting his hands.
- Fink-Nottle persuades Bertie to steal an antique vase in the middle of the night.
- Bertie, being an ass, is caught.
- Jeeves saves the day with a mind-numbingly stupid scheme that Bertie initially criticises, before deciding it is genius.
- The woman decides to get engaged to Fink-Nottle instead, but never marries him.
- Bertie thanks Jeeves by shaving off his moustache, throwing away a hat, or refusing to enter into a heterosexual relationship.
While many readers have attempted to suggest that there is something inherently odd about Wooster's refusal to ever have a girlfriend, much less get married, and that Jeeves' general tendency to scupper any potential relationship is even stranger, the books are generally innocent, with only the dirtiest of minds able to glean any potential homoerotic innuendo:
That Business During World War II[edit | edit source]
“The existence of the Jews cut poor old Addie to the quick. He couldn't stick them at any price, and talked disapprovingly about them with such bally relentlessness that I was getting jolly well fed up with it. No one can call me an unreasonable chappie, but it seemed to me that it was getting a bit too thick. If he was all packed up to go on a genocidal - if genocidal is the word I want - rampage, not to mention ferreting around Europe invading countries every time the urge struck him, I mean, I say, it simply isn't done, what?”
In 1940, Wodehouse was still living in Calais, France. A man of incredible perspicacity, Wodehouse decided that it might be time to leave the country, what with Nazi forces cutting through France like a hot anti-Semitic knife through butter.
With flights to England in short supply, Wodehouse and his wife decided to drive to Portugal, from where they could catch a boat to America. Many refugees attempted to do this, but while for some this meant a torturous journey through Europe via Casablanca for the Wodehouse family it was a 2-mile car journey which ended when their engine broke down.
Having shown all the escapist abilities of a post-1926 Harry Houdini, Wodehouse was interred in a prison in Loos, a resort for pun lovers. He was given a typewriter while there, and wrote 3 Jeeves and Wooster novel, 14 short stories and a play.
In 1941, while playing a game of cricket (no, really), Wodehouse was suddenly seized by the Gestapo, taken away to Berlin, and, er, made to stay in a luxury hotel which was paid for by his German book royalties.
The dastardly Germans made him stay in that hotel till his sixtieth birthday. As a parting torture, he was forced to make several broadcasts to America in which he made light-hearted fun of his captors, as convincing the world that Germans had a sense of humour would have represented a major Nazi propaganda victory.
The broadcasts enraged the population of Britain, and Wodehouse was never able to return to his homeland, have a decent cup of tea, or taste Salad Cream ever again.
Later On[edit | edit source]
Reviled in his native country, Wodehouse did what any self-respecting British scoundrel would do: he moved to America. (See also Edward VIII).
There he produced dozens more books of whimsy and flair, set in country houses thousands of miles away. For Americans, Wodehouse was a literary form of Worcestershire sauce - he gave everything a charmingly, unmistakably English flavour (and spelt flavour with a u.)
If the US treated Wodehouse like Wooster's affable uncle Tom, the UK was more of a vicious Aunt Agatha-type. The government looked into having him extradited and arrested at the tail-end of the war, and he was interviewed by agents from both MI5 and MI6, giving him a total of M11.
Thereafter there was no attempt at a rapprochement - if rapprochement is the word I want - until a year before Wodehouse's death aged 93. In the governmental equivalent of an abusive husband unexpectedly lavishing his wife with kisses and compliments, Harold Wilson gave Wodehouse a knighthood, the highest possible honour, after he had been left to languish in chilly exile for thirty years.