Volume 11, Issue 4: Thema
Typewriter of a Goof
Machines are serious business, and, since modernity likes to run like a machine, modernity is therefore very much like those four attorneys—dour, solemn, somber, and gray. Instead of laughing at this spectacle, many orthodox folks who ought to know better muddle along grimly as best they can. But something really should be done about all this, and part of that “something” needs to include acquiring a familiarity with the Wodehousean canon, and a concomittant acquaintance with the importance of modern Dutch cow creamers.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881 and was known for most of his years by all who knew him as Plum. He had an easy-going but very shy personality. As he grew up, he generally flourished in relationships with closer friends. Plum was not a public person, but neither was he socially maladroit in small societies. He attended Dulwich College where he excelled as a student athlete (cricket, rugby, and soccer), and was generally well-liked. Wodehouse began his career there as a writer by working for the school paper and, of course, churned out a lot of stuff in those early years. He was a competent writer from the start, but observers in the know are nevertheless able to pinpoint the exact time in his life when his very own private muse woke up and whacked him with enthusiasm on the head. He was part way through one of his early books when he suddenly, mysteriously, found his unmistakable voice, and proceeded to write that way until his death many decades later.
After a time of paying his dues the way writers like to do, he became an enormously successful author in the early part of this century, spent a good deal of time hopping back and forth between Britain and America, got into scrapes with the IRS, was hired as a screenwriter in Hollywood more than once, was paid a lot there for doing very little, wrote lyrics for Broadway productions, and, most importantly, established himself as the master of the comic short story and novel. His ability to produce hot stuff on demand was considerable, and in the course of his life he wrote ninety-some novels and innumberable short stories.
He was living in France with his wife Ethel when the Second World War broke out. He did not leave for England because he was working on a novel, and because he probably could not have gotten his pet dog (a Pekingese) with him back into England. He was consequently captured and spent some time in a concentration camp for foreign civilians. On the eve of his sixtieth birthday, after he was released by the Germans because of his age, the stage was set for him to create the one great controversy of his life, which was his agreement to do some broadcast talks from Germany to America. The talks were entirely non-political, recounting his experiences in the concentration camp, and were directed to the United States, which was not yet in the war, but the effect in Britain was nonetheless explosive. Despite the fact that the broadcasts were not heard in England, the content of the talks was assumed, and Wodehouse was denounced as a turncoat scoundrel, and accused of treason. He thought he was just exhibiting a humorous stiff-upper lip approach to a difficult situation, but the affair was not driven by his intentions. Judged by content, the talks were certainly unoffensive, but judged by context, they were damning. Those who knew him understood that he was about as apolitical as a man can get without being an oyster, and consequently, they understood that he had been more than a little naive about how the Germans would use his talks. But they knew that this was all he had been—naive. When it finally dawned on him how foolish he had been, he was as appalled as anyone, but by that point the damage was done.
Because of the controversy, he was unable to return to Britain after the war, and so he settled on Long Island, where he stayed for the remainder of his life, and where he was eventually naturalized as an American citizen. The British were very slow to forgive him, but when they finally did, they did it in style, and Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1975, two months before he died. He died at home at the age of ninety. He was able to work fruitfully until the end of his life, producing some of his best work in his latter years. He was certainly not a writer who crested early.
Not surprisingly, readers of this magazine are probably interested in his religious commitments. There is never any neutrality, not even at Blandings Castle. His faith is hard to ascertain from the available information, but it is safe to say at least three things. First, his knowledge of the Bible was thorough (perhaps he had won the same kind of Scripture Knowledge Award that his Bertie Wooster prized so earnestly). His easy familiarity with Scripture is revealed constantly throughout his books, and he could nail down an allusion as quickly as Jael, the wife of Heber.
Secondly, the only direct information on his faith I could find was his reference to his attendance on the ministry of a Salvation Army colonel during his time in concentration camp. As he put it, “I got very religious in camp. There was a Salvation Army colonel there who held services every Sunday. There is something about the atmosphere of a camp which does something to you in that way.”
And third, for a Christian, the world he portrays has some very familiar lines of latitude and longitude. Wodehouse simply assumes a Christian order, an established Church, and a respectable clergy scandalized by the occasional orangutan in orders. What he never challenges throughout all his books is extremely revealing. His world, admittedly idealized, is one in which Christian readers find themselves comfortable. Apart from the pinching of policemen’s helmets by young curates, blinded by love of Stiffy, the moral universe he paints is generally a recognizable one. True, there is an occasional stray hell or damn, and this is unfortunate, because many modern Christians do all their worldview analysis through the simple process of counting them. Nevertheless, despite this, taking one thing with another, the world in Wodehouse has to be seen as being right side up.
The plots in Wodehouse, on the other hand, are farcical and labyrinthian, and it must be admitted that there are not many of them. They basically amount to some poor fish on a slab wanting to pledge his troth to some lovely young pippin, and the bride price he must pay is the task of kyping something valuable while staying at a spacious country manor. The young woman adored is lovely, svelte, and has limpid eyes that swim slowly over what she sees. She is also frequently a thug. There are exceptions to this setup of course, but one gets the basic idea. The farce gets tangled up in aunts, bookies, butlers, fierce secretaries, gentlemen’s personal gentlemen, and professional thieves, and by the time all is done, a wonderful time has been had by all the readers. To paraphrase the master, if all the good times available from his books were laid end to end, they could reach part of the way to the north pole.
As a stylist, Wodehouse was of course superb, writing balanced and nuanced sentences which, taking the hay with the straw, just wouldn’t quit. But the thing that made him a supreme writer, the thing which ensures a readership many years from now, was his genius in working with metaphor, and metaphors that were like metaphors, like similies, if you catch the drift. Whether the thing under discussion was subdued and quiet, like bees fooling about in the flowerbed, or farcical and ludicrous, like the high octane sappiness of Madeline Bassett who believed the stars to be God’s daisy chain, the metaphors and similies found in the work of Wodehouse cause the reader, even if alone, to laugh like a hyena with a bone caught in its throat. Or perhaps the laughter of some other more genteel readers might more closely approximate the sound of glue being poured from a jug. But in either case, Wodehouse has the constant capacity to surprise his readers with a sudden turn or twist of phrase, and to surprise them pleasantly.
The effect is not unlike the pleasure received when one thinks one has been disgracing his family through robbing banks, and wakes up to discover it was all a dream. And on every page, too.
For the poor, benighted souls who have not had the pleasure, where is one to begin his recommending? But first, a warning. If someone simply wants to say they have “read Wodehouse,” we may note in the first instance that they would only say this because they have not read him. Once they have undertaken the happy chore, the desire to continue is motivated differently than perhaps it began. And about time.
For those who are unacquainted with his work, the size of his pile can be intimidating, and it has to be recognized that while the quality of his books is remarkably and consistently high, there are still some works which stand out, like eager public servants, and which will reward the new student of his oevure, and reward him quick and hard, usually by the second page. In this age of instant gratification, fast food, fast lane commuting, and telerightnowing, it is wonderful to find great literature which is capable of doing exactly the same thing. Some great lit just competes with other great lit. But it takes extraordinary lit to compete with drivel—and on its own level too.
For the novels, the place to begin is with Leave It To Psmith, The Code of the Woosters, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, The Mating Season, and Right Ho, Jeeves. For the short stories, a good start would be the Mulliner stories and the Drones Club stories (both are available in single volumes). Usually this fair start will prove to be an introduction to a lifetime of enjoyment. And if this is somehow inexplicably not the case, then the fact that the books read “on assignment” were among Plum’s best reveal exactly where the problem is. It is probably to be found in the fact that the disapproving reader is a complete chump.
Incidentally, a word should be put in here about the recent series of Jeeves and Wooster pieces done by the BBC, and available in video. These are very well done, and quite humorous in their own right, but one caution must still be noted. The very best thing about the work of Wodehouse, viz. his powers of description, is necessarily absent. In a video, a constable can certainly be shown walking, but there is no way to picture him doing so with his shoes clumping along like a couple of violin cases.
We need Wodehouse for a number of reasons, but one stands out. The besetting sin of many cranky conservative Christian types is their inability to make any good point whatever without sounding shrill. And the better the point, the shriller the making of it gets. But to have been well-marinated in the writing of this man is to have been soaked in the . . . well, it is to to have been marinated in, you know, his writings. The sunniness of his prose, coupled with his robust prowess in the realm of insult, is exactly what we need in these, our troubled times. For we are not just doing battle with the powers of darkness, we are also engaged in mortal conflict with the theology of Madeline Bassett, resident theologian and high priestess of modern evangelicalism.