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What Great Writers Read is Wodehouse

November, 2010
By Charles E. Gould, Jr.

It needs no ghost come from the grave (not that I am one yet or coming from there now) to suppose that a writer as prolific and popular as P.G. Wodehouse must have, over a period of seventy years, attracted the attention of other writers.  Some such attention is almost too well-known to mention: Hilaire Belloc’s statement in a U.S. radio broadcast that “P.G. Wodehouse is the best writer of English now alive,” Evelyn Waugh’s definitive observation in a B.B.C. broadcast that “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale.  He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.  He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”  Though Mr. Belloc’s praise raised some already high-brow eye-brows, no one who disagrees with Mr. Waugh reads Wodehouse anyway…and won’t be reading this.

I have here several books dedicated to Wodehouse: by Agatha Christie, “To P.G. Wodehouse, whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years.  Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me that he enjoys my books” (Hallowee’n Party); by Edgar Wallace thrice, “To My Friend P.G. Wodehouse” (The Ringer, A King by Night, and The Gaunt Stranger); by Leslie Charteris, “To P.G. Wodehouse who had time to say a word for the Saint stories, when he could have written them so much better himself” (Saint’s Getaway); by Anthony Berkeley, “To P.G. Wodehouse” (Trial and Error); and by E. Phillips Oppenheim, “To My Friend ‘PLUM’ WODEHOUSE Who tells me what I can scarcely believe, that he enjoys my stories as much as I do his”  (Up the Ladder of Gold)—and  there are others that are not here.  The genre represented by these authors is not surprising, for, apart from Shakespeare, Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, Keats and Wordsworth and Shelley, Walter Savage Landor, William Ernest Henley, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Kipling, Longfellow and Whittier, Thomas Moore, John Bartlett, Conan Doyle and James Graham First Marquess of Montrose, and Zeno (Eleatic philosopher of the 5th Century B.C. whose famous Paradox still stumps me), they were evidently Wodehouse’s favorite reading; and, had it been possible, each of those writers would have dedicated to Wodehouse a play or a paradox or an epic or a sonnet sequence or a collection of quotations or a poem bound in limp lavender leather.  I wish the record were fuller (perhaps it is fuller than I know) of what particular pleasure his contemporaneous writers took in Wodehouse’s work.

Kenneth Roberts, the historical novelist whose historical research was so notoriously painstaking as to turn the phrase “historical novelist” into an oxymoron, published in The Saturday Evening Post and with Doubleday, Doran at the same time as Wodehouse (his Northwest Passage is listed on the back panel of the second issue dust wrapper of Summer Moonshine).  He lived just across the pasture (his pasture) from here, in a large stone house where he occasionally entertained George Horace Lorimer, famed editor of the Post.  My grandfather played golf with them.   When Roberts died, in 1956, I was only twelve and had met him only once—not, as you can imagine, very conversationally; but ten years later I had come to know his wife’s niece, for years his skilled typist, Marjorie Mosser, very well, and she and Aunt Anna Mosser Roberts gave me a tour of the house.  In the library, floor to ceiling, were only the works of Roberts, mint in their numerous editions and translations; but in the cellar—clean, dry, warm, well-lighted—were the stacks: shelf after shelf of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, William Dean Howells, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lewis, Wouk (Marjorie impulsively gave me a first edition of The Caine Mutiny, with Roberts’s blue pencil ownership inscription) and many others.  Though Wodehouse, David Jasen says, routinely discarded the dust wrappers of his own books, Roberts preserved his own upstairs; but he raped the books in the cellar, for some reason.  No dust wrappers at all.  When a few years ago I sought one for Roberts’s own copy of The Caine Mutiny, the price was beyond the dreams of my avarice.  But there in the cellar of Roberts’s Rocky Pasture reposed a shelf of two or three dozen Wodehouse books.  You’d not guess it from Roberts’s historical scholarship or occasional cantankerousness: in a letter to my father he wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with this town [Kennebunkport] that twenty minutes under water wouldn’t cure,” but my evidence here is that surely he read—and kept—Wodehouse.  Many years later, I bought Roberts’s collection of Wodehouse books from Marjorie Mosser’s cousin.

In The Letters of Kingsley Amis (Great Britain: HarperCollins, 2000) there are eight references to Wodehouse, none really illuminating. Apparently Amis wearied of reviewing Wodehouse to the point at which he wrote “pgw to you is sf to me.”  (I don’t know, despite a third of a century among adolescent re-creators of our language, here and in England, what “sf” means, but in the context of a thousand pages of Amis’s letters I assume it is very rude.)   Elsewhere he mentions that Wodehouse’s Punch contributions in the fifties are “too topical,” and especially as an American I have rarely had reason to disagree with that.  On the other hand, for almost fifty years I have been saying that the two funniest novels ever written (that I have read) in the English language are Amis’s Lucky Jim and Wodehouse’s Brinkley Manor/Right-Ho, Jeeves (setting aside Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, which is the funniest novel I can imagine in any language whatsoever, even if you don’t recognize it as a parody, as I did not for years).  The two novels have almost nothing in common except Gussie Fink-Nottle’s drunken awarding of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School and Dixon’s drunken “Merrie England” address at the end of Lucky Jim.  I think Amis must owe Wodehouse a nod here, if only for the idea that having a character deliver a speech while intoxicated is a marvelous device of peripeteia, a sudden reversal of fortune for better or worse.

In a non-fictional reminiscence, “I Was a Teen-Age Library User” (Odd Jobs, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, p. 836) Updike recalls the librarian Miss Ruth, who let him “check out stacks of books, and she never blinked”:

Stacks of what?  P.G. Wodehouse is the author that comes first to mind: the library owned close to all the master’s titles, around fifty of them at that time, and they all struck me as hilarious and enchanting.  [“The Coming of Bill,” neither hilarious nor enchanting, may not have been among the fifty.]  They admitted me to a privileged green world of English men’s clubs, London bachelor flats, country weekends, golf courses, roadsters, flappers, and many other upper-crust appurtenances fabulous to think of in wartime Berks County.  A real reader, reading to escape his own life thoroughly, tends to have runs on authors; besides Wodehouse, I pretty well ploughed through Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh.

Veritably Wodehouse’s own stack…and how lovely to include London in the “green world” of Wodehouse’s England (most often, Norman Murphy says, Shropshire).  If (and he does) in this same vast collection of essays and criticism (page 718) Updike refers to Wodehouse’s work as “not the most academically chic” and “often dismissably slim,” he is at least describing me and my own works (though not, perhaps, my figure) accurately.

One of my many not academically chic and perhaps dismissably slim ideas for years has been that Updike (whom I revere as much for his poetry as for his fiction) was in American literature the direct descendent of Sinclair Lewis, whether he knew it or not:  “When at last I came to read Babbitt, it was because its central character’s name rhymed with that of a fictional character of my own.  The parallels astonished me—the bondage to one’s father-in-law’s business, the baffled love for one’s son, the dips into low life, and the scared skid home”.  (More Matter.  Alfred A. Knopf, 1999; p. 239.)  In Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York: McGraw Hill, 1961) Mark Shorer writes:

Like his master, Dickens, he [Sinclair Lewis] created a gallery of characters who have independent life outside the novels, with all their obvious limitations, characters that now live in the American tradition itself.  If they are not as numerous or as rich as Dickens’s, they are nevertheless of the same breed—gigantic, nearly mythological figures that embody (I do not say duplicate) the major traits of their class.   (p.813)

So far, I am only 30% wrong in that dismissably slim idea. Nowadays, in America’s prep schools (where dead white male novelists are best if not uniquely preserved against brown and bosomy competition), Fitzgerald is known only (and rightly) for The Great Gatsby; Hemingway is known only for The Old Man and The Sea, if that (it’s only about 90 pages—“dismissably slim!”), and, being virtually unreadable, he is otherwise not read at all; and, now that I am no longer in the classroom, nobody under the age of 50 has heard of Sinclair Lewis.  Give us both another thirty years, though:

On that day [mid-August, 1928], meeting C.F. Crandall [a London newspaperman], he [Sinclair Lewis] asked him if he would be so good as to buy him all the books of P. G. Wodehouse for the voyage home, and from Paris, on August 17, he cabled Harcourt that he would probably want four months more to finish Dodsworth [a novel about an automobile magnate].  (Ibid., p.505)

A writer who once wanted “all the books of P.G. Wodehouse for the voyage home” (in 1928 they numbered almost 40, counting the school stories) is not forever tucked in the wallet at the back of Time, wherein are alms for oblivion.

I must add, however, that all three of those writers—like Wodehouse—thrive in the marts and thoroughfares (the dark alleys and muddy gutters) of the rare book trade: many of their pre-war first editions in reasonably good dust wrapper will command a dollar price with a comma in it, often with two digits to the left thereof.  Doesn’t mean anybody actually reads them.  Some booksellers don’t even read the titles: I have seen Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and The (sic) Damned offered in prestigious catalogues.  When P.G.W. wanted books for “the voyage home,” he sent for Agatha Christie, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Edgar Wallace, W. Shakespeare…or Rex Stout.  When Rex Stout heard of Wodehouse’s death, February 14, 1975, he said: “He always used the right words, and nearly always used them well.  As an entertainer he was unsurpassed.  While apparently being merely playful he often made acute and subtle comments about human character and behavior.”   (John McAleer, Rex Stout.  Little, Brown, 1977, p.577.)

As I am doing, at least in part, Wodehouse himself makes sport of Hemingway.  (It is easy.  It’s not hard.  Beans for lunch.)  He gives three of his characters the name Hemmingway (sic): two of them, Aline and Sidney, are con-artists, i.e. crooks.  The other, Wadsworth, an unpopular retired solicitor, is unaffectionately known on the golf course as “Palsied Percy.”  If this be error—or coincidence—and upon him proved, then Wodehouse never writ, nor no man ever loved.  In Chapter 24 of The Mating Season, Gussie Fink-Nottle says that the scales have fallen from his eyes regarding Corky Pirbright:  “I think she would make an excellent helpmeet for somebody of the Ernest Hemingway type who likes living dangerously.”  Ten pages later, Bertie Wooster is confused when he says of Gussie, “He still admires her many fine qualities and considers that she would make a good wife for Sinclair Lewis.”  This P.G.W. joke is, to me, supremely funny, even beyond Bertie’s mistake, for, apart, perhaps, from serious drinking, Hemingway and Lewis had very little in common—nothing at all in their writing; and while the manly Hemingway might have been able to handle Corky (Cora) Pirbright, the comparatively effete—though in my opinion far greater writer—Lewis (like Gussie) would have found her overwhelming…too rich a mixture, being dust beneath her chariot wheels.  Somehow Wodehouse knew all this, but I can’t picture him curling up with either of these authors, even out of the rain with a dachshund.  Pure genius intuition, I surmise.

However, the back panel of the fine Oliver Hurst dust wrapper of Pigs Have Wings (Garden City: Doubleday, 1952) proclaims: “P.G. Wodehouse has become, as Sinclair Lewis put it, ‘not an author but a whole department of rather delicate art.  He is the master of the touchingly inane…of the ultimate and lordly deadpan.’”  I leave to greater scholars than I—the name Norman Murphy springs to mind—to find, if we want it, the published source of this splendid praise.  But it’s true.  In Wodehouse we find the wind-bag Babbitt (Sigsbee Horatio Waddington), the industrial Dodsworth (Sir George Pyke, Lord Tilbury), the Main Street Girl from East Gilead (May Stubbs), the goofy god-driven Elmer Gantry (Roderick Spode), even Myron Weagle, the hotel-keeper in Work of Art (think of Archie Moffam and old Brewster in Indiscretions of Archie), transmuted from the touchingly serious of Lewis into the uniquely touchingly inane of Wodehouse.  When I was a lad I served a term touched by the serious.  Now, I rather prefer the inane, relying always of course on the lordly deadpan.

Charles E. Hould, Jr. is a retired member of the English department at Kent School, an antiquarian bookseller, and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, ME.

Ed. Note: Portions of this article appeared in Plumlines, the quarterly journal of The Wodehouse Society.