- When Plummie Met SallyThe Other P. G. Wodehouse
Life with all its troubles and its explanations and its burdening sense of failure must be faced.—The Coming of Bill
A moment before, I had been dully conscious that nothing could save me from the soup. Already I had seemed to hear the beating of its wings. And now this!—The Code of the Woosters
Tell a certain kind of reader you prefer Henry James’s middle period to the late manner, and he or she will know exactly what you mean. The same person can probably tell the W. B. Yeats of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” from the tough old poet of, say, “Byzantium.” But mention Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (“Plum” or “Plummie” to his friends), and, unless your friend belongs to a very small company indeed, you’re less likely to be discussing developmental phases than a single uniform world of witless aristocrats and imperturbable valets. Throughout a career comprising ninety or so novels and story collections, and running through much of the twentieth century, P. G. Wodehouse did funny, and that apparently was that. The perception has been all but enshrined by his remark, quoted on the first page of many a Penguin paperback, that “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”
Wodehouse could sew up a multistrand plot by having an oft-kidnapped, prizewinning pig gobble an incriminating manuscript. A caged bird in a corner of a scene will “chirp reflectively to itself, like a man trying to remember a tune in his bath.” The “gentleman’s gentleman” Jeeves, admonished that correct trouser-length might be trumped by graver concerns, replies calmly, “The mood will pass, sir.” For such priceless departures from “real life,” generations of fans have thanked their lucky literary stars while reaching for the next sparkling farce. As early as 1945, however, George Orwell pointed out the problem of being solely a comic entertainer, forever disengaged from matters of consequence.
In 1940 Wodehouse was detained by German soldiers near his resort [End Page 411] home in Le Touquet, France; he spent the remainder of the Second World War in internment camps and as an involuntary resident in Germany and Paris. Hoping to express gratitude to his supportive readers, and to present a picture of spirit and pluck in captivity, he agreed to deliver several radio addresses from Berlin. As Orwell puts it, “Wodehouse’s main idea in making them was to keep in touch with his public and—the comedian’s ruling passion— to get a laugh.” But the decision, loudly condemned in Britain and the United States, haunted Wodehouse for the rest of his life. Orwell’s defense of the infamous 1941 broadcasts was that Wodehouse, the internee, couldn’t have been collaborating with the Nazis in any meaningful sense, because he simply understood nothing about politics. He was too naïve to be considered a traitor.
In a similar vein Robert McCrum devotes much of his biography (2004) to Wodehouse’s wartime activities, and concludes that while “not treacherous” they were “incredibly stupid.” Even a near-fanatical devotee like Anthony Lane, writing in the New Yorker the year McCrum’s biography appeared, reins in his enthusiasm with a rueful caveat: “The notion that you might be aiming at wisdom, at the revelations that are vouchsafed by suffering, was all very well, but it was not in his job description. His job was to divert us and leave us none the wiser.” And so P. G. Wodehouse, as viewed from our disapproving century, appears a dim childlike man with a large but limited gift, who just wanted to write his funny stories and not think about human hardship.
But you should never take a writer’s self-description at face value. Far from “ignoring real life altogether,” Wodehouse wrote several novels depicting personal disasters and genuine personal fulfillment—novels in which the occasional Piccadilly twit or numbskulled American boxer appears, but which for the most part seem...