Monday, January 31, 2011

Sir Pelham Wodehouse

I was reminded this morning while reading no.4 of the 7 Quick Takes in the excellent Jen F's Conversion Diary of an article I read some years ago. It was Joseph Bottum's take on P. G. Wodehouse and I have to confess that I found it somewhat wanting. He treats the late Sir Pelham as if all he ever wrote was light-hearted and trivial; most of it was but certainly not all. Mr Bottum also took the view that there was no redemption (which presupposes a Fall) and certainly no moral sense in all of the Wodehouse canon. I dissent from these unfounded judgments, and as only a single counter-example is required to disprove a universal statement, I'll give three or 14!

The Man With Two Left Feet & Other Stories is a collection originally published in 1917 and now available in multiple editions. I had a copy that I bought for comfort reading (it's a bit like comfort eating but rather less fattening) some years ago. Having long since lost it, my beloved bought me a copy to replace it. I got more than just some typical Wodehousian goings on in a country manor, though. Instead, there were such gems as The Man with Two Left Feet wherein the socially awkward and physically maladroit narrator learns by a hard route to accept the love and admiration of his wife. The double brush with and rejection of suicide in The Making of Mac's and A Sea of Troubles is also well worth a read. The jewel in the crown however is the tale of grubby betrayal, hope despite everything and the promise of redemption that is At Geisenheimer's. The heroic patience of of the wronged party is understated but very moving. (For those whose admiration of "Plum" is centred around Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, this collection also features their debut but in a not wholly recognisable form.)

Doctor Sally definitively gives the lie to the notion that all of Wodehouse's heroes are gadabouts who get plucked from the dreamless at the unearthly hour of 11am and the trickle around to the Drones for a spot of lunch. Bill Bannister certainly gives that impression at first with his relentless wooing of the eponymous and striking Dr Sally but first impressions do deceive sometimes. Far from the idle rich he is in fact a very hard working (and thereby wealthy) country landowner and farm manager. Also one should never underestimate the romantic impact of devices capable of defeating lactobacilli!

Uneasy Money shows what is perhaps the strongest strand in Wodehouse's moral constitution. The somewhat clueless hero Lord Dawlish has a very clear, unambiguous if not wholly comprehensive moral code. His ideal man (and I suspect Wodehouse's too) is a man who is honest and straightforward. He expresses it thus
Bill was a simple young man and he had a simple code of ethics. Above all things he prized and admired and demanded from his friends the quality of straightness. It was his one demand. He had never actually had a criminal friend, but he was quite capable of intimacy with even a criminal, provided only that there was something spacious about his brand of crime and that it did not involve anything mean or underhand. It was the fact that Mr. Breitstein, whom Claire had wished him to insinuate into his club, though acquitted of actual crime, had been proved guilty of meanness and treachery, that had so prejudiced Bill against him.

It is this quality, present throughout Wodehouse's published work that absolves him, I think, from the charge of amorality for all his professed unseriousness. Wodehouse remained something of an adolescent in his writing, indeed therein lies its charm; this does not mean that the central human story of love freely given, love betrayed and love redeemed is absent from his work. At his best, it is that story that Wodehouse tells with a superlative command of the English language and an exquisite human sympathy. He isn't Tolstoy and he isn't Shakespeare but then he wasn't trying to be. He wasn't trying to be a serious author of any kind but I suspect he might have succeeded all the same, rather better than one would suspect at first sight.


Anonymous said...

I love P.G. Wodehouse's books, but must confess that I have read far too few of them. Perhaps I can borrow The Man with Two Left Feet & Other Stories for my bedtime reading when I come over to see my goddaughter. :-)

Éamonn said...

By all means! You can even sit in your own recliner to read it :-)