By Stephen Fry
18 January 2000
Had his only contribution to literature been Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle, his place in history would have been assured. Had he written of none but Mike and Psmith, he would be cherished today as the best and brightest of our comic authors. If Jeeves and Wooster had been his solitary theme, still he would be hailed as the Master. If he had given us only Ukridge, or nothing but recollections of the Mulliner family, or a pure diet of golfing stories, Doctor Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse would nonetheless be considered immortal. That he gave us all those - and more - is our good fortune and a testament to the most industrious, prolific and beneficent author ever to have sat down, scratched his head and banged out a sentence.
If I were to say that the defining characteristic of Wodehouse, the man, was his professionalism, that might make him sound rather dull. We look for eccentricity, sexual weirdness, family trauma and personal demons in our great men. Wodehouse, who knew just what was expected of authors, was used to having to apologise for a childhood that was "as normal as rice-pudding" and a life that consisted of little more than "sitting in front of the typewriter and cursing a bit".
The only really controversial episode of that life, namely Wodehouse's broadcasts to friends from Berlin while an internee of the Germans in France and Belgium during the Second World War, is dug up from time to time by mischief-makers and the ignorant. It would not be worth mentioning now if it had not been unearthed yet again recently, together with headlines in the British newspapers (including The Independent) linking the name Wodehouse with words such as "Nazi", "Fascist" and "traitor". Anyone who has examined the affair closely will agree with the Foreign Office official who wrote in 1947 that it was unlikely ... that anyone would seriously deny that "l'Affaire Wodehouse" was very much a storm in a teacup. It is perfectly plain to any unbiased outsider that Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent. He is reported to be of an entirely apolitical cast of mind; much of the furore of course was the result of literary jealousies.
For Wodehouse's view on Fascists, one need only consult the descriptions of Sir Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters to see how a political innocent may still be capable of scorching satire. Enough of all that. If the episode reveals anything, it is Wodehouse's other-worldliness, a quality that shines through his work and a quality that in our muddied and benighted times ought in fact to be celebrated from the hilltops.
Many have sought to "explain" Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of modern literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like "taking a spade to a souffle". His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanently pre-pubescent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary, magical and blessed miracle of Wodehouse's prose, a prose that dispels doubt much as sunlight dispels shadows, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.
When Hugh Laurie and I had the extreme honour and terrifying responsibility of being asked to play Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in a series of television adaptations, we were aware of one huge problem. Wodehouse's three great achievements are plot, character and language, and the greatest of these, by far, is language. If we were reasonably competent, then all of us concerned in the television version could go some way towards conveying a fair sense of the narrative of the stories and revealing, too, a good deal of the nature of their characters. The language, however, lives and breathes in its written, printed form. Let me use an example, taken at random. I flip open a book of stories and happen on Bertie and Jeeves discussing a young man called Cyril Bassington-Bassington.
"I've never heard of him. Have you ever heard of him, Jeeves?"
"I am familiar with the name Bassington-Bassington, sir. There are three branches of the Bassington-Bassington family – the Shropshire Bassington-Bassingtons, the Hampshire Bassington-Bassingtons, and the Kent Bassington-Bassingtons."
"England seems pretty well stocked up with Bassington-Bassingtons."
"Tolerably so, sir."
"No chance of a sudden shortage, I mean, what?"
Well, try as hard as actors might, such an exchange will always work best on the page. It may still be amusing when delivered as dramatic dialogue, but no actors are as good as the actors we each of us carry in our head. And that is the point, really: one of the gorgeous privileges of reading Wodehouse is that he makes us feel better about ourselves because we derive a sense of personal satisfaction from the laughter mutually created. Every comma, every "sir", every "what?" is something we make work in the act of reading.
"The greatest living writer of prose", "the Master", "the head of my profession", "akin to Shakespeare", "a master of the language"... If you had never read Wodehouse and only knew about the world his books inhabit, you might be forgiven for blinking in bewilderment at the praise that has been lavished on a "mere" comic author by writers such as Compton Mackenzie, Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, Bernard Levin and Susan Hill. But once you dive into the souffle, once you engage with all those miraculous verbal felicities, such adulation begins to make sense.
Example serves better than description. Let me throw up some more random nuggets. Particular to Wodehouse are the transferred epithets: "I lit a rather pleased cigarette", or, "I pronged a moody forkful of eggs and b". Characteristic, too, are the sublimely hyperbolic similes: "Roderick Spode. Big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces", or, "The stationmaster's whiskers are of a Victorian bushiness and give the impression of having been grown under glass". Here is an example that certainly vindicates my point about his prose working best on the page. Reading this aloud is not much use:
"Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?" said Wilfred.
"ffinch-ffarrowmere," corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.
Then there is a passage such as this, Lord Emsworth musing on his feckless younger son, Freddie Threepwood.
Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.
If you are immune to such writing, you are fit, to use one of Wodehouse's favourite Shakespearean quotations, only for treasons, stratagems and spoils. You don't analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour. Like Jeeves, Wodehouse stands alone, and analysis is useless.
Chronology, with Wodehouse, is not necessarily reliable or relevant, but it seems sensible to describe his creations in a more or less historical order – an order compromised by his tendency to introduce a character in a short story and only later pick up and, as it were, run with the ball. He started writing at the end of the 19th century and continued until his death, manuscript on lap, on 14 February 1975 at the age of 93.
It can be clearly stated that Wodehouse's first great creation, and for some his finest, was Psmith (the "P" is silent). Said to have been drawn from life (one Rupert D'Oyley Carte, of the Savoy Opera family), Psmith is a startling sophisticate, an expelled old Etonian whose delicately attuned nervous system can be shocked by loud colours, celluloid cuffs and the mere mention of an inadequately pressed trouser crease. He has adopted his own brand of "practical socialism" and retains to the end the habit of referring to everyone as "Comrade". Much as Jeeves was to extricate Bertie time and time again from the soup, so Psmith is the eternal saviour of stolid, dependable Mike Jackson – the Doctor Watson to Psmith's Sherlock Holmes.
There is in fact a little thread of autobiography in the second Psmith novel, Psmith in the City. Mike, whose only real ambition is to play cricket, at which he excels to the point of genius, is denied by family ill fortune his chance of going to Cambridge University and is forced instead to earn his crust at the New Asiatic Bank. The young Wodehouse, too, was obliged to work for some years at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City, until the time came when he realised that he was earning more from his writing than from his weekly stipend.
The second Wodehouse immortal to come along at this time (pre-First World War) was Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge (pronounced Stanley Fanshawe Ewkridge). Ukridge keeps his pince-nez together by means of ginger-beer wire, wears pyjamas under a mackintosh, calls his friends "old horse", uses exclamations such as "Upon my Sam" and is eternally in search of funds. The master of the scam, he forever embroils his chief biographer, Corky, in a series of terrible money-making schemes. It is not yet the age of cocktails and nightclubs and sporty two-seaters. But Ukridge is, for all that, deeply loveable; his amorality and blithe disregard of others do not irritate. Imperishable optimism and a great spaciousness of outlook inform the spirit of these stories. He is capable, when occasion demands, of splendid speech:
"Alf Todd," said Ukridge, soaring to an impressive burst of imagery, "has about as much chance as a one-armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild cat's left ear with a red-hot needle."
Wodehouse never lost his affection for Ukridge and continued writing about him until 1966, always setting the stories back in a pre-Wooster epoch. In 1915 Wodehouse published Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings novels. I think he knew what he was doing when he chose that title, for with the creation of Blandings Castle, he hit upon something original, something different. He was beginning his stride into mid-season form.
Wherever lovers of Wodehouse cluster together, they fall into debate about whether it is the Jeeves stories or the Blandings stories that take the trophy as Wodehouse's greatest achievements. The group will, of course, dispel, muttering embarrassedly, for they know that such questions are as pointless as wondering whether God did a better job with the Alps or the Rockies. The question is bound to be asked, however, because each time you read another Blandings story, the sublime nature of that world is such as to make you gasp.
The cast of resident characters here is greater than that of the Wooster canon. There is Lord Emsworth himself, the amiable and dreamy peer, whose first love – pumpkins – is soon supplanted by the truest and greatest love of his life, the Empress of Blandings, that peerless Black Berkshire sow, thrice winner of the silver medal for the fattest pig in Shropshire; Emsworth's sister, Connie, who, when sorely tried, which was often, would retire upstairs to bathe her temples in eau-de-Cologne; the Efficient Baxter, Emsworth's secretary and a hound from hell; Emsworth's brother, Galahad, the last of the Pelicans (that breed of silk-hatted men about town who lived high and were forever getting thrown out of the Criterion bar in the Eighties and Nineties); the younger son, Freddie, the bane of his father's life... The cast list goes on and is frequently supplemented by young men we will have met elsewhere, Ronnie Fish, Pongo Twistleton and even Psmith himself.
Blandings comes, in the Wodehouse canon, to stand for the absolute ideal in country houses. Its serenity and beauty are enough to calm the most turbulent breast. It is an entire world unto itself and, one senses, Wodehouse pours into it his deepest feelings for England. Once you have drunk from its healing spring, you will return again and again. Blandings is like that: it enters a man's soul.
The young men I mention as visiting Blandings are all members of Wodehouse's great fictional institution the Drones Club, in Dover Street, off Piccadilly. There are dozens of individual stories about members of the Drones, and two principal collections, Eggs Beans and Crumpets and Young Men in Spats. The title of the first derives from the Drones' habit of referring to each other as "old egg", "old bean", "my dear old crumpet" and so on. The Drones Club is a refuge for the idle young man about town. Such beings are for the most part entirely dependent on allowances from fat uncles. Indeed the name Drones is a reference to the drone bee, which toils not, neither does it spin, unlike its industrious cousin, the worker. An archetypal member would be Freddie Widgeon, intensely amiable, not very bright up top and always falling in love. The only Drone who is distinctly unlikeable is Oofy Prosser, the richest and meanest member. He sports pimples, Lobb shoes and the tightest wallet in London.
The second-richest member of the club is the most likeable. He is Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, descendant of the Sieur de Wooster who did his bit in the Crusades, and young Bertram retains the strict code of honour handed down from his ancestor, the code of the preux chevalier, the gentil parfit knight. Bertie Wooster is, of course, the employer of Jeeves, the supreme gentleman's personal gentleman.
Jeeves made his first appearance in 1917 in the short story "Extricating Young Gussie". Wodehouse liked to mock himself for not seeing straight away that he had hit a rich seam with Jeeves, but in fact it was only two years later that he wrote four more stories. From then on he gave the world Jeeves and Wooster right up until his last complete novel, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974). Much has been written about Jeeves. His imperturbability, his omniscience, his unruffled insight, his orotund speech, his infallible way with a quotation... in short, his perfection. It would be a pity, however, to overlook the character of Bertie Wooster, who is himself a great deal more than the silly ass or chinless wonder that people often imagine. That he is loyal, kind, chivalrous, resolute and magnificently sweet-natured is apparent. But is he stupid? Jeeves is overheard describing him once as "mentally negligible". Perhaps that isn't quite fair. While not intelligent within the meaning of the act, Bertie is desperate to learn, keen to assimilate the wisdom of his incomparable teacher. He may only half-know the quotations and allusions with which he peppers his speech, but proximity to the great brain has made him aware of the possibilities of exerting the cerebellum.
Wodehouse's genius in the Jeeves and Wooster canon lies in his complete realisation of Bertie as first-person narrator. Almost all the other stories depend upon standard, impersonal narration. The particular joy of a Jeeves story comes from the delicious feeling one derives from being completely in Bertie's hands. His apparently confused way of expressing him- self both reveals character and manages, somehow, to develop narrative with extraordinary economy and life. Since the Jeeves stories often lead one from the other, he will often need to repeat himself, which he manages to do with great ingenuity. He is called upon more than once, for example, to remind the reader about the dread daughter of Sir Roderick Glossop. The first example shows Bertie's way with Victorian poetry:
"I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast. "
Another description of precisely the same characteristics in Honoria give us a very Woosteresque mixture of simile:
"Honoria... is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging on a tin bridge."
Sometimes Bertie's speech moves towards a form of comic imagery so perfect that one could honestly call it poetic:
As a rule, you see, I'm not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps... the clan has a tendency to ignore me. The masterly episode where Gussie Fink-Nottle presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school is frequently included in collections of great comic literature and has often been described as the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language. I would urge you, however, to head straight for a library or bookshop and get hold of the complete novel Right Ho, Jeeves, where you will encounter it fully in context and find that it leaps even more magnificently to life.
I think I should end on a personal note. I have written it before and am not ashamed to write it again. Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today – whatever that may be. In my teenage years, his writings awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me. But more than that, he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.
He mocked himself sometimes because he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn't it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?