Why Wodehouse?

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Why Wodehouse?

1coffeezombie
Set 2, 2006, 6:43pm

So why do you read P.G. Wodehouse? Not read him? Like him? Don't like him? Let me know.

2pechmerle
Set 6, 2006, 2:47am

Ah, P.G. Wodehouse. The guy was a genius. But that doesn't tell one anything of course.

I'll take stab at why I love his works:

1) I am often moved by his stories to laugh out loud while reading along. Not so many writers can do that.

2) He creates memorable comic characters, e.g., Bertie Wooster, the Earl of Emsworth, and many others. Up there with Dickens in that regard.

3) He is a master of French farce, translated to the English scene. In fact, he was the translator of several real French farce plays, and understood their devilishly ingenious plot structures perfectly. He can hit you with a hilarious twist that you didn't see coming and yet seems entirely right after it has landed. And he'll accomplish that several times within a single novel.

4) The previous point is related to both a strength and weakness in his work: his characters seem sublimely innocent. Love and romance figures often in his work (much less so in the Wooster - Jeeves stories, that focus on the incurably bachelor Bertie). Even his villains are merely after money (or out to prevent Emsworth's pig from winning another prize), rather than wreaking real violence on anyone. On the other hand -- there is simply no sex at all in his stories. People fall in love, even get married from time to time, but there is never any sex. This is not true of many of the great French farces, which are often hilariously ribald. I like a good sex comedy as well as the next person, yet I still enjoy the endearing (but not sentimental) innocence of Wodehouse's world.

5) Wodehouse is a master of language. He has an endless flow of ingenious turns of phrase. And he often alludes to the classics -- particularly Shakespeare -- smoothly and to good effect. In his best stories, the writing wafts you along effortlessly with a perfectly timed rhythm. Like Bach, he charms you phrase by phrase yet creates a satisfying whole at the same time.

Well, there's a scratch at the surface.

3Eurydice
Set 6, 2006, 2:59am

A very nice scratch, too. You're perfectly on target as to what has so charmed me about Wodehouse, whom, as yet, you might say I only know on the surface.

4nickhoonaloon
Set 6, 2006, 4:59am

pechmerle has said it all for me really - the excellent ability with language and a gift for the memorable phrase - "Aunt calling to aunt.." etc.

Great characters - also the interplay between Jeeves and Wooster - have you seen the marvellous UK TV series with Stephen Fry and that other bloke ? Both brilliant.

I think Wodehouse once said something about treating life as a kind of musical comedy in his books and ignoring the real world altogether. In one of the post-WW1 books, he introduces the motif of the central character (Archie Moffam ?) being a returned soldier and periodically displaying a steely side. It sits a bit ill with the mood of the book, to be honest.

I think there`s also an appeal to these tales of people with nothing better to do than invent endless stratagems for procuring silver cow creamers, unite star-crossed lovers, gamble on egg and spoon races and so on, and - I think this is the important bit - have apparantly infinite leisure to pursue these interests.

Also, what other author can get away with one character re-assure another that she`s a "sound young potato" ?

If I had to choose, I think Leave it to Psmith is probably my favourite - but it`s like music - I have one favourite song one week and another the next, the same with Wodehouse.

5Bookmarque
Set 6, 2006, 8:04am

For me it's the phrasing and use of language that gets me. Quirky and intensely quick and ironic. All of it adds up to a unique voice that is extremely enjoyable to read.

6pechmerle
Modificato: Set 7, 2006, 1:38am

Nickhoonaloon hits on an interesting point. Wodehouse's characters are indeed usually seen pursuing leisure pursuits (typically a weekend in the country). That's so even though many of the characters are chronically short of funds, and many of them work. (E.g., the frustrated writer of pulp mysteries for Mammoth Publishing who is the protagonist in Something Fresh.) No doubt this focus on leisure settings adds to the general lightness of tone. But I think it also contributes in another way to the heightened hilarity that ascends to farcical crescendos: it enables Wodehouse to bring all the characters together in a single place at a single time. That creates the set up for multiple crossing of paths, working at cross purposes with humorous results, etc. In other words, though his stories are not technically plays, Wodehouse nevertheless sets up -- and beautifully exploits -- the classical unities of time and place.

7katbook
Set 7, 2006, 1:36am

How about E.F. Benson books- specifically Queen Lucia and Mapp and Lucia?
I am reminded of Wodehouse because the characters are silly and their concerns are superficial, but they are very delightful and funny. I don't think there is anyone as sensible as Jeeves in the books.
I recall some very funny scenes - esp. one involving Lucia and Miss Mapp and a door (don't want to say anymore lest I spoil it for someone).

8coffeezombie
Set 12, 2006, 1:04pm

I think this discussion has really touched on the primary attraction to Wodehouse. It's escapism, pure and simple. Some of the best ever written. I love entering his world, regardless of its improbable nature. It's the comfort of soap operas designed for the literate, and some solid writing to boot.

9pechmerle
Set 14, 2006, 2:58am

I just bought the recent McCrum biography of Wodehouse. Maybe after I finish that I'll have a further understanding of why he is one of the greatest laugh-provokers of all time. Or maybe I won't.

10nickhoonaloon
Set 14, 2006, 5:43am

Let the rest of us know how that book turns out.

For myself, i`m not sure I want to know about `the man behind the books` - so many of my favourite writers and musicians have turned out to be idiots in private, I tend not to bother. Also, maybe one should judge the work and not the worker, who knows ?

Anyway, just to pick up on an earlier point - I think Wodehouse did once say, he treated life as a musical comedy, ignoring real life altogether. In fact I think he had some experience writing musical comedies ?

I like to think some of the theatre-related characters in the books - laconic stage-doormen, aspiring writers, impressarios (what a great word that is - not sure if I`ve spelt it right though), actresses and chorus girls might have one foot in reality. (One foot in reality is about all you get with theatre people anyway).

11pechmerle
Set 15, 2006, 1:41am

nichhoonaloon, I agree with you that what's in the writing is much more important than the details of the writer's life. Still, sometimes there are facts in the life that are revealing for choices made in the writing.

I'll be a long time getting through the biography: It's 500 pages long; and I'm always reading several things concurrently.

Wodehouse did indeed have experience writing musical comedies; he wrote librettoes for, among others, musicals by Gershwin in the 1920's. He knew the theater world intimately.

12SimonW11
Set 22, 2006, 3:10am

The difference as I see it between French and English farce is that In english farce everyone is innocent. In French farce everyone is guilty.

Wodehouse then was a master of English farce.
One with a perfect turn of phrase and the ability to flatter his readers.

13nickhoonaloon
Set 22, 2006, 3:37am

"The ability to flatter his readers"

Interesting - I`d not thought of it that way. Actually, it`s early morning here at present and my brain`s not up to dealing with new information just yet - my wife`s just told me it`s raining and I had to think about that for a bit !

Actually, without wanting to undermine this group, do you all know there`s a Wodehouse group on LT ? At present it`s called The Master but there`s some talk of changing that.

14Hera
Set 22, 2006, 7:53am

I've recently been reading a Jeeves and Bertie book each week and have been laughing immoderately. Incidentally, I re-read Orwell's essay on Wodehouse yesterday, in which he (almost) rescues him from the charge of collaborator, whilst also confessing a great love of PG.

I can't quite put my finger on why Wodehouse makes me laugh so much - in public, too (I'm excessively English in public, so this is extremely rare). I think it's the cumulative effect of the style heaped onto the increasing complexity of the farce that does it. I just finished Aunts Aren't Gentlemen and the plot turns on such a trivial incident - like all the Wooster stories - which becomes a behemoth of Jonson-like proportions. I laughed so much at two pages in another Jeeves anthology - can't remember the story - that I re-read it several times to work out why it was so effective as comedy: each time I was equally driven to hysterics.

The innocence of Wodehouse is also refreshing: nothing in there that would offend anyone, which is such a contrast to my current rave, James Ellroy. I wanted to use a passage of Ellroy to illustrate good style for the teenagers I teach, but have struggled to find anything over four sentences without swearing, violence or obscenity. Wodehouse could be quoted in his entirety without making my friend the Reverend turn a hair! Sheer genius: comic writing is SO difficult, after all.

15nickhoonaloon
Set 22, 2006, 8:04am

I like your point about the trivial incident that grows into a monster-that`s exactly it, plus the characters near-obsession with trivia.

16coffeezombie
Set 22, 2006, 1:39pm

Some responses:

SimonW11: Not sure if I agree with you entirely about the difference between French and English farce. Take The Marriage of Figaro or Tartuffe for example, classic French farces. The characters have faults and often these faults lead to their downfalls, but not everyone is what you would call "guilty." Then you also have an English farce such as The Beggar's Opera, where everyone almost certainly is guilty.

I agree that Wodehouse flatters his readers, much in the same way a classic mystery writer does. His plots often feel like puzzles and figuring them out can be like unraveling a great knot of plot points. It's an accomplishment to keep it all together and you often feel good after finishing one (I'm assuming this is the sort of flattering you mean. Otherwise I'm not sure if I grasp your point).

nickhoonaloon: Yes, there is a Wodehouse group out there, but I figured Wodehouse fit well enough into this group to warrent his own discussion board here.

Hera: I love the slow build of the plots as well, how even the most minor of things can become seemingly life-or-death in its implications. B/T/W, if you are looking for someone with that bare bones, fevered crime writing style, you might want to try Elmore Leonard, particularly Rum Punch or Unknown Man #89 (two of my personal faves). His work is still violent and there is no lack of swearing, but unlike Ellroy he can go couple pages at a time without having a hooker's throat get cut or having some pop Benzadrine while firing a gun randomly into traffic.

17SimonW11
Set 23, 2006, 3:24am

I Would not rweally have really think of the Beggars opera as farce. Satire is maybe a better fit. Though I have only the haziest of memories of it.
I was in the main thinking of the Ben Travers/aldwych theatre. and later the Brian Rix Farces as representative of the british tradition.

Yes Wodehouse flatters his readers intelligence Not merely because he is expected to follow the plot but in the way he makes us feel superior to the characters. Bertie Wooster for example is unaware that Spinoza is dead and cannot remember who it was who looked at the Pacific with wild surmise.

Its a good trick if you can work it. See Shakespeare in love. or Terry Pratchett's novels for other examples. comic literature abounds with characters who you can both identify with and feel superior too. whether it Bridget Jones, Mr Pooter or A J Wentworth BA. and one of the best ways of doing this is by reminding readers how much they know and how little the charascters know.

18coffeezombie
Set 23, 2006, 10:50am

I see where you are going now. It is a good trick and honestly the basis for most humor writing. In describing the idiocy one finds in everyday life one will always sound superior to it simply for being aware of it, and by implication the reader will feel superior for being brought in on it. This is the nature of farce or satire.

Yet it's as much a perception of the readers as it is a trick played by the writers. Assuming it's intentional assumes that Wodehouse had done marketing research on his potential readership rather than just writing a character as a fool because fools are funnier and will get into situations a more rational person would quickly (and uncomically) navigate through.

19SimonW11
Modificato: Set 23, 2006, 7:19pm

Market research? No, it does however take a knowledge of the zeitgeist. I recall Terry Prachett, saying that people were buried under pyramids rather than in the centre, but for his book he had them at the centre because that was where readers were expecting them to be.
I think He missed a trick here the ideal would have been to allow those who knew people were buried under pyramids their moment of vindication. without alienating those who didn't.

Jeeves was the vehicle par excelance for this. Nobody feels diminished by knowing less than Jeeves, Since Jeeves knows everything.

20doshiamit
Set 29, 2006, 6:05am

IMHO its the phrasing that makes Wodehouse The Master. Every sentence seems constructed to make you smile. The plot points will provoke the loud laugh, but the use of language, is what keeps the mood.

21nickhoonaloon
Ott 4, 2006, 4:22pm

Actually, it`s not a deep thought but one thing that`s great fun are the names of some of Bertie`s mates. Best name of all must be Boko Fittleworth, though my wife is fond of Gussie Fink-Nottle (the name and the character - something to do with the newts I think).

22Doubler Primo messaggio
Ott 6, 2006, 8:07am

nickhoonaloon, re. Stephen Fry and the other one. He is Hugh Lawrie. One reason why Wodehouse writes so elegantly is the fact that he had, what was once known as, a classical education. At school, he was classics scholar and had his father's financial circumstances not taken a nose-dive, P.G. would undoubtedly have followed his brother, Armine, to Oxford.

23nickhoonaloon
Ott 6, 2006, 8:43am

That`s the one.

Just to satisfy my enquiring mind - I`d always understood he was educated at Dulwich College, Oxford (as was Raymond Chandler). Is that not right ?

24Doubler
Ott 6, 2006, 12:04pm

Questo messaggio è stato cancellato dall'autore.

25Doubler
Ott 6, 2006, 12:19pm

nickhoonaloon. Dulwich College is quite correct, but Dulwich is an outer suburb of London. Fondly remembered by Wodehouse as 'Valley Fields' in his fiction. Again, you are right about Chandler who would have been an inky fingered junior when Wodehouse was in the Classical Sixth and a fast bowler in the 1st cricket XI. Dulwich is what we daft English call a public school, which, as you know, is the last thing it is.

26nickhoonaloon
Ott 6, 2006, 5:18pm

How true. Still, it did wonders for his prose.

27LordNigelKnickKnack
Modificato: Ott 7, 2006, 3:42am

Questo messaggio è stato cancellato dall'autore.

28pechmerle
Ott 7, 2006, 2:15am

One other feature of Wodehouse's writing that makes his stories attractive comes to mind: Although Wodehouse comes from a late Victorian generation himself, he seems to have been much taken with the modern young women of the period 1910 - 1930. In many of his stories, the female lead is at least as enterprising, bright, and worldly wise as the male lead -- and often more so. I think this helps very much to keep the stories readable and alive for us as modern readers.

29Doubler
Ott 7, 2006, 6:23am

pechmerle.'I thought she was immortal' P.G.W.'s words when he heard of the death of his much loved daughter, Leonora. I don't think there is much doubt that she was in his mind when he created so many of his 'modern young women' that you referred to.

30pechmerle
Ott 7, 2006, 2:23pm

Doubler: Thanks for that fascinating (and poignant) factual sidelight on the characters. I'll have to look up the Leonara episode in my recently acquired copy of the McCrum biography.

31Doubler
Ott 8, 2006, 5:07pm

pechmerle.Don't know about
McCrum -sharp intake of breath -but you might like to read Frances Donaldson who wrote the authorised biography.ISBN 0708823564,paper back edition 1983, Futura Publications. Very detailed on the 'broadcasts'. To be strictly accurate, Leonora was his step-daughter

32Doubler
Ott 9, 2006, 5:36am

O.K.,O.K. Robert McCrum, literary editor of the'Observer'

33Doubler
Ott 9, 2006, 1:40pm

pechmerle. Reference message11, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics of one of my all time favourite show songs - 'Bill'.

34pechmerle
Ott 9, 2006, 9:00pm

Doubler: Sorry, but "Bill" is one of my least favorite songs from Showboat. Maybe it came across less sappy in context of the Princess musical PGW orignally wrote it for.

One of the things I'm eagerly anticipating in the McCrum bio is PGW's experiences in the teens and twenties on Broadway.

35TerrapinJetta
Ott 26, 2006, 12:32pm

For me it's just the wonderful language he uses. The dialogue and descriptions by far outweigh the plots - although those are amusing too. I rarely laugh out loud because something's happened, but if a character has a particularly funny way of describing something, that'll really get me.

36Xenalyte
Nov 2, 2006, 10:15am

As I posted on my political board a few days ago, Wodehouse is literary champagne - dry but sparkling, and you want more even though you know it's bedtime.

37nickhoonaloon
Nov 22, 2006, 10:10am

Belatedly returning to Pechmerle`s point about the female leads -

It would of course not be difficult to be "at least as enterprising, bright and wordly-wise" as Bertie Wooster.

I think it is part of the chemistry of the books that the female leads fall into certain roles in their attitude to Wooster - some are upright girls who want to `improve` him (these seem to be junior versions of his Aunt Agatha), those who are amusedly indulgent towards him, and the Steffy Byng-type character who hatches a variety of plots in which he is forced to participate - one always feels this latter group may simply do so simply in order to sit back and watch the fun (not unlike Jeeves in some ways).

The only exception that springs to mind is the awful Madeleine Bassett, but I think she is introduced more in a spirit of `what`s the most cringe-making character I can invent`, rather than as a female lead as such.

I could talk all day about Wodehouse, but work calls I`m afraid.

38pechmerle
Nov 25, 2006, 12:57am

Re #28-29 and #37, re "modern young women" in Wodehouse's stories:

I think nickhoonaloon makes a good point about the structural features of many of the plots: the male lead is often only marginally competent, and so the female lead gets a balancing part as more than average competent. That is often true in the Emsworth stories, which have a variety of male lead characters, as well as in the Wooster stories where Bertie is always at the center. This structure aids the comedy value by playing against the conventional stereotype of the strong male and dependent female.

Doubler, above, suggested that Wodehouse's model for his modern young women was probably his beloved step-daughter Leonora. I think the timing is off for that: Wodehouse first met Leonara when she was about ten years old circa 1914; Leonora reached young adulthood only about 1924. By then Wodehouse had already written many stories with modern young women characters. E.g., the spunky Joan Valentine in Something Fresh made her appearance in 1915.

I think the real roots for those characters are to be found elsewhere, primarily in two directions. 1) Oscar Wilde and G.B. Shaw had already introduced some sharp, modern-thinking young women in their plays, and Wodehouse was quite familiar with these works. 2) Wodehouse spent important years in New York, doing song lyrics for Broadway shows, starting from 1904 off and on, as well as later on in the twenties. He and his most frequent producer colleague, Guy Bolton, later wrote a memoir of those days (embellishing and revising their facts for entertainment value) in the significantly titled Bring On The Girls. Through his theater work Wodehouse met quite a few adventurous and unconventional young women, and a number of the stories feature female characters who are actresses or chorus girls.

All that said, Leonora was a bright young woman, she had a close relationship with P.G. until her untimely death at 40, and after she came into his life he consulted her judgment on manuscripts.

39survivingniki
Mar 13, 2007, 12:53am

I'll say why I like Wodehouse by quoting Wooster himself: "It's like Shakespeare- sounds good but it doesn't mean anything." :)

40pechmerle
Mar 13, 2007, 4:35am

I finally finished Robert McCrum's Wodehouse: A Life. If you aren't afraid that knowing a whole lot more about Wodehouse personally might take away some of the inimitable lightness you get from reading his stories, I highly recommend it. McCrum has researched essentially everything that is known about Wodehouse's life, including some (perhaps many) illuminating details not previously reported by anyone. For example, McCrum found and interviewed (still living, retired in the south of Spain) a then-young German journalist (and pre-war Wodehouse fan) who in 1942 dissuaded an interned Wodehouse from trying to hire a German attorney to commence a legal action in England against English newspapers for libel over their attacks on him for the broadcasts he made on German radio in 1941. If all that sounds as implausible as one of Wodehouse's stories, well, that's just why you might enjoy the real story of his life.

And there is much that is enlightening and revealing about Wodehouse's early life. For example (and as you may already know), Psmith in the City is heavily built on Wodehouse's own experiences (much exaggerated of course) when he was sent to work at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. It was an unusual bank in the City in that it's young staffers were in training to be sent out to more responsible positions at branches in Asia. (Wodehouse didn't want to do that, and broke away to try -- and succeed at -- full time writing before it was time for him to go out East.)

A couple of caveats:

Turns out that Wodehouse in real life was an intensely private person, so there is much that can never be known about what he really thought and felt at key points in his life. That, however, doesn't always stop McCrum from speculating from insufficient evidence. You can enjoy the facts presented without always accepting McCrum's inferences, of course.

In a similar vein, McCrum aspires to psychobiography, and here too the lack of sufficient evidence doesn't always stop him. These passages stand out easily, though, and again you don't always have to accept his speculations.

The 100 page section on the period of Wodehouse's internment by the Germans reads almost like a thriller. I found myself turning the pages to find out what strange twist of fate came next.

For me, the bio has deepened my appreciation for Wodehouse's immense literary achievement. Wodehouse the man was more complex than I had thought (I should have expected that), and I can see that some of his literary virtues (never taking anything too seriously) are related to some of his real life vices (the refusal to take anything other than his writing very seriously).

41Windy
Apr 12, 2007, 2:47pm

In a nutshell, Wodehouse is to books what Victor Borge is to music. When I think of one, the other is never far behind.

The great amusement of his writing for me is his constant skewering of the upper classes, their lives of leisure, their mores, their language, which is why, I suspect, so many jailbirds read him.

42MaidMarianForever
Ago 22, 2007, 4:14am

I read him because... he's funny. I just enjoy it. And the humour stands up even though it's been what, 80 years?

43humouress
Modificato: Maggio 29, 2020, 12:22pm

>17 SimonW11: In my case, I can usually empathise with the characters rather than feel superior to them. But I do know who it was that 'gazed on the Pacific with wild surmise'.

Erm ... did know.

44thorold
Maggio 29, 2020, 12:34pm

>43 humouress: Well, Keats stated it with confidence and got it wrong, so "knowing you don't know" might be a step up.

45njcur
Maggio 30, 2020, 7:37pm

Wodehouse is a master! My husband and I are listening to audio versions of his books together. We finish one book and are ready to pick it up and start at the beginning again. I just came across this article in the New Yorker about Wodehouse and was fascinated. It is from the June 1, 2020 magazine and is titled Wartime for Wodehouse if you want to Google it in case the link doesn't work. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/01/wartime-for-wodehouse Enjoy! Great to hear from other fans. Thanks for sharing.

46njcur
Maggio 30, 2020, 7:48pm

While I love Jeeves and Wooster, I think it is a shame that some of his other works get overlooked. We are in the midst of Adventures of Sally. We were startled to find this paragraph...

"Where's the sense in shutting the theatres, even if there is influenza about? They let people jam against one another all day in the stores. If that doesn't hurt them why should it hurt them to go to theatres? Besides, it's all infernal nonsense about this thing. I don't believe there is such a thing as Spanish influenza. People get colds in their heads and think they're dying. It's all a fake scare."

Sound familiar?!?

47humouress
Modificato: Maggio 31, 2020, 7:16am

>45 njcur: Thank you for the link. It's amazing that Wodehouse could continue to be so cheerful through internment. But some things are more important:

I sighed.
“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself ‘Do trousers matter?’ ”
“The mood will pass, sir.”


(on Bertie's trouser hem being adjusted one quarter inch)

48MarthaJeanne
Maggio 31, 2020, 7:13am

Gutenberg has a lot of Wodehouse.
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/783

I just downloaded The Adventures of Sally.