By Kahini Iyer Oct. 15, 2018
The rose-tinted escapism that defines PG Wodehouse’s oeuvre speaks volumes of a social observer who knew that the days of this rarefied existence were numbered. In his tumultuous times, his refusal to take anything seriously, be it political patriotism, the sacred lion of MGM Studios, or his own work, was its own form of irreverent resistance – one that is just as effective today as it was a hundred years ago.
t’s a rare author who can remain relevant for over a century. And it’s an even rarer one whose work can not only be studied and picked over in classrooms and colleges, but who can, to this day, continue adding to his tribe of devotees. Somehow, the patently ridiculous, hopelessly outdated universe of PG Wodehouse and his iconic duo, the bumbling Bertie Wooster and long-suffering manservant Jeeves, continues to capture imaginations all around the world.
Generally, the soups in which Wodehouse’s characters land themselves seem far from relatable. Wodehouse’s perspective is small and specific, populated by the wealthy pre-war British and their hilariously niche problems. There is the fierce battle over ownership of a hideous cow-shaped cream jug that propels several books forward. There are Bertie’s numerous accidental engagements to girls whom, thanks to his gentlemanly Code of the Woosters, he can never turn down. There’s Roderick Spode, the wrathful house-guest who can only be subdued by the mention of his secret women’s lingerie brand, Eulalie.
Wodehouse’s narrow slice of Britain’s Roaring Twenties upper-class is undeniably idyllic. It revolves around lavish dinner parties, endless streams of cocktails, and the Drones Club. It’s a place where you only have to think of money if your rich uncle cuts off your allowance; where you oscillate between bucolic mansions and fashionable destinations abroad; where the worst villain you encounter is the judge who failed to take an indulgent view of your drunken frolics in a public fountain.
Maybe that’s why Wodehouse’s novels come with a strange sense of misplaced nostalgia for a world that never was. While it’s tempting to believe in a bygone utopia, complete with its cliche of “simpler times”, Wodehouse’s contemporary critics claimed that his work did not realistically reflect society. However, Wodehouse himself pushed back, insisting that before World War II, when Britain’s upper class would lose status, lands, and the idle-rich lifestyle, this was how they lived.
And his work makes it clear that, at least in his eyes, this was reality. How else could he have imagined characters who were at once cartoonish tropes, and nuanced human beings? Couched within Wodehouse’s madcap comedies-of-error and brilliant bits of wordplay are people whose very absurdity make them recogniseable. Like all of us, their behaviour is informed by the often senseless mores of their society, from their non-negotiable gallantry in even the most uncomfortable circumstances, to their outrage over conduct they consider unacceptable, like visiting another man’s country residence and poaching his prized French chef.
Wodehouse’s most telling satirical dig at a society strictly governed by arbitrary rules might be the running point of contention between Jeeves and Bertie over the former’s wardrobe. When Bertie becomes too adventurous with his sartorial choices, daring to wear purple socks or exotic cummerbunds, the disapproving Jeeves often holds the offending item ransom, only agreeing to solve his employer’s convoluted problems if he agrees to give up the garment for good.
Was Wodehouse making a subtle statement on how Britain’s upper classes, like all upper classes, were so sheltered by a system of rigid hierarchy that they remained oblivious to the turbulent changes happening around them? That to them, a simple cummerbund was tantamount to a threat against the shaky foundations upon which they were propped?
Perhaps. But Wodehouse’s deft skewering of society gone mad is softened by his affectionate touch. However sharply he laid bare the foibles of his people – for he was always writing with the easy familiarity of an insider – he also made them singularly empathetic. However divorced his characters might be from reality, and however removed from our time and place, they still resonate with the authenticity of an author who knows them well. More than the world that was, Wodehouse believed in a world that could be, if everyone would only laugh a little more.
Couched within Wodehouse’s madcap comedies-of-error and brilliant bits of wordplay are people whose very absurdity make them recogniseable.
The rose-tinted escapism that defines his oeuvre speaks volumes of a social observer who knew that the days of this rarefied existence were numbered. In 1940, Wodehouse was taken prisoner in a French seaside town by German forces, presumably a far cry from his comfortable life as a celebrated writer and humorist. When he was released, he made comic broadcasts over German enemy radio, prompting outrage in the UK – just as his cuttingly honest critiques of Hollywood executives had caused a furore in the USA.
In his tumultuous times, Wodehouse’s dogged refusal to take anything seriously, be it political patriotism, the sacred lion of MGM Studios, or his own work, was its own form of irreverent resistance – one that is just as effective today as it was a hundred years ago. As Jeeves would say to a bewildered Bertie: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same). And as any fan of Wodehouse knows, life is still best met with a stiff upper lip, a stiffer whisky and soda, and a tongue that is planted firmly in cheek.