An appreciation of one my all-time favorites, the incomparable Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
Evelyn Waugh said of the fiction writing of fellow English author P. G. Wodehouse: “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
Ours are indeed irksome times, so take Waugh at his word and treat yourself to some Wodehouse this summer. The page-to-smile ratio is about one-to-one; the page-to-guffaw ratio is not far behind. It’s Wodehouse, that undisputed master of similes, who first made me fall in love with the literary device that conveys so much with so little.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then consider this my salute to the great P. G. Wodehouse generally and his penchant for similes particularly:
- Rye believed he wasn’t at fault but, as surely as naming a daughter Alexa contributes to feelings of inadequacy in a world she feels asks everything of her, he was mistaken.
- Like leaving a massive inheritance not to an underserved but undeserving community, Lou learned the hard way that attention to detail matters.
- Jeff read the critic’s surprisingly charitable review of his atrocious one-act play and sensed, like a dollar-store customer in an inflationary environment, he was making out like a bandit.
- Paisley’s news was received poorly not because it was bad in itself but, like hearing steel drums in the dead of a Montana winter, the timing was off.
As I’ve mentioned here before, Wodehouse once famously described his creative process thusly: “I just sit at my typewriter and curse a bit.” A little biographical info on the great man:
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (1881–1975) was a prolific English author, humorist and scriptwriter. After being educated at Dulwich College, to which he remained devoted all his life, he was employed by a bank, but disliked the work and wrote magazine pieces in his spare time. In 1902 he published his first novel, The Pothunters, set at the fictional public school of St. Austin’s; his early stories continued the school theme. He also used the school setting in his short story collections, which started in 1903 with the publication of Tales of St. Austin’s.
Throughout his novel- and story-writing career Wodehouse created several renowned regular comic characters with whom the public became familiar. These include Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves; the immaculate and loquacious Psmith; Lord Emsworth and the Blandings Castle set; the disaster-prone opportunist Ukridge; the Oldest Member, with stories about golf; and Mr Mulliner, with tales on numerous subjects from film studios to the Church of England.
Wodehouse also wrote scripts and screenplays and, in August 1911, his script A Gentleman of Leisure was produced on the Broadway stage. In the 1920s and 1930s he collaborated with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton in an arrangement that “helped transform the American musical” of the time; in the Grove Dictionary of American Music Larry Stempel writes, “By presenting naturalistic stories and characters and attempting to integrate the songs and lyrics into the action of the libretto, these works brought a new level of intimacy, cohesion, and sophistication to American musical comedy.” His writing for plays also turned into scriptwriting, starting with the 1915 film A Gentleman of Leisure. He joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1930 for a year, and then worked for RKO Pictures in 1937.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, and while living in northern France, Wodehouse was captured by the Germans and was interned for over a year. After his release he was tricked into making five comic and apolitical broadcasts on German radio to the still neutral US. After vehement protests in Britain, Wodehouse never returned to his home country, despite being cleared by an MI5 investigation. He moved to the US permanently in 1947 and took American citizenship in 1955, retaining his British nationality. He continued writing until his death in 1975.
Wodehouse wrote more than 300 short stories. Many of these stories were originally published in magazines and subsequently published in short story collections. Wodehouse also contributed other works to periodicals such as articles and poems, and some of Wodehouse’s novels were originally serialised in magazines as well.
There is a well-documented and accessible collection of his published, autobiographical and miscellaneous work. There are transcripts available of the five broadcasts he made, available online, including through the PG Wodehouse Society (UK).
Prolific? I’d say so, yeah. I have a great many of Wodehouse’s novels and short stories, having been an avid collector of them ever since my Aunt Ruth gave me her battered, dog-eared copy of Laughing Gas when I was but a wee bairn. The Jeeves series entire; the Psmith stories; even his side-splitting Golf! anthologies—I’ve read and re-read ’em all, and still enjoy them tremendously to this very day. In fact, I have I don’t even know how many Wodehouse ebooks on my phone.
If you’ve never read the man, take my word for it that this is some truly brilliant writing, purest gold which will never lose its luster. For me at least, his stuff just never gets old or stale. Go grab a book or two of his from Amazon and then just try to tell me I steered you wrong. You won’t regret it, believe you me; verily, there’s never been another quite like him. A little taste for y’all:
After breakfast I lit a cigarette and went to the open window to inspect the day. It certainly was one of the best and brightest.
“Jeeves,” I said.
“Sir?” said Jeeves. He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master’s voice cheesed it courteously.
“You were absolutely right about the weather. It is a juicy morning.”
“Spring and all that.”
“In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.”
“So I have been informed, sir.”
“Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I’m going into the Park to do pastoral dances.”
I don’t know if you know that sort of feeling you get on these days round about the end of April and the beginning of May, when the sky’s a light blue, with cotton-wool clouds, and there’s a bit of a breeze blowing from the west? Kind of uplifted feeling. Romantic, if you know what I mean. I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
“Hallo, Bertie,” said Bingo.
“My God, man!” I gargled. “The cravat! The gent’s neckwear! Why? For what reason?”
“Oh, the tie?” He blushed. “I–er–I was given it.”
He seemed embarrassed, so I dropped the subject. We toddled along a bit, and sat down on a couple of chairs by the Serpentine.
“Jeeves tells me you want to talk to me about something,” I said.
“Eh?” said Bingo, with a start. “Oh yes, yes. Yes.”
I waited for him to unleash the topic of the day, but he didn’t seem to want to get going. Conversation languished. He stared straight ahead of him in a glassy sort of manner.
“I say, Bertie,” he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.
“Do you like the name Mabel?”
“You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?”
He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.
“Of course, you wouldn’t. You always were a fatheaded worm without any soul, weren’t you?”
“Just as you say. Who is she? Tell me all.”
For I realised now that poor old Bingo was going through it once again. Ever since I have known him–and we were at school together–he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time; and at Oxford his romantic nature was a byword.
“You’d better come along and meet her at lunch,” he said, looking at his watch.
“A ripe suggestion,” I said. “Where are you meeting her? At the Ritz?”
“Near the Ritz.”
He was geographically accurate. About fifty yards east of the Ritz there is one of those blighted tea-and-bun shops you see dotted about all over London, and into this, if you’ll believe me, young Bingo dived like a homing rabbit; and before I had time to say a word we were wedged in at a table, on the brink of a silent pool of coffee left there by an early luncher.
I’m bound to say I couldn’t quite follow the development of the scenario. Bingo, while not absolutely rolling in the stuff, has always had a fair amount of the ready. Apart from what he got from his uncle, I knew that he had finished up the jumping season well on the right side of the ledger. Why, then, was he lunching the girl at this God-forsaken eatery? It couldn’t be because he was hard up.
Just then the waitress arrived. Rather a pretty girl.
“Aren’t we going to wait—-?” I started to say to Bingo, thinking it somewhat thick that, in addition to asking a girl to lunch with him in a place like this, he should fling himself on the foodstuffs before she turned up, when I caught sight of his face, and stopped.
The man was goggling. His entire map was suffused with a rich blush. He looked like the Soul’s Awakening done in pink.
“Hallo, Mabel!” he said, with a sort of gulp.
“Hallo!” said the girl.
“Mabel,” said Bingo, “this is Bertie Wooster, a pal of mine.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she said. “Nice morning.”
“Fine,” I said.
“You see I’m wearing the tie,” said Bingo.
“It suits you beautiful,” said the girl.
Personally, if anyone had told me that a tie like that suited me, I should have risen and struck them on the mazzard, regardless of their age and sex; but poor old Bingo simply got all flustered with gratification, and smirked in the most gruesome manner.
See what I mean? Now if that ain’t just like Mother used to make…well, I’m all flustered myself, albeit not with gratification.