I Envy Those Who Have Not Read P. G. Wodehouse And Are About To
March 21, 2015 8:58 PM   Subscribe

Lev Grossman has this to say about P. G. Wodehouse: "As it turns out, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse — what else would the P.G. stand for? — was an English writer born in 1881. He was a comic writer in an age of serious aesthetes: he was of the generation of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and the toweringly serious works of his famous coevals have gone a long way towards obscuring Wodehouse’s enormous gifts as a stylist. His subject was the foibles of the pre-war English aristocracy, which sounds limiting, but it was his subject the same way marble was Michelangelo’s subject. He could do anything with it. (He also co-wrote the book for Anything Goes. True fact.)"

Athough Wodehouse doesn't often appear in lists of the 20th century's most important authors, Grossman isn't the only highly regarded writer to have thought that he should. This article from Book Source cites quotes from Evelyn Waugh and Hilaire Belloc that constitute strong evidence in favor, as well as the fact that actual books from Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, Leslie Charteris, Anthony Berkeley, and E. Phillips Oppenheim are dedicated to Wodehouse.

Christopher Buckley gives a great overview of Wodehouse's personal history in a review of a volume of his correspondence, and Brad Leithauser ruminates on why his writing remains relevant. The actor Stephen Fry, who has professional reasons (see below) to be familiar with Wodehouse's work, is eloquent both in writing and on camera regarding what it means to him. His readers, as well, are fanatically loyal, forming various "Societies" devoted to his appreciation in the United Kingdom, the USA, and in India, where his work is quite startingly popular.

So what are the ninety-some-odd books (depending on how one counts) actually about, and how should one approach them? The AV Club has some suggestions, and some of his early material is in the public domain, but two subsets of his books are generally held to be the best bet. The Blandings Castle stories are set in an idealized English country manor (possibly based on Apley Hall in Shropshire) that Waugh has compared to the Garden of Eden, although Eden probably had a smaller supply of Forgetful Joneses, Grand Dames, Hypercompetent Sidekicks, Unfavorites, and plain old Fools. And most popular of all his books, the Jeeves stories , feature cheerfully dimwitted Bertie Wooster and his indispensable valet Jeeves, who have been portrayed many times on stage and screen, recently by the aforementioned Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
posted by Ipsifendus (58 comments total) 116 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure I understand. Was there some... question about how magnificent Wodehouse is?
posted by Naberius at 9:37 PM on March 21, 2015 [37 favorites]


and how should one approach them?

PSMIIIIIIITH
posted by Greg Nog at 9:46 PM on March 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


'Have you not sometimes felt in the past, Bertie, that, if Augustus had a fault, it was a tendency to be a little timid?'
I saw what she meant.
'Oh, ah, yes, of course, definitely.' I remembered something Jeeves had once called Gussie. 'A sensitive plant, what?'
'Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.'
'Oh, am I?'


*mic drop*
posted by uosuaq at 10:25 PM on March 21, 2015 [16 favorites]


PSMIIIIIIITH

Hmmm... I don't know. The first one is full of cricket, the second is full of angst, the third is set in New York and is full of ill-advised gangster drama, the fourth is truly wonderful, but Psmith is kind of a dick unless you're already invested in his character because you've read the first three books.

Jeeves stories are the way to go, Extricating Young Gussie (the first one), followed by Scoring Off Jeeves and Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Art of Fiction No. 60
posted by betweenthebars at 12:02 AM on March 22, 2015 [17 favorites]


Wodehouse is a delight.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:02 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


That Paris Review article that betweenthebars linked. Read it now! Read it now while I watch you intently, my head resting on my hands to see the happy faces you make when you hear about Wodehouse's wonderfulness, making noises like squee.
posted by JHarris at 12:25 AM on March 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


Robert Graves said that when he was still a young boy, Wodehouse came round for dinner and generously gave him the unexpectedly generous gift of half a crown. As a result he'd never felt able to say anything negative about him or his work.
posted by Segundus at 12:47 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Don't forget that, like many English names, 'Wodehouse' has a tricky pronunciation.

It's pronounced 'Wombleshire', which rhymes with 'Fairclough'.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:01 AM on March 22, 2015 [54 favorites]


"I knew he was a different person from G.K. Chesterton, but I wasn’t clear on what exactly the difference was."

I learned yesterday that there are people who are un-ironically campaigning to have Chesterton canonized because of, I don't know, his Johnsonian refutation of modernism or something.
posted by thelonius at 1:11 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


That Paris Review article that betweenthebars linked. Read it now!

I followed your advice and it was very good advice.
posted by shelleycat at 1:12 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm afraid I don't understand any of this. Are you all high?
posted by naju at 1:20 AM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Ah, Comrade Naju, I think you may just need a tablespoon of Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo to help compos the old mentis
posted by fallingbadgers at 1:29 AM on March 22, 2015 [25 favorites]


Wodehouse will never fail to make you feel happy. He's an anti-depressant on the printed page.

Some benighted souls refuse even to read the books because of what they see as Bertie Wooster or Lord Emsworth's entrenched class privilege. To deny yourself the delight of reading Wodehouse for such a foolish reason is one of the worst decisions you can make in life. Why close the door on a source of such pure, innocent joy?
posted by Paul Slade at 1:47 AM on March 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


From the review article:

Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing..

Someone try saying that today.
posted by Gyan at 1:53 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Did Wodehouse not even realized that he was being coddled as a propaganda asset?
posted by thelonius at 2:06 AM on March 22, 2015


Wodehouse is one of four writers ever who could make me laugh openly, alone, in a public place, for all the world to see and raise eyebrows witheringly at.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:09 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]




The AV Club article suggests starting with The Mating Season, and while I agree with their comment that it's one of Wodehouse's best, I think the Madeline Bassett / Gussie Fink-Nottle stuff in it is probably funnier if you've read any of the preceding books touching on their relationship, like Right Ho, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, or Joy in the Morning (a.k.a. Jeeves in the Morning). I usually recommend The Code of the Woosters as the best starting point, and I've taught it successfully in a college class as the only Wodehouse assigned.

I sort of vaguely suspect the reason that Wodehouse "doesn't often appear in lists of the 20th century's most important authors" could be that literary criticism of the past half-century is heavily invested in decoding literature, and it's hard to see much in Wodehouse that isn't right there on the surface. I think queer readings of some texts are fairly common (e.g. seeing something coded in the Jeeves & Wooster relationship other than care for an innocent man-child, or just reading what's pretty much on the surface at points like The Mating Season's description of Esmond Haddock), and Wodehouse's asexuality, described in his biography, makes the historical context interestingly ambiguous. So there's maybe something there to talk about, but these are pretty readerly texts. And from the cultural studies point of view--looking more at audiences--I appreciated this FPP's links to the stuff about how the books are received in India, but I wonder if they aren't right on the nose in mentioning imperial nostalgia, class aspirations, and a widespread appreciation for wordplay in English as reasons for that.

I guess a different possibility Wodehouse isn't on too many 'top 100 of the 20th C.' kinds of lists (neither the Modern Library's nor Time's, that I checked) is that not many people feel like they learn something morally or existentially deep from Wodehouse. The books are extremely readable streams of plot development, wordplay, and characterization just for the fun of it. And they're amazing, but for some reason, that's not enough? I dunno. The Code of the Woosters is certainly among the best 100 novels I've ever read, but that's just me.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:14 AM on March 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


I love Wodehouse. If you can read Spanish, do yourself a favour and find the novels and short stories of Jardiel Poncela. 'Wodehousian' doesn't quite do it, unless you call Wodehouse 'JardielPoncelan' in the same sentence.
posted by kandinski at 2:23 AM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


For some people, comedy will always imply triviality and something that's "too easy" - both to write and to enjoy. I think that's why Wodehouse is seldom considered important. It's the same reason comedies so seldom win the best picture Oscar.

On the bright side, he's till being read and enjoyed 40 years after his death, with scores of his books remaining in print for what looks like decades (centuries?) to come. Most writers would trade importance for that kind of continuing popularity any day.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:40 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Although intemperate fans sometimes go too far.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:40 AM on March 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


Ooh, I've never read Wodehouse, and I've been meaning to.

By all means, please do envy me. I like to think I would.
posted by teponaztli at 3:00 AM on March 22, 2015


Orwell on the broadcasts affair

That was a really interesting link, but Orwell makes a point out of the observation that "Nowhere, so far as I know, does [Wodehouse] so much as use the word 'Fascism' or 'Nazism,'" where Wodehouse did seem to be aware of and writing about Fascism prior to his internment. The Code of the Woosters (1938) has as a significant secondary character Roderick Spode, "the Founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts." The correction really supports Orwell's overall argument though. Spode is unambiguously an object of ridicule, and I think the worst you can conclude about Wodehouse is that he may have been naïve to consider Fascists absurd rather than horrifying.

A worse error is that I misremembered the plot of Joy in the Morning in my own earlier comment and transposed some events from another book into it--Madeline and Gussie aren't in it!
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:16 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


"A worse error is that I misremembered the plot of Joy in the Morning in my own earlier comment and transposed some events from another book into it--Madeline and Gussie aren't in it!"

Don't beat yourself up - that Paris Review piece makes the far more glaring mistake of describing Jeeves as Bertie Wooster's butler. Plum is too polite to correct the interviewer, but in fact Jeeves was Bertie's valet.

The (London) Times made the same error in a leader about a year ago, which caused me and thousands of other Wodehouse fans across England to splutter into our breakfast marmalade. Another sign of that once-great newspaper's decline, I fear.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:27 AM on March 22, 2015 [13 favorites]


Plum is too polite to correct the interviewer, but in fact Jeeves was Bertie's valet.

Indeed, although it would do that superlative individual a disservice if we did not note that he could, when called upon, butle with the best, as his service to the 9th Earl of Rowcester, described in Ring for Jeeves, shows.
posted by howfar at 3:38 AM on March 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


I once wrote a My Little Pony fan fiction in which "The Best Night Ever" was re-told as a PG Wodehouse story. (http://www.fimfiction.net/story/19308/the-rummy-business-of-old-blooey) Writing the story was easy. Having Bertie Wooster's voice in my head for a month was hard.
posted by SPrintF at 3:47 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


I have never been able to make it through a Jeeves story. The characters are so unpleasant and insufferable that I can barely keep from ripping the book apart at the spine and tearing up the pages. And whether it's the art of a masterful storyteller or a masterful troll winding me up like that, it's mastery all the same. I say this with all sincerity and no sarcasm whatsoever: Wodehouse was a genius.
posted by ardgedee at 4:02 AM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


The Empress of Blandings would agree with you, I'm sure
posted by infini at 4:31 AM on March 22, 2015


People who say Wodehouse has no point are missing his main one: the upper class are all ridiculous idiots. When we choose someone to govern our affairs, whether financial, political or moral, let's make sure it's someone like Jeeves.

I wish there was a single American author now able to convey that message with as much succinct biting humor.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:16 AM on March 22, 2015 [13 favorites]


I can't say why but the Wodehouse stories I've read have left little impression on me, while I can (and do) return to Saki's similarly satirical skewerings of the upper class again and again. I think it's because Wodehouse lays it on a bit too thick for me but really I'm not sure why one of those two writers leaves me cold while the other is one of my treasured favorites, whom I've re-read many times.

Now I find myself wondering whether there are Saki people and Wodehouse people and never the twain shall meet or whether there's any substantial overlap between their fan sets.
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:35 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo

If you haven't read the Mulliner stories, they're also quite worth reading. You come across bits like this from the story "Came the Dawn".

"Yes, gentlemen," he said, "Shakespeare was right. There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."

We nodded. He had been speaking of a favourite dog of his which, entered recently by some error in a local cat show, had taken first prize in the class for short-haired tortoiseshells; and we all thought the quotation well-chosen and apposite.


You get a little intro with something like that, and then Mr. Mulliner chimes in with some outrageous story about a relative or close acquaintance. Great stuff.
posted by Archer25 at 5:46 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


I love both Wodehouse and Saki. But I think reading either Wodehouse or Saki as primarily satire is probably too limiting. The joy of both, for me, is mainly as stylists.

I'd suggest that Saki and Wodehouse have almost diametrically opposed views of the world. Wodehouse laughs at the upper class, certainly, but the model of heaven he presents is Valley Fields, a vision of kindly and conventional middle class suburbia. For Saki, Valley Fields would be a hypocritical hell, his experience of conventional life having been so vastly different from Wodehouse's, and so utterly miserable.
posted by howfar at 5:54 AM on March 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


What ho, what ho, WHAT HO!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:52 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Are you all high?

Not high, old fruit: elevated. Seated with Anacreon and some of the chummier Muses, as Jeeves would say, don't you know.
posted by Segundus at 7:26 AM on March 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


It irritates me for Lev Grossman to come on so magnanimous in praise of his betters.
posted by grobstein at 7:39 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


If Wodehouse doesn't appear on lists of the 20th century's most important authors, I assume that's because he graduated straight to the all-time list.

Outside of Jeeves and Blandings, make a beeline for Love Among the Chickens.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 8:39 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Athough Wodehouse doesn't often appear in lists of the 20th century's most important authors,

Who makes the lists? And are we talking the lists that reflect what is taught in schools? I would think he would be hard to teach simply because his work needs no explanation.

In any event, it's difficult to find actual writers who denigrate him. True, Seán O'Casey derided him as the Performing Flea of English literature, mostly in response to the radio broadcasts, but given his disposition, Wodehouse tried to accentuate the positive and made the gibe the title of his book of correspondence.

Now I find myself wondering whether there are Saki people and Wodehouse people and never the twain shall meet or whether there's any substantial overlap between their fan sets.

Another overlapper here.
posted by BWA at 8:44 AM on March 22, 2015


>> ... and Wodehouse's asexuality, described in his biography, makes the historical context interestingly ambiguous. ...

Down to late mumps, probably.
posted by jamjam at 9:00 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Based on what I've read of Wodehouse so far, it seems to me that the man himself was a pretty good judge of which portion of his material was successful, and he tended to re-use characters and locales that worked. In addition to Blandings Castle and Jeeves, I also wanted to include stuff about Psmith and Ukridge in the post. Oh, and the Drones Club! And Uncle Fred! And the Oldest Member and Mr. Mulliner. I just couldn't find good stand-alone material about them on the web, and I sort of felt like I was pushing it already.

Here's an interesting way in which Wodehouse anticipates some of the oddities of today's pop culture: any of the material that he used more than once can be established to be in continuity with everything else, e.g. Psmith ends up working at Blandings at one point, Uncle Fred's nephew is a Drone, etc. I think it's a terrible shame that we never got to read Wodehouse's take on Bertie and Jeeves visiting Blandings.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:48 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love Wodehouse, and have enjoyed almost everything of his I've read, which is quite a lot. I've always been sad that the Fry and Laurie show falls so flat in comparison to the books. They are funny men, well suited to the parts, but you can't film Wodehouse's similes or his style. Putting the two products side by side really does show what a genius Plum was.
posted by OmieWise at 10:20 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just finished reading "Ukridge", a collection of stories by P.G. Wodehouse about a character by that name. For me, this is the tidy filling-in of a blank space, since I've been reading Wodehouse for 40 years. Why do I bother? Because Wodehouse was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. At a time when a hit movie comedy must have a quota of fart jokes, it may take a little convincing for you to see that comic prose is one of the most difficult things to achieve and that Wodehouse was one of the masters. It looks easy, if you just read one of his masterpieces. If you read "Ukridge", you begin to understand the difficulties of perfect comedy.

Ukridge is a schemer who wants easy money. He has a friend, Corky, upon whom he imposes. Corky is the narrator of the stories, a regular good egg who serves as our surrogate as we marvel at Ukridge's audacity. Ukridge is pompose, eccentric and inconsiderate; his only saving graces are that a) he makes life more interesting for the rest of us when he steals his aunt's six yapping pekingese in order to open a dog training school b) His schemes always backfire, so we feel a residue of sympathy for him which we wouldn't feel if he actually became a millionaire by taking out an insurance policy on a friend and then pushing him in front of a truck. The Ukridge stories, while funny, could have been written by anyone understanding the humor inherent in exactly six Pekingese dogs. Clearly Wodehouse's true genius resides elsewhere.

There's Psmith. He's also a schemer with a boring friend who serves as the narrator (Mike). However, Psmith isn't interested in money; he's interested in making life as entertaining as possible. Wodehouse based him on a real person, Rupert D'Oyle Carte*, and he seems both more flamboyant and more realistic than Ukridge. That makes him an entertaining character, but we're still stuck with Mike.

The Blandings Castle stories have no narrator, and the protagonist, Lord Emsworth, is a well-meaning but dim-witted widower who'd just like to tend his award-winning sow, the Empress of Blandings, in peace. He has a dim-witted son, however, a number of formidable sisters, and an anarchic brother named Galahad. The plot complications arising from his son's bumbling, his sisters's strivings and his brother's mischief were almost infinite, or at least enough for 11 novels ("Leave it to Psmith" is especially delicious, when Psmith comes to Blandings Castle disguised as Canadian poet Ralston McTodd). The only problem with the Blandings Castle stories is that formidable sisters, anarchic brothers and dim-wits are not exactly fresh territory, and weren't fresh territory even in the 1920's. Wodehouse excels in the prose style and the intricate plotting, not in anything original in the set-up.

And so, of course, we come to Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, his manservant. The Jeeves and Wooster stories are universally hailed, but I think we can now see exactly why. Bertie is, of course, an idiot, but he's a special kind of idiot; he's well-educated, but his education has done nothing for him except allow him to misquote the classics in inappropriate contexts. He is, however, a very well-meaning friend to all sorts of young men he knew in school or knows from the Drone's club, a club for aimless young men of the "lost generation" who don't know what to do with their lives besides tossing scones at one another. These friends tend to be even dimmer than he. Needless to say, whichever smashing young girl they want to marry, Bertie's help only makes things worse, and Jeeves has to step in to save the day.

Jeeves is not an entirely convincing character; how someone with his education and brains ended up a manservant to Bertie is not clear. In the early stories Jeeves appeared a little lower class and rougher and there was always the possibility that he saw a good deal in using Bertie to further his own schemes. That, however, isn't sustainable for long in Wodehouse's world, where no villains existed; in later stories Jeeves didn't seem so hard. Still, one sensed that Jeeves did not forbid Bertie to wear white dinner jackets for Bertie's own good, but because it grated on Jeeve's nerves (as did the Ukelele-playing). When Jeeves helped one of Bertie's dim-witted friends, one sensed not so much a benevolent spirit, but a person who liked to control events; a deus ex machina with an attitude.

So, with Jeeves and Wooster you have a complicated dynamic; not the good egg with a scheming friend (as with Corky and Ukridge), and not a dim-wit being deceived for other people's ends (as with poor Lord Emsworth). Instead you have a team: there would be no plot without Bertie's benevolent wish to help his friends, and there'd be no happy ending without Jeeve's brains. A bonus is the plethora of friends and foes: Gussie Fink-nottle, the hapless expert on newts; Roderick Glossop, the bad-tempered nerve-specialist; Madeline Bassett, the droopy poetess. You only have to say the names "Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright" or "Oofy Prosser" to make me smile. However, the real protagonist of the Jeeves and Wooster books is language. The language spoken by Bertie and his friends is a mixture of educated vocabulary and the latest bright-young-thing slang; of traditional cliche and the latest fad. It makes you laugh if it hasn't taken your breath away with its sheer brilliance.

The plots are great; the characters are amusing, but the language never palls.

---
* If you are me, you delight to the fact that this would be the son of Richard D'Oyle Carte, the producer of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

---

I will leave you with a passage from "Something Fresh", a Blandings Castle novel. Lord Emsworth is, of course, hilarious. However, the star of this passage is Adams, a character who never appears again in the oeuvre (that I can recall), but whose appearance here as a connaisseur of dopey old gents is one of those delightful moments that only Wodehouse can conjure up.

.................................................


The Earl of Emsworth stood in the doorway of the Senior Conservative Club's vast diningroom, and beamed with a vague sweetness on the two hundred or so Senior Conservatives who, with much clattering of knives and forks, were keeping body and soul together by means of the coffee-room luncheon. He might have been posing for a statue of Amiability. His pale blue eyes shone with a friendly light through their protecting glasses; the smile of a man at peace with all men curved his weak mouth; his bald head, reflecting the sunlight, seemed almost to wear a halo.

Nobody appeared to notice him. He so seldom came to London these days that he was practically a stranger in the club; and in any case your Senior Conservative, when at lunch, has little leisure for observing anything not immediately on the table in front of him. To attract attention in the dining-room of the Senior Conservative Club between the hours of one and two-thirty, you have to be a mutton chop—not an earl.

It is possible that, lacking the initiative to make his way down the long aisle and find a table for himself, he might have stood there indefinitely, but for the restless activity of Adams, the head steward. It was Adams' mission in life to flit to and fro, hauling would-be lunchers to their destinations, as a St. Bernard dog hauls travelers out of Alpine snowdrifts. He sighted Lord Emsworth and secured him with a genteel pounce.

"A table, your lordship? This way, your lordship." Adams remembered him, of course. Adams remembered everybody.

Lord Emsworth followed him beamingly and presently came to anchor at a table in the farther end of the room. Adams handed him the bill of fare and stood brooding over him like a providence.

"Don't often see your lordship in the club," he opened chattily.

It was business to know the tastes and dispositions of all the five thousand or so members of the Senior Conservative Club and to suit his demeanor to them. To some he would hand the bill of fare swiftly, silently, almost brusquely, as one who realizes that there are moments in life too serious for talk. Others, he knew, liked conversation; and to those he introduced the subject of food almost as a sub-motive.

Lord Emsworth, having examined the bill of fare with a mild curiosity, laid it down and became conversational.

"No, Adams; I seldom visit London nowadays. London does not attract me. The country—the fields—the woods—the birds----"

Something across the room seemed to attract his attention and his voice trailed off. He inspected this for some time with bland interest, then turned to Adams once more.

"What was I saying, Adams?"

"The birds, your lordship."

"Birds! What birds? What about birds?"

"You were speaking of the attractions of life in the country, your lordship. You included the birds in your remarks."

"Oh, yes, yes, yes! Oh, yes, yes! Oh, yes—to be sure. Do you ever go to the country, Adams?"

"Generally to the seashore, your lordship—when I take my annual vacation."

Whatever was the attraction across the room once more exercised its spell. His lordship concentrated himself on it to the exclusion of all other mundane matters. Presently he came out of his trance again.

"What were you saying, Adams?"

"I said that I generally went to the seashore, your lordship."

"Eh? When?"

"For my annual vacation, your lordship."

"Your what?"

"My annual vacation, your lordship."

"What about it?"

Adams never smiled during business hours—unless professionally, as it were, when a member made a joke; but he was storing up in the recesses of his highly respectable body a large laugh, to be shared with his wife when he reached home that night. Mrs. Adams never wearied of hearing of the eccentricities of the members of the club. It occurred to Adams that he was in luck to-day. He was expecting a little party of friends to supper that night, and he was a man who loved an audience.

You would never have thought it, to look at him when engaged in his professional duties, but Adams had built up a substantial reputation as a humorist in his circle by his imitations of certain members of the club; and it was a matter of regret to him that he got so few opportunities nowadays of studying the absent-minded Lord Emsworth. It was rare luck—his lordship coming in to-day, evidently in his best form.

"Adams, who is the gentleman over by the window—the gentleman in the brown suit?"

"That is Mr. Simmonds, your lordship. He joined us last year."

"I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?"

Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervor. Mr. Simmonds eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs. Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children. To be privileged to witness Lord Emsworth watching and criticizing Mr. Simmonds was to collect material for a double-barreled character study that would assuredly make the hit of the evening.

"That man," went on Lord Emsworth, "is digging his grave with his teeth. Digging his grave with his teeth, Adams! Do you take large mouthfuls, Adams?"

"No, your lordship."
posted by acrasis at 10:23 AM on March 22, 2015 [19 favorites]


I think Bertie and Jeeves is the place to start, but Blandings Castle is essentially perfection.

After you've read one and are hooked, The Wodehouse Society is accepting new members.
posted by pseudonick at 10:26 AM on March 22, 2015


That Paris Review article is great.

How did you come up with Jeeves?
I was writing a story, “The Artistic Career of Corky,” about two young men, Bertie Wooster and his friend Corky, getting into a lot of trouble, and neither of them had brains enough to get out of the trouble. I thought: Well, how can I get them out? And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet?

It's all about asking the right questions.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:23 AM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Fans of cricket could start with the "Mike" stories. Atypical of Wodehouse, but pure cricket porn.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 11:53 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Not in the top 100? Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather!
I came late to Wodehouse, and technically, I haven't 'read' much of his work- mostly books on tape, and then later, CDs. I started out on The Code of the Woosters, read by Alexander Spencer, and was immediately hooked. I could not believe how anyone could figure a way out of the mess Bertie was in. Jeeves, you stand alone.
posted by MtDewd at 11:56 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


The best adaption of the Jeeves stories I know of are the BBC radio dramatisations starring Richard Briers as Bertie Wooster and Michael Horden as Jeeves. They're just about perfect in the roles.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:20 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Of course, to the person who preferred Saki to Wodehouse, I agree.
posted by infini at 12:35 PM on March 22, 2015


Recently I've been reading some novels by Anthony Powell. Obviously these are more bittersweet and sometimes tragic than Wodehouse, but there are some vaguely related comic scenarios, like absurdist weekends at a country manor, or wonderful parties gone horribly wrong.
posted by ovvl at 2:20 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anthony Powell is pretty good. The novels make a long, meandering study of a group of friends as they age from the 20s through the 60s. English society is almost an additional character. There is a video adaption, which at 8 hours or so is almost beyond the understanding of anyone who hasn't read the novels, I am afraid, but it captures some of his tone.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:29 PM on March 22, 2015


Lest anyone think that I'm putting Wodehouse out of some theoretical top 100 myself, please be assured I am not. I would give him a place there.

But he doesn't appear in Time Magazine's list, nor in the Modern Library list. I'm pleased to find that he made it onto the Guardian's version, which is a welcome surprise to me.

Beyond critical attention, I also don't think there's been much, if any, consideration of Wodehouse in academia.
posted by Ipsifendus at 3:22 PM on March 22, 2015


The length of his life and career are just astounding, too. He started working as a paid writer in 1902, this interview's in 1972ish.

I used to like London, but I don’t think I’d like it now. I had always wanted to go to America, and when I got a holiday from the Globe, in 1904, I came over for about three weeks. Indeed, I saw more of New York then than I’ve ever seen since, and having been in America gave my reputation in London a tremendous boost. I was suddenly someone who counted to editors who threw me out before. Then I came back in 1909 for another visit and lived in Greenwich Village. It was a quiet sort of place, all of us young writers trying to get on. I was going to return to England when I sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier’s for a total of $500—much more than I had ever earned before. So I resigned from the Globe and stayed. [...] When Ethel and I got married in September 1914, she had $75 and I had $50.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:25 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


A number of recordings of Wodehouse stories are available for free at Librivox. The Librivox recordings are also on iTunes, hidden away in the podcasts section.
posted by Ranucci at 8:37 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Honeysuckle Cottage is for me the best Wodehouse story, and I think Wodehouse said the same. Not sure.

A man who writes stories featuring strong silent men and revolvers, people getting plugged regularly, inherits the fortune of his deceased aunt, a writer of frightful romantic bilge, however the terms of the will state he must live in Honeysuckle Cottage. All is well initially until a malign influence makes itself known:

It seemed to James that his lot had been cast in pleasant places. He had brought down his books, his pipes and his golf clubs, and was hard at work finishing the best thing he had ever done. The Secret Nine
was the title of it ; and on the beautiful summer afternoon on which this story opens he was in the study, hammering away at his typewriter, at peace with the world. The machine was running sweetly, the new tobacco he had bought the day before was proving admirable, and he was moving on all six cylinders to the end of a chapter.

He shoved in a fresh sheet of paper, chewed his pipe thoughtfully for a moment, then wrote rapidly :

" For an instant Lester Gage thought that he must have been mistaken. Then the noise came again, faint but unmistakable — a soft scratching on the outer panel.

" His mouth set in a grim line. Silently, like a panther, he made one quick step to the desk, noiselessly opened a drawer, drew out his automatic. After that affair of the poisoned needle, he was taking no chances. Still in dead silence, he tiptoed to the door ; then, flinging it suddenly open, he stood there, his weapon poised.

" On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faerie. She eyed him for a moment with a saucy smile ; then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof shook a dainty forefinger at him.

" ' I believe you've forgotten me, Mr. Gage ! ' she fluted with a mock severity which her eyes belied."

James stared at the paper dumbly.
posted by Swandive at 5:28 AM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


Frankie Boyle opined that Blackadder III was essentially Jeeves and Wooster, told with Jeeves as the protagonist.
posted by Gratishades at 5:49 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I loved the Paris Review article linked to earlier; I love how he seems so amiable and fluffy except when he talks about his work when he suddenly morphs into someone completely ruthless and hard-headed:

The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story...If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.

Fantastic advice. I love Wodehouse so much.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:08 AM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


Okay, I'll try Wodehouse again and see if he takes this time.
posted by JanetLand at 8:29 AM on March 23, 2015


How did I miss this post. I'm with Douglas Adams; Wodehouse is simply the best writer in the English language full stop.
posted by ethansr at 2:54 PM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Whoa whoa whoa there. Let's not get carried away.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:58 PM on March 23, 2015


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