March 10, 2005


The Moral Baby: a review of Wodehouse: A Life By Robert McCrum (James Wood, 03.04.05, New Republic)

Deliberately unserious writers are very rare in literature; even most children's books are dark with agenda. Sheer play is much rarer than great seriousness, for nonsense demands from most of us an unlearning of adult lessons, a return to childhood--which anyway, being a return, lacks childhood's innocent originality. P.G. Wodehouse, who was always described by those who knew him best as an arrested schoolboy, must be the gentlest, most playful comedian in the English novel. (Even Beerbohm had his barbs.) His innocence is rare; but even rarer is the combination in his books of muscleless play and serious, intensely controlled literary talent. [...]

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born, in 1881, into the minor branch of a grand family tree. Wodehouses had been knights and landowners in Norfolk as far back as the fifteenth century. But Wodehouse's father was merely an imperial civil servant, a magistrate in Hong Kong, and there seems to have been enough money to send the young Wodehouse to private school but not enough to send him to Oxford or Cambridge. The baby fell into the chilly domestic routines of late empire. (Kipling and Orwell had not dissimilar upbringings.) Left at the age of two with a nanny in Bath, he did not see his parents for another three years. Robert McCrum reckons that Wodehouse saw his mother and father "for barely six months between the ages of three and fifteen." His father was warm but distant; his mother cold, a stranger. McCrum intelligently analyzes this extraordinary deprivation, seeing it as the key to Wodehouse's lifelong combination of detachment and innocence. As a boy he learned to be on his own, to take succor from books and from walking. In adult life, he would be a fanatically hard worker, a writer who seemed to long only to get back to the desk, one whose ideal was a relentless pattern of writing and exercise.

Boarding school was his great refuge. Unlike, say, Orwell, who hated his school days, Wodehouse melted into Dulwich College, an ancient foundation in what was then a rustic suburb of south London. He was a fine footballer, cricketer, and boxer, and an excellent classicist, able to "write Latin and Greek as rapidly as he wrote English." Orwell, in a famous essay, would accuse Wodehouse of being fixated on his old school, and it does seem that Wodehouse never grew out of his gray short trousers. He maintained an unhealthy interest, well into middle age, in the fortunes of his old school teams, taking the train from central London to cheer them on from the sidelines of the school playing fields (and often walking the many miles back to town). McCrum quotes him writing to an old friend in 1946: "Isn't it odd, when one ought to be worrying about the state of the world and one's troubles generally, that the only thing I can think of nowadays is that Dulwich looks like winning all its school matches and surpassing the 1909 record."

McCrum rightly dwells on what we might now describe as a near-autism in Wodehouse. Biography seems to explain both the fantasy of the work (set in a world largely removed from contemporary reality) and the great disaster of the life, the broadcasts Wodehouse would give from Berlin during World War II. The closed community of the boarding school provided the warm imprisonment that family had never offered. The escape of comedy, and particularly of light fiction, seems to have been deeply necessary to Wodehouse. It deflected reality; it was a garden in a menacing city.

Wodehouse was always boyish, hairless, and oddly sexless. He and his wife maintained separate bedrooms; he did not father children. From his early teens onward he consumed large amounts of popular fiction and entertainment. The highlight of his month, McCrum reports, was "the arrival at the West Dulwich station bookstall of the latest edition of the Strand, with the new Conan Doyle serial." He loved Gilbert and Sullivan: Patience made him "absolutely drunk with ecstasy, I thought it the finest thing that could possibly be done." Years later he would admit that he would rather have written Oklahoma! than Hamlet. [...]

McCrum takes at face value Wodehouse's later insistence that his only motives in broadcasting (there were five talks in all) were to thank his American readers for their letters and, in Wodehouse's own words, "to show how a little group of British people were keeping up their spirits in difficult conditions." He nicely observes that "Jeevesian in his professional life, it was his fate to be Woosterish in Berlin. His character was exceptional: unusually good-natured, remarkably lacking in cynicism and in many ways always eager to please." Malcolm Muggeridge, who would meet Wodehouse a few years later in Paris, wrote that he was "ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict. He just does not react to human beings in that sort of way, and never seems to hate anyone. ... Such a temperament unfits him to be a good citizen in the mid-twentieth century." Orwell largely concurred. It is also likely, in fairness, that Wodehouse knew very little of the tribulations then being meted upon the British. [...]

There is a case--a limited one, certainly--to be made for the subtle subversiveness of these broadcasts. The creator of Sir Roderick Spode and the Black Shorts knew something about how to mock authority, and fascist authority. Read now, in our luxurious security, the broadcasts have a slyly mocking tinge, even a Swiftian irony: "There is a good deal to be said for internment. ... You also get a lot of sleep." It is not merely "Woosterish" to laugh at the prospect of some Nazi functionary, pen in hand, okaying these deadpan barbs: who has the last laugh here? Like so much of Wodehouse's prose, the irony vaults over the language and reaches out, contractually, to the reader, who is being taught how to decode such irony, how to invert it, how to read the picture's white and somewhat fearful negative. "'Don't look now, but there comes the German army.' And there they were, a fine body of men, rather prettily dressed in green, carrying machine guns." (This is Monty Python avant la lettre.) This is hardly devastating satire. But surely Wodehouse knows what he is doing; knows how to belittle the invaders; knows that soldiers do not want to look "pretty." His near-autistic detachment, while morally culpable, is what gives the comedy its unreal ironical edge.

The dialectic of English comedy is exaggeration and its opposite, understatement, each horse pulling its own wheel, and the one element driving on the other. These broadcasts are good examples of such procedures. [...]

But if these broadcasts did indeed encode a mocking irony, it was too gentle for the times, and horridly contaminated by its provenance. It seems that Wodehouse never grasped the quality of his sin. The moral baby who had confidently predicted just before the war that nothing seemed less likely was apparently incapable of accepting that it had indeed been fought. The language in which he conceded wrongdoing--"I made an ass of myself"--was the innocent apple sauce-argot of his books, this time turned outward to a world that had lost, for the second time in a century, its innocence. Nowhere in McCrum's biography does Wodehouse make a single reference to the genocide; but his internment camp had been located in Upper Silesia, which was not so far from Auschwitz. For Wodehouse, World War II does seem to have been an enormous game, a Dulwich rugby match against a rather thuggish, if always proper, visiting school.

The British establishment rightly punished Wodehouse; perhaps less rightly, for the rest of his life. A government report, which absolved Wodehouse of being a traitor, was deliberately never released to him, so that he was always uncertain that he could safely return to Britain. And he never did.

Our gain.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2005 12:00 AM

There are, though not so much in the Wooster books, glimpses in Wodehouse of knowledge of the meannesses of the world.

One (whose title I forget) revolves around the assumption that all New York City policemen are corrupt, for example.

But while recognizing sin, Wodehouse did not seem to take it very serioiusly.

When he carried that over from cops to Nazis, the sanctimonious condemned him

Yet, at least, he never did anything to advance Naziism. He was no Vansittart but no Lindbergh, either.

A sad example of a victim of the hypocrisy Orrin purports to think is such a good thing.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 10, 2005 5:31 PM

Lindbergh was no Lindbergh either.

Posted by: oj at March 10, 2005 5:40 PM

Perhaps "A Gentleman of Leisure," 1921.

Posted by: Random Lawyer at March 10, 2005 10:47 PM

Both Wodehouse and Lindbergh should have been hanged.

Posted by: Bart at March 11, 2005 9:51 AM

Lindbergh should have been heeded.

Posted by: oj at March 11, 2005 9:55 AM