Of all the great novelists, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) has the least interest in the real world. Unencumbered by gravitas, he describes a Britain that never existed, where there is no sex or death, except in passing, and the tumultuous history of the early 20th century barely gets a look-in. The gravest threat is being forced to marry someone you don’t like.
His style walks a tightrope between pastiche and perfection. If you stop to think about it, you may wonder why you’ve taken time to follow the fortunes of an aristocratic pig or antique cow creamer. Wodehouse’s trick is to make every character bend to his comic will. Bertie Wooster may be an idiot, but he still speaks in crisp sentences peppered with literary references. Yet this is a style that never indulges itself. Passages that seem incidental, such as Jeeves mentioning a round-the-world-cruise, are there to drive the plot.
Wodehouse’s aversion to reality could land him in trouble. After war broke out in 1939, he refused to leave his house in Le Touquet, and made radio broadcasts for the Nazis. His reputation in Britain recovered only just before his death, when he was knighted. He had been an American citizen for 20 years. His 90-odd novels include a few duds, but the best—"The Code of the Woosters" or "The Inimitable Jeeves"—are as funny as anything ever written.
KEY DECISION (1) Leaving Britain. Being an outsider made it easier to paint a fantasy world, where life takes place in dissolute members’ clubs and country houses. (2) Creating Jeeves. Wooster is just an endearingly unreliable narrator: Jeeves is the metronome. Everything hangs on his schemes. Since he is invariably right about the plot, we trust him on everything else, yet it is never clear who, precisely, decided that only a cad would carry billiard chalk in his waistcoat.
GOLDEN RULE Be commercial. The readability of Wodehouse’s style, forged by the discipline of journalism and the need to churn out novels for money, make the sudden comic adjectives or unexpected statement all the more powerful.
STRONG POINTS (1) Commas. He uses them to set up a joke, digress, and return for the punchline. From "Jill the Reckless": "Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty." (2) Restraint. Jeeves is a triumph of economy. From "The Code of the Woosters":
"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’"
"The mood will pass, sir."
FAVOURITE TRICK The killer reference. Wodehouse wears hefty learning with lightness. At the start of "The Code of..." Jeeves wakes Bertie, who has had a long night at the Drones Club. "Indeed, just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head—not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones."
ROLE MODELS Shakespeare’s comedies, for the happy endings. Oscar Wilde, for the aunts.
TYPICAL SENTENCE "I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare—or, if not, it’s some equally brainy bird—who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping." ("Carry On, Jeeves")
Jeeves & Wooster, Richmond, Oct 10th-19th; Brighton, 22nd-26th; Duke of York’s, London, from Oct 30th