Wodehouse, Je deteste

Last week Salman Rushdie was heckled for giving several low star scores to well known and accepted classics on an internet reading site.  So I am going to join him. I have tried, oh Lord have I tried, but I heartily despise and dislike all the works of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. I would never have conferred the knighthood, and were I God Emperor of the Universe (I’m working on it) I would revoke it.

At school after reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and heartily roaring (amongst other scenes) at the cheese story, I looked around for another humorous writer. The school library did not stock, not unsurprisingly, Tom Sharpe so I was pointed Wodehouseward. I did not understand it. So far removed from my experience was his ethereal world of aunts and japes that I was nonplussed, and it was only after reaching my majority with greater experience and knowledge under my hat that I tried again.

Nope. Still couldn’t stomach him. I felt no empathy whatsoever with his characters, nor did his much praised humorous prose tickle me. The lack of empathy was a barrier and I forgot about him. Then a good few years later when Robert McCrum’s highly praised biography came out I tried again.

The biography was read on the radio and it was jolly interesting, old bean, what what. As a professional writer he was to be admired despite the dodginess with the Germans. And so armed with even more knowledge and a grudging respect for his professionalism I hied me to Foyles and bought a paperback.

This book nearly went out of a train window. I was about fifty pages into it when the nausea overcame me. The train was hot. We had stopped inexplicably by the Arsenal stadium and with sweat pouring down my forehead I nearly threw it out of the open window onto the track. It was only the  imagined consequences, of Wiltean dimensions, that forced me to stuff it in my bag.

Why do I  hate him? It is the lack of empathy: while he is writing about these silly bloody idiots of no perceivable income, the spoilt layabouts of the upper classes, my immediate ancestors, fathers and grandfathers, were sweating themselves to death in the coal mines of the North, to fuel the economy, the empire, and no doubt fill the coal scuttles of those social pariahs, the Berties, the Gussies and all those rebarbative aunts.

What really annoys me is that the image of England in his books ripples across the globe as an extant representation of England, one that is further fanned by the works of Georgette Hayer, Barbara Cartland etc: a narrow clichéd view of England that takes no account of its variety.

And what annoys me even more is that there are some in England who want this vision to return; but what is truly terrifying is that there are those who are actively working for it.

written on a plane to Nice

and don’t forget, for all your reading needs: Lights Over Sheel – it’s not a humorous book

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One response to “Wodehouse, Je deteste

  1. Well, as it’s confession time, I can’t stand Jane Eyre or anything by Thomas Hardy. My best friend also dislikes Wodehouse, for all the reasons you suggest, although I love his stuff.

    I would not try to convert you. We all have our own tastes. What I would suggest is that you seem to have either misunderstood him, not not read him widely. That’s fair enough if you don’t enjoy him. I won’t be making a detailed study of Hardy anytime soon either. But if I may, I would like to offer, respectfully, a different view.

    Wodehouse’s heroes and heroines are frequently not well off — with the search for an income or livelihood often a key feature in his plots. They are not living in the gutter, it’s true. He is a writer of comedy after all, and that wouldn’t be funny. But he does not idolise or idealise the well-to-do either. More often they are shown as the snobs and villains that his lead characters must outwit in their quest for love.

    Perhaps you are only familiar with Bertie Wooster and his circle — this is what most people who try Wodehouse start with. Bertie is well off, and his circle of friends and family are too, but Wodehouse’s work is broader than this. His stand alone novels do vary from the ideas you’ve got of him. Perhaps you won’t like them either — that’s fine — but I wanted to at least correct that misimpression.

    Perhaps a major source of your dislike might not be Wodehouse, so much as his fans. Though I would not say a word against them, some probably have a misplaced nostalgic affection for Wodehouse’s era and the obvious signs of wealth in his work. I dislike Downtown Abbey for the same reason. But depicting the wealth is not the same thing as idealising it. I cannot imagine George Orwell (or myself for that matter) being devoted to Wodehouse if he represented the ideas you suggest. Having read Wodehouse widely, I’d suggest that if any pattern emerges at all, it’s one of young lovers fighting against (admittedly in a light, comic way) wealth and privilege. If Wodehouse presents us with an idealised view of anything at all, it is love, not money. But this is his genre — romantic comedy. A deeper exploration of these themes would be out of place.

    Wodehouse did, famously, ridicule the British fascist Oswald Moseley — BEFORE the war — when he created the character Roderick Spode, an amateur dictator with a gang of ‘blackshorts’ (Mosely’s men were known as blackshirts). When Wodehouse broadcast from Germany, the British paper leading the charge in smearing his name had been vocally pro-fascist. I am surprised that, having read the McCrum biography, you mention the war affair at all. I don’t have McCrum to hand, but a recent publication from the History Press — the P.G.Wodehouse Miscellany by N.T.P. Murphy states:

    “In answer to a later MI5 inquiry, a British Foreign Office official summed up the whole sad business: ‘I do not think that anyone would seriously deny that “L’affaire Wodehouse” was very much a storm in a teacup. It is perfectly plain to any unbiased observer that Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent.’

    A full account as well as transcripts of the broadcasts can be found at: http://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk. ”

    Wodehouse was very much a victim of propaganda on both sides, but some people find it hard to shake off this idea of Wodehouse, and cannot or will not read him without being tainted by it. Mud sticks, as they say. I understand this feeling as a reader — I can’t read Hemingway, Milne or Joyce without being similarly tainted by my personal distaste of them.

    Finally, do not confuse the man with his characters (or if you must, don’t let it be Bertie Wooster). Wodehouse was a quiet, hardworking writer who supported himself throughout his adult life — he was not raised in stately homes, and did not have an independent income. His family could not even afford to send him to University.

    I don’t expect to win you over to loving Wodehouse. We all have our likes and dislikes . But hopefully I have at least corrected some common misunderstandings about him.

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