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Breaking the Wooster code
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Guardian 29 May 1999

Breaking the Wooster code

Christopher Hitchens

By 1949, in exile in the US, the idea of England had been spoiled for PG Wodehouse by the bullying treatment he had received as a consequence of his wartime capers. I think it was settled in Wodehouse's mind by then that he would never return. In The Mating Season, written that year, an elaborate revenge is visited upon Christopher Robin and all the slushy works of AA Milne, who had been one of Wodehouse's chief persecutors. Wodehouse threw off the idea of being "quintessentially English"; a fatuous non-compliment that is still paid him by his less attentive or literate fans.

The Mating Season is heavily yet unobtrusively salted with American locutions and references. There is a rural constable with a working knowledge of the atheistic tracts of Robert Ingersoll, the American dissident, and also a fine line annexed (twice) from Tom Paine the very one who led the renunciation of England by North America. And one notes the determination of Constable Dobbs "to fight it out on these lines if it takes all summer" one of the most memorable dispatches of the Union in the Civil War; in no special order I would also cite the words, or terms, "bozo", "making her say Uncle" [give in], "gets a load on", "rannygazoo" and "Bronx cheer".

Too often a certain type of Wodehouse addict possesses in addition in the irritating habit of calling him "The Master" a prejudice against neologisms and Americanisms. It deserves to be said, then, that one of the ways in which Wodehouse replenished the well of English was by stirring into the bland orange juice the gin of transatalantic vim and pith. The trick worked in the opposite direction as well. In one of the letters unearthed by his biographer, Frances Donaldson, Wodehouse actually says that he devised Jeeves and Wooster because he had settled in America, was aiming for a large American audience, and therefore needed broad-brush characters. That this was not nostalgia for the "old country" is clear from another letter, to his friend Bill Townend, about a meeting he'd had with H G Wells: "What do you think happened when we met? We shook hands and his first remark, apropos of nothing, was 'My father was a professional cricketer.' A conversation-stopper if ever there was one. What a weird country England is, with its class distinctions and that ingrained snobbery you can't seem to escape from. I suppose you notice it more because I've spent so much of my time in America. "Can you imagine an American who had achieved the position Wells has, worrying because he started in life on the wrong side of the tracks? But nothing will ever make Wells forget that his father was a professional cricketer and his mother the housekeeper at Up Park." (Note, there, the easy way that he employs the term "wrong side of the tracks".)

The usage "making her say Uncle" is doubly apt in The Mating Season because it occurs at Bertie's first meeting with Esmond Haddock, where he tells us: "But for Corky's evidence I would have said, looking at him, that there sat a nephew capable of facing the toughest aunt and making her say Uncle." Where else have we met characters who, while they may have aunts or uncles, have no parents? Where else do butlers make sapient observations? Where else are aunts terrifying and dictatorial? Where else is sex eschewed but romantic entanglement, in town house and country house, the very essence? Where else are all sundered hearts united on the concluding page?

Richard Usborne has more than once pointed out the resemblance of the best of Wodehouse's work to a three-act play. In the most marvellous three-act light drama ever written, Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest, how does the action commence? The curtain rises to disclose the bachelor flat of a frivolous young man with a Piccadilly address in Half Moon Street. The young man is playing the piano. The butler enters with afternoon tea: Algernon: "Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?" Lane: "I didn't think it polite to listen sir." Noting in passing Wooster's address in Berkeley Mansions, and his habit of singing in the bath while waiting for Jeeves to bring the morning cup, we move to the swift cross-talk between Algernon and his friend Jack some of it turning on a cigarette case of the sort from which Bertie is always selecting and the entrance of Lady Bracknell, one of the most formidable aunts (she's actually named Aunt Augusta, in what might be a prefiguration of Graham Greene) in our literature.

Simpering damsels and vapid young men then do their stuff, discoursing the while on the many trivial obstacles that are placed by elderly relatives, by want of money, and by dire convention, to their unions. The setting shifts to Piccadilly, to the country house, where bucolic clergymen toddle in and out and where there is the finest feline teatime tussle between two girls with the arguable exception of that which breaks out between Mrs Bingo Little and Laura Pyke in Jeeves And The Old School Chum that I can call to mind. In the closing scene, after some hilarious confusions of identity, all ruptured or postponed pairings are made whole. There are other correlations and correspondence between the Wildean and Wodehousian universes. And Wodehouse, who spent much of his life in the theatre and on light comedy, and who crams his texts with literary allusions of the most varied and learned kind, never once makes the least attribution to Wilde. This is perhaps, as whatsisname said Jeeves would know no accident. The first night of The Importance Of Being Earnest took place in London in 1895, with Wilde's disgrace following hard upon it. In 1899, Wodehouse's family went broke because of a crisis in their Indian investments, and the young Pelham Granville was told that he would not, after all, be going "up" to Oxford. As one of his biographers tells us: what made the blow even worse was being withdrawn from the scholarship exam at the last moment. In the face he showed the world, young Wodehouse accepted the decision with good grace and clothed it in humour, writing of the rupee in which Ernest's pension was paid jumping up and down and throwing fits. "Watch the rupee" was, he claimed, the cry in the Wodehouse household, and expenditure had to be regulated in the light of what mood it happened to be in at any moment. The rupee in which whose pension was paid? Yes, unlike his characters, or Wilde's characters, Wodehouse did have a father, and the old gentleman did bear that name. Perhaps you recall what Miss Prism says to her pupil when she wishes to be alone with Canon Chasuble (he of the handicapped sermon on "the meaning of manna in the wilderness", which "can be adapted to almost any occasion"): "Cecily, you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational. Even these metallic problems have the melodramatic side."

It diminishes the lustre of Wodehouse not at all to make this speculation, or rather to identify this debt. "Plagiarism," that most obvious and banal discovery of the literary sleuth, translates from the Greek as theft. What I've traced here is not a stealing but a borrowing; conceivably an unconscious one. There is something apt and ironic in the fact that Wilde and Wodehouse both died in exile, having been meanly treated in however unequal a measure by an English society that prides itself to the point of pomposity on seeing the joke and having a keen sense of humour. Both men were tougher eggs than they looked, both were bullied by a gloomy and cowardly establishment, and both ridiculed and thought the class system an absolute scream. The Mating Season does not quite show us Wodehouse on mid-season form. It is good in the handicap, but somewhat crowded on the rails. Jeeves is not at his most cerebral; Madeline Bassett (the Princess Diana of our national letters) is not at her soppiest; the aunts do not achieve mastodon status; Gussie Fink-Nottle is an insufferable Englishman (aha!), rather than a newt-fancying dunce of epic proportions, and the clergyman is neither sufficiently feeble-minded nor well-enough accoutred with inept chapter and verse.

A solid Wodehouse production usually contains at least one simile for humiliation ("He writhed like an electric fan") and one onomatopoeic rendition of a despairing noise; the latter quite often connected to the operations of the soda syphon. There is no arresting case of the former, and only a fairly good instance of the latter. (" 'Oh?' he said, and gave a sort of whistling sigh like the last whoosh of a dying soda water syphon.") Not quite, you feel, ringing the bell and entitling author to cigar or coconut, according to choice. One raises the eyebrows, too, at the inclusion of an actual printed list of once-blighted and now blissful lovers at the end. As in all Wodehouse tales, the good end happily and the bad unhappily and that, as Miss Prism said with such a sigh, is what fiction means. Oscar Wilde, who also found in America the recognition and acclaim that he was to be denied in England and who saw with great prescience that the United States would become the political as well as cultural arbiter in his native Ireland might have murmured kindly that, in this case, the genius was more in the life than in the work.

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