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'One unreal thing about Wodehouse is that he never takes the reader into the bedroom'
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The Observer 30 May 1999

'One unreal thing about Wodehouse is that he never takes the reader into the bedroom'

Robert McCrum

The works of P.G. Wodehouse are, I've found, a pretty reliable guide to character. If you are part of the benighted ghetto that is not amused by Bertie Wooster's account of Gussie Fink-Nottle giving away the prizes to the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School, then we are not likely to see eye to eye. Speaking as a member of that joyous jacquerie of Wodehouse enthusiasts, I'm inclined to suggest that his work is pure litmus paper. Scorn it and you're damned. Like it and you join the elect. So if references to Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge and Sir Galahad Threepwood leave you unmoved, stop now and turn to our excellent page of children's book reviews.

Hunting down early editions of Wodehouse in second-hand bookshops is my secret vice. Those distinctive Herbert Jenkins spines smile from the bookcase as a more or less cast-iron guarantee of delight. Like many Observer readers, I'm sure, I turn to one of these. The Inimitable Jeeves, perhaps, or Uncle Fred in the Springtime, when things seem black. Who could read a sentence like 'Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes' and not feel a little cheerier about the world?

I'm reminded of all this because Pen- guin Books have just made a terrific corporate decision to reissue about a dozen Wodehouse classics in a jaunty new livery. It's a selection that confirms him, at the end of the century, as a comic writer of sheer genius, English literature's 'performing flea', as some- one put it once. Wodehouse himself observed of his work that he was writing a 'sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether'. From Right Ho Jeeves to The Code of The Woosters, the nastiest thing you can find in the P.G.W. woodshed is the girl with' governess blood', or the aunt who insists on the theft of a cow creamer.

One of the many unreal things about Wodehouse is that although much of his inspired foolery is to do with the ups and downs of idiotic young men named Bingo in love with irreproachable young women named Madeleine, he never for a moment takes the reader beyond the bedroom door, or if he does, it's only to allow Bertie Wooster to puncture Sir Roderick Glossop's hot- water bottle. In Bachelors Anonymous, a late work published in 1973, we find this rather revealing sentence: 'As a child of eight, Mr Trout had once kissed a girl of six under the mistletoe at a Christmas party, but there his sex life had come to an abrupt halt.' When it comes to the opposite sex, Wodehouse is happiest with a succession of Pongos ('He spoke a little huskily, for he had once more fallen in love at first sight' - Uncle Fred in the Springtime). His is an innocent, even idyllic world which, as Evelyn Waugh put it in a famous broadcast, 'can never stale'. And yet the more you scrutinise his oeuvre, the odder it becomes.

Take Jeeves and Wooster, the young man in spats, the gentleman's gentleman and the society of the Drones. If such a fatuous world ever did exist, it would have been utterly foreign to young Pelham Grenville. His father was a colonial civil servant, a Hong Kong magistrate, who sent his sons to boarding school in England. From the age of two, the young Wodehouse was brought up by a series of aunts, the prototypes of those mastodon-calling ladies, Agatha and Dahlia. Worse than the immediate separation from his parents was the family catastrophe that engulfed the adolescent Wodehouse. In 1899 (when he was 18), his father went broke from the collapse of his Indian investments. So Wodehouse never went to Oxford, as he'd expected, and ended up having to earn a living as a journalist on the 'By the Way' column of the Globe. Nothing further from the Drones Club could be imagined.

Was it the intrusion of harsh reality at an impressionable age that spon- sored his delight in the mysterious workings of humour? Was it the need to find a new, essentially anglophile, American audience for his stories that encouraged a fascination with dotty, minor aristocracy like Lord Emsworth, with golfing nitwits like Cuthbert, and with ancestral piles like Blandings? Were the vagaries of happiness his subject out of temperament and character? Alas, we shall probably never know; there's never been a properly researched biography of the great man. One thing is certain: only a writer shamefully exiled by England could have become quite so affectionate about the absurdities of the class system. Perhaps it's his sunny good nature that explains his appeal. Even now, 25 years after his death, his work seems as popular as ever, widely venerated for its faultless style and impeccable tone. His books have been admired by writers as diverse as Heaney and Wittgenstein. At The Observer, more people have tried to steal this set of Penguin Wodehouses from my office than any other volume in recent memory. The miscreants include the editor. So that's all right then.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.