Suppose that words were all you had. Suppose the great edifice of Western civilization had collapsed around you—all its truths, all its certainties, all its aspirations smashed to meaningless shards. Suppose . . . oh, I don’t know, suppose that it was 1919, and the First World War had just finished cracking Europe across its knee like a stick, and you were living in what the poet T. S. Eliot in one of his occasional sour moods called the Waste Land, and words were all you had: stray lines from lost poems, refrains from otherwise forgotten songs, tags from half-erased sermons—fragments, only fragments, to shore against your ruins. What would you do?
You could work yourself into a mad lather, I suppose, muttering as you trudge along the sidewalks and pinning passing strangers against the shop windows to explain that Friedrich Nietzsche had been right all along: The Christian social order has been a flop from the beginning, and the sooner we stamp out the last of it, the better. Then again, you could order in some whiskey and drink yourself into a stupor. There are dozens of ways, in fact, to deal with the situation, each as likely to be ineffective as the last. It’s a problem knowing what to do when the end of the world knocks on the door one morning like an ancient Gaul with a toothache and a battle-axe.
But in those dark days of the twentieth century, in the middle of the apparent collapse of it all, there was at least one man who had the courage, the intelligence, and the sheer persevering goofiness simply to ignore the whole mess, frittering away his days by writing books like Leave It to Psmith, Young Men in Spats, and My Man Jeeves.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse—“P. G. Wodehouse,” as he signed his work; “Plum,” as he was called by his friends—wrote more than fifty novels, over three hundred short stories, and some twenty-odd plays: a total of ninety-seven books before his death in 1975 at age ninety-three. And the curious thing is that not a single one of them mattered. Not a single one of them converted a soul, or turned a tide, or saved a battle, or carried a flag, or seized a day. He published several million words during his lifetime, and even amid the verbal bloat of our own hyperinflated times, it’s hard to imagine a more pointless waste.
They were perfect words, of course. There’s no getting around that. Take a sentence like “She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when.’“ Or “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the hotel at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” Or “I don’t owe a penny to a single soul—not counting tradesmen, of course.” Or “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” Or “As for Gussie Fink-Nottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight.”
P.G. Wodehouse tossed off such lines as though he’d gotten a discount from a cousin who dealt them wholesale. Diction, really, is the key. Wodehouse rarely wrote anything except light romantic comedy—in essence, novelized versions of old-fashioned Broadway shows: “musical comedy without music,” as he once described it. And that’s a genre of literature which doesn’t carry the burden of civilization very far. Its shoulders, so to speak, are a little weak for the task. But within this minor, silk-suited genre, the twentieth century saw a writer with diction that belongs in the class of Shakespeare and very few others in the history of English literature.
There’s something rather disturbing about this fact. I mean, Shakespeare clearly didn’t mind dabbling in romantic comedy—try Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labour’s Lost—if he needed something quick with which to pay the bills. But on other days he’d try to work up plays with a little more meat on their bones. And Wodehouse, ah, well, Wodehouse never sought more than a story light enough on its feet to dance to the evanescent burble of his prose: “Though he scorned and loathed her, he was annoyed to discover that he loved her still. He would have liked to bounce a brick on Prudence Whittaker’s head, and yet, at the same time, he would have liked—rather better, as a matter of fact—to crush her to him and cover her face with burning kisses. The whole situation was very complex.”
Once you start quoting lines like this from Wodehouse, it’s hard to stop. The prose is almost depressingly perfect—depressingly, that is, for all of us who realize we’ll never match it in our own writing. “She’s one of those soppy girls, riddled from head to foot with whimsy,” his favorite character Bertie Wooster says of Madeline Bassett, one of the many girls he hopes never to have to marry. “She holds the view that the stars are God’s daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen, and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born, which, as we know, is not the case. She’s a drooper.”
That “as we know” is simply an untouchable moment of prose. Meanwhile, “The Duke of Dunstable had one-way pockets. He would walk ten miles in the snow to chisel an orphan out of tuppence.” And “I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanor was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express on the small of the back.” And “He trusted neither of them as far as he could spit, and he was a poor spitter, lacking both distance and control.” On, and on, and on the examples go, never a weak moment, never a lost sentence, never a word out of place—and never a one of those words mattering in the least, never a one of them aimed at any purpose but their own light comedy, never a one of them anything but wasted.
Except, well, except that maybe in the sheer insouciance of their failure to be important, they came to be very important indeed. Maybe P. G. Wodehouse matters precisely because he was willing not to matter. Maybe we should take seriously the fact that a major English literary talent of the twentieth century was content to use his perfect prose for no purpose greater than the construction of pleasant farces, gentle comedies, and the buzz of language as it passes through an Edwardian fantasy world of stern aunts, spineless noblemen, soppy girls, and young men in spats.
We enter here into deep waters, too deep a puddle for Wodehouse himself to stick in his toe. “The question of how authors come to write their books is generally one not easily answered,” he once observed. “Milton, for instance, asked how he got the idea for Paradise Lost, would probably have replied with a vague ‘Oh, I don’t know, you know. These things sort of pop into your head, don’t you know,’ leaving the researcher very much where he was before.”
Still, there was something in those ninety-seven books that the twentieth century needed. You can’t say modern times lacked serious fiction, or biting satire, or experimental poetry. You can’t say the world was short on big ideas, or intellectual politics, or what Friedrich Nietzsche called philosophizing with a hammer. But maybe we were a little deficient in laughter during the twentieth century. Maybe we still are, in the twenty-first.
The story “Jeeves Takes Charge” begins with Bertie Wooster engaged to Florence Craye, an intellectual young woman whose idea of preparing Bertie for marriage is to insist he read books with titles like Types of Ethical Theory. This isn’t the simple young man’s cup of tea, of course, but Bertie is besotted, for, “seen sideways,” Florence is “most awfully good looking.” And so, as in any such story, the vital job of Bertie’s loyal valet, Jeeves, must be to ensure the inappropriate engagement is broken off. “It was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche,” the successful Jeeves explains at the story’s end. “You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”
And, really, that’s the point. Nietzsche is fundamentally unsound for a variety of reasons that will occur to the theologically minded. But here is another and possibly more telling proof of his unsoundness: Bertie Wooster, one of the great innocents in literature, wouldn’t like at all to have to read him, no matter how alluring Florence Craye is in profile. The best answer to Friedrich Nietzsche we’ve managed yet to come up with is the prose of P. G. Wodehouse.
One could natter learnedly here about the role of joy in the thought of various Christian thinkers. After all, “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God,” as Karl Barth famously remarked. And in Leisure: The Basis of Culture (a book that T. S. Eliot, in one of his happier moods, praised highly), the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper explained that leisure is “an attitude of contemplative ‘celebration’ which draws its vitality from affirmation,” and “to celebrate means to proclaim, in a setting different from the ordinary everyday, our approval of the world as such.”
As it happens, Bertie Wooster and the other young men of P.G. Wodehouse’s world have little in their lives except leisure. They use it mostly in desperate pursuit, or desperate avoidance, of all the young women they meet—which is, one guesses, only incidentally what Pieper had in mind when he declared leisure the basis of culture; civilization can run only so far on light romantic comedy. But there is manifestly some kind of celebration going on in the prose of those characters’ author, and the result is the grace of laughter for the reader. Something in Wodehouse’s stories hints at what made David dance before the Ark for the God who gave joy to his youth. And something in his pages suggests “the living God, Who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.”
It’s a little hard to say quite what that something is. Wodehouse may be our best answer to Nietzsche, but he isn’t entirely clear on how Young Men in Spats trumps Thus Spake Zarathustra. But suppose that laughter offers blessed escape for a while from the terrible mattering that possessed modern times. Suppose that Christendom—the deep unity of Western culture through the years—survives best not when it is trying to respond to the relentless thud with which secular history marches, but when it dances a little. And suppose that God’s grace doesn’t dwell just in the tears we shed at the tragedy of the world, but also in the play of comedy. Wodehouse titled one of his best novels Joy in the Morning, after a passage in Psalm 30 that Jeeves quotes to Bertie Wooster: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” And it’s true. Joy does come in the morning, and laughter from reading P. G. Wodehouse. That’s a small grace, but a real one.
Never was there a man further from Wodehouse’s characters than Wodehouse himself. (In the usual muddle of British orthography, his name is pronounced “wood-house,” rather than “woad-house.”) He made an enormous amount of money from his writing, averaging over $100,000 a year in the 1920s, for instance, when $100,000 a year was still $100,000 a year and then some. But he was, in person, a shy and unimpressive figure who dressed in worn clothes and was known among his acquaintances as one of the dullest conversationalists in captivity. All he did, in fact, was work, spending the mornings editing the previous day’s writing and the afternoon penning new material. Flaubert talked grandly of being a slave to his art. Wodehouse actually lived it. “I haven’t got any violent feelings about anything,” he once told an interviewer. “I just love writing.”
He was born in England in 1881, the son of a British colonial officer in Hong Kong, and burdened with family names he always hated. “I have my dark moods when they seem to me about as low as you can get,” he later explained. “At the font I remember protesting vigorously when the clergyman uttered them, but he stuck to his point. ‘Be that as it may,’ he said firmly, having waited for a lull, ‘I name thee Pelham Grenville.’” His mother carried the infant Pelham Grenville out to China to join his father but within a few years shipped him back to England with his older brothers to be cared for by an improbable succession of aunts. (“In this life,” he would go on to write, “it is not aunts that matter, but the courage that one brings to them”—and add, “It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core they are all alike. Sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof.”)
School must have come as a relief, and he seems to have loved his education at Dulwich College. But his family lacked the money to send him on to Oxford and, instead, found him a job at age eighteen as a clerk at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London. Advancement at a colonial bank generally required posting to the colonies, and Wodehouse was determined to find success as a writer quickly enough to avoid the trip to the Far East. After a rapid spate of magazine stories and poems and columns, his first book appeared in 1902, and by 1904 he had left the bank and established himself financially as a writer.
Regular trips to America soon followed (the money for pieces in American magazines was somewhat better, and the money for plays and musicals in America was astronomically better than British rates). In 1914, Wodehouse met and married Ethel Newton, a widow in New York. Ethel and Plum had a curious and not entirely explicable marriage, but without doubt she provided him what he needed, taking over all the practical concerns, leaving the writer free to do nothing but write.
And write he did, making so much money—from his books, scripts for Hollywood and Broadway, and articles in magazines such as Vanity Fair—that the American tax authorities and the British Inland Revenue united in one of their first joint projects, a trans-Atlantic cooperative effort to dig as much as possible out of Wodehouse’s international royalties. That may have been what finally drove him abroad in 1934, when he and Ethel settled in France.
In retrospect, this proved not to be the ideal time for such a move. Five years later, Hitler’s blitzkrieg swept through the area, picking up the British Wodehouse along the way—or, as he explained, “Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, ‘How can I become an internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there until the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.”
Unfortunately, he offered that explanation on a shortwave broadcast to America sponsored by the Nazis. A clever German publicity agent, apparently realizing what a naïf they had captured, ordered Wodehouse transferred from the internment camp to a hotel in Berlin and talked him into making five comic presentations for his American fans in the days before the United States had entered the war. The reaction in London was volcanic, as the BBC and the Daily Mirror and even A. A. Milne spewed outrage at his apparent treason. It was the worst misstep of his career—but perhaps a predictable one, for he seemed to live only for his writing, and the England he created in his fiction was as imaginary a place as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth or what Alice found through the looking glass. “How’s the weather, Jeeves?” young Bertie Wooster had asked his valet almost twenty years before in Wodehouse’s acknowledgement of the beginning of the First World War:
“Exceptionally clement, sir.”
“Anything in the papers?”
“Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir. Otherwise, nothing.”
Wodehouse was strongly advised not to return to England after Germany surrendered. “I made an ass of myself and must pay the penalty,” he acknowledged in 1945. So he moved to New York instead, eventually settling on an estate on Long Island, where he continued to do little but write, until the British forgave him enough to award him a knighthood in 1975, two months before he died.
A number of writers known for their religious interests have praised Wodehouse. Hilaire Belloc, for instance, called him the “best writer of our time, the best living writer of English and the head of my profession.” But I have always thought they did so more in their capacity as writers than in their capacity as religious thinkers. When professional scribblers run their eyes over a page of P. G. Wodehouse, they see just how good he is: The more you know about how prose gets created, the more he seems unmatchable.
Evelyn Waugh, however, once tried to reach for something more, offering an explicitly religious reading of the stories about Bertie and Jeeves: “For Mr. Wodehouse,” he claimed, “there has been no Fall of Man; no ‘aboriginal calamity.’ His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden.”
That sounds, at first hearing, like so much blather. The Wodehousian characters are Edenic only if all light comedies, all young romances, and all Broadway farces—if all stories with happy endings, for that matter—take place sometime before the Serpent makes his entrance in the Book of Genesis. P. G. Wodehouse hardly wrote more than one story in all his books. The plots could be fiendishly complicated, but they typically boil down to: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gains girl again. As it happens, a Bertie Wooster story often stands the pattern on its head”boy is happily free, boy mutton-headedly gets entangled with a beautiful but disastrous girl, boy manages at last to wriggle free:
Aunt Dahlia, describing this young blister as a one-girl beauty chorus, had called her shots perfectly correctly. Her outer crust was indeed of a nature to cause those beholding it to rock back on their heels with a startled whistle. But while equipped with eyes like twin stars, hair ruddier than the cherry, oomph, espièglerie and all the fixings, this B. Wickham had also the disposition and general outlook on life of a ticking bomb. In her society you always had the uneasy feeling that something was likely to go off at any moment with a pop. You never knew what she was going to do next or into what murky depths of soup she would carelessly plunge you.
“Miss Wickham, sir,” Jeeves had once said to me warningly at the time when the fever was at its height, “lacks seriousness. She is volatile and frivolous. I would always hesitate to recommend a young lady with quite such a vivid shade of red hair.”
His judgment was sound. I have already mentioned how with her subtle wiles this girl induced me to sneak into Sir Roderick Glossop’s sleeping apartment and apply the darning needle to his hot-water bottle—and that was comparatively mild going for her. In a word, Roberta, daughter of Lady Wickham of Skeldings Hall, Herts, and the late Sir Cuthbert, was pure dynamite, and better kept at a distance by all those who aimed at leading a peaceful life. The prospect of being immured with her in the same house, with all the facilities a country house affords an enterprising girl for landing her nearest and dearest in the mulligatawny, made me singularly dubious about the shape of things to come.
But even a Bertie and Jeeves story is still a farce—a musical without the music—and it doesn’t escape the angel with the flaming sword who blocks the return to Eden.
And yet, on second thought, there may actually be a sort of fall that Wodehouse’s characters never suffer. It’s not the “aboriginal calamity” of Adam and Eve; not even that amiable and bone-headed peer, Lord Emsworth, the centerpiece of Wodehouse’s many stories set in and around Blandings Castle, entirely dodges original sin. Nonetheless, the characters do somehow manage to sidestep rather neatly most of the unpleasantness of the twentieth century. If Bertie Wooster had ever really existed, he would (as George Orwell once pointed out) have died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 along with most of the rest of his Edwardian class. Of course, Bertie Wooster didn’t really exist, and the world he inhabits bore little contact with English reality before World War I and even less contact with reality as the years went on.
Even the occasional topical reference—as in the title of the 1965 story “Bingo Bans the Bomb”—doesn’t move P. G. Wodehouse’s characters any closer to the real world, for they live, finally, only in a magical country of linguistic construction. They buzz and prattle, rattle and hum, for talk is their life and their meaning.
“It is pretty generally recognized in the circles in which he moves that Bertram Wooster is not a man who lightly throws in the towel and admits defeat,” Wodehouse begins a typical run of Bertie’s first-person narration. “Beneath the thingummies of what-d’you-call-it, his head, wind and weather permitting, is as a rule bloody but unbowed, and if the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune want to crush his proud spirit, they have to pull their socks up and make a special effort.”
You can diagram this, if you absolutely have to, as the critic Richard Usborne once noted. A metaphor from boxing slides into a deliberately mangled quotation from W. E. Henley’s late-Victorian poem “Invictus”—into which mangle are inserted not just one but two meaningless verbal inflators: “wind and weather permitting,” and “as a rule.” That somehow leads to a slightly less garbled dribble from Hamlet, the high tone of which is immediately deflated with the slang of “pull their socks up.”
But even pulling the writing apart this way doesn’t fully reveal what Wodehouse is doing in his prose. You’ll sometimes see him praised for the wide range of his literary references. Don’t believe it. A volley here and there at something highbrow is taken by Jeeves for comic effect, but not often. Wodehouse’s references—particularly in the first-person with which Bertie Wooster narrates his stories—are almost entirely from the Edwardian schoolboy canon: the Bible and Shakespeare, the kind of Anglican hymn heard in British public schools, Victorian parlor poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare again, a few popular songs from the 1880s, Kipling, and the Bible and Shakespeare once again:
From down the road came the sound of voices, and a mere instant was enough to tell us that it was Mrs. Bingo and the Pyke talking things over. I had never listened in on a real, genuine female row before, and I’m bound to say it was pretty impressive. During my absence, matters appeared to have developed on rather a specious scale. They had reached the stage now where the combatants had begun to dig into the past and rake up old scores. Mrs. Bingo was saying that the Pyke would never have got into the hockey team at St. Adela’s if she hadn’t flattered and fawned upon the captain in a way that it made Mrs. Bingo, even after all these years, sick to think of. The Pyke replied that she had refrained from mentioning it until now, having always felt it better to let bygones be bygones, but that if Mrs. Bingo supposed her to be unaware that Mrs. Bingo had won the Scripture prize by taking a list of the Kings of Judah into the examination room, tucked into her middy-blouse, Mrs. Bingo was vastly mistaken.
Twentieth-century schooling let much of this once-shared set of references fall away, which is why Wodehouse’s stories sometimes seem to readers more learned than they actually are.
Open references to religion are relatively rare. The fathers of two characters once came to blows in the bar of their club over the apostolic claims of the Abyssinian Church, but, as the narrator remarks, the wonder wasn’t that they fought but that either of them had ever heard of the Abyssinian Church. There are a few classic Bertie-and-Jeeves stories that rely on religious situations, particularly “The Great Sermon Handicap.” And then there are the tales told by Mr. Mulliner (the best may be “Buck-U-Uppo”) about the rise of his nephew Augustine, a delicate, pale, and milktoasty cleric, through the hierarchy of the Anglican Church as it squabbles about orphreys and chasubles.
But Wodehouse’s stories are never openly religious. They exist in an Edwardian fantasy world that simply assumes the presence of the clergy and the Church. The overall aim of his books is, more than anything else, to avoid as much as possible the whole of the twentieth century—its fall, its forgetfulness, its horror, its waste land. Inside his ninety-seven volumes, Europe’s ancient Christian culture hasn’t collapsed into meaninglessness, leaving us only fragments to shore against our ruins.
Take a look at such perfect stories as “Jeeves and the Old School Chum,” or “Uncle Fred Flits By,” or “Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend.” Words were all that P. G. Wodehouse had, and in one sense he squandered them on nothing more than light comedy. In another sense, he found with all his writing something worth more than words can say: a small, happy spot kept bright in a world that seemed only to be darkening around it. Surely that’s enough for one man.
Joseph Bottum is the editor of First Things. This essay is adapted from his introduction to Joy Cometh in the Morning, a P. G. Wodehouse volume in the Trinity Forum Reading series.