Alex Massie

The Existential Wodehouse

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Jenny Haddon has a nice piece on Wodehouse and Hot Water as her contribution to Norm's Writers' Choice series. She argues:

In fact, I disagree with the regular characterization of Wodehouse's dramatis personae as amiable eccentrics. (Bertie Wooster is a kind man but his slightest gesture towards eccentricity is squashed by Jeeves - one remembers, with regret, the skirmish over the white mess jacket. Lord Emsworth is only intermittently amiable. With the exception of the occasional chorus girl, all PGW's women are tough cookies who could give today's feminists a correspondence course in man management.) The amiability is the author's and it is the amiability of the measured Augustan, who sees life steadily, sees it whole and gets a jolly good laugh out of it. The eccentricity exists only in the characters' lack of self-consciousness. These are not people-pleasers. Still less are they analysts of their own desires. They do what they want to do. Sometimes that is daft. Sometimes it is hopelessly pretentious. Occasionally it is criminal. They may dissemble in pursuit of a stratagem - and a great source of delight and plot complication it is - but essentially they don't lie. They are as wilful and inventive as adolescents. Courteous and friendly adolescents, on the whole, but adolescents nevertheless. Their plans zip straight from the subconscious to the boat train, with minimal messing about.

There's good stuff here but there are sufficient exceptions to make one wonder whether it's quite true. Madeleine Bassett is nobody's idea of a tough cookie; left to his own devices Lord Emsworth would be entirely amiable but he is, instead, much put-upon and so, often, is Bertram Wooster.

Indeed one could plausibly argue that Wodehouse got there well before Sartre: "Hell is other people" (and if you are Pongo Twistleton, specifically Uncle Fred). Wodehouse's characters are forever being torn from the quiet life to which they aspire and plunged into the morass of other people's problems. Psmith and Uncle Fred are unusual because they enjoy this. But for the most part, Wodehouse's protagonists find themselves assailed by a world of knavery. Tricksters and blackguards abound: Watkin Bassett, all the Glossops bar Tuppy, the Efficient Baxter, Rupert Steggles, Spode... the list is long and terrifying. These are not good people. Even Tom Travers who, though generally off-stage, enjoys a near-platonically ideal existence is forced to confront the terrors of this world in the Affair of the Cow Creamer.

Dame Fortune is always lurking around the next corner armed with the lead piping and when spring is in the air and all seems well then you know that trouble is looming. For all his sunny cheer, Wodehouse really puts his chaps through the wringer.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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