The more serious-minded may blanch at the idea of a story where death, illness, poverty, sex, politics, and, indeed, any form of elongated unhappiness are marginal. But sometimes we need to escape to a world where the worst tyranny is that of an abstemious aunt.
"He is a master of the language," says Sue Cohen, one of the founders of Philly's TWS chapter. "He writes sentences that are luminary and metaphors that are completely original. He's an incomparable writer. And he's just a lot of fun. I never get tired of Wodehouse, and he lived into his 90s, so there is a lot of Wodehouse to read."
This is a mixed blessing. Most of Wodehouse's work is still in print, which means many of his weakest efforts are in circulation along with the high-octane material. I read 15 Wodehouse books last year and found a few stinkers among the treasure trove. That's bound to happen when a novelist writes a book a year between 1904 and 1975 (with the exception of 1911 and most of the Second World War). For the uninitiated, I recommend Thank You, Jeeves; Heavy Weather; Leave It to Psmith; and The Code of the Woosters.
Wodehouse's fiction is formulaic: There are usually young lovers whose pairing is imperiled by a lack of money or an abundance of snobby relatives. These essential issues spawn elaborate plots of spirited misadventure, mistaken identities, public humiliation, police entanglements, and drunken excesses. On one side is an army of aunts who attempt to impede the heroes' romantic endeavors (or determined lack thereof), sneer at the lower orders, and take a fiercely austere stance on drink, tobacco, and gambling. On the other side stand the forces of light, who greatly enjoy the aforementioned vices and wish to marry their beloveds regardless of social standing or width of wallet.
However, if variety of plot is lacking, Wodehouse's dexterous use of the English language is an utter delight. Take his description of the puckish Uncle Fred: "In the late afternoon of his life he retained, together with a juvenile waistline, the bright enthusiasms and fresh, unspoiled outlook of a slightly inebriated undergraduate." Or "Honoria . . . is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge."
The enchanting indelibility of these stories, and Wodehouse's wordplay, is evidenced by the depth and diversity of his fan base among the scribbling classes. Agatha Christie, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hitchens, John Updike, Sinclair Lewis, and George Orwell are among their number. It was Orwell who defended Wodehouse against the accusations of treason that dogged him after being imprisoned by the Nazis.
While staying in a French villa in 1940, Wodehouse failed to realize the meaning of the term blitzkrieg and didn't run until it was too late. Upon interning him, the Germans persuaded Wodehouse to do a series of broadcasts describing the conditions of his imprisonment (which were kept quite nice) in exchange for his eventual release to Paris. This didn't go over well in a London being bombed nightly.
Wodehouse apologized, afterward, but British public opinion was firmly, fiercely, set against him. He never returned to his native country, and lived on Long Island for the rest of his life.
Wodehouse had already lived in America for years prior to the war, partially because the author best known for writing about airheaded aristocrats, butlers, and country houses simply didn't care for England very much. His letters include slighting references to the stultifying English class system, as do his works, albeit in sanitized form. ("What a curse these social distinctions are. They ought to be abolished. I remember saying that to Karl Marx once, and he thought there might be an idea for a book in it.")
His vague disdain for the English social order fortified him against the reflexive anti-Americanism and empire envy that is found in so many postwar British novelists. "The muscle-bound Anglophilia, blending into dogged reaction, which captures most British writers . . . was held at bay [in Wodehouse's case]," as radical journalist Alexander Cockburn put it in his essay "The Road to Long Island."
Perhaps that is why Wodehouse's popularity has endured in India, where mockery of the English is always welcome, and America, where the TWS (founded in Pennsylvania) zealously tends his memory.
At a late-November meeting, the Philadelphia group listened to a lecture from Charles Kupfer, an American studies professor at Penn State-Harrisburg, and debated the finer points of Wodehousian theater (he wrote musical comedies when he wasn't writing novels). Chapter president Herb Moskovitz updated the group on the state of their adopted newt, Augustus "Gussie" Fink-Nottle (named for a particularly absurd Wodehouse character who is devoted to the creatures). They send $65 a year to the Philadelphia Zoo for Gussie's care and feeding.
If intrigued by newt care, or weaponizing crusty bread rolls, or the finest English-language comedy of the mid-20th century, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or just show up at the Dark Horse tavern, 421 S. Second St., at 1 p.m. on Jan. 20. The Wodehousians will be in Pickwick Room.
Jake Blumgart is a freelance writer and researcher in Philadelphia. E-mail him at email@example.com.