P.G. Wodehouse and Shell-Shock Amnesia

archie

The Indiscretions of Archie (1920) is an odd book, and one of Wodehouse’s less satisfactory novels. I think it was written in America, before Wodehouse returned to England after the War, though it imagines an Englishman crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction.
The original Strand Magazine serialisation began:

Peace had come at last. The Great War, with all its horrors, – its spy plays, its war novels, its articles by our military expert, and its revues with patriotic first-act finales – had passed away like a dark cloud. The time of Reconstruction had arrived, and all the old problems had sneaked back like unwanted dogs from the background into which war had thrust them. There they all were, clamouring for attention, just as they had been five years ago. England was asking herself, “How about Ireland? How about Labour? And what on earth are we to do with Archie?
To be exact, this last question was the private property of the Moffam family. It exercised them to the exclusion of all others.

This opening was cut from the book when it appeared in hard covers (maybe because the publisher wanted to downplay its topical nature?)
Archie, we are told later, had been in the Army for five years (which means that he must have been one of the earliest volunteers) but is still a second lieutenant at the end of the War. He does not seem to have been a satisfactory soldier. When asked if he knows any swear-words, he replies:

“Well,let me see. I did pick up a few tolerably ripe and breezy expressions out in France. All through my military career there was something about me – some subtle magnetism, don’t you know, and that sort of thing – that seemed to make colonels and blighters of that order rather inventive. I sort of inspired them, don’t you know. I remember one brass-hat addressing me for quite ten minutes, saying something new all the time. And even then he seemed to think he had only touched the fringe of the subject. As a matter of fact, he said straight out in the most frank and confiding way that mere words couldn’t do justice to me.”

Archie is a Wodehouse who has been quite unchanged by his war service, which seems to have done little for him except render him even more unemployable. Archie marries the daughter of a hotel owner, and spends the rest of the novel annoying his father by being utterly incompetent at everything he does (though occasionally luck helps him to come out of situations smiling).
On one occasion his military experience does turn into something positive. A young woman points a gun at him, and he is unconcerned:

“My dear old soul,” said Archie, “in the recent unpleasantness in France I had chappies popping off things like that at me all day and every day for close on five years, and here I am, what! I mean to say, if I’ve got to choose between staying here and being pinched in your room by the local constabulary and having the dashed thing get into the papers and all sorts of trouble happening, and my wife getting the wind up and—I say, if I’ve got to choose——”

archiegun

Wodehouse (who had spent the War years in America) is remarkably free from the pieties about soldiering that one finds in almost all British writers. At one point Archie dismisses the war as ‘the time he had spent in the trenches making the world safe for the working-man to strike in.’ Even shell-shock is a source of comedy.
In the episode of the Sausage Chappie (the second story in the Strand serialisation, but put towards the end and divided in two in the novel) Archie meets a man dressed as incongruously as a clown:

His neck was swathed in a green scarf; he wore an evening-dress coat; and his lower limbs were draped in a pair of tweed trousers built for a larger man. To the north he was bounded by a straw hat, to the south by brown shoes.

sausage chappie

Archie recognises the man as an American soldier who had given him a sausage when he was desperately hungry near Armentieres . He discovers that the man has lost his memory, and does not even know his own name. As for the sausage episode, he says:

“It must have been after that that I stopped one. I don’t seem quite to have caught up with myself since I got hit.”

Archie determines to help the man, and gets him a job as a waiter in his father-in-law’s hotel. The story ends (Spoiler alert!) with him recognising his wife, who is dining with a movie mogul. He empties a bowl of fruit salad over the man’s head, and then hurls a huckleberry pie at him.
His prowess with the pie (together with his odd appearance) so impresses the mogul that he is offered a job in films.
The story is silly, but carried off with characteristic Wodehouse verve. What strikes me, though, is the complete lack of sentimentality about ex-soldiers, even psychologically disabled ones. Just think how Warwick Deeping would soon wring tears out of the nation with Sorrell and Son.
Wodehouse is pretty heartless here, and I think he was unsure about his ex-soldier hero, since the character doesn’t quite hang together. One minute he’s full of enterprise, the next he’s a useless sponger.
In Wodehouse’s stories, very few characters are changed by experience. Just think how Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth and others carry on for half a century, quite unaltered. So in this book he wants to be topical, and imagines one of his hapless silly ass characters going into the War, but when he comes out he is just the same twerp as before. PGW himself may have thought that this didn’t quite work, since after this he pretty well ignored the War years, I think, and increasingly based his English plots in an England where the war had never taken place.

3 Comments

  1. ljjmartin
    Posted August 12, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    “[…]and increasingly based his English plots in an England where the war had never taken place.”
    Quite right too!
    I’m finally getting round to Frederic Manning’s “The Middle Parts” and if we are, as Manning says, all responsible for war by virtue of our ineradicable self-interest, then I say the only sane course of action is the Wodehouse way – ignore the buggers!

    • Posted August 13, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Ignoring history is a great plan – if you can be absolutely certain that history will ignore you.

      • ljjmartin
        Posted August 13, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

        George – We are history.
        I think this is Manning’s point.
        What was it Bruno Bettelheim said about good enough parents and the wisdom of benign neglect? (Ok – “benign neglect” might be my embellishment: I can’t recall.)
        I think we need to cultivate our gardens a little more and our egos a good deal less. Then “shell shock” would apply more to the squirming whelks drawn blinking from their carapaces (think Davros for a graphic here) than to the suffering of the unfortunate souls thrown back in extremis on their instinct for self-preservation as Manning describes.
        These self-important children that we give dominion over us desperately need a lesson in benign neglect. Good on Wodehouse for being a literary pioneer.


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