Middlebrow Wodehouse

middlebrow wodehouse

I don’t think it’s on general sale yet, but my contributor’s copy of Middlebrow Wodehouse arrived on Saturday. I was very chuffed to see my chapter on Wodehouse and the First World War in print, in such a sturdy and attractive volume.

Proper critical commentary on Wodehouse has been thin on the ground. Critics (apart from the few who still speak of him with loathing as the lickspittle laureate of a superfluous and decadent upper class) have tended to shower him with praise for his inventiveness, and to revel in his fiction as an Arcadia detached from the real world. This book’s editor,  Ann Rea, has combated this tendency by collecting together a group of essays that put Wodehouse in the context of his time, and especially of the publishing culture in which he worked.

Anne-Marie Einhaus’s opening chapter deals with this most directly, showing how he targeted a mainstream audience by adopting the persona of a ‘bluff journeyman writer’, while also claiming the freedom to deal familiarly with the literary canon. Ann Rea herself follows this with an essay on how Wodehouse presents readers in his fiction, with Jeeves, the highbrow in the servants’ hall, as a model of the ‘aspirational reader’, who thereby gains cultural authority.

I haven’t read all the essays yet, but so far I have especially enjoyed Basil Considine’s very well-researched chapter on Wodehouse’s career in American musical comedy. He explains why the Princess Theatre shows were such a novelty on the New York stage; there is an interesting section on how closely PGW and Jerome Kern worked together to produce songs that exactly fitted the context of the dramatic action. He is also good on Wodehouse’s adaptation of musical comedy plots into his novels, so that Sitting Pretty evolves into Bill the Conqueror, for example.

Another chapter that I’ve enjoyed is Kate Macdonald’s comparison of Wodehouse and Dornford Yates as writers who use clothes as a subject for humour. Yates is prescriptive, endorsing his favourite characters’ judgment about what is right and what is wrong, whereas Wodehouse is dialectic, balancing Jeeves’s correctness with Bertie’s experimentalism. I think this essay goes a long way towards explaining why Wodehouse’s humour has survived, while Yates’s has not.

Some readers may be put off by the title, ‘Middlebrow Wodehouse’. Surely Wodehouse transcends all questions of brows and classes, with devoted admirers among the elite and happy fans among the intellectually humble? Yes, but his work appeared in the context of the literary middlebrow culture of his day, and reading it in that context helps us to understand what the writing is doing, and how it works.

‘Middlebrow’ is also a fighting term. Over the past decade or so, some (mostly female) critics have been annoyed by the way that mainstream (and mostly female) novelists have been put down with the world ‘middlebrow’, because they don’t fit into the modernist narrative of twentieth-century literature. So, just as the Friends of Dorothy have reclaimed the word ‘queer’ as a positive word describing interesting literary qualities, so the Friends of Dorothy Whipple have used the word ‘middlebrow’ to defiantly assert the significance and value of mainstream twentieth-century writing.

To explain Wodehouse’s place in the literary market, the essays in this book frequently reference two pioneering texts: Nicola Humble’s The Feminine Middlebrow Novel and Mary Grover’s The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping, which both have a great deal to say about the complex relation between reading matter, readers’ aspirations and social class. The interesting question, though, is why there is a shelf of Wodehouse books on display in my local Waterstone’s, while almost all of the other middlebrow favourites of the interwar period have to be searched out by specialists.

Middlebrow Wodehouse is priced as an academic book, and I doubt that many individual readers will buy it.  But perhaps we can chivvy univesrity libraries into buying copies. If enough are sold there may eventually be a paperback.

The full contents list of the volume is online here.

Ann Rea’s introduction, which gives a fuller idea of the nature of each chapter, is here.

4 Comments

  1. Roger
    Posted December 18, 2015 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    A Misleading Case discussing highbrows and highbrowism is here: http://www.lawfile.org.uk/trott_v_tulip.htm

  2. Bill
    Posted December 27, 2015 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Surely there is no real dialectic in the recurrent opposition of Bertie and Jeeves’s “tastes” in clothes. There is the same old joke (still to be found in Downton Abbey) of the servant being more conservative than the master. Such nuances as there are rest in how outlandish Bertie chooses to be. But however outlandish Bertie might be, he will never lose caste, which is the issue in Yates. Jeeves’s unspoken concern, of course, is that he, Jeeves, will be the one to lose face, for failing to dress his master correctly.

    • Posted December 28, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      There is a dialectic because both Bertie and Jeeves have right on their side. Bertie has the right to self-expression in dress; Jeeves is ‘correct’. The situation is usually resolved not by Bertie conceding that the waistcoat, tie or whatever is outlandish, but because Jeeves, by solving an unrelated problem, has deserved a concession to his ideas of propriety.

      • Bill
        Posted December 28, 2015 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

        But surely the point is that Bertie does not have the right to self-expression. I cannot imagine readers, even at the time of original publication, were able to follow or judge any of the details of either fashion or correctness. The point at which purple socks or white dinner jackets became acceptable in “society”, if ever, was not really important. But the readers did know – and presumably accept – the idea of “dressing correctly”. Presumably, even middlebrow society imposed similar concepts, albeit with different rules. Readers would doubtless know the rules of their own social circle but, like Bertie, would have to defer to Jeeves for knowing the rules of the Wooster world.


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