P.G. Wodehouse and the First World War

A while ago I wrote a chapter on Wodehouse and the War for a collection, Middlebrow Wodehouse, that tried to locate PGW in the context of his times, and of popular literature.

The book appeared, and seems to have sunk without much trace. It was published at the sort of silly academic price that means individuals won’t buy it, only university libraries. And in these straitened times all but the better-off libraries concentrate on buying books connected with syllabuses. Which tends to rule Wodehouse out.

The collection has attracted little in the way of  attention from reviewers until recently, when a blog post has appeared, objecting to the vocabulary and tone of some chapters.

I won’t say that this is completely unjustified. There is a chapter which looks at Jeeves and Wooster from the standpoint of queer theory, but does so very clumsily. In one or two other chapters there is an uncertainty of tone, as though dealing with Wodehouse obliges the writer to be facetious; when facetiousness mixes with critical jargon, the results are not happy.

The best of the essays do, however, try to understand what PGW is doing, and why. I think that this is a useful operation. Too much critical writing about Wodehouse has been generalising (and slightly condescending) stuff about his creating a ‘world’ that is somehow apart from our world and apart from other literature of his time. I think he deserves better.

For a while I’ve been publishing a critical monograph about his astonishing short story ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ which shows how it relates to all sorts of themes current in the twenties (and tries to understand why this particular story  was selected for special praise by Wodehouse fan Ludwig Wittgenstein). I hope to at last get round to publishing it quite soon.

Meanwhile, I note that some other contributors to Middlebrow Wodehouse have made their chapters available on their own websites (and a fragmentary version of the whole thing can be found on Google Books).  I’m therefore uploading my own  Wodehouse-and-WW1 to this site.

Re-reading it  a couple of years after writing, I’d criticise it for being a bit of a plod through the relevant material, but I don’t think there’s too much off-putting academic jargon. And I think that what I say about PGW’s brother Armine adds considerably to what can be found in the standard biographies.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted January 29, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Dear George.
    I feel rotten for perhaps (via yesterday’s reblog) bringing this criticism to your attention. And also for not having read it myself. It’s on my ‘to read’ list, but out of my book-buying price range.
    Without inhabiting the academic world, I can only guess at the challenges involved in trying to convince peers (and anyone else who needs convincing) that Wodehouse makes a valid subject for serious study. He is still sneered at in some quarters; misimpressions about the man and his work abound, and are difficult to correct.
    But if you’re lucky enough to make a study of Wodehouse, there will also be objections from his admirers. It is often argued that Wodehouse should be read, not studied, dissected, or even adapted. And don’t mention the war. One of Wodehouse’s biographers (I think it was David Jason, or possibly Richard Usborn) went so far as to claim that Wodehouse ‘had no message’.
    These ideas have taken hold, to varying degrees, among Wodehouse-readers, just as non-Wodehouse reading highbrows types cling onto perceptions of Wodehouse’s work as frivolous nonsense involving upper class twits.
    I don’t share the view that academic study of Wodehouse should be avoided. There is still much to explore in Wodehouse, and if present circumstances made it possible, I would be attempting this myself right now.
    My own approach would avoid attempting to raise Wodehouse’s status to the upper-middlebrow, although I’m sure many Wodehouse admirers would love to see him recognised among the highbrow greats. Perhaps this would make it easier for people to make Wodehouse a subject for future academic study. But this feels like a distraction from all the things that make Wodehouse so fascinating, and I don’t feel that Wodehouse needs to be legitimised according to a classification system that I find inherently silly. Although I can understand why this might be necessary in an academic argument.
    Your Honeysuckle Cottage project, on the other hand, is just the sort of thing that would interest me (and I suspect Victoria also — she is a very good egg), along with your chapter in Middlebrow Wodehouse, and much of the other content.

  2. Paul Kelleher
    Posted January 29, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed your chapter and learned a great deal. One WWI-related passage that always sticks out a mile now that I know about his Berlin Broadcasts is the following from “A Woman is Only a Woman” (1919):

    “Neither dared to make open inquiries, but it began to seem almost impossible to find out the truth without them. No masculine eye can reckon up purls and plains and estimate the size of chest which the garment is destined to cover. Moreover, with amateur knitters there must always be allowed a margin for involuntary error. There were many cases during the war where our girls sent sweaters to their sweethearts which would have induced strangulation in their young brothers. The amateur sweater of those days was, in fact, practically tantamount to German propaganda.”

    To get to know Wodehouse the man is, I believe, to become convinced that his behavior in Berlin really was the innocent knitting behavior depicted here.

  3. Posted January 29, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I do believe his works convey serious philosophical and spiritual messages as well, even though they appear to be clothed in frivolity on the surface.

    Can you please help me to access your work on the Honeysuckle Cottage?

    • Posted January 30, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Can you please help me to access your work on the Honeysuckle Cottage?

      Yes, certainly. I’d welcome your advice. I’ll send a copy of what I’ve written.

  4. Posted January 31, 2017 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Well, it simply hadn’t occurred to me to make my chapter available, but I’ll do that now. Thanks for the prod!


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