Could a P.G. Wodehouse revival be more timely? Overlook Press, which is reissuing Wodehouse's comic novels, clearly has its finger on America's pulse. Wodehouse and his famous creations, Bertie Wooster and manservant Jeeves, have often been dismissed by critics as a relic of Edwardian England, but surely nothing could be more mistaken. As the Bush administration seeks to abolish the inheritance tax and assume the old imperial mandate in the Middle East, Wodehouse provides just the sort of thing to serve as handbooks to a patrician class rapidly expanding its prerogatives and privileges. (Overlook just might be suspected of collusion with the White House.)
Even for those less munificently endowed souls, Wodehouse also has something to offer: the preeminent comic prose of the last century. A London bank clerk, Broadway lyricist, Hollywood screenwriter and novelist, Wodehouse drew upon everyone from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan to create the inhabitants of his cloud-cuckoo-land. Anything but a class warrior, Wodehouse delighted in his scented fops, crafty butlers, rebarbative aunts and doddering lords. If high dudgeon about the privileged is your thing, stop reading. But if laughing out loud is, then Wodehouse is your man. So hilarious is Wodehouse that he must be taken seriously.
As a lad, Wodehouse, born in 1881, was already dashing off mildly subversive short stories and novels about school life. After a stint as a bank clerk, undertaken solely to please his father, Wodehouse left middle-class life behind forever. He traveled to New York before World War I. Wodehouse adored the New York theater world and teamed up with Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and Ira Gershwin, who were dumbfounded by his talent. Wodehouse reinvented the musical, giving it a contemporary zing -- among other things, he popularized the phrase "toodle-oo." As Wodehouse's best biographer, Benny Green, has noted, Broadway honed his mastery of plot twists and pacing. Wodehouse's next stop came in 1931 in Hollywood, where he quickly came to loathe panjandrums like Louis B. Mayer.
"The Luck of the Bodkins," which takes place on the R.M.S. Atlantic, amply reflects that loathing. In the Wodehouse world, the worst fate that can befall someone is to have to work. Aristocrat Monty Bodkins has the opposite problem: He actually pays a series of employers to hire him so that he can prove to the father of his beloved, Gertrude Butterwick, that he's capable of holding down a job. "I'm simply down on the books as a skilled assistant," he tells a friend. "You see I told Pilbeam I would give him a thousand quid if he took me on, and we did business on those lines."
Film magnate Ikey Llewellyn is such a dope that he hires Ambrose Tennyson as a screenwriter, under the delusion that he's the poet Tennyson. What everyone wants to do is work for Ikey so that they can follow the standard Hollywood ethos of not having to work. Told that Ambrose's brother, Reginald, has to work, silver screen star Miss Lotus Blossom exclaims, " 'Work? You?' A sort of divine pity radiated from the girl. 'Reggie, you poor unfortunate child, come right here to mother! ... The idea of anyone being so brutal as to make you work!' "
If Wodehouse delighted in the encounters between bumptious Americans and goofball Brits, he reveled in the country house. Blandings Castle, Shropshire, was his favored spot, where Clarence, ninth earl of Emsworth, sought sanctuary in the company of his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, from his virago sister, Lady Constance, and son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood. Lord Emsworth's highest pleasure is to immerse himself in Whiffle's tome "On the Care and Feeding of Pigs." Wodehouse can bestow no higher praise on a character than that he wants to be left in peace.
It's Lord Emsworth's brother, Hon. Galahad, who spent many tears clambering up lampposts on boar race night, chasing pink-tighted Dolly Henderson and generally wreaking havoc whenever and wherever he could. Wodehouse was politically incorrect: It's amazing, one Blandings lass notes, that "everywhere you look, you see men leading model lives pegging out in their prime, while good old Uncle Gally, who apparently never went to bed till he was fifty, is still breezing along as fit and rosy as ever." Galahad justifies this encomium to his physical prowess when he trips over a spaniel but preserves his whisky and soda, which he bears "aloft like some brave banner beneath which he had often fought and won."
Wodehouse was not only a gentleman but also a profoundly gentle man. His gentleness got him into hot water during World War II, when he notoriously delivered a series of broadcasts in Berlin in 1941. Wodehouse was captured by the Germans in his villa in northern France on July 21, 1940. Upon release from internment camp a year later, he agreed to deliver five radio broadcasts to America about his experiences in camp. The speeches were classic Wodehouse, which is to say that they were both foolish and benign. He mocked himself and his captors: "There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloon and helps you to keep up with your reading." In England, Wodehouse's enemies piled on, portraying him as a stooge of the Nazis.
George Orwell, surely no defender of the nobility, came to the defense. He noted that Wodehouse was essentially a political innocent, living in the mental world of the public school. Still, Orwell likely underestimated Wodehouse's hatred of bullies and unfairness, probably a product of his belief in the old school code. Thus, in "The Code of the Woosters," Bertie is persecuted by Lord Roderick Spode, founder of the Saviors of Britain, a fascist organization better known as the black shorts. Bertie asks his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle: "By the way, when you say 'shorts' you mean 'shirts,' of course.' 'No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.' 'Footer bags, you mean?' 'Yes.' 'How perfectly foul.' "
But aunts are the ultimate terrors for Wodehouse. In "Jeeves in the Offing," uxorious Bertie quickly finds himself in an imbroglio created by Aunt Dahlia at her Brinkley Court establishment. Jeeves rescues Bertie, but only at the price of portraying him as a lunatic thief. "You mean that I am now labeled not only as a loony in a general sort of way but also as a klept-whatever-it-is?" Bertie asks. Jeeves replies, "Merely to your immediate circle at Brinkley Court, sir."
One foe, however, is too powerful for the Spinoza-reading Jeeves to overcome: He's no match for the post-1945 social revolution. In "Ring for Jeeves," Bertie never appears since he is attending a school that teaches the aristocracy how to earn a living. Jeeves himself has been seconded to Lord Rowcester, whose mansion is falling apart. Questioned by an American visitor about the decline of the aristocracy, Jeeves explains that Rowcester Abbey is no asset because "we are living now in what is known as the Welfare State, which means -- broadly speaking -- that everybody is completely destitute." Once again, it is America that comes to the rescue. Lord Rowcester marries a wealthy American widow and rebuilds his home in the U.S.
When he died in 1975 on St. Valentine's Day, Wodehouse's beloved America had served as a refuge for him as well. Orwell prophetically observed in 1945, "If we drive him to retire to the United States and remove his British citizenship, we shall end by being horribly ashamed of ourselves." One month before his death, Queen Elizabeth made amends by knighting him. But it is to America that P.G. Wodehouse belongs. With its sumptuously bound editions, Overlook Press has done the master proud.