Some people have left such an enduring mark on civilization that we shouldn’t wait for jubilees or other milestones to honor their birthdays. Such is P.G. Wodehouse, that great British master of farce, born 132 years ago today.
For me, Wodehouse is the antidote to every ill that can arise in life. On my Wodehouse shelf there isn’t a volume that hasn’t been reread a hundred times, thumbed nearly to dust. There are passages in every book and story that can still leap off the page and make me laugh out loud, never mind that I can recite them by heart.
Most Americans probably know Wodehouse mostly from the TV adaptation “Jeeves and Wooster,” drawn from his most famous series of novels and stories and starring Stephen Fry as the butler Jeeves and Hugh Laurie (later of “House) as his “mentally negligible” master.
I remember thinking the first time I saw Laurie as the loony Prince George in Rowan Atkinson’s series “Blackadder" that he would make a perfect Bertie Wooster. (Here’s George meeting Dr. Samuel Johnson.) Alas, J&W was a disappointment -- the stars seemed to take an entirely too respectful approach to material that should go as a pistol shot, and it didn’t help that the writers mixed and matched the story lines into incoherence.
What the TV series really showed, however, was that Wodehouse was such a master of the written word that he’s untranslatable, whether to another language or another medium. No author of English was ever more skilled at achieving exactly the effects for which he was striving. There’s no way to absorb Bertie’s loose, slangy dialogue other than reading it on the page.
All Wodehouse devotees have their favorite series of stories. I’m partial to Mr. Mulliner, a tall tale-teller who regales his chums at the Angler’s Rest pub with stories of his innumerable relatives. And also Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a perpetually poverty-stricken man about town full of schemes to “win to wealth.” And the Oldest Member, teller of golf stories, and ... oh well, they’re all peerless.
Jeeves and Wooster are, of course, the peak. They’re the stars of what may be the funniest single short story in English literature, “The Great Sermon Handicap.” And also of Wodehouse’s most hilarious novel, “The Code of the Woosters."
“The Code of the Woosters” also contains what may be Wodehouse’s most fascinatingly ludicrous creation, the British fascist Sir Roderick Spode, head of the “Black Shorts” (modeled on the real-life Sir Oswald Moseley and his blackshirts). It’s often said that Wodehouse had no politics -- in fact, his political naivete got him into deep trouble during World War II. But no one ever punctured fascist pomposity as decisively as Wodehouse punctured Spode, a strapping bounder whose Achilles’ heel, it turns out, is that he designs women’s undergarments under the name “Eulalie Soeurs.”
Here’s Bertie laying into Spode, in one of the very finest passages of Wodehousiana. (Note to my fellow Americans: “footer bags” is Britspeak for “soccer shorts.”)
“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going around in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode,’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People.... What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’”
Any would-be fascists should look out. And, dear Plum, happy birthday.