Orwell’s 5 greatest essays: No. 3, ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’
For anyone interested in the politics of left and right -- and in political journalism as it is practiced at the highest level, Orwell’s works are indispensable. This week, in the year that marks the 110th anniversary of his birth, we present a personal list of his five greatest essays.
P.G. Wodehouse, the inspired British farceur and an utter political innocent, was caught behind enemy lines at his home in Le Touquet on the English Channel when the Germans swept across northern France in 1940.
He was duly interned, brought to Berlin, and there persuaded by his hosts to make a series of lighthearted broadcasts that somehow overlooked that Germany was at war with his homeland. The British public was not amused.
After the war, Wodehouse’s loyal readers forgave him, but political opportunists kept at him. This excited Orwell’s finely tuned antenna for sophistry. The result is his classic defense of Wodehouse, published in the literary periodical Windmill in 1946.
Orwell pointedly contrasts the atmosphere of 1940, when the British predicament seemed truly dire, with that after 1945, when many politicians were desperate to paper over their own less than honorable behavior leading up to the war.
“In the desperate circumstances of the time [ie, 1940], it was excusable to be angry at what Wodehouse did,” Orwell wrote, “but to go on denouncing him three or four years later — and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery — is not excusable. Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and Quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty.
“In England the fiercest tirades against Quislings are uttered by Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940.... If we really want to punish the people who weakened national morale at critical moments, there are other culprits who are nearer home and better worth chasing.”
Orwell was seldom better than when he was puncturing hypocrites. His technique is still relevant today.
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