Arts & Education Council

Bygone Britian

2011 Books Issue | P.G. Wodehouse takes readers on an enjoyable trip to the world before World War I

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

The publishing career of English author P.G. Wodehouse lasted 73 years, from 1902 until his death in 1975. During that enormous span he wrote almost entirely in one genre (the light comic novel) and dealt with one subject (the peculiarities, pleasures, and peccadilloes of the British upper class). He developed a series of recurring and often interrelated characters who lived in an early 20th-century world that after 1914 was mostly fantasy.

The best-known of his stories involve Jeeves (an ever-loyal, hyper-intelligent, and erudite valet) and Bertram "Bertie" Wooster, a lovable and daft upper-class British gentleman. Wooster does not work and gets into bizarre comic entanglements from which Jeeves disentangles him. Lest anyone think that the disparity between social status and intelligence is Wodehouse's radical commentary on the class struggle in Britain, it should be noted that it is Jeeves-not Wooster-who staunchly defends the social status quo.

As ridiculous as this seems in our casual era, Jeeves as valet does not see clothing as mere ornament or vanity. He rescues Wooster from wearing unacceptable costuming (a white mess jacket, garish spats, a pair of purple socks, an alpine hat) and assuming unwanted marital engagements (to the same woman in 1934, 1938, 1949, and 1971). Because World War I destroyed the Britain of which Wodehouse had been writing, he stopped time within his fictional reality.

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Many of the people who had the manners that Wodehouse wrote about died in the war, and in the people who did survive, the manners didn't. But it is a pleasure to slip into a simple age that has gone by or probably never existed. You can have your Middle Earth and speak Elvish. I want to live at Brinkley Court and speak British.

-Kenan Minkoff teaches writing and drama at The King's College

(Editor's Note: This article has been edited to reflect that Wodehouse's characters lived in the early 20th century.)

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