The idlest hero in fiction was not all that idle
An essayist recently pointed out the imperialist subtext in the “Thomas the Tank Engine” books for children. She was persuasive, too. Being a literary paranoid in good standing, I can spot imperialist, racist, casteist and sexist subtexts anywhere at all. In fact, the article prodded me into sifting through an inoffensive stack of P.G. Wodehouse novels, just to test my nose. Wodehouse was accused of being chummy with the Germans during World War II, I remembered, and that dented his popularity in England. At least a class bias would show through, I thought.
But searching for a subtext in the Bertie Wooster or Blandings Castle books is like exercising your fist on a soap bubble. The only ideology you take away is that a pig is always good for a laugh. Indian bookshops stock acres of Wodehouse books and a newly published volume of letters promises us insight into the writer's thought and work. The novels won't do it. They paint a frankly imaginary England, safe as a castle with drawbridge up, where unpredictable incidents follow a predictable and jolly script.
Wodehouse's most memorable character is Bertie Wooster. Bertie is a gentleman, so he has nothing to do but dress, dine at the club, meet friends, visit castle-dwelling relatives, fall in and out of love, and get in trouble. But he is a published writer (“What the Well-Dressed Man Is Wearing”, in “Milady's Boudoir”) and widely read. He quotes freely from the Old Testament, Euclid and other Greeks, lesser and greater prime ministers, the poet Browning, the poet Burns, the poet Gray, and of course Shakespeare. From “Macbeth” in deference to his formidable aunts, and from “Hamlet” in light of his own endless dilemmas. Much of the verse he hears he fondly attributes to his butler and saviour, Jeeves, but he is a lover of the mot juste, even if he has no clue who might have said it.
For an idle man he works hard. This Last of the Woosters is as beleaguered as the Last of the Mohicans. Even pre-war England is a minefield for him. He can never say no to dangerous enterprises involving breaking, entering, and petty larceny, especially those proposed by red-headed women. When said women throw him over, he is too chivalrous to retaliate. At most he stirs his tea in a marked manner, or laughs a bitter laugh, or says, “Ha!” And he means it to sting.
Wodehouse wrote entertainingly and self-deprecatingly on writing and writers in his essays, and his novels are free of artistic angst. He skips and dances his way through a story. But there is systematic craft in the way he clears up the impossibly tangled threads of conspiracies in the Wooster stories and those set in Blandings Castle. And in the way he takes us on a romp through the English countryside and sends us home with deep philosophies such as this one: “There is a time for worrying about pigs and a time for not worrying about pigs.”