Had his only contributions to literature been Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle, his place in history would have been assured. Had he written of none but Mike and Psmith, he’d be cherished today as the best and brightest of our comic authors. If Jeeves and Wooster had been his solitary theme, still he’d be hailed as the Master. If he’d given us only Ukridge, or nothing but recollections of the Mulliner family, or a pure diet of golfing stories, Doctor Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse would nonetheless be considered immortal. That he gave us all those – and more – is our good fortune and a testament to the most industrious, prolific and beneficent author ever to have sat down, scratched his head and banged out a sentence.
If I were to say that the defining characteristic of PG Wodehouse was his professionalism, that might make him sound rather dull. Wodehouse, who knew just what was expected of authors, was used to having to apologise for a childhood that was “as normal as rice pudding” and a life that consisted of little more than “sitting in front of the typewriter and cursing a bit”.
The only really controversial episode of that life, namely his broadcasts to friends from Berlin while an internee of the Germans in France and Belgium during the Second World War, is dug up from time to time by mischief-makers and the ignorant.
Many have sought to “explain” Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like “taking a spade to a soufflé”. His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary and blessed miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.
When Hugh Laurie and I had the honour and terrifying responsibility of being asked to play Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in a series of TV adaptations, we were aware of one huge problem. Wodehouse’s three great achievements are plot, character and language, and the greatest of these, by far, is language. If reasonably competent, then all of us concerned in the TV version could go some way towards conveying a sense of the narrative of the stories and revealing, too, a good deal of the nature of their characters. The language, however, lives and breathes in its written, printed form. Let me use an example, taken at random. There is a passage such as this, Lord Emsworth musing on his feckless younger son, Freddie Threepwood:
“Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”
I flip open a book of stories and happen on Bertie and Jeeves discussing a young man called Cyril Bassington-Bassington:
“I’ve never heard of him. Have you ever heard of him, Jeeves?”
“I am familiar with the name Bassington- Bassington, sir. There are three branches of the Bassington-Bassington family – the Shropshire Bassington-Bassingtons, the Hampshire Bassington-Bassingtons, and the Kent Bassington-Bassingtons.”
“England seems pretty well stocked up with Bassington-Bassingtons.”
“Tolerably so, sir.”
“No chance of a sudden shortage, I mean, what?”
Well, such an exchange will always work best on the page. It may still be amusing when delivered as dramatic dialogue, but no actors are as good as the actors we each of us carry in our head. And that is the point, really: one of the gorgeous privileges of reading PG Wodehouse is that he makes us feel better about ourselves because we derive a sense of personal satisfaction from the laughter mutually created. Every comma, every “sir”, every “what?” is something we make work in the act of reading.
“The greatest living writer of prose”, “the Master”, “the head of my profession”, “akin to Shakespeare”, “a master of the language”... If you had never read Wodehouse and only knew about the world his books inhabit, you might be forgiven for blinking in bewilderment at the praise lavished on a “mere” comic author by writers such as Compton Mackenzie, Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, Bernard Levin and Susan Hill. But once you dive into the soufflé, once you engage with all those miraculous verbal felicities, such adulation begins to make sense.
Example serves better than description. Particular to Wodehouse are the transferred epithets: “I lit a rather pleased cigarette”, or “I pronged a moody forkful of eggs and b”.
Characteristic, too, are the sublimely hyperbolic similes: “Roderick Spode. Big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces”, or “The stationmaster’s whiskers are of a Victorian bushiness and give the impression of having been grown under glass”.
If you are immune to such writing, you are fit, to use one of Wodehouse’s favourite Shakespearean quotations, only for treasons, stratagems and spoils. You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour. Like Jeeves, Wodehouse stands alone, and analysis is useless.
In 1915 he published Something Fresh, first of the Blandings novels. He knew what he was doing when he chose that title, for with the creation of Blandings Castle, he hit upon something original. He was striding into mid-season form.
Wherever lovers of Wodehouse cluster together, they fall into debate about whether the Jeeves or Blandings stories take the trophy as Wodehouse’s greatest achievements. The group, of course, know that such questions are as pointless as wondering whether God did a better job with the Alps or the Rockies. The question is bound to be asked, however, because each time you read another Blandings story, the sublime nature of that world is such as to make you gasp.
The cast of resident characters here is greater than that of the Wooster canon. There is Lord Emsworth himself, the amiable and dreamy peer, whose first love – pumpkins – is soon supplanted by the truest and greatest love of his life, the Empress of Blandings, that peerless Black Berkshire sow; Emsworth’s sister, Connie, who, when sorely tried, would retire upstairs to bathe her temples in eau de Cologne; the Efficient Baxter, Emsworth’s secretary and a hound from hell; Emsworth’s brother, Galahad, the last of the Pelicans (that breed of silk-hatted men about town who lived high and were forever getting thrown out of the Criterion bar in the Eighties and Nineties); the younger son, Freddie, the bane of his father’s life...
Blandings comes, in the Wodehouse canon, to stand for the ideal in country houses. Its serenity and beauty are enough to calm the most turbulent breast. It is a world unto itself and, one senses, Wodehouse pours into it his deepest feelings for England. Once you have drunk from its healing spring, you will return again and again. Blandings is like that: it enters a man’s soul.
I think I should end on a personal note. I have written it before and am not ashamed to write it again. Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today – whatever that may be. In my teenage years, his writings awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me. But more than that, he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.
He mocked himself sometimes because he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn’t it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?
BBC1's Blandings starts Sunday 13 January at 6:30pm