Not The Target Market

P.G. Wodehouse: Entertainer and Educator

I have wondered for a long time why P.G. Wodehouse is left off high school or college syllabi. Now that students demand to be entertained rather than educated, Wodehouse would seem to be a natural fit as he certainly entertains. The beauty is that a clever teacher could also sneak in some education.

In 1939, Hillaire Belloc, no slouch himself when it came to writing and thinking, wrote: “Writing is a craft … Now the end of writing is the production in the reader’s mind of a certain image and a certain emotion. And the means towards that end are the use of words in any particular language; and the complete use of that medium is the choosing of the right words and the putting of them into the right order. It is this which Mr. Wodehouse does better in the English language, than anyone else alive…” (emphasis in the original)

As far as I can tell, the main objection is that Wodehouse is not a “serious” writer. He is “light,” not “literary.” I read an article once in which someone wondered why such an obviously talented figure did not turn his hand to serious subjects and produce “real” literature.

Robert McCrum in his biography, Wodehouse: A Life answers that.

…the theme that animates Wodehouse’s work, and gives it a moral purpose, is the quest for sweetness and light in the daily transactions of humanity.”

In other words, his gift is to look for, to bring joy to daily life. What’s wrong with that? Why is reading about dystopian worlds that don’t exist better than reading about joyful worlds that don’t exist?

Besides the sheer joy of reading and studying a master wordsmith, a class on Wodehouse would come with a side helping of poetry and classic literature (mainly the Bible and Shakespeare, but also other classics), along with a smattering of science and history. Sounds like an ideal, integrated curriculum to me.

Some of Wodehouse’s critics say that his knowledge of poetry and literature is nothing special: Everyone knew those things when he went to school. Well, perhaps so. But how many remembered their lessons? How many could pull the perfect quote when needed? And more to the point, while these things may have been part of “general knowledge” in the early part of the 20th century, they certainly aren’t any more. As curriculums drop the classics to focus on “modern” novels, we are raising generations with no clue about their heritage.

My fantasy is to teach a course on Wodehouse, digressing along side paths and investigating the poetry, literature, history and science when these quotations and allusions come up. Consider the thirteen random examples below. Sometimes the source of the allusion is contained in the quote, sometimes it’s not. When it is, do you know the whole story, the background of the allusion? When the source is not mentioned, do you know it? Obviously you can google it. But Wodehouse couldn’t. The source of the Wodehouse quote is in parentheses.  Answers are at the end.

  1. “His standing with her, he perceived, was now approximately what King Herod’s would have been at an Israelites Mothers’ Social Saturday Afternoon. (Young Men in Spats)

 

  1. I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head – not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones. (The Code of the Woosters)

 

  1. Aunt Dahlia rose and moved restlessly to the mantelpiece. I could see that she was looking for something to break as a relief to her surging emotions – what Jeeves would have called a palliative – and courteously drew her attention to a terra-cotta figure of the Infant Samuel At Prayer. She thanked me briefly and hurled it against the wall. (The Code of the Woosters)

 

  1. Bertie: “Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”

    Jeeves: “I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said, ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”

    Bertie: “That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as so often happens with ghosts…” (How Right You Are, Jeeves)

 

  1. Bertie: “You remember that fellow you mentioned to me once or twice Jeeves, who let something wait upon something? You know who I mean – the cat chap.

    Jeeves: “Macbeth, sir, a character in a play of that name by the late William Shakespeare. He was described as ‘letting I dare not wait upon I would, Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage.’ (The Code of the Woosters)

 

  1. Bertie: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Not my own. Jeeves’.” (How Right You Are, Jeeves)

 

  1. Bertie: “What’s that thing of Shakespeare’s about someone having an eye like mother’s?”

    Jeeves: “ ‘An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,’ is possibly the quotation for which you are groping, sir.” (The Mating Season)

 

  1. Bertie speaking from the safety of the top of a chest of drawers: “Fortunately Providence in its infinite wisdom had given Scotties short legs, and though full of the will to win, he could accomplish nothing constructive. However much an Aberdeen terrier may bear mid snow and ice a banner with the strange device Excelsior, he nearly always has to be content with dirty looks and the sharp passionate bark.” (Stiff Upper Lip Jeeves)

 

  1. Bertie: “Hell’s foundations have been quivering.”

    Jeeves: “Indeed, Sir?”

    Bertie: “The curse has come upon me. As I warned you it would, if I ever visited Steeple Bumpleigh. You have long been familiar with my views on this leper colony. Have I not repeatedly said that, what though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Steeple Bumpleigh, the undersigned deemed it wisest to give it the complete miss…” (Joy in the Morning)

 

  1. “His demeanor was that of an Assyrian who, having come down like a wolf on the fold, had found in residence not lambs, but wild cats, than which, of course, nothing makes an Assyrian feel sillier.” (Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit)

 

  1. Bertie: “You move in a mysterious way your wonders to perform, Stinker. (Stiff Upper Lip Jeeves)

 

  1. “A silver moon was riding in the sky, and a gentle breeze blew from the east, bringing the heart-stirring scent of stock and tobacco plant. Shy creatures of the night rustled in the bushes at her side, and to top the whole thing off, somewhere in the woods, beyond the river a nightingale had begun to sing with all the full-throated zest of a bird conscious of having had a rave notice from the poet Keats.” (Ring for Jeeves)

  2. Bertie: “…and I strode to the door like Childe Roland about to fight the paynim.” (The Mating Season) 

Because I am only quoting Wodehouse when he is making a literary allusion, and because the whole story is missing, these excerpts perhaps don’t do justice to the Wodehouse genius. To try to fix that, here are three funny-on-their-own bits (although the first two do lend themselves to a vocabulary lesson…)

Florence: He’s a mere uncouth Cossack …

Bertie: A Cossack, I knew, was one of those things clergymen wear and I wondered why she thought Stilton was like one. (Joy in the Morning)

 And from the same story:

Bertie: “When news reached me through well-informed channels that my Aunt Agatha, for many years a widow, or derelict, as I believe it is called, was about to take another pop at matrimony, my first emotion had been gentle pity for the unfortunate goop slated to step up the aisle with her.” (Joy in the Morning)

And finally, Bertie on violin solos, with words that could perhaps be a comment on this post, as well:

It was loud in spots and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality which I have noticed in all violin solos of seeming to last much longer than it actually did. (The Mating Season)

Answers:

  1. Matthew 2:16
  2. Judges 4:21
  3. 1Samuel 2:11 18, 26
  4. Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5
  5. Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7. The adage is an old proverb: The cat would eat fyshe, but would not wet her feete. Or in very low Latin: Catus amat pisces sed nor vult tingere planta]
  6. Brutus in Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 3
  7. Hamlet to Gertrude in Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4]
  8. Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  9. “Hell’s Foundations quiver” – from 2nd verse of the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers; “The curse has come upon me” – from The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; “Spicy breezes blow soft oe’r…” – Missionary Hymn by Reginald Heber. Incidentally the next lines in this hymn – where every prospect pleases and only man is vile – also figure in a number of Wodehouse stories.
  10. The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron is the direct reference. Bryon got his material from 2Kings: 18-19
  11. God Moves in a Mysterious Way by William Cowper. Probably based on Romans 11:33
  12. Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
  13. Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning

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