The Birthday of Laughter

On which date in 1881 the Master, i.e., Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, was born.

Some years ago a well-intentioned but hopelessly over-reaching person undertook to make films, movie shorts, of several of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. I saw a few of them, and thought them uniformly unsuccessful. Can’t recall the name of the fellow who played Jeeves, but I very distinctly recall a scene in which he raises an eyebrow.

Wodehouse fanatics (and to know him is to be one) will easily recognize this as alarmingly over-acted. Jeeves would never indulge such a vulgarity as a raised eyebrow. Oh, he might flicker one by just a hair or two, but certainly not so blatantly, as did this actor, as well as to wink at the viewer. 

So what is it about Wodehouse that makes his best work so hard to stage? At least as to the Jeeves stories it’s not the first-person voice of the original. I can think of at least two other such narratives – Graves’s Claudius novels and Mortimer’s Rumpole stories – in which the filmed versions are every bit as effective as the underlying written texts. Nor is it the structure of the stories themselves; they do, after all, read almost as if written for the stage, in terms of dramatic entries and exits, each scene with its own internal dramatic development, crisis point, and resolution (which of course serves in the overall structure as a device to heighten the dramatic conflict of the main plot). In fact quite a few of his novels originally appeared serialized, and so you would think they’d be if anything even better suited to dramatization than would otherwise be the case. 

It’s got to be the language, by which I do not mean so much the dialogue as the narrative in which the dialogue occurs.  Although Wodehouse’s dialogue is priceless by any measure, and some of his settings of Clarence, Ninth Earl of Emsworth are as good as any vaudeville cross-talk act ever, for me what makes Wodehouse work is the attendant language. Just by way of example, in Chapter 3 of Heavy Weather occurs the following excerpt of conversation between Clarence and his sister, Lady Constance Keeble, concerning the imminent arrival of another sister, Lady Julia Fish. Let’s read it straight through, without input from the narrator: 

Constance: “While we are on the subject of Miss Brown, I forgot to tell you that I had a letter from Julia this morning.” 

Clarence: “Did you? Capital, capital. Who is Julia?” 

Now let’s see how it reads with Wodehouse’s setting: 

“‘While we are on the subject of Miss Brown,’ said Lady Constance, speaking the name as she always did with her teeth rather lightly clenched and a stony look in her eyes, ‘I forgot to tell you that I had a letter from Julia this morning.’ 

“‘Did you?’ said Lord Emsworth, giving the matter some two-fifty-sevenths of his attention. ‘Capital, capital. Who,’ he asked politely, ‘is Julia?'” 

What takes that brief exchange – an ordinary misunderstanding, such as might occur to anyone speaking to a wooly-minded peer with a large income and good digestion – and makes it into comic gold are the three words “he asked politely.” How do you capture that on film? 

And then of course there are Wodehouse’s descriptions, such as painting an extremely angry person as looking like “a tomato striving for self-expression,” or a heavily-mustachioed man with eyeglasses as looking “like a motorcar coming through a haystack.” Various of the female blisters who troop through the Wodehousian world have laughs like a squadron of cavalry crossing a tin bridge. “Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes” is not something you’re going to capture with a camera. “The Metropolitan Touch,” in which Bingo Little decides to bring the West End to Twing village, just wouldn’t work without Bertie’s descriptions, such as an orange – “a dashed great hunk of pips and mildew” – hitting him in the face. Or try to imagine Gussie Fink-Nottle’s prize-giving at the grammar school as it might appear on film. 

For that matter, having recourse again to the Blandings Castle saga, we find Beach the butler giving Ashe Marson the gen. about the forthcoming house party at Blandings: 

“‘We are expecting,’ said Mr. Beach, ‘a Number of Guests. We shall in all probability sit down thirty or more to dinner.’ 

“‘A responsibility for you,’ said Ashe ingratiatingly, well pleased to be quit of the feet topic. 

“Mr. Beach nodded. 

“‘You are right, Mr. Marson. Few persons realize the responsibilities of a man in my position. Sometimes, I can assure you, it preys upon my mind, and I Suffer From Nervous Headaches.’ 

“Ashe began to feel like a man trying to put out a fire which, as fast as he checks it at one point, breaks out at another. 

“‘Sometimes, when I come off duty, everything gets Blurred. The outlines of objects grow misty. I have to sit down in a chair. The Pain is Excruciating.’ 

“‘But it helps you to forget the pain in your feet.’ 

“‘No. No. I Suffer From My Feet simultaneously.'” 

Beach goes on to observe that the Lining Of My Stomach is not what he might wish the Lining Of My Stomach to be. 

How do you stage that capitalization of Beach’s? On paper it works perfectly; on the screen, flat. 

Once I looked up a list of Wodehouse’s novels, and printed it off. There were eighty-odd titles listed, and I was proud to find that I had over seventy of them, ranging from his school stories, copyright beginning 1903 I think, to one whose copyright date was 1970 (again, if memory serves; I’ve slept since then). When we drove my first-born off the lot, so to speak, the very first thing he ever had read to him was “The Purity of the Turf.” He couldn’t have been three days old when I balanced him on my chest and read to him of Bertie and Jeeves, of Rupert Steggles, Claude, and Eustace, of little Prudence, egg-and-spoon defending champion, and of the difficulty of “estimating form.”  I’d like to think that early exposure had a tiny bit to do with his teaching himself to read by the time he was six.

In “Without the Option,” Bertie and Oliver Sipperly are pinched on Boat Race Night while unburdening a bobby of his helmet, and Sippy has the presence of mind to give the court a false name. “‘The case of the prisoner Leon Trotzky – which,’ he said, giving Sippy the eye again, ‘I am strongly inclined to think an assumed and fictitious name – is more serious.'” In homage to that line, whenever I am accosted at the check-out line to give an extra dollar to this-that-or-the-other, or importuned by some charitable beggar on the same errand (they usually catch you while you are standing in line, confident you will be unwilling to surrender your place in order to exterminate them), against the promise that my name shall appear on a shamrock, or stylized baby bootie, or little flag, or whatever – as I say, whenever so approached, I invariably give a name such as Leon Trotzky, or Vyacheslav Molotov, or Pavlik Morozov.  Or Galahad Threepwood or Roderick Spode.  I like to think that by so doing I am perhaps spreading a little sweetness and light into the day of some stranger who happens to discover that Bukharin has given a dollar to Toys for Cross-Eyed Dogs or whatever it was, much as Frederick of Ickenham might have done on a “pleasant and instructive afternoon.” 

I am also pleased to note that Wodehouse resonates in the culture beyond confessed misfits such as myself.  In 1999, if the reader will recall, we were inundated with lists of the 100 greatest thingummies of the 20th Century.  On a list of the so many greatest novels I was tickled to find Only a Factory Girl, by Rosie M. Banks.  Rosie of course is the novelist who marries Richard “Bingo” Little, the impresario of Twing, as above mentioned.  During John Roberts’s confirmation hearing for chief justice, he was asked who was his favorite writer.  He gave Wodehouse, an answer upon hearing of which I thought this fellow may not be all that bad after all.

Wodehouse remains my lifeline in many ways, my way back to sanity when nothing in the world makes sense any more, when the thought of picking up a history or a biography, with their litanies of crimes and follies, just seems unbearable, and fiction with its swarms of characters who want to do something, who want you to do something, is equally insupportable, and news of current events strongly suggests recourse to strong drink. A dive into Wodehouse is then a plunge into crystalline purity of human existence untainted by crisis or ill-will beyond a desire to nobble the neighbor’s pig. One thinks wistfully of Galahad Threepwood, who looked as if he’d never been to bed until age fifty, and still gave the impression of being just about to raise a foot in search of a brass rail. One looks for the Earl of Ickenham’s assistant Walkinshaw, who applies the anesthetic. One longs for the somnolent peacefulness of an English country parish, scented of Sunday best and farmer, and the gentle drone of the Reverend Mr. Heppenstall’s sermon on Certain Popular Superstitions. 

And one makes one’s way back to shore.




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