The consoling power of P.G. Wodehouse’s work arises not so much from the humor as from the detail in which he renders his worlds. Had he merely been funny, the consolation, the reprieve from the troubles of mundane life, would have been lesser….
Comedy is a funny thing. It can ask us to look at difficult truths while soothing the pain of doing so. Everyone has seen this happen in the performance of a favorite stand-up comedian. The best comedians say out loud the things most of us worry about in silence and thus relieve our anxiety, at least for the moment.
But comedy can do even more. It can draw us into other worlds, absurd places that preserve the charming bits of reality while downplaying the darker, more dangerous bits, in ways that equip us to grapple with the real world. Many of Garrison Keillor’s early Lake Wobegon stories did this with great skill.
Among the greatest of writers to do this was the twentieth-century English author P.G. Wodehouse. In much of his work, he manages to create worlds that, while as fantastical as Tolkien’s, resemble our own. In Wodehouse’s worlds, there are no orcs, elves, nor hobbits, only bumbling uncles and frightening aunts, numbskull suitors and nervous young women.
Wodehouse is now known mostly for his series of novels and short stories featuring the wealthy English dandy Bertram Wooster and his unflappable genius of a valet, Jeeves. These stories have been popular since the publication of the first one in 1915 and have remained so since the last one in 1974. Beyond Bertie and Jeeves, Wodehouse’s canon extends to the stories of Blandings Castle, home of the clueless Lord Emsworth; a series of novels about a character names Psmith (the P is silent); and numerous stand-alone works.
In all, over his six-decade writing career, Wodehouse produced an enormous body of work. I won’t pretend to know it all. I write not as a Wodehouse expert, but as someone only recently beginning to explore the worlds he bequeathed us. Even at this early point, it is obvious why Wodehouse continues to be so esteemed by so many, more than forty years after his death.
Outside of the sheer pleasure that reading a Wodehouse story provides, there are deeper rewards a reader gleans from his work, benefits that accrue long after any volume is closed. Wodehouse excels at providing the reader two important spiritual benefits: consolation from the sufferings of the world and some insight regarding why we suffer in the first place. In the end, his work is a singular balm for the modern soul, comedy that tends toward theodicy.
To understand this, we must first understand the escapist function of literature. Escape has somehow gotten a bad rap. In modern times, the notion has come into wide circulation that the best of us need no release from the day-to-day indignities of the world. The strong person, we are told, keeps his nose to the grindstone and his eyes fixed on the difficult conditions of man’s estate. Tolkien criticized the modern hostility to the idea of escape in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, asking, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” Modern critics disdain escape because they do not believe in any world outside our human experience. To them, the prison is all there is. Since there is nowhere to escape to, all attempts to do so must necessarily be futile wastes of time.
Like so many modern notions, this one is hogwash, barely fit for the Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworth’s estimable sow.
Nevertheless, grasping Wodehouse’s unique power demands understanding this context. Behind the hostility to the notion of escape lie two ideas. First is the assumption that Modern Man must be strong enough within himself to bear the weight of the impersonal purposeless universe, strong enough to look into the void, strong enough to accept that the prison is all there is. Second, and more relatable to contemporary people, is the idea that modern consumers need no consolation beyond what they find in the endless stream of gadgetry and entertainment that flows their way. Modern Man, we are told, does not need consolation in the face of the void, not because he does not fear it, but because he does not notice it.
The reality is that modern people, even if they are unconscious of it, require consolation, a buffer against and an escape from the disappointment and turmoil of earthly life, as much as people in any other period ever did—quite possibly more so. People in the old world, at least, could admit without shame their need for consolation. We are denied even that.
Art, including the literary arts, has always been one of man’s chief sources of this necessary consolation. What Wodehouse offers in this regard is entirely unique. The consoling power of his work arises not so much from the humor as from the detail in which he renders his worlds. Had Wodehouse merely been funny, the consolation, the reprieve from the troubles of mundane life, would have been lesser.
In these books, we experience the direct opposite of the real world, where sin permeates the creation. Instead, Wodehouse beckons us into worlds where humor, not loss, is woven through the underlying fabric of reality. In the real world, only a tragic view of life ultimately makes sense of our experience. In Wodehouse’s worlds, that view would be nonsensical, out of step with how things really are. The power of Wodehouse’s stories is in their implied guarantee that no matter how much of a mess we wade through in the middle, everyone will be happy at the end, because indeed this is a world of unshakeable happiness.
As with any novelist, a large part of world-building consists of choosing and relaying to the reader the right details of the time and place where the story is set. When Wodehouse began publishing in the early years of the twentieth century, his stories were set in the early years of the twentieth century. When Wodehouse died in 1975, his stories were set in the same era. While the rest of the world moved through time, his characters did not. This quality of being frozen, changeless, beyond time and its ravages, offers to the reader the consolation of being able to step out of this time-bound world into one in which human beings are not subject to the passing hour, one that has about it the quality of the eternal.
The physical setting of the stories matters, too. The spacious rooms at Blandings Castle, situated in a place called Shropshire that, although it shares the name of the county in the west of England, can only be a brighter, happier version of the real thing, invite us in. The country home of Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia, at which nighttime shenanigans are sure to ensue, sparks in us a longing for those places, though they exist not in this world. This longing, insofar as we are capable of believing it will be fulfilled, is itself a kind of consolation.
Beyond this consolation, the works of Wodehouse address in a special way the problem of human pain, suffering, and evil. Theologians and philosophers, especially those in the Christian tradition, have wrestled for millennia with the questions of theodicy, specifically “why do bad things happen if God is loving”. These thinkers have offered their answers, some profound.
Wodehouse offers no answers. None of his work is philosophically probing in the normal sense. But, that doesn’t mean the experience of reading Wodehouse has nothing to offer us on this question. Rather than formulate for us an abstract answer, Wodehouse shows us what a world in which evil were absent might look like.
Naturally, in his many intricate plots, characters break the moral law. One Bertie and Jeeves novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, revolves around Bertie’s purloining one of his aunt’s cats. Relieving someone of the burden of material goods against his will is a violation of the moral law, even when what that soul is relieved of is a cat.
So, in Wodehouse’s world, there is moral law-breaking, but no ill intent; there is sin, but not harm; threat, but not suffering. I do not suggest that in Wodehouse we see a picture of a perfectly redeemed world, one made new and unmarred by the human inclination to malevolence, but certainly we see something as close to it as the human imagination can conjure.
Wodehouse offers us something deeper perhaps than the answers of all the theologians. He does not set out “to justify the ways of God to man,” to use Milton’s famous phrase. Rather, he invites us into a world where our faith can be strengthened simply by having a look around. Wodehouse provides us not so much with a volume of knowledge on theodical question, but an open door beyond which those gut-wrenching questions fade into irrelevance.
I am not the first to notice that the worlds Wodehouse created are, in their way, Edenic. Evelyn Waugh said, “For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no ‘aboriginal calamity.’ His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.”
That’s the point. Wodehouse offers us, in the end, both consolation and relief from the world’s ceaseless thrum of corruption and turpitude because his vision, mind, and talent are one-of-a-kind. In his novels, the reader will find much more than mere entertainment, but rather a vision of a world unlike our own, the one for which we all long, but to which we cannot return. Wodehouse was not modern enough to believe man a prisoner with no world outside. He knew full well that we are exiles.
In the end, not even a wit as formidable as Wodehouse’s can persuade the angel barring the way to that archetypal garden to lay down his flaming sword; but it can lift us just enough above the wall to glimpse the wonders that lie within.
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