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PG Wodehouse scoffed at politics In his world, comedy dissolved the bounds of class

The smirk of the Woosters. (Credit: Jeeves and Wooster/ITV)

The smirk of the Woosters. (Credit: Jeeves and Wooster/ITV)


December 20, 2023   6 mins

A certain kind of reader is unlikely to accept any kind of argument for P. G. Wodehouse’s Mike. Set in a private, all-boys school, the novel features a main character, the Mike of the title, with few distinguishing traits beyond being a good egg and an even better cricketer. Is it, perhaps, a satire of such institutions and people? Far from it: the main criticism of Sedleigh, the school in which the novel’s second half is set, is that it isn’t very good at cricket. The boyish things the pupils do are not grounds for anxiety or scorn. None of them appear in the least bit traumatised by the experience of being sent off to boarding school, sometimes by parents in some remote colonial outpost.

The reader who looks to fiction for a critique of something or other will find no critique here of anything at all. If there is a glimmer of hope when Mike’s pal Psmith reveals himself a monocle-wearing eccentric and declares himself a socialist, the glimmer will fade once it emerges that his socialism doesn’t extend beyond addressing everyone as “Comrade”, and his eccentricity is not a sign of alienation from the middle-class world he happily inhabits. Psmith and his creator find many things about that world ridiculous — but not contemptible.

The sort of reader I have in mind is most likely Left-wing in their politics, suspicious of anything that mocks a social world not as way of, but as a substitute for, changing it. But the demand for seriousness once came from conservatives worried about the essential frivolity of novels — books that didn’t instruct their readers in manners or morals. It was that view to which Jane Austen was responding in the much-quoted passage of Northanger Abbey where she defends novels as the works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed.”

Few writers have seemed to care so little about importance as Wodehouse. His endless linguistic ingenuity made admirers of Left-wing authors such as George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens — the effortless succession of wild similes, the clever deconstruction of weary clichĂ©s. That and the mad but intricate plots. But what seems absurd is the idea that anyone might be drawn to Wodehouse for his themes, or what you might call his “ethic”.

In fact, it isn’t absurd at all; it seems so because we only count “serious” themes as real, and conflate having an ethic with being didactic. Yet why shouldn’t a comic view of the world be less insightful than a tragic or an angry one? “If you take life fairly easily”, Wodehouse once remarked to an interviewer, “then you take a humorous view of things. It’s probably because you were born that way”.

His words here recall the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan: “Nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative!’ There’s a misplaced debate among Wodehouse’s champions and detractors about exactly where he fits on the political spectrum. Liberal, say readers who see his jokes at the expense of his upper-class characters as satire. Conservative, say readers who notice that he, “in creating such characters as Hildebrand Spencer Poyns de Burgh John Hanneyside Coombe-Crombie, 12th Earl of Dreever
 is not really attacking the social hierarchy”.

Those last words are from George Orwell’s essay, “In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse”. He was writing just after the war, when the uproar about Wodehouse’s idiotic (but well-intentioned) broadcasts on German radio in 1941 were fresh in public memory: Wodehouse was in need of a robust defence. But Orwell, a political man through and through, could not avoid, even when defending Wodehouse’s lack of political nous, adopting a reductive view of the man’s writing. “Wodehouse’s real sin”, he wrote, “has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are”.

In Orwell’s worldview, whole classes — as distinct from the individuals who comprise them — might have their niceness appraised. Wodehouse, by contrast, sees his characters as individuals — paradoxically so, given how many of them were stereotypes. He once described his approach to his later fiction as “making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether”. But the very earliest boarding school novels, animated though they are by a basically comic spirit, are not yet the farces for which he became famous.

Few other stories published in the same magazines that published Wodehouse’s juvenilia stand up today. The clichĂ©s are too numerous, the plots entirely interchangeable. But Wodehouse’s early novels hold up surprisingly well. In an age when public schoolboys seem to divided themselves into sentimental nostalgists on the one hand and angry rebels on the other, Wodehouse distinguished himself by the matter-of-fact tone in which he wrote of boys’ attitudes to their schools:

“The average public schoolboy likes his school
 He is sorry to leave and he likes going back at the end of the holidays, but as for any passionate, deep-seated love of the place, he would think it rather bad form than otherwise.”

One can’t doubt that the experience of boarding — involuntary separation from family, the casual brutality of masters and other schoolboys — must have left many boys with scars they carried into adulthood. There is no shortage of memoirs by men who survived the ordeal. But Wodehouse speaks for what must have been the silent majority: men for whom boarding school had its challenges but was not conspicuously more traumatising than any other place they might have spent their childhood and adolescence.

His protagonist, Mike, is a representative of that untraumatised majority. He is a straightforward teenage boy, interested above all in sport. Transplanted midway through the book from a school with fine cricketing traditions, Wrykyn, he finds himself at Sedleigh, a place with an undistinguished sporting tradition. “Mike’s outlook on life,” Wodehouse tell us, “was that of a cricketer, pure and simple. What had Sedleigh ever done? What were they ever likely to do? Whom did they play? What Old Sedleighan had ever done anything in cricket?”

But at Sedleigh, he finds himself set against another character, Adair, to whom “Sedleigh was almost a religion 
 a public school among public schools, a lump of radium.” (In this we see the beginnings of the grown-up Wodehouse’s talent for the entirely original analogy.) Adair wants Mike to play for the school side; Mike prefers to play for a village team. Like countless schoolboy antagonists, they fight. A little while later, their reconciliation is dramatised in a simple exchange when someone describes Adair as “not a bad cove”, and Mike replies, simply: “He’s all right.”

There is no mawkish sentiment, but equally, no affectations of adult toughness. The boys have their feelings, but they are the feelings one can imagine real boys having in that time and place. They sort out their problems between themselves and learn to live with other. Each boy has his place in the little world of the school. The book’s most celebrated odd-couple pairing of Mike and a much more flamboyantly eccentric character than Adair: Psmith. He is, of course, “really” a Smith, but informs the bemused Mike when he first meets him: “If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h. See? There are too many Smiths.”

Part of what’s so funny about Psmith is that the silliness of how he spells his name is only apparent in writing. It was Wodehouse’s first really good joke and foretold the many glorious jokes to come — Jeeves and Wooster, Lord Emsworth and his enormous pig. It also encapsulates the wholesomeness that distinguishes him from other comic writers — whose comedy begins in anger and vengefulness. Saki, like Wodehouse, had scary aunts, but took pleasure when they were killed by a vicious ferret. Roald Dahl’s nasty grown-ups are set up for some horrible and ingenious punishment. If political-minded readers are disappointed that Wodehouse doesn’t care more for justice, they might remind themselves that he cared even less for revenge: most of us have a hard time telling the desire for fairness apart from the desire to get even.

We live in a world anxious again to divide people into goodies and baddies, their views into liberal and conservative. Wodehouse was unusual in seeing that it is enough to divide them into “all right” and “bad coves” — in other words, those we like and those we could learn to live with. If that didn’t make him sound like a more solemn figure than in fact he was, you might even call that the deep insight behind his comedy. The message — if that’s not too pompous a thing to ascribe to Wodehouse — is: it takes all sorts to make a world. The right word for the author’s ethic — such as it was — is not “liberalism”, which is the label for a political philosophy; the imputation of any such thing would indeed have made him seriously ill. What he possessed was a rarer, more precious thing: the virtue of liberality.

Wodehouse’s world is one in which the monocled dandy can be friends with the school jock. (A great lover of American English, he would not have protested the Americanism.) And both can live, eventually if not right off the bat, in harmony with the idealist and the prig. Is that an ethical ideal? Not, perhaps, in a sense that Orwell would have recognised. But that only tells us that some people have too narrow a view of the ethical. Whatever those words — ethical, political — mean, they must have something to do with living together with other people. The desire to transform other people so that they live up to our own ideal is at the root of so much political violence. The idea, especially at Christmas, of a writer who doesn’t want to change you — or anyone or anything — is all the more attractive, for just that reason.


Nikhil Krishnan is a Fellow in Philosophy at Robinson College, Cambridge. His book, A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford: 1900–1960, will be published by Profile in 2023.


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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago

You can usually tell who is a decent cove by whether they enjoy P G Wodehouse or not.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

“You don’t think Wodehouse is funny? Then I consider you a tiresome prig and I don’t care to know you.”
A philosophy that will make you miss a very few people worth knowing, and a great many people not worth knowing.

J Bryant
J Bryant
5 months ago

A very enjoyable essay. Thank you.

Saigon Sally
Saigon Sally
5 months ago

A lot more links Wodehouse with Gilbert & Sullivan in their joint gentle amusing and playful irreverant portrayal of the upper classes than the author had time to say.
Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
Bow, bow, ye tradesmen! Bow, ye masses!
Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses!
We are peers of highest station
Paragons of legislation
Pillars of the British nation etc etc…
And the very fact that they could mock and joke at the establishment’s expense has tended to set us apart from some other nations that take themselves more seriously.

Last edited 5 months ago by Saigon Sally
Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
5 months ago
Reply to  Saigon Sally

Totalitarianism cannot tolerate being laughed at.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
5 months ago

Whenever I see a sartorial oddity I think of Jeeves seeing a pair of Bertie’s brightly coloured socks, whereupon “he bridled like a startled mustang.”

Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
5 months ago

This is a very sound reading of Wodehouse. I have always seen some of his writing as a Christian allegory. Somebody once argued that Bertie Wooster’s role is that of Jesus, redeeming his friends at his own expense, as arranged by the all-knowing Jeeves, who stands in place of God the Father.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
5 months ago

That’s a bit fancival but Bertie certainly knows his Scripture.

peter lucey
peter lucey
5 months ago

PGW always said he loved his schooldays, and followed Dulwich College all his life – especially their cricket team.

He was an apolitical writer. Auberon Waugh wrote: “Politicians may be prepared to countenance subversive political jokes, but the deeper subversion of totally non-political jokes is something they can neither comprehend or forgive.”

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
5 months ago

Thank you for a most delightful essay.
I have never given such deep thought to analysing the works mentioned, though not a week passes without reading at least one chapter of his books.

Plum’s winning trademark may well be his ironic irreverence couching ever present realities.

” Unseen in the background Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove” and describing the inmates of the HOC as a ” weird gaggle of freaks and sub- humans as could be collected in one spot” could well describe the contemporary events of today.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago

His protagonist, Mike, is a representative of that untraumatised majority. 
Well, small wonder the average leftist of today would freak out over this book. The idea of anyone being untraumatized is anathema to the SJWs of the day. One can’t simply be; one must be a victim or aggressor, oppressor or oppressed. No wonder young people today are fraught with mental issues. So few of them had the luxury of experiencing childhood.

Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Or the luxury of experiencing laughter. A wonderful old priest I once knew told me that when he was 15 or so, ‘I got very depressed. My father gave me PG Wodehouse to read and I have never looked back.’ He loved Wodehouse so much that he gave up reading him every Lent as a penance. And he was a little bit like a character out of Wodehouse himself.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
5 months ago

That was fun! Jeeves and Wooster never fail to delight, but it is the Blandings crowd that I adore. The books inspired the absolutely brilliant (and too short) BBC series. Tim Spall and Jack Farthing are perfect as Clarence, 9th Earl of Emsworth and his silly son Freddie, but it is Jennifer Saunders as Constance, the Earl’s formidable sister, who steals the show every time.
She delivers this dripping line to over-sexed, dim and drunken Freddie: “If your brain were dynamite it couldn’t blow fuzz off a peach.”
That said, I’m going. To my room.

mike otter
mike otter
5 months ago

I expect if Roderick Spode had been real he too would have railed against Wodehouse. That tells you all you need to now about PGW’s detractors. PGW was a fool to try and get peace with Germany and that is a very typical Brit middle class failing. He thought you can negotiate with socialists like the NSDAP. Well you can’t, same as you can’t negotiate with pigeons or rats.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
5 months ago
Reply to  mike otter

But British Bicycles, well, they’re all right.

Geoff Mould
Geoff Mould
5 months ago

Wodehouse’s humour is timeless. Always worthy going back to.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
5 months ago

ITV;s 1990’s? series Jeeves & Wooster was superb.Wonder what Jeeves would think of the way Stephen Fry who played him has turned out politically?

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
5 months ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

” Decidedly odd”?!

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
5 months ago

Lovely article. The quote from a later book that “the P is silent” never ceases to crack me up and I have tried to use that line in real life whenever possible. Not often, but there have been times. I would also like to add the golf stories to the endless list of unmissable books written by the master. I was never a fan of Jeeves and Wooster though, don’t really know why. Thanks for making my day.

Chipoko
Chipoko
5 months ago

Excellent essay!

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
4 months ago

Of course, the monocled dandy, who encourages the school jock to ignore Sedleigh cricket, turns out to be an excellent slow left-arm bowler. Wodehouse’s characters may apparently be stereotypes, but they almost always break the mould.

jane baker
jane baker
4 months ago

Laughing Gas is laugh out loud and roll on the floor funny.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

Wodehouse was very fortunate not to be hanged in 1946, unlike for example William Joyce* and John Amery.

He also managed to ‘miss’ the Great War, 1914-1918, apparently because of poor eyesight, unlike for example John Kipling** who was similarly afflicted.

(*Despite not being a British citizen.)
(** ‘My boy Jack’.)

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
5 months ago

Fortunately his conduct passed a close examination by a young Malcolm Muggeridge – which of us would have survived that?

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
5 months ago

How can you compare the founder of the British Free Corps and an active member of the N Party to someone who probably acted like his own creation( Bertram W)?
He did pay a steep price for those broadcasts with his exile.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

He was sixty years and knew what he was doing, and unlike Joyce was actually BRITISH!

In the old days as you will recall, we used to say “play the white man” and Wodehouse lamentably didn’t, to his eternal shame and that of Dulwich College.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
5 months ago

Merely tried to ” spread sweetness and light” and rather erroneously so, just as BW goofed on everything from cow- creamers to plotting how to get out of the clutches of Ms Basset.
If only Jeeves was there to save his silly master.
Hasn’t DC also produced Mr Farage?

Last edited 5 months ago by Sayantani Gupta
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

Indeed it has, and also Ernest Shackleton.
The Prep School dining room used to be graced with the two metre high portraits/photos of the schools six VCs.
Perhaps it still is.Jeeves would be proud!

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
5 months ago

DC has produced many, not least Chandler, a much better writer.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
5 months ago

As a former active member of the Plum Society Calcutta chapter don’t agree he wasn’t a good writer.
Though I daresay he would agree with you” I sit at my typewriter and curse a bit”!

Last edited 5 months ago by Sayantani Gupta
Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips
5 months ago

Chandler is not a better writer; he is a different writer. You can’t compare them. Both superb stylists.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
5 months ago

Ooh. Not sure. Chandler and Wodehouse both have places among the most brilliant writers ever in English and the world would be a better place if more people read them. How about that?

Last edited 5 months ago by Helen Nevitt
Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips
5 months ago

John Kipling would have failed the eyesight test too; he was very short-sighted. But Kipling pulled strings for him among the top brass, so off he went. I think Kipling never forgave himself.

mike otter
mike otter
5 months ago

Interesting article though we could do w/o revisiting Orwell/Eric Blair. IMO he was a rat and its a good thing he fought against the Spanish people not on our side. In addition to his Jonah status he was by all accounts a liability to his own side. As were the other authors, poets, drinkers and wasters that fought alongside him and his russian pals.

Geoff W
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  mike otter

If you think Orwell was pals with the Russians in Spain, I suggest you read “Homage to Catalonia.” Or anything else he wrote about the Spanish Civil War. Or “Animal Farm.”

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
5 months ago

Amis (K) or Wodehouse, I don’t read these books as they speak only of the chummy established English classes usually in the south of the country. A better prism on the early half of the century is provided by the Edwardian noir of Patrick Hamilton, or even Jean Rhys although Paris was really her city.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
5 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Keep trying PGW, one day you may learn a sense of humour

Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips
5 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

I think you are born with a sense of humour or you aren’t. A sense of humour doesn’t ‘develop’, in my experience.