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The green baize door: social identity in Wodehouse; Part two.

P.G. Wodehouse has been said to have invented the 'upper class twit', an expression which would have surprised him. His heroes--if that is the word--include not only the Woosters, Fotheringay-Phippses, Twistleton-Twistletons, Fink-Nottles, Carmody's, Threepwoods, Potter-Pirbrights, Byngs, the Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, and others of the Drones Club, the young men from Eton and Oxford or Cambridge who might be described as 'social butterflies' or 'parasites'; but as many drawn from the world with which Wodehosue was personally more familiar, that of the young man of respectable family, perhaps with distant aristocratic connections of no conceivable advantage, even in the longer term, whose hopes of university and prospects of advancement have been blighted by family misfortune or other accident. They include those who come down from University with no other qualification than a pass degree and perhaps a Blue, and no prospects whatsoever.

Mike, in the Psmith stories, and Sam Shotter, in Sam the Sudden, are typical of this type. The majority have names of one syllable--Mike, Sam, Bill, George--as opposed to the Freddies, Berties, Hugos, Montys, Bingos, Buffys etc of the Drones. They are self-reliant--because that is what public school taught them to be. Though occasionally given to mawkish introspection they are generally uncomplaining, for the same reason, and accustomed to taking the rough with the smooth, usually in the proportion 75 per cent rough to 25 per cent smooth. They smoke pipes, whereas Bertie Wooster and his friends smoke cigars or cigarettes. They live in lodgings or tiny, comfortless flats, on a meagre allowance or none. Lack of money and employment, and consequently hunger, are their perennial preoccupation. If in the end they succeed, it is against all odds and the censure of their more fortunate contemporaries, like the two in faultless evening dress who, leaving the Savoy, where they have been attending an Old Boys' Dinner, see a vagrant advancing towards them in Piccadilly. They recognize him as Sam Shotter, a former schoolfellow.
 The two exquisites looked at each other apprehensively.
 'Shift ho before he touches us, what?' asked the first.
 'Shift absolutely ho', agreed the second ...

After a brief reminiscence, markedly unenthusiastic on both sides, Sam braces himself to make his touch.
 Another silence was about to congeal, when a taxi crawled up and
 the two exquisites leapt joyfully in.
 'Awful, a fellow going right under like that', said the first.
 'Ghastly', said the second.
 'Lucky we got away'.
 'He was shaping for a touch'.
 'Trembling on his lips', said the second.
 Sam walked on ...

Evidently, in the world Wodehouse knew, one was left to sink or swim. Like all the best fabulists he had no illusions about life's underlying harshness. Whatever else might have been trembling on his young men's lips it would not have been today's holy trinity of 'compassionate', 'concerned' or 'caring'.

Some of these 'disadvantaged' young men seek salvation in the United States, as Wodehouse himself did. The moral is that, whatever his plight, success can only come through a young man's own endeavours and a large slice of luck--and, as often as not, the pretty girl with whom he has fallen in love, herself often in straits as dire as his. It is she who provides the motivation, the stiffening or backbone, as Joan Valentine does for Ashe Marson in Something Fresh, and Kay Derrick does for Sam himself. In this, Wodehouse was merely acknowledging a fact of life: his own wife was the stronger character.

Wodehouse's girls are of three sorts: first, the statuesquely beautiful and domineering, bent on improving the young man to whom they are engaged; second, the soulful and poetic, like Madelaine Bassett. These are generally of the aristocracy, especially the first, aunts in the making. The third are those down on their luck, usually small, resolute, buoyant and dimpled. The latter include the daughters of upper class men who have married outside their class. Their daughters are thus social outcasts who, for want of better and because they have the necessary attributes, find themselves on the stage. Sue Brown, to whom Galahad Threepwood stands in loco parentis, is one of them, the daughter of an Irish Guards officer and a former Gaiety Girl, Dolly Henderson, with whom Galahad himself had once planned to elope. Jill, of Jill the Reckless, is another. Girls of this third catgory--deliberately intended to be the most appealing of Wodehouse's heroines--are modelled on his step-daughter, Leonora. There is, finally, a particular resonance about that unclassifiable species of Wodehouse heroine who wears a monocle and sees courtship primarily as a series of knightly tests to be accomplished by her betrothed.

One of the chief complaints directed against Wodehouse is that he deals with the love interest in his stories in only the most superficial terms, as a series of platonic engagements from which anything remotely carnal is excluded. In this he was reflecting the prevailing ethos of his youth. Frances Donaldson quotes a Daily Telegraph article of 20 October 1962 in which Anthony Powell claims that the doctrine that 'nice men are ill at ease with the opposite sex became almost a matter of social propaganda' under the influence of writers like Rudyard Kipling and Ian Hay. One might add John Buchan, whose treatment of the love interest in John Macnab obeys the same rules. But Kipling, I think, deserves better: one only has to recall, among his short stories, Mrs Bathurst, Lispeth, Miss Youghal's Sais, Yoked to an Unbeliever and others. Morals, like so much else, are a matter of environment and India had its own social code far older than that of the English.

Between the two principal male types of Wodehouse hero--let us call them 'drone' and 'worker'--exists an indeterminate species, belonging properly neither to the one nor the other. They are Psmith and Ukridge. The former is a Drone manque, a worker in drone clothing. Only his father's opposition has denied him his birthright. He is a preternaturally self-composed young man with a well-developed social conscience, keen to redress the wrongs of the weak. Ukridge is the arch cadge and scrounger, Psmith's alter ego. The only wrongs he seeks to redress are those he perceives as having been inflicted by an uncaring world on himself. Each has an idiosyncratic style of dress and speech. Neither is a wholly sympathetic figure. They are tributaries to the main stream who join it for a while before being becalmed in a backwater.

To them must be added the seemingly inexhaustible number of young men who are related to Mr Mulliner, and the subjects of the golf stories of the Oldest Member. They are, overwhelmingly, the denizens of suburban, middle-class England, of the Home Counties, Betjemanland with its tennis and golf clubs, its modest holidays in dull seaside towns like Marvis Bay and Bingley-on-Sea. It is a world perilously close to Mr Pooter's little world for those who see Wodehouse simply as the chronicler of the upper classes.

The principal characters of any Wodehouse story play out their destinies with the help of a large supporting cast. They include ex-colonial governors, destitute owners of unwanted country houses, beefy bishops who rowed or boxed for their university and converse in biblical quotations; beefy curates with the same attributes who are clearly bishops in embryo, anaemic curates who will never become bishops; writers of detective stories, avante-garde artists, New Age poets, playwrights and songwriters. These and others, like the Efficient Baxter, and Percy Pilbeam of the Argus Enquiry Agency; the publicans, costermongers, policemen, movie moghuls, financiers, leading ladies, child film stars, tycoons, newspaper men, small-time crooks, confidence tricksters, shoeshine boys, determined women of every degree and all the rest, from both sides of the Atlantic, who flit in and out of his pages, help us to appreciate that opening a Wodehouse novel is like taking the lid off a ragout. His attitude to art is that of the athlete towards the aesthete, but it is that of an athlete without the attributes of the muscular hero who, single-handed, slays lions with his bare hands and quells hostile tribes with a single glance, a type he seems to have detested.

With Wodehouse such men almost invariably fail to bag their game. For the most part they are men with feet of clay and no brains, outwitted by the cosmopolitan life around them. The unstated moral appears to be that only such second-rate types ever venture into the colonies. This is hardly a reflection of the truth, but it does echo the somewhat patronising attitude adopted towards those who administered the Empire, rather as British Army officers tended to look down on their Indian Army counterparts. It was largely a matter of income. Wodehouse was writing with memories of a time when it was possible for a young man to live well in London on a private income of [pounds sterling]500 a year. That was the amount required to keep on level terms with one's contemporaries in a fashionable regiment like the 60th Rifles. But it was not only the possession of independent means that made such a life possible. It was buttressed by an army of servants. It was a time when even modest homes boasted a maidservant and sometimes a cook. The larger country house required at least a dozen or more, inside and out, the very grandest, like Blandings Castle, even more. There was an established hierarchy and precedent was as strict as that which applied upstairs. Prerogatives were as jealously guarded. Joan Valentine, who once worked as a ladies' maid, describes the distinctions of rank within this society to Ashe Marson in Something Fresh:
 Kitchen-maids and scullery-maids eat in the kitchen. Chauffeurs,
 footmen, under-butler, pantry-boys, hall-boys, odd-man, and
 steward's room footman take their meals in the Servants' Hall,
 waited on by the hall-boy. The still-room maids have breakfast and
 tea in the still-room and dinner and supper in the Hall. The
 housemaids and nursery-maids have breakfast and tea in the
 housemaids' sitting-room and dinner and supper in the Hall. The
 head house-maid ranks next to the head still-room maid. The
 laundry-maids ...

Conversation around the table in the Servants' Hall in Blandings was seldom subversive, since Beach and Mrs Twemlow, the housekeeper, were there to see that the decencies were observed. But nor was the servants' view of the world rose-tinted. The foibles of the family and their guests were discussed with considerable freedom of expression. Il n'y a point de heros pour son valet de chamber, wrote Mme Cornuel in the seventeenth century. A woman still less to her maid, perhaps. Life in an English country house was hardly the haven of privacy one has been led to believe. By writing about its servants Wodehouse helps to debunk its mystique.

Wodehouse could hardly have been intimate with this world. Its apogee was, after all, Edwardian England where the green baize door, dividing the house itself from the servants' hall separated them into two distinct worlds. It was a time when housemaids were taught to turn their face to the wall if they should pass their employer on the stairs. For whose protection? one wonders. The era of Squire Allworthy and Sir Roger de Coverley had long passed, when relations between master and man were more informal. Even further in the past was the time when a landowner's servants might be his own accidental offspring, the days of Henry Hastings who, the Earl of Shaftesbury tells us, 'was well natured, but soon angry, calling his servants bastard and cuckoldy knaves, in one of which he often spoke the truth to his own knowledge, and sometimes in both, though to the same man.'

Nevertheless Wodehouse seems to have known the nether world of servants, like that of the London streets, well enough to have written about its inhabitants with sympathy. He understood that they had their hopes and fears, their love affairs and catastrophies, and that they were as much prey to suffering, joy and ennui as those on whom they waited. They were, in effect, human beings. It might have been the much more relaxed social climate of America that taught him this, and enabled him to gaze back with new insight at the world he had left. One can only conjecture. The nicer Wodehouse heroes are always being touched on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus by vagrants 'of almost the maximum seediness' with a wife and four starving children to support, and parting with a half-crown without a murmur. Perhaps Wodehouse himself, the kindest and least censorious of men, was one of them. Wodehouse books are full of potted biographies of servants, pugilists, con men and others.

A good example of Wodehouse's innate sympathy at work is in the portrait of Albert Peasemarch, once butler to the Earl of Ickenham and destined to end his days as the proprietor of a small seaside boarding house. When we meet him, in The Luck of the Bodkins, he is working as a cabin steward on RMS Atlantic. He is one of the richest characters in the whole of the Wodehouse creation, absolutely rounded and quite without flaw. His soliloquies on fate and historical accidence, delivered to an overwrought Monty Bodkin, are among the best things that Wodehouse ever wrote.

Jeeves was not a butler; he was a 'gentleman's personal gentleman' with his own London club. As such he enjoyed a special cachet and was given the place of honour--depending on the rank of his employer if there were others of his kind present--when dining below stairs. But he was the butler's inferior in rank, no matter how exalted his employer's status. Gentlemen's gentlemen were a cadre of their own, somewhat outside the mainstream which might carry a man from knife and boot-boy to butler in the fullness of time. A matter, one might say, of career choice.

It was the butler who held the key which might allow a young man like Wodehouse to pass from one side of the green baize door to the other. A butler could be an indispensable ally or an implacable foe. He was not a person whom one could ignore. Whether confronting a penniless young man in love with the daughter of the house, a burglar, or a private detective in disguise, he was the pivot on which the whole edifice rested. Wodehouse's butlers might look alike as peas in a pod, like Beach, in effect, when we first meet him at Blandings Castle.
 ... first impression of Beach was one of tension. Other people,
 confronted for the first time with Beach, had felt the same. He had
 that strained manner of being on the very point of bursting which
 one sees in frogs and toy balloons. Nervous and imaginative men,
 meeting Beach, braced themselves involuntarily, stiffening their
 muscles for the explosion.

Butlers are mortal. They have their weaknesses. Beach himself is a martyr to dyspepsia. Under pressure from Ronnie Fish he steals his employer's prize-winning pig. Like most of his kind he enjoys a modest flutter. A young man who wants to get the butler on his side stands a better chance of doing so if he knows his racing form. Keggs--suspected in the servants' hall of being a socialist at heart--has a profitable sideline in showing visitors round Belpher Castle. English butlers employed by rich Americans tend to go further and might be said to have lost some of their moral fibre in crossing the Atlantic. Work in America was financially rewarding, but it lacked cachet, a point about which butlers are especially sensitive, so they compensate for the loss of amour propre in other ways. Ferris, the butler to H. Sigsbee Waddington of Long Island, accepts a bribe from his employer's wife then fails to let her out of the cellar in which she is trapped. He also sells the family secrets to the press. The Brinkmeyer's butler absconds with Reggie Havershot's money. But he is an actor impersonating a butler so perhaps his should not be added to the list of butlerine peccadillos. He is not the only actor to impersonate a butler in the Wodehouse canon. In Piccadilly Jim, Mr Crocker does so in order to be close to his son Jimmy. In general--and almost all Wodehouse stories bear this out--butlers are cleverer than their employers, just as Jeeves is cleverer than Bertie Wooster, constantly rescuing him from some imbroglio. Superhuman self-discipline must have been the chief attribute of the successful family butler. To speak no evil of their employer outside the confines of the castle is the invariable rule.

Wodehouse's world of vacuous young men enjoys what credibility it has from the large supporting cast to which he introduces us in describing their adventures. This is where his lack of social message pays dividends. His observations, no matter of which class, are all the sharper for having no axe to grind. He himself must have been extraordinarily receptive to impressions no matter from which angle they reached him. But butlers clearly loomed large in his life, in more than the merely figurative sense.

As for their employers one can see, as one reads Wodehouse, that he was writing about a class that was isolated, like a small community of fauna on the verge of extinction. It inhabited its own world and faithfully observed its rituals. With the benefit of hindsight one sees that it was feasting on the lip of the inferno. The degree of verisimilitude in Wodehouse makes it especially poignant.

There are those who consider that most of Wodehouse's best work was done before the Second World War. Internment and the hostile reaction to his broadcasts might have affected him more deeply than he was prepared to admit, though with such an intensely private man this, like so much else, must remain conjecture. Wooster, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth and the rest, butlers included, found their natural habitat in the world of the hereditary peerage, privilege and deference. The First World War wounded it mortally. The Second gave it the coup-de-grace. Wodehouse could no longer write of Earls and butlers with credibility in a world in which the whole fabric of society, as he had once known it, had changed out of all recognition. To know one's place was the cardinal principle before 1914. After 1945 it ceased to have any relevance. The late Sir Ian Fraser noted in his autobiography, The Road to England, that the officer casualties among the Scots Guards were almost as high in the Second as in the First World War, even though it was not, as the first was, a war of attrition confined on land to a relatively small area, thus allowing for an immense concentration of firepower. The same is true of the Durham Light Infantry, though that the number of battalions of that regiment which saw active service in 1939-45 was fewer than those in 1914-18.

There are a number of possible explanations for this but one factor was that of morale: it was a less deferential rank and file that fought in 1939-45. This is not to suggest that they did not fight with as much courage as their fathers; it is simply to acknowledge the fact that recession and rise of socialism had affected men's outlook. Wodehouse's young men had to work harder in setting an example. As Sir Ian Fraser also pointed out, they were not, for the most part, young men of aristocratic family who once considered themselves as society's natural leaders. There were many fewer of them, as a result of the carnage among young officers in the First World War. Their role fell on the shoulders of the Bills and Mikes, the sons of county solicitors, doctors and the like. They acquitted themselves well, but not everyone thought they would. As Lord Alanbrooke noted in his diaries, after his visits to units in France during 'the Phoney War', it was leadership at all levels which the army lacked.

Given the nature of the changes in social attitudes--and the nature of changes taking place in society itself--it takes a greater effort of the imagination to project Lord Emsworth into the world of television, the Welfare State, moon-shots and the Cold War, into notions of equality and rejection of elitism. In a world which tends to label everything and to attach a price to it, Wodehouse is identified with a single class, instead of being seen for what he was, as the chronicler of a whole society. What might still draw readers to Wodehouse, however, is the contemporary addiction to fantasy, and well written fantasy at that, such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, whose authors both received a classical education. In Wodehouse, though, the planet--Blandings Castle--is confronted by no greater menace than the foolishness of its occupants and their guests.

In this new world, in which, at the time of Wodehouse's death, Lord Emsworth would have been 110 and Blandings Castle in the hands of the National Trust, the old peer's preoccupations and lifestyle would have been considered as indefensibly self-absorbed and 'socially unaware'. The only one of his kind who seems to have adapted to change as readily as a duck to water was not a fictional peer at all, but Lord Redesdale, immortalised by his daughter, Nancy Mitford, as Uncle Matthew. Today, with the hereditary peerage threatened with the loss of their remaining seats in the House of Lords and touting for custom from tourists--a vast new field for exploitation by Keggs--only the butler still thrives in the world of the lifestyle guru. They are more in demand than ever, though they are expected to look like Paul Burrell, not Beach.

Mention has been made earlier of Waugh's admiration of Wodehouse. Despite their differences there are similarities between the two. They came from the same background; they had the same professional attitude to their work. In each case it might be described as social commentary, though Waugh wrote as a satirist and Wodehouse as a humourist. Each recorded the decline of a certain society as it took place during the half century of their working lives, Waugh by cataloguing its disintegration, Wodehouse by creating a world inviolate from change, thus throwing into greater relief the changes taking place all round him. Both were sentimental men. Wodehouse's world was essentially benevolent, existing only in the golden haze of his recollection, immune to the anarchy of time and circumstance. The crystal ball into which he gazed was brightly lit but very small. Waugh believed in the benefits of a world of order, hierarchy and tradition and the responsibilities and duties, as well as the privileges, such a world bestows, the world of noblesse oblige, as exemplified by old Mr Crouchback. His best known book, Brideshead Revisited, is redolent of regret for its passing, a work of mourning. Wodehouse's work, for all its apparent frivolity, is likewise, an eulogy for a vanished world of clear social spheres divided by a green baize door.

Sir Allan Ramsay is a retired British diplomat and former ambassador.
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Author:Ramsay, Allan
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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