Words from Wodehouse

Not long ago, I finished Weekend Wodehouse, a 1951 collection published in London by Herbert Jenkins. The introduction is by Hilaire Belloc. As far as I can tell neither Belloc’s nor Wodehouse’s England still exists. The only way to preserve what you see, Belloc wrote, is to write about it. Then it can live forever, even in this world, as long as the word and “this world” last.

Belloc writes: “For the English people, more than any other, have created in their literature living men and women rather than types and Mr. Wodehouse has created Jeeves. He has created others, but in his creation of Jeeves he has done something which may respectfully be compared to the work of the Almighty in Michelangelo’s painting. He has formed a man filled with the breath of life.”

Yes, that is it. Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Pongo Twistleton, Lady Constance Keeble, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, Adeline Smethurst, Freddie Widgeon, Mavis Peasemarch, and so many others do possess the breath of life. Chesterton said that Dickens had the same power.

P.G. Wodehouse

In my early years, after discovering him – a notable event in the life of any man – I used to say that Wodehouse is to be read with a dictionary. But on finishing Weekend Wodehouse, I think I was wrong. Wodehouse does stretch one’s vocabulary. But it is not the meaning of the words that is novel or unknown. It is their placement.

For instance, I did not count the number of times the word “looney” came up. It is a marvelous word. It appears in the first story – “even with an uncle within a short jump of the looney bin….” Looney uncles, looney friends populate Wodehouse. The word comes either from a wobbly bird or from the moon, a kind of pleasant madness. No one would want to live in a world in which no looney characters were encountered.

The first story in Weekend Wodehouse begins in the Drones Club. What a perfect name for an English gentleman’s club – both in its noun and its verb forms! My Webster’s Dictionary thus defines a drone: 1) “The male of a bee that has no sting and gathers no honey, 2) One that lives on the labors of others.” The verb means: ”To make a sustained deep murmuring, humming, or buzzing sound.” Such are not unknown features of gentlemen’s clubs. The members of the Drones Club, looney or otherwise, are identified by what they usually order – Crumpets, Eggs and Beans, Small Bass.

The first scene in “Uncle Fred Flits By” concerns a “young blood” named Pongo Twistleton. His “animal spirits” cause a disturbance in the club while the “Crumpet” was enjoying his after lunch coffee. The residents looked at the door. A “young blood,” who later turns out to be a “clam,” appeared in “form-fitting tweeds.”

“The aspect of this young man was haggard. His eyes glared wildly and he sucked at an empty cigarette-holder. If he had a mind, there was something on it.” What an amusing line! “If he had a mind, there was something on it.” We are deftly left in doubt about the existence of Pongo’s mind.

What struck me on again reading Wodehouse was the central place smoking played in the everyday affairs of English gentlemen. If they still smoked cigars and cigarettes at the pace they did in Wodehouse, it would be enough to replant all of Virginia in tobacco. Tobacco is now a weed to be avoided at the cost of our lives. I do not recall one line in Wodehouse that ever hinted that smoking was anything but an innocent pleasure. We seem to have the resultant health but not the innocent pleasures. Our vices are redefined.

A wealthy man by the name of Stoker, apparently to make amends for misjudging him, invited Bertram Wooster to dine on his yacht. Stoker probably regarded Wooster as a “bit looney.” Bertie discusses with Jeeves what is the exact word to describe what Stoker was trying to do. Jeeves suggests the French phrase “amende honorable.” But Bertie prefers to say that Stoker offered “an olive branch.”

Jeeves regards “olive branch” as acceptable, but not precise. Jeeves considered the French expression as more exact. It carries with it “the implication of remorse, or the desire to make restitution.” This is what I mean by the title “words from Wodehouse.” We find in Wodehouse an exactness of language that delights us.

In an earlier story in the Blanding Castle series, Lord Emsworth described the awfulness of his having to attend an annual school function that his sister, Lady Constance, organized at his Castle. This is how Wodehouse described the situation: “A function like the Blandings Parva School Treat blurred the conception of man as Nature’s Final Word.” Has our human lot ever been better described?

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019