Souffles and spades

‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendor.’

Stephen Fry

Most Wodehouse readers will be familiar with this quotation, printed on thousands of new editions, and quoted ad nauseam by reviewers and fans alike. Unfortunately it is sometimes bandied about to support the argument that Wodehouse and his work ought not be discussed — that Mr Fry has spoken and we, mere readers, should restrict ourselves to spouting quotations (or better, dignified silence). As someone who blogs about Wodehouse, I naturally take a different view. Nor am I convinced that this is what Stephen Fry meant.

The quotation comes from Fry’s introduction to What Ho! The best of P.G. Wodehouse (republished in The Independent). Fry suggests the ‘miraculous verbal felicities’ of Wodehouse’s writing are best experienced by reading his work. No attempt to explain or analyse the mechanics of Wodehouse’s prose style can ever do justice to the real thing, and Fry does not attempt it himself, offering instead some well chosen quotations, including this favourite:

Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.

It is in this context that Fry says: ‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection…’ His point is that Wodehouse’s writing ought not be clinically dissected — or taken apart to see how it ticks. And unless you are a writer, looking to learn your craft from Wodehouse’s example, this is sound advice. The rest of Fry’s piece is ripe with discussion on the subject of Wodehouse, his life and contribution to our happiness. This includes, I’m sorry to say, further condemnation of those who seek to delve deeper into Wodehouse’s world.

Many have sought to “explain” Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of modern literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like “taking a spade to a soufflé”. His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanently pre-pubescent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary, magical and blessed miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that dispels doubt much as sunlight dispels shadows, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.

If we agree with Stephen Fry on this point, it puts many of us on shakier ground. Indeed, there are devoted fans happily psychoanalysing Wodehouse aunts, drones and sporty young girls at this very moment in an active Facebook group boasting nearly 10,000 members. And what of the various Wodehouse societies around the world that produce more scholarly work, and unite people with a shared love of Wodehouse? Is the otherwise genial Mr Fry really attempting to dictate terms and deny small pleasures to fellow Wodehouse-lovers? Perhaps his reference to ‘the microscope of modern literary criticism’ indicates a more specific, academic target.

The late Christopher Hitchens left no room for doubt in his condemnation:

Indeed, if anything could ever put one off being a Wodehouse fan, it would be the somewhat cultish element among his admirers and biographers. Such people have a tendency to allude to him as “The Master.” They publish monographs about the exact geographical location of Blandings Castle, or the Drones Club. They hold dinners at which breadstuffs are thrown. Their English branch publishes the quarterly Wooster Sauce, and their American branch publishes the quarterly Plum Lines: two painfully unfunny titles.

Christopher Hitchens

Censuring fellow Wodehouse lovers for such harmless pleasures is grossly unkind. It also smacks of hypocrisy, for Hitchens and Fry have both enjoyed the privilege of sharing their love of Wodehouse in their own way. Each has written at length about Wodehouse and the influence of his work on their lives. Both men have also had the privilege of writing introductions to modern editions and collected works.

Christopher Buckley reported in a piece about Hitchens:

When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?

Christopher Buckley in the New Yorker

This is a privilege denied to the ordinary reader, but our capacity to enjoy Wodehouse is equal to that of Hitchens and Fry. Perhaps more so, for neither man could understand the joy of being momentarily lifted from the drudgery, poverty and despair of a working-class life into Wodehouse’s world. Appreciating Wodehouse is not a science, nor a competitive sport. There are no rules, and we should resist any attempts to impose limitations.

For too long, I have worried about overstepping the boundaries laid out by Fry and others, when really this censure is surely as silly as the activities they disapprove of. I am an admirer of both Fry and Hitchens, and I feel sure there is room for friendly disagreement between fans of such a genial writer as Wodehouse. But when it comes to dust-jacket endorsements, I prefer the more generous sentiments of Evelyn Waugh, quoted on the old Penguin paperback editions.

Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in — ‘

Evelyn Waugh in a B.B.C. broadcast

This is the stuff to give the troops! Waugh doesn’t claim Wodehouse for himself — instead he shows the sort of pull-together spirit that Ukridge and I like to see. His words are prophetic too, as the captivity of modern life looks pretty dashed irksome from where I’m sitting. In addition to my daily dose of Wodehouse, writing this blog is one of my few pleasures, and if anyone finds my output silly I shall be delighted. I also plan to attend my first Wodehouse Society Convention later this year (Psmith in Pseattle). If breadstuffs are thrown, I shall be well pleased.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pop off to the local Garden Centre before it closes. We’re having souffle for dinner and I need to purchase the appropriate cutlery.


29 thoughts on “Souffles and spades

  1. “for neither man could understand the joy of being momentarily lifted from the drudgery, poverty and despair of a working-class life into Wodehouse’s world.” This. A thousand times this. And I have never forgiven the Fry for putting Jeeves in drag.


      1. I used to get part time revolutionaries arguing that I couldn’t possibly like Wodehouse. But this is why I did.


      2. There is a fundamental decency about Wodehouse that transcends class boundaries – it’s his wealthy captains of industry and aristocratic snobs who are shown in the worst light. He is more romantic than realistic in his portrayal of the serving classes, but it’s an affectionate sort of portrayal. I don’t really understand why people think of Wodehouse as perpetuating snobbery.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, whose underlying sentiments I strongly share. I’m not so sure, though, about the line Jon endorses. I don’t know about Hitchens’s struggles, but hasn’t Fry battled severe depression throughout the years? I suspect Wodehouse has been balm to his soul’s wounds much more than the line allows.


    1. Hi Paul. I quite understand. This was another reason why I thought long and hard about that particular line. I certainly don’t want to make a competition out of depression or trivialise Stephen Fry’s battle with it. The struggles of people on lower incomes (many of whom also suffer depression) may be outside his sphere of personal experience, but that doesn’t make his own difficulties any less serious. I am a fan and wish him well. (I’ve just seen a news item that he got married today, to a very handsome chap, which is terrific). His objection to analysing Wodehouse is at least well argued and not offensive (unlike Hitchens, who is deliberately rude).


  3. Also, it’s more than a little ironic that in his piece on Hitchens and Wodehouse, Buckley either himself calls Wodehouse “The Master”, or is instead reporting that Hitchens had done so.


      1. “I visited Christopher Hitchens in the hospital just after he’d been given a diagnosis of mortal illness. By his bed I noticed a dog-eared Jeeves and Wooster paperback. Christopher esteemed P.G. Wodehouse above all other writers as ‘The Master,’ a title originally bestowed on Wodehouse by another master of English prose, Evelyn Waugh.” — Christopher Buckley

        Liked by 1 person

      2. At the risk of taking this thread off course, I am reminded that Hitchens also esteemed “The Great Sermon Handicap.” I know others seem to love it as well. Anthony Lane reports that he owns a six-volume translation of that story into 58 languages and dialects. So, I sheepishly ask: am I alone in finding it, well, not that funny? I’ve tried. I’ve read it several times, and–usually a winning strategy for me–listened to Jonathan Cecil read it. Still it fails to hit a chord in me. What am I missing?


      3. The Great Sermon Handicap is classic in the sense that it is well known and highly regarded, even by people who’ve not read a great deal of Wodehouse. I love the central idea of the story – people betting on the length of the sermons, how they go about estimating form, and trying to nobble favourites. It’s also a fine example of short story writing, with some great ‘lines’. But Paul, I would have to agree with you. I enjoy it, but it’s not one of the stories I keep returning to as a particular favourite.


      4. Honoria, I hadn’t seen until now your reply to my “The Great Sermon Handicap” comment. I’m very relieved not to be accused of missing something huge. It turns out that I’m not a big Jeeves-story man as a rule. Now, when it comes to Jeeves novels, I’m base over apex. But for stories, I reside at the corner of Golf Avenue and Mulliner way.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A thought-provoking piece which addresses a fundamental issue of guilt most of his fans often twiddle their fingers about. Whatever they do, his fans all over the planet ensure that his works are kept alive and kicking and duly get passed on to the coming generations. His is truly a kingdom on which the sun shall never set!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We are born and brought up on the principles of Democracy. We merely exercise our right of freedom of speech. Moreover, we are aware of our responsibility not to offend; whatever we say is laudatory in nature.
        Let us therefore conclude that all is well with the world, the sun is shining bright, the flowers are in full bloom, the birds and bees are going about their daily chores and the solitary snail we see crawling on the ground is pretty pleased with itself because the early bird, having had its daily quota of vitamins, has already retired for the day.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    All residents of Plumsville face a difficult choice. Does it make sense to view Plum’s narratives through the eyes of the heart? Or, should one use the mind instead and subject his brilliant works to a pitiless analysis?
    Here is a thought-provoking post from Plumtopia which endeavours to address this dilemma.


    1. 1. Did you get any work done today?
      2. Glad someone got the joke. I thought it was a corker and amused myself at the time of writing, it worried it might be too subtle .
      3. Thank you. Thank you.


  6. Oh, drat it – never mind the work.

    Your point about being momentarily lifted out of a dreary world into the far more delightful one of Wodehouse, that Waugh instinctively recognises, is something that characterised a great deal of fiction at that time. It is no co-incidence that the rise of Grim Reality in fiction, film and television came about during the ‘you’ve never had it so good’ 1960s.

    In the 1930s, when reality really was grim for the working classes and very anxious due to the looming ‘European Situation’ for the other classes (I don’t mean to imply the working classes had no political consciousness, but they had mostly more important things to think about at that time. Like finding a job.) fiction and film concentrated on taking the burdens from your shoulders and bringing you into a world where people had very little to worry about and life was a delightful round of gaiety.

    Think of Wodehouse, E.F Benson, Beverley Nichols, Fred Astaire – and for a few moments the tawdry modern world slips away. A lot of writers, Orwell most notably amongst them, find it difficult to understand the immense appeal of The Magnet, a weekly boys paper set in a public school, amongst working-class youth in the 30s but it is exactly the same thing. No one, who is actually living it, wants to be reminded by earnest left-wing intellectuals, how awful their life really is. They would far rather dream about a life they could be living if things, and the world, were different.

    For most of us, I believe, Wodehouse stands at the lodge gates of Blandings Castle, welcoming us into a world for us to explore, investigate and exult in; a place of sunshine and certainties, as Novello puts it, very ‘different from our own’.

    If my business fails to get off the ground I am holding you responsible …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The difficulties of aspiring businesswoman are not so dissimilar to those of the distracted author. Distractions!

      You’ve struck a chord with this one. I have a primary school aged daughter and I despair of the gritty realism in the books for children these days. My mother, at the other end of the age spectrum, won’t read anything unless an impoverished child has a leg blown off in the first chapter.

      It’s not that I don’t care. I care deeply. But when I read Wodehouse, it’s respite from care.

      The gates of Blandings should be thrown open again !


      1. I haven’t done a blessed thing all day and it’s all your fault.

        Just laughed out loud again when I read the line about your mother’s taste in literature (and laughed again when I re-read it).

        If you want some lovely books for primary school age children I recommend the Ahlbergs (?). ‘The Jolly Postman’ is an absolute delight and ‘Each Peach Pear Plum’ is another good one.

        ‘Respite from care’. Yes. Exactly.


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