In 2015, BBC radio presenter Kirsty Lang interviewed director Rob Ashford and writer Jeremy Sams about their stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. It’s one of Wodehouse’s many transatlantic tales, and delves into the world of musical theatre. The central character is an American composer of musical show tunes, and he manages to navigate life efficiently enough without the assistance of a manservant.
KIRSTY: Now Jeremy, it’s a very engaging production, but the story’ is very much of its time. How confident were you that it would work for a 21st Century audience?
JEREMY: Well you say it’s of its time. What I love about it is, the things that attracted me and my co-writer Robbie Hudson, are absolutely how we feel now about America and England, and actually about theatre and high art, if you like. And the ideas that musicals, which I happen to love, can be thought of as beautiful deep stuff, and not just fluff. It’s a conversation I have weekly to be honest. And the idea that America and England – we need each other – they need our history and class, if you like…. We certainly need their energy and commitment. And again, those ideas don’t seem dated to me.
This thoughtful reply, the notion that Wodehouse might have something of relevance or deeper interest beyond the usual assessment that it’s all fluff and nonsense, is so out of sync with the established patter about Wodehouse, that the presenter perhaps felt obliged to add:
KIRSTY: And I suppose there are aspects of, you know, Downton Abbey and Upstairs and Downstairs that we always love to watch, aren’t there?
American director Rob Ashford agrees politely. Neither he nor Sams take up the invitation to expand on this suggestion.
Kirsty Lang asked a similar question (again with reference to Downton Abbey) of Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan, in a 2013 interview about their roles as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the original stage production Perfect Nonsense.
These are just a few examples. And, like Kirsty’s guests, I too have been subjected to questioning since arriving in Britain from my native Australia several years ago. It seems many Britons (those who haven’t read much Wodehouse) seem to have difficulty understanding his appeal to a youngish, leftish-leaning, Australian female. I’m not an anglophile, I don’t care much for Downton Abbey, and I’m not at all interested (as Ben MacIntyre suggests in the Sunday Times) in ‘a golden, admiring fantasy of upper-class life’ (in ‘Code of the Woosters has saved the upper class’).
Wodehouse’s appeal to Americans has been attributed to Anglophilia, and some have gone so far as to suggest that Wodehouse’s popularity in India stems from nostalgia for the British Empire, a view deftly handled by Shashi Tharoor.
I confess I’m slightly bothered by all the questioning and analysis, for behind this lies an assumption that Wodehouse’s appeal requires explanation. And this leads me in turn to ask why. Or more specifically:
Why is P.G. Wodehouse not more popular in his own country?
The question is not a slur on British readers. Wodehouse has a strong, intelligent and enthusiastic following here. Indeed, I’m meeting a bunch of them later this week at a gathering of the PG Wodehouse Society. They’re witty, generous people, frothing with conviviality. There just aren’t enough of them. Why?
I suspect it’s because the nation’s relationship with Wodehouse is more complex. Wodehouse’s wartime blunder, now rightly regarded as an innocent misjudgement, did incredible damage to his reputation at the time, and mud sticks. There is also a misguided but popular notion that Wodehouse’s stuff is silly, outdated nonsense written by, for and about upper-class twits. This assessment is of course grossly unfair, but we colonials (as Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy affectionately called us) should also acknowledge that it’s much easier to laugh at the British ruling class from a distance — it’s not our pay and conditions they might be cutting in the morning.
Our British friends deserve better, and I feel it would be a great service to help them rediscover one of their own national treasures. So I offer these genuine answers, from Wodehouse readers, to their oft-asked question.
Why do people love P.G. Wodehouse?
I asked members of the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook group and received over 100 comments from readers in the USA, India, Norway, France, Austria, Hungary, Indonesia, Iceland, Britain and Ireland. None of them mentioned butlers, upper class twits, or Downton Abbey. Here’s a taste of what they had to say:
NIRMALA: The pure, poetic and passionate language mixed with innocent, genuine and it’s-going-to-be-ok-in-the-end-else-it-isn’t-the-end humour. Peace and happiness even amidst struggles.
DAVID: It is escapist literature without creating some sort of weird alternative universe. Tolkien had to create a whole world; Wodehouse just tweaked an existing one. I’ve never known anyone I could begin to compare with Bilbo Baggins, but I knew a man who could compare with Galahad Threepwood.
MISKIL: Plum’s books are my happy place. They transport me into an idyllic world where everything is sunny and light hearted. On a bad day I read a story and I feel uplifted with every page.
NANCY: It’s a timeless world. A bubble. Things will always work out. Plum’s words weave a web of joy. Because really, who doesn’t like to laugh?
LATA: Heart breaks are bearable to those who have read PG Wodehouse.
FRANK: The sheer fun in the words that often have access to quite deep thoughts. ‘You can’t be a successful dictator and design women’s underwear. One or the other. Not both.’
SHOBHANA: Everybody loves a fairy tale, pieces of happy inconsequential everyday happenings that lead to the “happily ever after” ending where all the various deviations from the main story line have been successfully gathered up by a master story teller who fills our world with laughter, sunshine and the ability to even guffaw at ourselves.
ASHOK: Think of idle pursuits, of romantic escapades, of life lessons couched in delectable humour…
UMA: His eye for detail…the characters are presented in such a way that they materialise right in front of you. His ability to stay neutral in the story…not creating a bias which most authors fail at…
JOHN The way he uses words to conjure up descriptions of people, events and thoughts. And the dialogue interplay between characters. It had me laughing out loud when I first discovered it aged 13/14 in my Grandparents front room when it was too wet to go outside. 46 years later and the works have lost none of their lustre.
ABIR: Above all…the wonderful language and descriptions which make you break out into uncontrollable laughter…even in awkward places.
DEBORAH: I delight in his mastery of English grammar.
KERRY: He insults people from lords to the lowest (or should that be from politicians to the highest) and in such a gentle way that no one could take offence.
SHRAVASTI: The good clean humour, the word play, the references to the Classics (I read Marcus Aurelius because of Plum), and the terrific anti- depressant effect.
MARGARET: There’s an underlying kindness, or ethic, to Plums characters. He may have a sharp eye for human frailty and even evil, but he’s never less than charming… Wodehouse takes issues seriously, but doesn’t take himself so seriously that the issues become secondary.
DAN: Command of the language, not just a big vocabulary but every word the right word. Also always funny.
MILIND: His impeccable sense of the ridiculous, his felicity with language, his perfect sense of timing……and the gentleness of his sarcasm and satire. After all, Wodehouse did more than all the Leftist ideologues put together, to gently and humorously underline the foppishness and idiosyncratic foibles of the British aristocracy……without a trace of bitterness.
SUKANYA: I love the humour in even the most inane situation, accepting people with their foibles, there’s a silver lining in every dark cloud, …and the meta message of core values.
SUZANNE: I love Wodehouse’s writing because of his fabulous vocabulary and his unusual brand of humor. Bertie is especially funny because his humor is usually at his own expense. He puts everyone else ahead of himself, always trying to make people happy…
RANJANA: Plum is, actually, a way of life now, for some. One which believes in gentle humor, incandescent wit which glows but does not burn, core values delivered without sermons, and a magic world where despite insane events and impossibly convoluted plots, things always come right at the end. I would always trust someone who loves Plum. He is a way of life, a stamp of approval that you are, after all, a good egg.
RAJ: Because he makes you believe that all’s well with the world.
ARNAB: He makes one feel that life’s good after all
KAUSHIK: For me, he helps restores faith in humanity!
DRAISE: Wodehouse eases pain.
INDRANI: The faith that there will be Joy in the morning.
Perhaps what Wodehouse has to offer isn’t quite so irrelevant after all.
For the full (and idyllic troll-free) discussion, please join us in the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook Group.
For UK fans, PG Wodehouse Society Annual Pub Quiz is on July 12, 2017 at The Savoy Tup