The name P.G. Wodehouse is seeing a resurgence in the somewhat unlikely arena of online political commentary, particularly in Britain. This puts some people — those who’ve never read any Wodehouse, but seem determined to lug him into the row — at a disadvantage.
So I’ve put together this handy reference guide to help anyone wanting to avoid making an ass of themselves when referencing Wodehouse and his characters.
Bertie is an affable young man with sufficient inherited wealth to live comfortably in a rented flat in London’s Berkley Square and keep a manservant. He has plenty of money, although he owns no property. Bertie is content with his situation in life. He takes no interest in politics and makes no effort to increase his wealth, besides an occasional flutter at the races. He is one of the Drones Club’s richer members.
Here is what Bertie Wooster has to say about politicians:
‘Have you ever met a Cabinet Minister? I know dozens, and not one of them wouldn’t be grossly overpaid at thirty shillings a week.’
‘There are bigger fatheads than Stilton among our legislators — dozens of them. They would probably shove him in the Cabinet.’
(Joy in the Morning)
Here’s Bertie objecting to the fascist Black Shorts leader Roderick Spode:
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
And here he is, responding to a question from the socialist Comrade Rowbotham:
‘Do you yearn for the Revolution?’
‘Well, I don’t know that I exactly yearn. I mean to say, as far as I can make out, the whole nub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me; and I don’t mind owning I’m not frightfully keen on the idea.’
Bertie is not without his faults — he’s a fathead by his own admission, and is easily manipulated into acting against his own better judgement. But those people presenting him as some sort of alt-right poster-boy have got the wrong man.
Sir Roderick Spode
Wodehouse’s amateur dictator Roderick Spode, as described in The Code of Woosters, bears a strong resemblance to Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists (the Blackshirts).
Don’t you ever read the papers? Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea, if he doesn’t get knocked on the head with a bottle in one of the frequent brawls in which he and his followers indulge, is to make himself a Dictator.’
‘Well, I’m blowed!’ I was astounded at my keenness of perception. The moment I had set eyes on Spode, if you remember, I had said to myself ‘What ho! A Dictator!’ and a Dictator he had proved to be. I couldn’t have made a better shot, if I had been one of those detectives who see a chap walking along the street and deduce that he is a retired manufacturer of poppet valves named Robinson with rheumatism in one arm, living at Clapham.
‘Well, I’m dashed! I thought he was something of that sort. That chin…Those eyes…And, for the matter of that, that moustache. By the way, when you say ‘shorts’, you mean ‘shirts’, of course.’
‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’
‘Footer bags, you mean?’
‘How perfectly foul.’
(The Code of the Woosters)
Astute observers have been drawing comparisons between Spode and our own aspiring dictators for some years now.
There is no evidence in the literature that Gussie Fink-Nottle, admittedly an ass in other respects, took part in political life — or indeed any life at all.
This Gussie, then, was a fish-faced pal of mine who, on reaching man’s estate, had buried himself in the country and devoted himself entirely to the study of newts, keeping the little chaps in a glass tank and observing their habits with a sedulous eye. A confirmed recluse you would have called him, if you had happened to know the word, and you would have been right.
(The Code of the Woosters)
Some people have likened this fictional newt-fancier to the Conservative Member of Parliament for North East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg. There may be a superficial piscine resemblance between these bespectacled exhibits, but comparing the Honourable Member to one of Wodehouse’s more harmless creations is arguably letting the fish off the hook.
Comrades Butt and Waller
Wodehouse takes gentle aim at the left too. When Bertie invites the Heralds of the Red Dawn to tea, Comrade Butt shoves down the foodstuffs without any gratitude towards his host.
‘I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!’
‘Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!’
‘I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,’ said old Rowbotham. ‘And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.’
Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.
(The Inimitable Jeeves)
In this example, Comrade Waller (much like our modern left) is apt to create division within his own audience.
‘…the speaker, branching off from the main subject of Socialism, began to touch on temperance. There was no particular reason why Mr Waller should have introduced the subject of temperance, except that he happened to be an enthusiast. He linked it on to his remarks on Socialism by attributing the lethargy of the masses to their fondness for alcohol; and the crowd, which had been inclined rather to pat itself on the back during the assaults on Rank and Property, finding itself assailed in its turn, resented it. They were there to listen to speakers telling them that they were the finest fellows on earth, not pointing out their little failings to them.
Alexander Charles “Oofy” Prosser
If you’re looking for an example of idle wealth and privilege in Wodehouse’s world, try “Oofy” (that’s slang for wealthy) Prosser. As a beneficiary of the Prossers Pep Pills family fortune and the Drones Club’s only millionaire, Oofy is much sought after by less pecunious club members for small loans. Their appeals always fail because Oofy would rather swindle his pals out of a few bob than part with the stuff.
When Oofy discovers Freddie Widgeon has drawn his gargantuan Uncle Horace in the ‘Fat Uncles sweepstake’, he tricks Freddie into exchanging tickets.
…the thought that Freddie Widgeon and not he would win all that lovely money was like a dagger in Oofy’s bosom. We said earlier that he did not need the cash, but it was we who said it, not Oofy. His views on the matter were sharply divergent. Whenever there was cash around, he wanted to get it. It was well said of him at the Drones that despite his revolting wealth he would always willingly walk ten miles in tight boots to pick up twopence. Many put the figure even lower.
The Fat of the Land (A Few Quick Ones)
When lunching at the expense of Bingo Little, Oofy gorges himself with brutal disregard for the bill, although Bingo’s financial difficulties are well-known to him.
It is not too much to say that from the very outset he ate like a starving python. The light, casual way in which he spoke to the head waiter about hot-house grapes and asparagus froze Bingo to the marrow. And when—from force of habit, no doubt—he called for the wine list and ordered a nice, dry champagne, it began to look to Bingo as if the bill for this binge was going to resemble something submitted to Congress by President Roosevelt in aid of the American Farmer.
All’s Well With Bingo (Eggs, Beans and Crumpets)
Sir Jasper Addleton O.B.E and the British Aristocracy
And why stop at honest wealth and privilege when Wodehouse gives us many examples of excesses gained through more unscrupulous means? Like financier, Sir Jasper Addleton, O.B.E., who encounters the detective Adrian Mulliner at a dinner party.
The O.B.E., as he followed him into the cool night air, seemed surprised and a little uneasy. He had noticed Adrian scrutinizing him closely across the dinner table, and if there is one thing a financier who has just put out a prospectus of a gold mine dislikes, it is to be scrutinized closely.
The Smile That Wins (Mulliner Nights)
At dinner Sir Jasper is merely uneasy. By port and cigars, he’s planning a hasty departure for South America.
And the rot doesn’t stop with O.B.E.s according to Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.
‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘reluctant though one may be to admit it, the entire British aristocracy is seamed and honeycombed with immorality. I venture to assert that, if you took a pin and jabbed it down anywhere in the pages of Debrett’s Peerage, you would find it piercing the name of someone who was going about the place with a conscience as tender as a sunburned neck.
The Smile That Wins (Mulliner Nights)
Lord Tilbury (“Stinker” Pyke)
If you have some strongly worded remarks to make about a media mogul (and let’s face it, who doesn’t) the proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Company is a fine example of this species. He interferes in editorial matters and is not above breaking the law to get his hands on some juicy material.
The Tilbury of whom mention has been made from time to time in this chronicle… should more properly have been alluded to as Lord Tilbury, for it was several years now since a gracious sovereign, as a reward for flooding Great Britain with some of the most repellent daily, weekly and monthly periodicals seen around since Caxton’s invention of the printing press, had bestowed on him a Barony.
He can call himself Lord Tilbury as much as he likes, but we’ll always think of him as Stinker Pyke, thanks to Galahad Threepwood. (Whatever you do, don’t Tweet that – he’d hate it to be widely known).
Soapy Molloy and American politics
The swindler Soapy Molloy, a recurring character in Wodehouse’s novels, is frequently compared to an American Senator.
Mr. Molloy looked like a Senator clearing himself of the trumped-up charges of a foul and corrupt opposition.
Chimp Twist was looking like a monkey that had bitten into a bad nut, and Soapy Molloy like an American Senator who has received an anonymous telegram saying, “All is discovered. Fly at once.”
P.G. Wodehouse first visited New York in 1904 and lived there, on and off between 1909 and his death in 1975. He was a great observer of American culture and there is much in Wodehouse’s writing to offer the modern political observer.
“The only way,” I said to Alexander, “of really finding out a man’s true character is to play golf with him. In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself. I employed a lawyer for years, until one day I saw him kick his ball out of a heel-mark. I removed my business from his charge next morning. He has not yet run off with any trust-funds, but there is a nasty gleam in his eye, and I am convinced that it is only a question of time.
Ordeal By Golf (The Clicking of Cuthbert)
Here’s one of my favourites:
Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.
There are many more quotes — I’m just getting warmed up — but in the interests of time and space, I’ll finish with a word of caution.
If you look long enough with sufficient determination through Wodehouse’s prodigious output, you will find quotes to support almost any opinion. As I said in 2016, the messages we take from Wodehouse’s work are usually the ones we bring to it ourselves. It’s hardly surprising to find Wodehouse is still so beloved today — on the left, the right, and everything in between.