Saturday, December 04, 2004

The political relevance of Wodehouse

I have been a member of the PG Wodehouse Society (US) for a couple of years. Tomorrow's Times reviews the latest biography of Plum. ("P" standing for Pelham, shortened to Plum by friends. Like Clive Staples (CS) Lewis, Pelham Grenville's (PG's) parents didn't even give him a usable middle name.) But what infuriates me about the devotees is that they want to make more of him than he is: a highly entertaining author. It is a disgrace that anyone should take Plum as a model of what to be like, or how to think.

Wodehouse's most famous characters are Bertie and his there-when-you-need-him manservant Jeeves. Highly entertaining. But that entertainment is no reason to overlook his serious flaws. Wodehouse was detained by the Nazis in France in WWII. When he was released, he made several broadcasts on Nazi radio describing amusing events in a day in the life of the camp. This does not make him a traitor. Nor did it make him a monster (his camp was just a detention camp for wealthy non-French professionals, and at the time he had no knowledge that some camps were far worse). But it does show a failure to engage, a political obtuseness, that itself makes him a poor model for what is required of a mature citizen.

Orwell has a passage in The Road to Wigan Pier condemning certain English novelists who failed to engage the problems of the times, but instead created worlds-in-print that did not have any problems that needed fixing. I have long thought he was thinking about Wodehouse.

So what is the political relevance of Wodehouse? A mature citizen will have read him, and a right-thinking mature citizen will have enjoyed him. But no one should take him as an example.


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