A Partial Book Review: Middlebrow Wodehouse: P. G. Wodehouse’s Work in Context ed. Professor Ann Rea (2016)
by Victoria Madden
Rather like looking for a word in Chambers, running a Google search means you never know what odd thing you’re going to discover. The latest piece of flotsam to strike my bemused gaze is a new book on Wodehouse: Middlebrow Wodehouse: P. G. Wodehouse’s Work in Context published in January of this year and written by a gaggle of American and British academics. Having read through some of the sections previewed online, I’m rather intrigued to know if anyone’s read it and, if so, what they think?
Although claiming to be examining Wodehouse ‘in context’ it seemed to me that the writers knew pretty little about that context: Rea makes the fairly basic mistake of referring to ‘the middle class’ rather than ‘middle classes’, throughout the Introduction, as do other of her collaborators in the examples she quotes. Their lack of the, pretty necessary, understanding of the hierarchical finesse of the period is exemplified in her comment on Richardson’s essay:
Richardson examines Wodehouse’s middle-class schooling, after which, acutely aware of his class position, he would, like middlebrows, make a career out of ‘annexing aristocratic values and identities’.
For a start, Wodehouse’s background and schooling – as any Wodehousian could have told her – was that of the well-connected, public-school educated, public service, upper-middle class; and, as such, he would already share many of the ‘aristocratic’ values, if not its identities, without any need to ‘annex’ them. Wodehouse was certainly acutely aware of class positions, as was every member of society in the early twentieth century – he would never have lumped in the lower-middle class Jeeves with the upper-middle class Glossops as ‘the middle class’ – but it was his acute awareness of his financial position that drove his career and its subsequent direction – he knew what editors would pay money for and intended to provide it.
(Rea and Richardson’s comments seem to indicate a similar lack of knowledge on the distinctions between the aristocratic and the upper class – surely fairly fundamental stuff when writing about this sort of thing?)
The other essays, likewise, seemed to fail to grasp the essential viewpoints of the period; though it must be said in the book’s defence that, as it was an online, preview copy, only the Introduction and sections of each chapter are available to be read, so that it’s quite difficult to follow a particular argument when it suddenly jumps several pages. I must also admit that I gave up reading the essays after the first chapter, and only skimmed through subsequent ones, as my constant eye rolling was giving me a pain. So there is, of course, a possibility that it improves when the whole is taken ‘in context’ but, frankly, I don’t advise you to waste the time.
From what I have read, the modus operandi of the authors seems to be re-hashing well-known facts and dressing them in academic language to present them as startling discoveries, while demonstrating, once more, ignorance of the period context they claim to be establishing:
Einhaus posits that Wodehouse’s knowledge of literature and criticism allows him to ‘position himself on the fringes of highbrow culture and at the same time to reject elitism’ through a use of allusion that not only ‘assumes his readers’ familiarity with both popular and canonical writing but refuses to treat it either reverentially or disdainfully’.
(Remind you of anything??)
We are also informed that, though people may think otherwise, Wodehouse was, in fact, Admired by many Literary Critics! – and even had over 50 reviews of his novels in the Times Literary Supplement! (I am reminded of an anecdote I read where a Disney executive, denied permission to hold some sort of shindig in Notre Dame cathedral for the premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, responded in bewilderment ‘But this is going to make your cathedral famous!’) and there is a yawn-making analysis of what is deemed Jeeves and Bertie’s ‘queer’ (in all senses of the word) relationship.
What I find irritating, though, above all, is Rea’s Disney-like implication that the book is ground-breaking both in its critical attention to Wodehouse’s work and its ‘establishment’ of Wodehouse’s literary status. Statements in the Introduction, such as:
this book presents many arguments that Wodehouse’s fiction belongs to a category above literary slumming
The last decade’s academic attention to formerly disparaged ‘middle-brow’ culture has … restored the reputation of many writers
As these essays demonstrate Wodehouse is neither historically static nor simply anachronistic
allowed us to fill the critical void around his work
rather make you wonder on which particular solar system the authors have been secluded whilst writing their opus; and when Rea states that another chapter
importantly corrects the failure to appreciate his contribution to American musical theatre
you can almost hear the combined howl of derision from Wodehouse readers and musical theatre aficionados world-wide.
I can only assume that the book is aimed at other academics – whom the writers believe consider Wodehouse beneath them: a January publication date means it’s obviously not aimed at the Christmas gift market; and at over £70 for the e-book – hard copy prices not given – it’s not the sort of thing you’re going to pick up for yourself during a Sunday afternoon browse at Waterstone’s, despite its attractive cover. In fact, I’d say that most Wodehouse readers would probably find it as irritating as I do.
I feel as if it should come with a sticker, advertising it as a tonic along the lines of Buck-U-Uppo:
Do you enjoy the works of P. G. Wodehouse?
Is your life grey and dull, notwithstanding this? Do you lack the impetus to tackle the daily round?
Read this book and feel your blood pressure rise to invigorating levels!
Perhaps, though, I’m not being fair – bear in mind I have only read isolated sections. Perhaps someone else, with the patience to wade through these essays, could write a review and give the book a better outing than I have. Noel has already done good work on this sort of thing; I’d be very interested in what he, Honoria or Ashok make of it.
Or perhaps we should, as always, Leave It To Jeeves:
INT: DAY – BERTIE’S FLAT IN LONDON
BERTIE LAYS DOWN THE BOOK in which FLORENCE CRAYE has tried to interest him
Rummy stuff. Dashed rummy! Reminds me of something or other,
you know, Jeeves. Some dashed poem by that blighter they thought
such a lot of at my school.
I believe you may be alluding to the poet Wordsworth, sir. The line
‘Our meddling intellect’ would seem peculiarly apposite.
By Jove! – that’s it! How do you do it, Jeeves? How does it go now?
(clearing his throat)
‘Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:-
We murder to dissect.’, sir.
That’s it, exactly.
Have you read this blithering book then, Jeeves?
I took the liberty of glancing through it, sir.
(pause, with a wealth of meaning)
I found it to be Fundamentally Unsound.
Too bally right! Chuck this rot out, Jeeves, and let’s have one of your Specials.
JEEVES PLACES the BOOK on a SILVER TRAY in a MANNER WHICH INDICATES WHAT HE THINKS OF IT and LEAVES THE ROOM, RETURNING with a COCKTAIL which he PLACES ON a SMALL TABLE NEXT TO BERTIE
Will that be all sir?
Yes, thank you, Jeeves
BERTIE LEANS BACK LUXURIOUSLY in his ARMCHAIR and PICKS UP THE LATEST DETECTIVE THRILLER
No one like old Jeeves!