In a comment on my item on Wodehouse Playhouse, regular visitor Mike quotes George Orwell’s July 1945 essay "In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse." Mike astutely points out that Orwell’s defense of Wodehouse characterizes the Great PGW as the performing seal the latter pretended to be, rather than a brilliant comic writer whose works have some interesting and valid thought behind them.
Now, it is important to note that in this article Orwell correctly and valiantly stepped forward to defend Wodehouse from absurd charges of collaboration with the Nazis, charges of which Wodehouse was entirely innocent. (It is a sorry saga in which the government and media of the time come off very badly indeed.)
In doing so, however, Orwell makes several claims about Wodehouse that are thoroughly unjustified.
Orwell’s critique of Wodehouse veers far away from an analysis of the particular merits of PGW’s work, to indulge instead in a vigorous ride on Orwell’s favorite hobbyhorse. Mike notes an example:
It should be noted, however, that Orwell un-self-consciously allows his own prejudices to surface on occasion, as here: ". . . Wodehouse’s real sin has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are."
Now, for all I personally know, the English upper classes might be an irredeemable pack of bounders worthy of such censure; but how does Orwell know? First-hand experience, or the received wisdom commonly and uncritically accepted by Socialists everywhere?
Another of our commenters, Joe, points out that Orwell most certainly did have some contact with the upper classes, and that is a good point. However, Orwell’s characterization of Wodehouse in the passage quoted by Mike is seriously wrong nonetheless. Wodehouse most certainly did not "present the English upper classes as much nicer than they are." His upper classes are populated by a far greater proportion of bounders, miscreants, harridans, twits, no-brains, ditzes, phonies, prigs, ignoramuses, hypocrites, obsessives, and flibbertigibbets than has ever existed anywhere in reality—and I am including the U.S. Congress in this.
Orwell is utterly fantasizing if he thinks Wodehouse presents the English upper classes as anything but wildly varied and with an inordinately strong presence of greed, venality, vanity, narcissism, ignorance, and vengefulness. Here, again, Orwell rides his hobbyhorse to an entirely absurd conclusion.
Similarly, Mike points us to Orwell’s observation that Wodehouse fails to have followed in the footsteps of Upton Sinclair and other subliterary fiction-writing muckrackers:
Wodehouse’s attitude towards the English social system is . . . a mild facetiousness covering an unthinking acceptance.
. . . a harmless old fashioned snobbishness is perceptible all through his work.
Here too, Orwell is dead wrong. As the list of character types and personal flaws noted in the previous paragraph indicates, Wodehouse has no illusions about the character of the English upper classes, and certainly proffers none.
Orwell is correct to note that Wodehouse makes in his narratives no overt statement that the English upper classes are evil and must be overthrown and put to the guillotine, but that simply shows Wodehouse’s common sense: it would ruin the effect of his stories, and nobody would be reading them today. As a result, we can see in Wodehouse’s writings a characterization of a senescent aristocracy at its most vain and mad, and thereby benefit from a knowledge that privileged classes of any kind at any time are carrying the seeds of their own demise.
In this way, one could argue (and I would indeed do so) that more real wisdom about social classes and the perils of privilege has been engendered by Wodehouse’s writings than those of any 100 left-wing journalists of his time, excepting only Orwell himself.
And Wodehouse’s writing are much more pleasing to read. Positively delightful, in fact.
Mike also quotes Orwell’s opinion of the characters of Jeeves and Wooster, and finds the critic’s analysis desperately wanting. Mike writes:
Orwell’s assessment of Jeeves should excite controversy among both Plum-ophiles and Englishmen in general: "The most immoral, or rather un-moral, of Wodehouse’s characters is Jeeves, who acts as a foil to Bertie Wooster’s comparative high-mindedness and perhaps symbolises the widespread English belief that intelligence and unscrupulousness are much the same thing."
Here I have to agree with Orwell’s observation, but disagree strongly with his judgment. Jeeves is clearly a guardian angel in human form. His morality is not worse than ours, but better, as he sees well beyond the immediate situation and is ruthless in protecting his charge from all danger, regardless of the cost. Remember, in the Bible angels are seen to think nothing of killing thousands of people if that’s the right thing to do. That, in his quiet and much smaller but thoroughly merciless way, is Mr. Reginald Jeeves for you. A half-point for Orwell here.
Looking at the Orwell article itself, one finds many other revealing moments in which the author is very obviously seeing Wodehouse from a highly politicized point of view, as in the following:
Wodehouse is almost incapable of imagining a desirable job. The great thing is to have money of your own, or, failing that, to find a sinecure. The hero of Something Fresh (1915) escapes from low-class journalism by becoming physical-training instructor to a dyspeptic millionaire: this is regarded as a step up, morally as well as financially.
I’ve read Something Fresh (and most of the other Blandings Castle novels), and nowhere does Wodehouse suggest that he, as author of the work, personally considers work to be something to be avoided and morally less worthy of approbation than leisure.
On the contrary, Wodehouse himself worked almost incessantly. He wrote nearly a hundred books and five hundred stories, and he toiled hard over each one, as a look at any biography of him reveals. He seems to have done little in his life other than write and play golf, and spent only a small fraction of his time on the latter. He wrote and rewrote his works incessantly, poring over each page through several drafts.
His writings do not deny this ethic; they confirm it. What one gains from Something Fresh (and countless other Wodehouse narratives) is the insight that a lot of people simply hate to work and will do all that they can to avoid it—a notion that Orwell, the great advocate of the English working classes, would have been loath to acknowledge and to which, as a consequence, he appears to have been blinded. Indeed, in this case Orwell misses this obvious conclusion and instead blames Wodehouse for expressing an attitude which he clearly cannot have held.
Orwell assesses Wodehouse’s work from too narrow a point of view, that of social class and political struggles. There is much more to life than that, however, and Wodehouse’s works point us to those things if we are wise enough to look below the frothy surface of his delightful humor and shimmering prose.
True it is that PGW did not intend his works to be social commentaries. And we should all be immensely grateful for that, for there are innumerable social commentaries to be found in this world, but few writers who have consistently been able to produce prose as brilliant as Wodehouse’s, much less make their readers laugh out loud on a regular basis (at least, to do so intentionally) and keep them engrossed in plots of remarkable complexity.
Surely Wodehouse’s is by far the more impressive accomplishment.