The man who wrote the most perfect sentences ever written
In our latest essay in which a critic reflects on a cultural work that brings them joy, Nicholas Barber pays tribute to the blissfully escapist comic novels of PG Wodehouse.
If we’re talking about culture that makes people happy, we have to start with the works of PG Wodehouse. There are two reasons why. One reason is that making people happy was Wodehouse’s overriding ambition. The other reason is that he was better at it than any other writer in history.
Some authors may want to expose the world’s injustices, or elevate us with their psychological insights. Wodehouse, in his words, preferred to spread “sweetness and light”. Just look at those titles: Nothing Serious, Laughing Gas, Joy in the Morning. With every sparkling joke, every well-meaning and innocent character, every farcical tussle with angry swans and pet Pekingese, every utopian description of a stroll around the grounds of a pal’s stately home or a flutter on the choir boys’ hundred yards handicap at a summer village fete, he wanted to whisk us far away from our worries. Writing about being a humourist in his autobiography Over Seventy, Wodehouse quoted two people in the Talmud who had earnt their place in Heaven: “We are merrymakers. When we see a person who is downhearted, we cheer him up.”
As P G Wodehouse himself said, his primary aim was to spread “sweetness and light” (Credit: Alamy)
My own introduction to this supreme merrymaker came via Jeeves and Wooster, the television series adapted from some of his most beloved stories about a young toff and his unflappable manservant. Hugh Laurie starred as Bertie Wooster, the moneyed bachelor who seemed to care about nothing except food, drink and fashionable socks, but who always came to the aid of the numerous old schoolmates who were even more stupid than he was. Stephen Fry co-starred as Jeeves, who had the brains that his young master lacked. As an undernourished, overworked student, stressed by essays and exams, I was always relieved when I could nip down to the college’s TV room (yes, it was a long time ago) for my weekly escape into a jazz-age wonderland of art-deco flats and panelled gentlemen’s clubs, “tissue-restoring” cocktails and buffet breakfasts served on silver platters.
A crafter of perfect sentences
Nearly three decades on, I’m currently rewatching the DVDs with my daughter, and Jeeves and Wooster is still pretty much flawless. When I interviewed Laurie in 2000, I gushed about the series, and he cited what was, at the time, his favourite Wodehouse line: “The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like GK Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.”
There are so many other lines he could have gone for. How about this one?
“It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”
“It isn’t often that Aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them.”
“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.”
The one that has me chuckling to myself on a regular basis is this Bertie Wooster gem from the novel Right Ho, Jeeves: “‘Very good,” I said coldly. ‘In that case, tinkerty tonk.’ And I meant it to sting.”
We could keep listing zingers like that all day: there were 96 Wodehouse books published in his lifetime, and he was drafting another when he died in 1975 at the age of 93. What these excerpts prove is that, however much we may cherish the bumbling aristocratic characters and their convoluted escapades, what really makes Wodehouse so addictive is the prose: the phrases which appear to float along so effortlessly, but which came about because he would, he said, “write every sentence 10 times”.
To read any of those sentences is to marvel at the elaborate but elegant route it takes to a perfect punchline; to delight in how it glides between Shakespeare and race-track slang, between understatement and exaggeration, between gentle humour and stinging wit. “What Wodehouse writes is pure word music,” said Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. “It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.”
He could certainly have written darker, more soul-searching books if he hadn’t been so naturally jovial: he had plenty of raw material to draw on. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881. (Perhaps he was thinking of his own names when he had Bertie commenting that “there’s some raw work pulled at the font from time to time”.) His Victorian colonial parents were rarely in the same country as he was, according to his biographer, Robert McCrum. “In total, Wodehouse saw his parents for barely six months between the ages of three and 15, which is by any standards a shattering emotional deprivation,” he noted in 2005’s Wodehouse: A Life. Nonetheless, “Plum” relished his Dulwich College schooldays, and was looking forward to his university years when the next blow fell: his father announced that he had to go straight to a job in a bank instead.
There were 96 Wodehouse books published in his lifetime, with his Jeeves and Wooster novels remaining his most celebrated legacy (Credit: Alamy)
The disappointment didn’t stop him. He always knew that he wanted to be a writer, and so he sold short stories at a superhuman rate until he could make a living from them. Soon he graduated to anthologies and novels, some featuring Jeeves and Wooster (who debuted in 1915), others featuring the canny Psmith or the garrulous Mr Mulliner, some set at mossy Blandings Castle, others set at Marvis Bay Golf and Country Club. Beyond these, there were Broadway musicals and Hollywood screenplays, and a long and harmonious marriage. (He made the money and his wife spent it, an arrangement which suited them both.)
But while his professional and personal lives were blessed, they included episodes which could have been turned into sombre literature. During World War Two, his adored stepdaughter Leonora died unexpectedly, aged 40, after a minor operation, and Wodehouse himself was arrested in northern France, where he was living at the time, and sent to a German internment camp for almost a year. Even there, he kept writing, and polished off a novel in captivity, the appropriately titled Money in the Bank. He was then moved to a hotel in Berlin, where he was invited by German radio to broadcast a series of comic accounts of his internment. Naively, he agreed, keen as he was to assure his fans that he was in good health and good spirits. What he didn’t realise was that he was playing into the hands of the Nazi government, which could claim to be treating its illustrious guest well. In Britain, he was accused of colluding with the enemy, and his reputation never quite recovered, but there was hardly a trace of anger or self-recrimination in his work. He stuck to prelapsarian yarns in which everyone was essentially comfortable and fortunate – except, of course, when they found themselves briefly engaged to a woman who believed in healthy eating and gainful employment.
Whatever was going on in his life, Wodehouse stayed buoyant; and whatever is going on in the reader’s life, he keeps us buoyant, too. “I was clinically depressed for most of 1999,” said Jay McInerney, the author of Bright Lights, Big City in a 2016 interview “and I would turn to Wodehouse, possibly the funniest writer in the English language. It seemed to be more effective at warding off despair than the antidepressants that I was taking.”
Maybe you can spot some deeper themes in his books if you look hard enough. At times I can persuade myself that there is something subversive in Bertie’s lack of interest in the conventional status markers of a career and a marriage, and something instructive in his insistence on helping his lovestruck friends, however ungrateful they may be. I can even argue that Wodehouse was revolutionary because his characters didn’t defeat villains in fist fights or shootouts (although they sometimes stole policemen’s helmets on Boat Race night). Perhaps he was teaching us that we can’t all be high achievers, let alone rugged action heroes, but that we can all be kind and generous. In other words, we can live according to the code of the Woosters. But I admit that this is a stretch. As Stephen Fry put it, “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection: you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”
Evelyn Waugh might have agreed. “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale,” he said in 1961. “He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.” Captivity doesn’t get much more irksome than the one we’re enduring now, but Wodehouse can still release us from it.
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