The Green Baize Door: Social Identity in Wodehouse Part One

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HE stands, looking relaxed and tanned, beside a beautiful and elegant young woman. He is dressed in leisure clothes, a neat logo on the breast pocket of his shirt. He looks what he claims to be, her friend, confidant and protector, a smiling, slightly proprietorial figure. I am speaking of Paul Burrell, whose account of his time as butler--majordomo--to the late H.R.H. Princess Diana of Wales appeared in translation in bookshops all over France at the end of last year. He epitomises the contemporary ethos, self-confident, approachable, classless and caring, a far cry from the deferential, if sometimes mildly derisive, attitude of your traditional butler.

Looking more closely I thought I saw, behind the smiling couple pictured on the cover, a pair of shadowy presences: the one tall and thin, peering shortsightedly about him and almost distressingly untidy; the other, standing a little way behind and to one side of the first, pop-eyed, well-nourished and aloof, as if he disapproved of the publicity. It was a trick of light, I decided, as the picture faded. But for a moment I could have sworn that they were the Earl of Emsworth and his butler, Beach.

Paul Burrell's skills as a butler will include some which Beach was never required to master. But he will be hard put to it to equal the other's shelf life. That he, Beach, lives still is made evident by the decision of Everyman's Library to publish the whole corpus of Wodehouse novels and short stories, at the rate of four or five volumes a year. The Everyman edition is nicely produced, in hard covers, clearly printed on good quality paper, and has been carefully re-edited. All Wodehouse lovers will wish the venture well and can contribute to its success by buying the books. They are of the kind that deserve to be handed on from generation to generation.

Wodehouse once claimed that all he required for happiness was a table, a typewriter, his pipe and tobacco pouch and one of his pekingese dogs snoring in its basket beside him while the sun shone outside. He wrote for money and made a fortune. His output was prodigious and included more than 90 books, including novels, short stories, scripts for musical comedy and plays. He was working up to the end, quite literally, in the hospital bed where he died, on 14 February 1975. Few writers have attracted more praise from others. Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Belloc considered him unequalled as a writer of prose fiction. Few have been more anthologised. Frances Donaldson's biography lists some thirty titles of what might be called 'Wodehouse Studies' in its appendix, including full length works and articles. He might almost be said to have become an industry.

Criticising him has been described as 'taking a spade to a souffle', so unique is the world he created, and so deft the language in which he created it. Not a word is wasted. The dexterity of his plotting is inexhaustible. He remains, nevertheless, what he always was, a matter of taste. Those who admire him cannot get enough of him. Those who do not, detest him. Frances Donaldson acknowledged that she could not read his books, though she tried to do so, out of affection for Wodehouse's step-daughter, who was her close friend. It was only when she began, at the age of seventy, to read them for professional reasons, that she allowed herself to be seduced. There are parts of the world where Wodehouse's name means nothing. Latin America, for example. In others he is an icon. In India, where he is read for the felicity of his language, sales of his novels are very much in demand among the younger generation.

Wodehouse does not translate, since his humour is mostly a play on words, dated, mainly upper class, slang and absurd coincidences, the effect of which would be lost in translation, though in her translations for Editions 10/18 AnneMarie Bouloch succeeds so well in capturing the linguistic zest of his writing that I am sure she would have won Wodehouse's warmest applause. …