The Green Baize Door: Social Identity in Wodehouse; Part Two

Article excerpt

P.G. Wodehouse has been said to have invented the 'upper class twit', an expression which would have surprised him. His heroes--if that is the word--include not only the Woosters, Fotheringay-Phippses, Twistleton-Twistletons, Fink-Nottles, Carmody's, Threepwoods, Potter-Pirbrights, Byngs, the Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, and others of the Drones Club, the young men from Eton and Oxford or Cambridge who might be described as 'social butterflies' or 'parasites'; but as many drawn from the world with which Wodehosue was personally more familiar, that of the young man of respectable family, perhaps with distant aristocratic connections of no conceivable advantage, even in the longer term, whose hopes of university and prospects of advancement have been blighted by family misfortune or other accident. They include those who come down from University with no other qualification than a pass degree and perhaps a Blue, and no prospects whatsoever.

Mike, in the Psmith stories, and Sam Shotter, in Sam the Sudden, are typical of this type. The majority have names of one syllable--Mike, Sam, Bill, George--as opposed to the Freddies, Berties, Hugos, Montys, Bingos, Buffys etc of the Drones. They are self-reliant--because that is what public school taught them to be. Though occasionally given to mawkish introspection they are generally uncomplaining, for the same reason, and accustomed to taking the rough with the smooth, usually in the proportion 75 per cent rough to 25 per cent smooth. They smoke pipes, whereas Bertie Wooster and his friends smoke cigars or cigarettes. They live in lodgings or tiny, comfortless flats, on a meagre allowance or none. Lack of money and employment, and consequently hunger, are their perennial preoccupation. If in the end they succeed, it is against all odds and the censure of their more fortunate contemporaries, like the two in faultless evening dress who, leaving the Savoy, where they have been attending an Old Boys' Dinner, see a vagrant advancing towards them in Piccadilly. They recognize him as Sam Shotter, a former schoolfellow.

      The two exquisites looked at each other apprehensively.
         'Shift ho before he touches us, what?' asked the first.
         'Shift absolutely ho', agreed the second ...

After a brief reminiscence, markedly unenthusiastic on both sides, Sam braces himself to make his touch.

      Another silence was about to congeal, when a taxi crawled up and
      the two exquisites leapt joyfully in.
         'Awful, a fellow going right under like that', said the first.
         'Ghastly', said the second.
         'Lucky we got away'.
         'He was shaping for a touch'.
         'Trembling on his lips', said the second.
      Sam walked on ...

Evidently, in the world Wodehouse knew, one was left to sink or swim. Like all the best fabulists he had no illusions about life's underlying harshness. Whatever else might have been trembling on his young men's lips it would not have been today's holy trinity of 'compassionate', 'concerned' or 'caring'.

Some of these 'disadvantaged' young men seek salvation in the United States, as Wodehouse himself did. The moral is that, whatever his plight, success can only come through a young man's own endeavours and a large slice of luck--and, as often as not, the pretty girl with whom he has fallen in love, herself often in straits as dire as his. It is she who provides the motivation, the stiffening or backbone, as Joan Valentine does for Ashe Marson in Something Fresh, and Kay Derrick does for Sam himself. In this, Wodehouse was merely acknowledging a fact of life: his own wife was the stronger character.

Wodehouse's girls are of three sorts: first, the statuesquely beautiful and domineering, bent on improving the young man to whom they are engaged; second, the soulful and poetic, like Madelaine Bassett. These are generally of the aristocracy, especially the first, aunts in the making. …