Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"Never Built at All, and Therefore Built Forever"1: Camelot and the World of P. G. Wodehouse*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"Never Built at All, and Therefore Built Forever"1: Camelot and the World of P. G. Wodehouse*

Article excerpt

In his later years, P. G. Wodehouse wrote "I go in for what is known in the trade as 'light writing' and those who do that-humorists they are sometimes called-are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at" (Over Seventy 785). Essentially, he was identifying himself as a "middlebrow" writer, if by "middlebrow" we are describing the sometimes unbridgeable gulf separating the middle class from the tastes and cultural achievement of the elite "highbrow" group.2 While the term was initially used pejoratively (Macdonald 1), it has recently been seen as designating a literature, more popular, more likely feminist (Macdonald 1-2), that resists the male-dominated intellectual elitist productions of high modernism (and post-modernism) in favor of detective fiction, historical fiction, and the comic novel, of which Wodehouse was the master. Wodehouse creates a secondary comic world in his fiction, a world not of the highbrow modernist's ironic reassessment of cultural standards or the overturning of old forms, but of long-gone Edwardian values, among which are the even more antiquated tenets of chivalry, at least chivalry as conceived of in Victorian England.

Modern medievalism is in itself a kind of middlebrow perspective: is there a more middlebrow novel than T. H. White's Once and Future King? If middlebrow is a means by which the middle classes aspire to the tastes of the highbrow culture, then chivalry, perceived as the distinguishing feature of aristocratic medieval society (only the truly noble can truly love, as medieval love poets were fond of asserting), is in Wodehouse's fiction a distinctly middlebrow activity. Wodehouse is fully aware that his chivalry is an anachronism, practiced by his more idealistic characters against the modern, realistic, and mercantile interests of the powerful older women in his stories. But then so is his Edwardian world: his characters adopt an outmoded sense of nobility, filtered through a by this time outdated Victorian lens, that perfectly fits Wodehouse's Edwardian society which is also an imagined, idealized place no longer existing in reality.

Auden, Waugh, and Orwell admired Wodehouse3 chiefly for his depiction of a self-contained but perfectly realized comic world, comparable to the "green world" of Shakespearean comedy. Wodehouse's universe follows its own inner logic and, though reminiscent of the Edwardian country estate, is depicted over and over again as if coexisting with the "real" world of depression-era and even post-1945 England. Like Tolkien's Middle Earth and Pratchett's Discworld, Wodehouse's Blandings Castle and Totleigh Towers provide an escape from mundane reality. In Wodehouse's case, it is an escape into a more innocent world wherein the dangers are produced by folly rather than malice.

It is my contention that Wodehouse was largely influenced, in the creation of his fictional world, by the romance world of Arthurian legend. In an article published in this journal in 2011, Lawrence Dugan described Bertie Wooster as being "like a comic knight who is given a quest and performs it" (236). In this he was anticipated by Inge Leimberg, who wrote of Wodehouse in 2003-04 that "figures of knight errantry never lose their charm for him, and he finally exalts them by making the knight-errant surpass himself in exchanging the sword with the slapstick" (75). I would like, first, to expand on these suggestions and then assert what I consider the likely source for Wodehouse's medievalism.

Wodehouse, of course, knew Malory's work and grew up at a time when Tennyson's Idylls of the King (arguably a middlebrow creation themselves, scorned by critics like Carlyle4) were especially popular. He was certainly aware that the Arthurian world was not "real" in any physical or historical sense, but was a kind of idealized "medieval" world, complete with a chivalric code of honor and certain romanticized attitudes toward love that only truly apply within the boundaries of Arthurian fiction. …

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