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Part 3: Destabilising Comic Boundaries

P. G. Wodehouse’s ‘Thoughtful Lightness’ and Detached Involvement: Satire, Parody and the Subversive Use of the Canonical Intertext in Code of the Woosters (1938)

P.G. Wodehouse, sa «’Thoughful Lightness » et son engagement détaché : satire, parodie et la subersion de l’intertexte canonique dans Code of the Woosters (1938)
Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay


Les universitaires et les critiques ont longtemps négligé, voire rejeté, P. G. Wodehouse en raison de préjugés tenaces contre le comique, jugé ‘léger’ et donc superficiel. Il a été (re)découvert à partir de l’an 2000, période qui correspond à une réorientation critique prenant en compte les liens étroits entre esthétique et idéologie. Cet article étudiera les modalités de l’humour et de la comédie dans The Code of the Woosters : la façon dont Bertie Wooster, protagoniste et narrateur faussement naïf du roman, détourne l’intertexte (foisonnant !) classique et biblique à des fins burlesque et héroï-comique, et joue le rôle subversif de parodiste et de porte-parole de son créateur. Les comédies et le style délectable de Wodehouse ont néanmoins un substrat idéologique et satirique qui n’a jusqu’ici guère été perçu ou pris en compte. Wodehouse, certes un génie du comique, mais pas un simple ‘amuseur’, s’en prend (via Bertie) aux relations entre les sexes et les classes, et au canon littéraire, d’une manière humoristique et iconoclaste. Ses œuvres, comiques mais plus complexes qu’il n’y paraît, méritent donc d’être (re)lues pour leur mélange si rare et surprenant de légèreté et de profondeur.

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  • 1 All the translations or adaptations from French critics are by the author of this paper.

1P. G. Wodehouse has long been, and to some extent, still is, neglected, if not ostracised, by academia and critics, because of a persistent prejudice against light writing and reading. The Great Tradition (1946), in which F. R. Leavis’s predictably never mentions Wodehouse, is a case in point with its attack on Sterne whose works are dismissed as insignificant and immature, ‘irresponsible (and nasty) trifling’, and ‘a sanction for attributing value to other trifling’ (2, note 2). Dickens himself, not a ‘great novelist’ (19) is reduced to the status of ‘popular entertainer’ (244) without ‘mature standards and interests’ (132). His ‘direct influence’ on Henry James’s ‘characteristic astringent dryness’ (210) is, for instance, ‘unmistakable in certain minor lapses into facetious humour’ (210; emphasis added). Leavis’s position is of course quite extreme, reactionary and elitist. However, for all their excess, his prejudices against levity and comedy are not solely typical of his times and highbrow academic milieu. They endured well into the 20th-century (and beyond). As Jean émelina points out in Le comique: ‘In the aesthetic pantheon, the comic feels uneasy’; this ‘poor relation has always more or less been a disgrace to the family’ (165).1 And so has Wodehouse…

2The cursory and reductionist approaches to his abundant and varied oeuvre clearly prove this highbrow bias against insignificant and ‘minor’ comic works: the complete absence of specific references to the novels, or quotations from them, accounts for the perpetuation of sweeping and scientifically unfounded judgements. In L’humour (1960), Robert Escarpit evokes a decadence of British humour between 1900 and 1940 because of excessive complacency and conformism (55), the only exception being, in his opinion, Evelyn Waugh (60), that stands out from the ‘well-bred British humorists, the brothers of Jerome K. Jerome and P. G. Wodehouse’, that he calls ‘engineers of laughter’ (58). In On Humour (2002), Simon Critchley makes Wodehouse feature in the section ‘Reactionary humour’ and dispatches him in a few lines, claiming that the type of humour present in The World of Jeeves novels aims at pure entertainment, and merely plays on existing social hierarchies, in a charming and harmless way, without attempting to change anything to them (11).

3If, by and large and with only a few exceptions, his works have not been deemed worthy of in-depth analysis it is because, as Lev Grossman remarks in ‘In Praise of P. G. Wodehouse’ (2011): ‘He was a comic writer in an age of serious aesthetes […] and the toweringly serious works of his famous coevals have gone a long way towards obscuring [his] enormous gifts as a stylist.’ Ironically, although Virginia Woolf was one of his ‘famous coevals’ and one of the ‘serious aesthetes’ evoked by Grossman (together with Joyce), she was also aware of ‘The Value of Laughter’ (1905). Therefore, in her seminal essay, she set out to rehabilitate and legitimise the ‘gift’ and vital usefulness of laughter against ‘crude and ponderous knowledge’ (Woolf 60), arguing that even if it was ‘in disrepute’ (59), because it was thought to issue from ‘the lips of children and silly women’ (58–59), it was not the ‘voice of folly and frivolity’ (59).

  • 2 Belloc called him ‘the best writer of English now alive’ (Kimball 4–5).
  • 3 Waugh shared Belloc’s very high opinion in the 30s and he later wrote ‘An Act of Homage and Reparat (...)

4Some of Wodehouse’s contemporaries also appreciated the ‘value of laughter’, and fellow authors such as Hilaire Belloc,2 Evelyn Waugh3 or George Orwell enthusiastically praised his gifts as a humorist and a stylist. After being in eclipse for decades, he was (re)discovered from 2000 onwards by new readers, some of whom are themselves writers: Lev Grossman, Roger Kimball (‘The Genius of Wodehouse’, 2000), Ramendra Kumar (‘Wodehouse: The Wizard of Words’, 2014) and Jonathan Coe, who confesses at the end of ‘What’s so funny about comic novels?’ (2013) that ‘for a long time’, he felt ‘stupidly snobbish’ about him ‘and reluctant even to read him’.

  • 4 Charlotte Jones evokes the BBC adaptation of the Blandings novels, the BBC 4 Biopic Wodehouse in Ex (...)

5The (re)new(ed) interest in Wodehouse led to a series of publications: his complete works by Everyman from 2000 onwards, Robert McCrum’s biography in 2004, Sophie Ratcliffe’s edition of P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters (2013), and in 2014, a new edition of Frances Donaldson’s 1982 biography, which had been out of print since the mid-1990s. Besides, two parodic tributes came out: Sebastian Faulks’s novel Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (2013) in the UK, and in America, Jonathan Ames’s Wake Up, Jeeves (2015).4 This ‘Wodehouse revival’ is obviously a spin-off of New Historicism, and it exactly coincides with a series of publications on humour, parody (Dentith) or satire (Duval), that reflect the Zeitgeist with their more comprehensive, non-canonical, if not postmodernist, approaches to literature. They rest on the double assumption that aesthetics and ideology cannot be understood in isolation, and that ‘levity’ does not necessarily mean shallowness.

6One of the unanimously evoked reasons for the (re)discovery and reappraisal of Wodehouse is of course his stylistic brilliance and creativity. In ‘The Code of Woosters: Splendid, Jeeves!’, Charlotte Jones pays tribute to his inventive use of language, pointing out the seemingly ‘anarchic combination of high diction, erudite allusion, upper-class metropolitan slang and informal abbreviations’ that ‘should be incongruous’ but work surprisingly well in spite of the ‘apparent dissonance, the intangible mix of “high” and “low” culture’ (The Guardian, 2013).

7This paper will first analyse Wodehouse’s justly praised idiosyncratic style and the modalities of comedy and humour in The Code of the Woosters—particularly the burlesque and mock-heroic diversion of the classical and Biblical intertexts by the falsely naïve first-person narrator, Bertie Wooster. Style, though intensely enjoyable has, however, a dual comic and political function. The rich ideological subtext of Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves’ novels has so far been a critical blind spot. Their social, satirical, parodic and subversive dimension, long ignored or unperceived, and under-researched, deserves to be brought out. Wodehouse was undeniably a comic genius but he was not a mere ‘entertainer’. He was not only a consummate stylist, story-teller and humorist, but also a clear-sighted observer and self-conscious parodist. There is more (intellectual and ethical) complexity and depth, more ‘thoughtful lightness’ to his works than he has so far been credited with.

8The proliferation of the ‘serious’ literary and Biblical intertexts is P. G. Wodehouse’s stylistic hallmark in the ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ stories, notably in The Code of the Woosters (1938) that abounds in (often distorted) quotes from and references to Scriptures, ancient Greek and Roman authors, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Romantic poets, and Victorian writers. Bertie Wooster, Jeeves’s aristocratic employer, is a socialite, a frivolous and vapid young man and a confirmed bachelor. He appears as lowbrow compared with his very learned and highbrow valet whom he admires and respects as a fount of knowledge. He frequently quotes Jeeves as the ultimate authority in literary and cultural matters, as when he is unable to remember the name of Damocles: ‘like the sword of—who was the chap?—Jeeves would know […]’ (31). The memory of policeman Oates peacefully riding his bicycle, quite unaware that Bartholomew (a particularly aggressive Aberdeen terrier) is about to attack and bite him, also leads him to remark: ‘As Jeeves said later, when I described the scene to him, the whole situation resembled some great moment in a Greek tragedy, where somebody is stepping high, wide and handsome, quite unconscious that all the while Nemesis is at his heels, and he may be right.’ (67)

  • 5 Shelley, “The Sensitive Plant” (1820).

9There is a logic to all these tributes to Jeeves since Bertie is fond of whodunits, such as The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish, and his only written achievement is the paper he wrote for Milady’s Boudoir (his aunt Dahlia’s magazine) on the elegant man about town. He is the falsely naive first-person narrator of the stories, who evinces diffidence about his poor literary and classical knowledge. He frequently makes a fool of himself by (unwittingly) displaying his ignorance, a source of high comedy and delightful word play. This occurs when he uses the phrase ‘sensitive plant’5 (borrowed from Jeeves) but quite misunderstands Madeline Bassett’s allusion to Shelley in response:

‘Have you not sometimes felt in the past, Bertie, that, if Augustus had a fault, it was a tendency to be a little timid?’
I saw what she meant.
‘Oh, ah, yes, of course, definitely.’ I remembered something Jeeves had once called Gussie. ‘A sensitive plant, what?’
‘Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.’
‘Oh, am I?’ (47)

10When they arrive at Totleigh Towers and Jeeves quotes King Lear (III, 4, 178), this is similarly quite lost on Bertie:

[…] we were informed by the butler that this was indeed the lair of Sir Watkyn Bassett.
‘Childe Roland to the dark tower came, sir,’ said Jeeves […], though what he meant I hadn’t an earthly. (35)

  • 6 This is a very free variation on the ‘savage place’ haunted ‘By woman wailing for her demon lover!’ (...)

11Yet, he will refer to all the daunting and time-hallowed classics and to the Biblical intertext, consistently misquoting or distorting them. The incongruous relocation of Juvenal (Satires X, 356) at the London Turkish baths, and the mixture of Latin and colloquial words and phrases illustrate Bertie’s comic idiosyncrasy: ‘I have said that this sojourn of mine in the T. bath had done much to re-establish the mens sana in corpore whatnot.’ (24). So does the allusion to the ‘demon lover’ of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ during the ‘reunion scene’ between Stiffy (Stephanie) Byng and Harold Pinker who pops up at her bedroom window, at the top of a ladder: ‘It was with a sort of joyful yelp, like that of a woman getting together with her demon lover,6 that the little geezer had spoken his name […]’ (134).

12The misapplied references are usually associated with the most unlikely and incongruous contexts (usually trite or ludicrous ones). Psalm 42.1 (‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks’) is doubly ‘corrupted’ since it is quoted loosely and demoted by its context, namely the aftermath of Bertie’s unpleasant meeting with Sir Watkyn Bassett in a seedy antique shop:

A most unnerving experience all this had been for a man of sensibility, as you may imagine, and my immediate reaction was a disposition to […] return to the flat and get outside another of Jeeves’s pick-me-ups. You know how harts pant for cooling streams when heated in the chase. Very much that sort of thing. I realised now what madness it had been to go into the streets of London with only one of them under my belt […] (19)

13The complete incongruity between the trivial situations and the loftiness of the diction and references produces a burlesque effect (that debunks Damocles, Shakespeare, the Bible, Coleridge or Greek tragedy) or a mock-heroic one if we consider the ludicrous situations (ironically) aggrandised thereby. The very opening of the novel and the reference to Judges 4.21, when Bertie wakes up with a hangover and violent headache, exemplifies this: ‘Indeed, just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head—not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.’ (7)

14It is actually Spode, the aspiring dictator of the story, inspired from the fascist politician Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), who is the main burlesque target. Bertie first meets this ‘breath-taking cove’ (17) in the antique shop already evoked:

It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment. […]
His gaze was keen and piercing. I don’t know if you have ever seen those pictures in the papers of Dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes, inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of the opening of a new skittle alley, but that was what he reminded me of.’ (17)

  • 7 ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/ Mak (...)

15The double-barrelled debunking is completed through a reference to Hamlet (I, v, 17–20)7 that is, as could have been expected, borrowed from Jeeves. As in the ‘dictator / skittle alley’ quote, Bertie’s description of Spode shifts from the mock-heroic to a deflating burlesque treatment:

His face was flushed, his eyes were bulging, and one had the odd illusion that his hair was standing on end—like quills upon the fretful porpentine, as Jeeves once put it when describing to me the reactions of Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps on seeing a dead snip, on which he had invested largely, come in sixth in the procession at the Newmarket Spring Meeting. (118)

16The complete discrepancy (both incongruity and anachronism) between Bertie’s 1930s upper class world and slang and the social, cultural and historical substratum of the intertext produces a particularly efficient form of cranky humour that is not merely an end in itself, enjoyable though it is.

17Actually, Wodehouse’s novels are not so innocent, smooth, or cosy as it seems. It should first be pointed out that he published many other works than the Jeeves stories, a series that started in 1919 with My Man Jeeves and was written alongside the Psmith stories (from 1910 on). Like Ukridge (1924), the Psmith stories represent other social milieus, so that the entirety of his oeuvre sheds additional light on the Jeeves stories by providing a wider social perspective or background to them. Besides, Wodehouse was from the middle class and did not by any means endorse the values of his aristocratic or upper-class characters. His portrait of them is far from eulogistic or flattering, and the ludicrous, silly, eccentric, feckless or sometimes frankly unpleasant characters (Sir Watkyn Bassett, Spode) can be read as instruments of a social critique, and a satire of the English aristocracy. Gussie Fink-Nottle, whose name is in itself programmatic, is depicted by Bertie as ‘a fish-faced pal of mine’ who ‘devoted himself entirely to the study of newts […], observing their habits with a sedulous eye’ (13). The slightly degenerate young men in the novels are a far cry from the refinement, glamour and panache traditionally associated with aristocrats. They are members of the Drones club in London which is an implicit way of referring to their unproductive, if not parasitic, status. Class relations are, therefore, more prominent than it seems. But they may escape some (inattentive or prejudiced?) readers because they are dealt with on the humorous mode and not in an explicit frontal way. Servants are masterminds and in a position of superiority and control: Jeeves is, indeed, a gentleman’s gentleman and is far more intelligent and cultivated than his employer (Bertie), something akin to a carnivalesque reversal. As Christopher Hitchens argues in ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’ (2004), ‘Some of the more Marxist Wodehousians, such as Alexander Cockburn and Francis Wheen […] emphasise the Spode satire, or the salient point that the upper classes in Wodehouse’s world are helplessly dependent on their menservants […]

  • 8 However, while ‘serious’ readers (and critics) are ready and willing to analyse the workings of com (...)
  • 9 ‘Le projet secret de la satire serait donc de dynamiter la littérature et tout système de pensée pa (...)

18The ideological substratum is deeper than meets the eye but can easily pass unnoticed because of the intense (and somehow misleading) enjoyment derived from the texts, with their stylistic brilliance, their very ‘light’ (though eventful) and more or less formulaic plots, their comic exuberance, their concern with the everyday and trivial, with ‘little nothings’. Some critics are therefore lulled into thinking Wodehouse was a mere entertainer with no ‘serious’ message, or simply no message, and one of the recurrent and customary grievances against his novels is their complete absence of satire or ‘moral seriousness’. Yet, the satire is undeniably present but never in an explicit or direct way. It is quite unobtrusive and oblique and it is never fierce or heavy-handed. The modus operandi is actually akin to Jane Austen’s dramatic method of presentation8 from which moral significance implicitly and gradually builds up. It is because Wodehouse chose to stage a gallery of comic and eccentric characters all (except Jeeves) lacking in moral seriousness that this seriousness shows through by implication. Comedy is not only a source of deep enjoyment, then, but also a subtle and effective weapon. As Sophie Duval and Marc Martinez point out in La satire: ‘If, in fact, the satirist hides the moral norm in the implicit layers of the text, it is because he is more attracted to picturesque and comical exuberance […] than to the dull austerity of virtue.’ (250) Moreover, they very justly remark that the playful dimension of satire has often been rejected by critics because of its supposed incompatibility with moral censure, since this ‘non-serious’ thinking mode rests on polyphony and irrationality, and the aesthetics of the arabesque has its own internal logic that subverts rational norms (251). They claim that, actually, satire does not seek to reform anything but violates traditional generic rules and subverts the literary heritage, defending the co-presence of the serious and the comic (256).9

19In Le rire, Henri Bergson insists that a state of insensitivity and detachment is necessary for the comic to operate: to him, laughter has no greater enemy than emotion (3), and demands a kind of momentary anaesthesia of the heart (4). Jean émelina similarly considers that laughter rests on real or supposed disorder and there can be no comedy without some form of anomaly. But, instead of affecting the subject, it is held at arm’s length like a pure show (47). This is exactly what happens in the Jeeves stories. This, added to the prevalence of two-dimensional characters that preclude identification, is probably the main factor responsible for our absence of (or at best our very limited) affective or ethical involvement.

20As Jonathan Coe points out about the ‘final coup de grace’ in Michael Frayn’s Skios (2012), ‘it simply serves to make us see the puppeteer’s strings more clearly, and to increase our admiration for the deftness with which his fingers are manipulating them. Skios, above all, is a triumphant affirmation of the comic novel’s wilful artificiality’ (Coe 2013), a remark that could easily apply to Wodehouse’s fiction. He can actually be seen as a puppet-master pulling the strings of his Bertie or using him as a ventriloquist’s dummy. In The Code of the Woosters, as in the other Jeeves novels, because he is both a character and the narrator, Bertie has a very ambiguous status alternating between counter-example and mouthpiece, foil and fictional double.

  • 10 ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings’: Psalms, 8.2 and Matthew, 21.16.

21Through this comic Candide-like narrator (and character) who unwittingly (it seems) collapses the boundaries between high and low, Wodehouse mischievously and polemically operates a series of iconoclastic attacks and reversals (concerning class, gender, and the canon). They seem quite innocuous because the falsely innocent Bertie is their vector but truth comes ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings’,10 to use a recurrent Biblical allusion in The Code of the Woosters. For all his apparent naivety, Bertie turns out to be a ‘highly accomplished’ and ‘consummate’ storyteller (Jones).

22As a character, Bertie serves most of the time as counter-example. In spite of his stereotyped and unflattering vision of women, he behaves in a foolish, frivolous and vapid way—the very way he ascribes to them, while most of his female friends and relatives are actually his intellectual superiors. As we saw, he wrote a paper for his aunt Dahlia’s magazine Milady’s Boudoir, which he defines as ‘a weekly sheet for the delicately nurtured’ (10), using a well-worn Victorian gender cliché. Ironically, though in many ways ‘womanly’, he frequently expresses old-fashioned or reactionary views on women and gender relations.

‘She was fully aware that she was doing something which even by female standards was raw, but she didn’t care. The whole fact of the matter is that all this modern emancipation of women has resulted in them getting it up their noses and not giving a damn what they do. It was not like this in Queen Victoria’s day. The Prince Consort would have had a word to say about a girl like Stiffy, what?’ (86–87)

  • 11 Unlike the bossy, silly or manipulative women of the Jeeves stories, Eve Halliday is a life-like, e (...)

23But such misogynist opinions rebound on him and Wodehouse did definitely not share them.11 Therefore, choosing Bertie as both the character and narrator of the stories (and alternately counter-example and mouthpiece) can be seen as a clever strategic device, and an act of resistance against constricting gender roles and stereotypes, class prerogatives, and the tyranny of ‘high’ literature and the canon.

24The author sometimes laughs at Bertie with us behind his back by letting him make a fool of himself (mainly as a character), and sometimes laughs and sides with him, making him play the role of his spokesman, as narrator and gifted parodist, quite aware of the codes, diction and clichés of many genres such as detective fiction. This is the case when Bertie realises that he will not only be ‘under the personal eye’ of Sir Watkyn but also of Spode at Totleigh Towers:

Well you can see that for yourself, I mean to say, I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well. (36; emphasis added)

25Later on when he and his aunt wonder what ‘Eulalie’, a skeleton in Spode’s cupboard, could mean and Bertie thinks this is the name of a poor young lady whom he forsook with her illegitimate child, he resorts to the clichés of lachrymose Victorian literature on fallen women, such as Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ (1844):

‘One can fill in the picture for oneself, I think, Aunt Dahlia? The trusting girl who learned too late that men betray […] the little bundle […] the last mournful walk to the riverbank […] the splash […] the bubbling cry […] I fancy so, don’t you? No wonder the man pales beneath the tan a bit at the idea of the world knowing of that.’ (122)

26The statuette of the Infant Samuel at prayer that Bertie’s aunt shatters to pieces to relieve her nerves may be another mocking reference to Victorian sentimentalism in art, and a possible allusion to James Sant’s painting Speak Lord, for Thy Servant Heareth (1853), aka The Infant Samuel that J. Treuhertz describes as a typically Victorian ‘vague and sentimental religious image’ of ‘childhood piety’ (122):

She rose and moved restlessly to the mantelpiece. I could see that she was looking for something to break as a relief to her surging emotions—what Jeeves would have called a palliative—and courteously drew her attention to a terra cotta figure of the Infant Samuel at Payer. She thanked me briefly, and hurled it against the opposite wall. (94)

  • 12 The phrase should of course be understood in a much more comprehensive sense (referring to the clas (...)

27The shattering of this statuette in the novel is highly iconoclastic in more senses than one; it represents a comic paradigm of Wodehouse’s own stance to the literary tradition. Bertie abuses the ‘Great Tradition’12 that he pretends to revere, because he distorts, misuses it and uses it too much, ultimately depedestalizing it. The mere accumulation of intertextual references is enough to create a sense of derision and take away their sacred aura. This points to the highly ambiguous nature of parody in which admiration and rejection, tribute and mockery, often coexist uneasily. Wodehouse was neither an elitist upholder of aristocratic values nor an erudite intellectual, as Jones and Kimball point out:

It is hard to think of an author more closely associated with a certain kind of elitism than he is now. His stories are anchored in … [a] society of inherited wealth and aristocratic authority, and his allusions presume a certain level of “cultural capital” on the part of the reader. But this was not the case at the time of writing. Wodehouse’s literary medium was commercial magazines, and he perceived himself as a middlebrow writer. (Jones)

Wodehouse’s penchant for literary allusion has led some people to commend his erudition. In fact, as Donaldson notes, his stock of references was actually quite small. Wodehouse did have a classical education, but he himself drew attention to the importance of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, “that indispensable adjunct to literary success.” He was not a scholar, much less was he an intellectual: a class of people that he rather feared and disliked but that he nevertheless managed to entertain mightily. (Kimball 9)

28The ideological uncertainty present in parody, and Wodehouse’s mixed feelings about ‘culture’ are paralleled by Bertie’s own very ambiguous status in the text. As narrator and accomplished parodist, he mainly acts as the relay of his creator who gets his own back by entrusting his ‘mentally negligible’ character (to quote Jones) with this precious ‘Great Tradition’. It is a way of cocking a snook at it, by seemingly trespassing on serious intellectual writers’ preserves. But this is achieved through the minor and low mode of parody and through an intellectually ‘minor’ character. The metafictional purple patch Bertie writes in chapter 1 is, indeed, a barely veiled mockery of self-conscious, highbrow literature:

A thing I never know, when I’m starting out to tell a story about a chap I’ve told a story about before, is how much expla­nation to bung in at the outset. It’s a problem you’ve got to look at from every angle. I mean to say, in the present case, if I take it for granted that my public knows all about Gussie Fink-Nottle and just breeze ahead, those publicans who weren’t hanging on my lips the first time are apt to be fogged. Whereas if before kicking off I give about eight volumes of the man’s life and history, other bimbos, who were so hanging will stifle yawns and murmur ‘Old stuff. Get on with it.’

I suppose the only thing to do is to put the salient facts as briefly as possible in the possession of the first gang, waving an apologetic hand at the second gang the while, to indicate that they had better let their attention wander for a minute or two and that I will be with them shortly. (12-13)

29Traditional hierarchies no longer hold and Bertie’s parodic writings give birth to hybrid, if not grotesque, comic ‘doubles’ of the classics. The opening of The Code of the Woosters exemplifies this, when Bertie is quite ignorant that Jeeves is quoting the first line of Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’ (1819) but nevertheless appropriates, digests, transforms and recycles it, until, a few pages later, he finally exports it to the most unlikely place imaginable, the (already mentioned) antique shop described as ‘dingy outside and dark and smelly within’ (16).

‘Is it morning?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’
‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Season of what?’

‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Oh? Yes. Yes, I see. Well, be that as it may, get me one of those bracers of yours, will you?’ (7)
Quite a slab of misty fruitfulness had drifted into the empor­ium, obscuring the view […] (16; emphasis added)

30Is it a pure coincidence that Bertie, a member of the Drones Club, with its parasitic connotations, is so adept at the ‘parasitic’ mode of parody? As Simon Dentith remarks in Parody (2000):

Thirty years ago, when John Jump wrote the volume Burlesque (1972) in the old ‘Critical Idiom’ series, discussion of parody played a minor, not to say disreputable, part in critical discourse. […] A long tradition of literary parody, especially prominent in the nineteenth century but persisting into the twentieth century also, had apparently marked the mode as irredeemably lightweight and second-order: in a more hostile vocabulary, as trivial and parasitic. (Preface ix)

  • 13 See Kumar (2014).
  • 14 ‘Mais on commettrait une grave erreur en pensant que le comique n’est que l’envers du tragique […]. (...)

31This was undoubtedly the view held in highbrow circles at the time when Wodehouse published his fiction. As he wrote in his autobiographical Over Seventy (1957): ‘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.’13 However, Jean émelina considers it would be a grave mistake to think that the comic is only trifling or frivolous (167) and is merely the reverse side of the tragic (166).14 Like parody, it has always been regarded as a minor genre (and a suspicious one): it is actually a genre that could be called secondary, but only in a temporal sense because it expresses reactions and attitudes to serious or tragic situations that have to be come to terms with, or ‘digested’; therefore, it only comes second, only afterwards, as a salutary response (166).

32For all its hilariously comic surface, and because of the author’s ambiguous stance to ‘classical’ culture, the subtext of the Jeeves stories is therefore more radical than it seems, since they question and redraw gender, class and canon boundaries. Like Woolf in her 1905 essay ‘The Value of Laughter’, Wodehouse’s works show us that, far from ‘giv[ing] no message’, or ‘convey[ing] no information’ (Woolf 59), the comic spirit is undeniably very eloquent. It is the ‘bright little mirror’ of our society and its values, reflecting ‘the trivial and accidental’, preserving ‘our sense of proportion’, and ‘forever reminding us that we are but human’ (59).

33Oddly, although Bertie is seemingly nothing but a rhetorical construct and a purely fictional, highly felicitous, comic creation, he grows on the reader and finally turns out to be endearing. True enough, his status as literary artifice, his (apparent) naivety and his background preclude actual identification with him; yet, he gradually acquires a surprising form of emotional appeal (a far cry from Bergson’s ‘anaesthesia of the heart’), possibly because of his frequent status as victim (that humanises him) and his constant misadventures, however funny they may otherwise be. Jones emphasises what she calls his ‘essentially human predicament[s]’ and perceptively singles out one of his idiosyncrasies, i.e. the use of the definite article ‘in reference to body parts where you would expect a possessive’ (the hand instead of my hand, for instance). For her, this ‘distancing technique’ is ‘a form of British “stiff upper lip”’ that conveys ‘a distinct aura of vulnerability’, so that ‘the characters, and their situations, seem somehow real, even when they are absurd.’

  • 15 For Coe, ‘as all art aspires to the condition of music, all humour should really aspire to the cond (...)

34The recent favourable assessments of Wodehouse’s works echo in many ways Woolf’s conception of the comic spirit, and provide a more adequate response to the often unperceived social, ethical and emotional implications of his fiction. For Grossman, his work ‘allows you to dispense with the drama, and rise to higher things. It puts things in a comic perspective, which is always the correct perspective.’ And Coe praises his ‘pure, unpolluted humour’, probably what Italo Calvino ‘had in mind when he extolled the virtues of “thoughtful lightness”, or “comedy that has lost its bodily weight”’.15 Kimball, who thinks that ‘In many ways, [Wodehouse] achieved what Flaubert aspired to do: to write a novel about nothing’ (8), is quite sensitive to this ‘thoughtful lightness’, or serious levity. He significantly points out another seeming contradiction—that is, the co-presence of aloofness and caring—insisting they are far from incompatible:

The central oddity of Wodehouse’s artistry is its purity, which means in part its distance from the cares and concerns of ordinary human life. […] But Wodehouse reminds us of the irony that one way of being related to human life is by bracketing its everyday imperatives. (5)

Wodehouse understood perfectly what he was about. “I believe,” he remarked in an oft-quoted letter to his friend William Townend, “there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.” (9)

  • 16 I am here referring to the version of the novel without the more hopeful ‘Alternative Ending’.

35This complex stance of detached involvement, of distance and emotion, may be one of the reasons why Wodehouse has long been misunderstood and looked down upon. This is also the reason why reading his novels, which is in itself an intellectual treat, can be an exhilarating experience affording an almost miraculous sense of lightness and well-being. Kimball or Kumar both describe him as a ‘beneficent’ author. So does Coe who, after scorning him for so long, finally realised that his humour is ‘the greatest possible gift he could have offered to the world’. Indeed, the overall mood of our times is a tragic one and it was already quite dark at the time of The Code of the Woosters. The bleakness and wry disillusionment of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934)16 or Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Eyeless in Gaza (1936) were one possible response to the darkening social and political horizon and the oncoming forces of chaos. Wodehouse chose quite a different path, deciding not to ‘[go] down deep into life’ and yet, caring deeply, and fully aware that ‘There is nothing, indeed, so difficult as laughter, but no quality is more valuable.’ (Woolf 60)

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1 All the translations or adaptations from French critics are by the author of this paper.

2 Belloc called him ‘the best writer of English now alive’ (Kimball 4–5).

3 Waugh shared Belloc’s very high opinion in the 30s and he later wrote ‘An Act of Homage and Reparation to P. G. Wodehouse’ (1961) (Kimball 5).

4 Charlotte Jones evokes the BBC adaptation of the Blandings novels, the BBC 4 Biopic Wodehouse in Exile, and ‘the West End adaptation of the 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters’, remarking that ‘The last 12 months have seen him flourishing in the popular imagination to an extent perhaps unmatched since the height of his success in the 1930s.’ (The Guardian, Dec. 2013).

5 Shelley, “The Sensitive Plant” (1820).

6 This is a very free variation on the ‘savage place’ haunted ‘By woman wailing for her demon lover!’ (‘Kubla Khan’, l. 16).

7 ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/ Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,/ Thy knotted and combined locks to part / And each particular hair to stand on end,/ Like quills upon the fretful porpentine: […]’ (Hamlet, I, v, 15–20, emphasis added)

8 However, while ‘serious’ readers (and critics) are ready and willing to analyse the workings of comedy, irony and satire in Jane Austen’s fiction since she is part of the ‘Great Tradition’, they make short work of Wodehouse’s novels and ignore their rhetorical dimension and its satirical implications.

9 ‘Le projet secret de la satire serait donc de dynamiter la littérature et tout système de pensée par la corrosion des genres, l’instabilité de l’écriture, l’ambiguïté du langage, la coexistence des contraires, la négation d’une conception unique du monde et la coprésence du sérieux et du comique.’ (256). Duval and Martinez are here referring to Michael Seidel’s Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979).

10 ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings’: Psalms, 8.2 and Matthew, 21.16.

11 Unlike the bossy, silly or manipulative women of the Jeeves stories, Eve Halliday is a life-like, emancipated and attractive female character in Leave it to Psmith (1923).

12 The phrase should of course be understood in a much more comprehensive sense (referring to the classics and the canon) than the very exclusive one in The Great Tradition. For Leavis, Milton and the Romantics are ‘negligible’; the only poets worth reading since Donne are Hopkins and Eliot (1); the only ‘great English novelists’ are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad (1). The other Victorians (E. Gaskell, the Brontës, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope), although he reluctantly grants them the status of ‘classics’, are merely ‘minor novelists’ (2) that do not ‘belong to the realm of significant creative achievement’ (2). The verdict is the same for Defoe, Fielding or Scott in the long 18th century.

13 See Kumar (2014).

14 ‘Mais on commettrait une grave erreur en pensant que le comique n’est que l’envers du tragique […]. S’il a toujours fait figure de genre mineur et souvent suspect, c’est qu’il est, de fait, un genre second, une attitude seconde, et qu’il vient nécessairement après.’ (Emelina 166)

15 For Coe, ‘as all art aspires to the condition of music, all humour should really aspire to the condition of Wodehouse.’

16 I am here referring to the version of the novel without the more hopeful ‘Alternative Ending’.

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay, « P. G. Wodehouse’s ‘Thoughtful Lightness’ and Detached Involvement: Satire, Parody and the Subversive Use of the Canonical Intertext in Code of the Woosters (1938) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay

Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay is Professor of 19th century literature at Université Paris-Est-Créteil (UPEC) and has published widely on Victorian writers (Dickens, Wilkie Collins, J. S. Le Fanu, H. G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle in particular), highlighting the hybridization and cross-fertilization between genres, but also closely focusing on questions of representation, style and poetics, as, for instance, in her paper on English humour (in Humoresques 36, 2012), or her essay on humour, the grotesque and the fantastic in Wells’s The Invisible Man (2013). She wrote Le Fantastique anglo-saxon (1998), translated George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895) into French in 2007, edited the proceedings of four conferences, among which Les représentations du corps dans les œuvres fantastiques et de science-fiction (2006). She published various papers on Thomas De Quincey, and a monograph on his autobiographical works entitled L’Autobiographie de Thomas de Quincey. Une Anatomie de la douleur (2010).

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