‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendor.’
Most Wodehouse readers will be familiar with this quotation, printed on thousands of new editions, and quoted ad nauseam by reviewers and fans alike. Unfortunately it is sometimes bandied about to support the argument that Wodehouse and his work ought not be discussed — that Mr Fry has spoken and we, mere readers, should restrict ourselves to spouting quotations (or better, dignified silence). As someone who blogs about Wodehouse, I naturally take a different view. Nor am I convinced that this is what Stephen Fry meant.
The quotation comes from Fry’s introduction to What Ho! The best of P.G. Wodehouse (republished in The Independent). Fry suggests the ‘miraculous verbal felicities’ of Wodehouse’s writing are best experienced by reading his work. No attempt to explain or analyse the mechanics of Wodehouse’s prose style can ever do justice to the real thing, and Fry does not attempt it himself, offering instead some well chosen quotations, including this favourite:
Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.
It is in this context that Fry says: ‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection…’ His point is that Wodehouse’s writing ought not be clinically dissected — or taken apart to see how it ticks. And unless you are a writer, looking to learn your craft from Wodehouse’s example, this is sound advice. The rest of Fry’s piece is ripe with discussion on the subject of Wodehouse, his life and contribution to our happiness. This includes, I’m sorry to say, further condemnation of those who seek to delve deeper into Wodehouse’s world.
Many have sought to “explain” Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of modern literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like “taking a spade to a soufflé”. His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanently pre-pubescent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary, magical and blessed miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that dispels doubt much as sunlight dispels shadows, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.
If we agree with Stephen Fry on this point, it puts many of us on shakier ground. Indeed, there are devoted fans happily psychoanalysing Wodehouse aunts, drones and sporty young girls at this very moment in an active Facebook group boasting nearly 10,000 members. And what of the various Wodehouse societies around the world that produce more scholarly work, and unite people with a shared love of Wodehouse? Is the otherwise genial Mr Fry really attempting to dictate terms and deny small pleasures to fellow Wodehouse-lovers? Perhaps his reference to ‘the microscope of modern literary criticism’ indicates a more specific, academic target.
The late Christopher Hitchens left no room for doubt in his condemnation:
Indeed, if anything could ever put one off being a Wodehouse fan, it would be the somewhat cultish element among his admirers and biographers. Such people have a tendency to allude to him as “The Master.” They publish monographs about the exact geographical location of Blandings Castle, or the Drones Club. They hold dinners at which breadstuffs are thrown. Their English branch publishes the quarterly Wooster Sauce, and their American branch publishes the quarterly Plum Lines: two painfully unfunny titles.
Censuring fellow Wodehouse lovers for such harmless pleasures is grossly unkind. It also smacks of hypocrisy, for Hitchens and Fry have both enjoyed the privilege of sharing their love of Wodehouse in their own way. Each has written at length about Wodehouse and the influence of his work on their lives. Both men have also had the privilege of writing introductions to modern editions and collected works.
Christopher Buckley reported in a piece about Hitchens:
When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?
This is a privilege denied to the ordinary reader, but our capacity to enjoy Wodehouse is equal to that of Hitchens and Fry. Perhaps more so, for neither man could understand the joy of being momentarily lifted from the drudgery, poverty and despair of a working-class life into Wodehouse’s world. Appreciating Wodehouse is not a science, nor a competitive sport. There are no rules, and we should resist any attempts to impose limitations.
For too long, I have worried about overstepping the boundaries laid out by Fry and others, when really this censure is surely as silly as the activities they sneer at. Ordinarily I am an admirer of both Fry and Hitchens, and I know there are Wodehouse fans who agree with their views. Happily there is room for friendly disagreement between fans of such a genial writer as Wodehouse. But when it comes to quotable dust-jacket endorsements, I can’t help wishing the new editions had stuck with the more generous sentiments of Evelyn Waugh, quoted on the old Penguin paperback editions.
Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in — ‘
Evelyn Waugh in a B.B.C. broadcast
This is the stuff to give the troops! Waugh doesn’t claim Wodehouse for himself — instead he shows the sort of pull-together spirit that Ukridge and I like to see. His words are prophetic too, as the captivity of modern life looks pretty dashed irksome from where I’m sitting. In addition to my daily dose of Wodehouse, writing this blog is one of my few pleasures, and if anyone finds my output silly I shall be delighted. I also plan to attend my first Wodehouse Society Convention later this year (Psmith in Pseattle). If breadstuffs are thrown, I shall be well pleased.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pop off to the local Garden Centre before it closes. We’re having souffle for dinner and I need to purchase the appropriate cutlery.