You may not have noticed, amongst the hullabaloo of 2016, that this year marked the 500th anniversary of Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia. As the year draws to a close (and good riddance to it) I wanted to spend a few moments reflecting on Plumtopia, which celebrates a more humble fifth anniversary this year.
Sir Thomas Moore invented the word Utopia as a name for the fictional world he created in 1516. The word is derived ‘from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place‘*. Few people today have read Moore’s original work, but the term he created has evolved to acquire meaning of its own.
Oxford Dictionaries Online give as their definition:
…an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect: The opposite of dystopia.
It’s not a definition I’m happy with, although it expresses the thoroughness with which any form of ideal or idealism is dismissed in the modern age. It insists that Utopia can only be imagined. And as few people (certainly nobody credible) would argue that perfection is possible, it discredits ‘Utopian’ thinkers before they’ve even opened their mouths.
This is not so ‘off topic’ as you might think. Returning to my first piece in August 2011, I began this blog in Search of Plumtopia:
Wodehouse, affectionately known as Plum, sets such pleasingly lofty standards for humanity that perhaps what I’m really seeking is Plumtopia..
The decision to blend Utopia with Wodehouse’s Plum (the name by which he was known throughout his life) was a conscious decision that reflected my purpose exactly. I was disgruntled with the world** and found the one Wodehouse created to be a better one. Five years later, I’ve seen more of the world, but I’m no more gruntled than I was in 2011. And I continue to hold with the unfashionable notion that Utopia is worth striving for.
Plumtopia has not fulfilled the serious-minded promise of this first post, thank goodness, but the 500th anniversary of Utopia provides a fitting occasion to revisit my original idea of Wodehouse’s world as a Utopian ideal. This may cause some of you to click your tongues.
He then said something about modern enlightened thought which I cannot repeat.
Joy in the Morning (1946)
Rest assured I shall resume my usual hearty ‘what ho-ing’ in due course, and in the meantime hope that you’ll indulge me.
The world Wodehouse created doesn’t quite fit the given definition of Utopia. As the product of fiction it is part-imagined, but it’s a world with firm roots in the Edwardian era of Wodehouse’s early life. Wodehouse experts, including the late Norman Murphy, have made countless connections between characters and locations in Wodehouse’s fiction and real-life examples. Wodehouse himself, discussing the world of Bertie Wooster in a Preface to Joy in the Morning (1946), said:
The world of which I have been writing every since I was so high, the world of the Drones Club and the lads who congregate there was always a small world –one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie Wooster would say. It was bounded on the east by St. James’s Street. on the west by Hyde park Corner, by Oxford Street on the north and by Piccadilly on the south. And now it is not even small, it is non-existent.
The world Wodehouse depicted is recognisably and authentically of its time and, reading beyond the Drones stories, takes in much wider territory than the boys of London SW1. And yet his world is widely considered to have never existed. How can this be?
Perhaps it’s the things he left out – war, violence, poverty, injustice, death and disease are, with rare exceptions, absent from his writing. It’s not my place to speculate on Wodehouse’s reasons, but none of these subjects are intrinsically funny, and it’s not unreasonable that a writer of humour should give them a wide berth. The result is a world that perhaps appears more fictional than real.
But it is not a perfect world. There is still great wealth inequality (though not poverty). Nor has the power of the upper classes to exercise snobbery and prejudice been eliminated, although in practice their unsavoury plans are usually thwarted. At the other end of the spectrum, Wodehouse’s less pecunious characters survive on limited incomes, employed in positions not entirely to their liking. Crime is present, although predominantly non-violent. Thieves tend to restrict their activities along the lines dictated by Robin Hood — stealing from the rich (who are frequently the perpetrators also) and giving to the poor, although defining ‘poor’ for redistribution purposes varies wildly between individuals.
While falling short of perfection in many respects, Wodehouse undoubtedly improves upon reality. His characters employed in menial positions are respected in their roles, treated fairly, and live comfortably free from want. At the upper end of the spectrum, his aristocrats and wealthy business magnates are ‘mostly harmless’ (to borrow from Douglas Adams). While they may not demonstrate the high moral standards we like to see in persons of stature, they do not abuse their servants, or take yachting tours of favourite tax havens with friends from the arms-trade.
The opportunities for women in Wodehouse’s world are least as good as Wodehouse’s contemporaries, often better. Women from different social backgrounds take part and succeed in a broad range of careers and activities; they need not be young or beautiful, and finding love is not their only purpose. There isn’t a single preferred model of man or womanhood that must be conformed to. The sun is almost always shining. And the ideal ratio of village pubs per inhabitant is 1:1.
Put simply, there’s a lot to like!
Wodehouse’s idyllic creation also has its critics, who object (as far as I can understand the argument) on the grounds that he presents an idealised view of Britain that brushes socio-economic issues under the carpet and romanticises the aristocracy. As George Orwell (who enjoyed Wodehouse’s work and defended him after the Berlin Broadcasts) put it:
…Wodehouse’s real sin has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are.
George Orwell In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse (1946)
There is some truth in the assertion, but it’s a blinkered one, because Wodehouse presents people from all walks of life as our better, brighter selves. He avoids unpleasant, difficult truths and softens the edges of human folly so we may laugh at them. He doesn’t just idealise the aristocracy, as so often claimed– Wodehouse idealises us all.
It has long been my view that the messages we take from Wodehouse’s work are generally the ones we bring to it ourselves. P.G. Wodehouse didn’t set out to create a Utopian ideal. This is something I have divined from the world he created which, free from the worst excesses of human behaviour, seems a great improvement on our own.
To give Wodehouse the penultimate word:
I suppose one thing that makes these drones of mine seem creatures of a dead past is that with the exception of Oofy Prosser, the club millionaire, they are genial and good tempered friends of all the world. In these days when everybody hates everybody else, anyone who is not snarling at something – or at everything – is an anachronism.
Preface to Joy in the Morning
I may be silly (although in 2016, who could tell) but I think Wodehouse’s world is one worth striving for.
Cheers and best wishes to you all for a happy, hearty new year, and much Joy in the Morning !
Footnotes & Further Reading
* Source: Notes on Utopia from the British Library online
** Thomas Moore’s dissatisfaction with English society, 500 years ago, still strike a chord in 2016:
…for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure, and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.
from Utopia (1516)