U.K.’s Robert McCrum on P.G. Wodehouse, ‘Jeeves & Wooster,’ and April Fools’ Day

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on
In this special April Fools’ Day edition of The Learning Curve, guest host Mark Bauerlein chats with Robert McCrum, the definitive biographer of the English comic genius P.G. Wodehouse, whose whimsical satires featuring the brilliant valet Reginald Jeeves and the daffy English gentleman Bertie Wooster have delighted generations of readers. They discuss Wodehouse’s pitch-perfect sense of humor, inimitable prose style, and the gentle, much-needed humor he brought to 1920s and ’30s Britain, in the wake of World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic. Mr. McCrum concludes the interview with a reading from his 2004 biography P.G. Wodehouse: A Life.
Robert McCrum is a writer and editor who served as editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber, where he published Kazuo Ishiguro, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Llosa, among other noted authors. At the same time, he wrote seven novels, and co-authored the BBC TV series The Story Of English for which he was awarded an Emmy in 1986, followed by a Peabody Prize in 1987. He was literary editor of The Observer, and published his award-winning biography P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in 2004. Globish: How English Became the World’s Language (2010) was an international bestseller. My Year Off (1998), is now in its third edition as a Picador Classic. McCrum is Associate Editor of The Observer and lives in London. Every Third Thought was published by Picador in 2017 to great acclaim. Shakespearean: On Life and Language in Times of Disruption, a quest to delineate how the Bard continues to influence our contemporary lives, was published in 2020.

Get new episodes of The Learning Curve in your inbox!

Mark Bauerlein: Welcome to a special episode of The Learning Curve podcast. I’m Mark Bauerlein. I’m an emeritus professor at Emory University and I’m guest hosting for Cara and Gerard, who will be back on the regularly scheduled show release next Wednesday. Now, today is April Fools’ Day, dedicated to the annual custom of practical jokes, hoaxes and lighthearted playfulness. The specific origin of April Fools is unknown. Oh, it seems to have some English literary roots that go back centuries to Geoffrey Chaucer, the Canterbury Tales. In one of those episodes, in Chaucer’s great poems, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the Proud Rooster Chanticleer is tricked by a fox in late March or early April over the last century, has any writer been funnier or more playful in his storytelling than PG Wodehouse, the author of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Wodehouse was a prolific master craftsman of the English language whose 1920s and ‘30s fiction provided some comic relief after World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic. Today we’re in a similar time of post pandemic tumult and talking about P.G. Wodwhouse may help us smile a bit more.

[00:01:41] Pioneer Institute and I believe that great literature and history are vitally important. That’s why we’re providing a special podcast on April Fools’ Day, Pioneer Institute stands for ongoing quality education, and we also like to laugh at ourselves, enjoy human folly, and spread intelligent humor. Our youngest Americans need more of it, so let’s have a vibrant and robust public discussion, grounded in reason, enduring greatness, and some fun, too. To that end, we’re so pleased to host the eminent British editor and author Robert McCrum. Robert McCrum served as editor-in-Chief of Faber & Faber, where he published Kazuhiro Ishiguro, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Llosa, among other noted authors. At the same time, he wrote seven novels and co-authored the BBC TV series, the Story of English, for which he was awarded an Emmy in 1986, followed by Peabody Prize in 1987, he published that award-winning biography, PG Wodehouse, A Life in 2000. Globis, How English became the World’s Language came out in 2010 and was an international bestseller. Other books include Every Third Thought, 2017 and Shakespearean: On Life and Language in Times of Disruption, a quest to delineate how the Bard continues to influence contemporary life. Welcome to the Learning Curve, Robert McCrum.

Let’s begin by quoting two fellow 20th-century British writers, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, who considered PG Wodehouse, the author of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, among England’s greatest craftsmen of the language. As his definitive biographer, would you share with our listeners—some of whom may not have read the stories in spite of how popular they remain—who was PG Wodehouse and why, educators and students alike would enjoy reading him.

[00:03:37] Can I start by saying that for quite a few American readers of Wodehouse fans first starting point has been the TV series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and when I was publicizing my biography in 2004, I often came across fans of Wodehouse who really thought that the TV series was Wodehouse, truth, the truth is that [00:04:00] he’s much older than it goes back. Further than that, he goes back to the Victorian time, to the 1880s, and he is probably England’s premier humorous writer. You mentioned Evelyn Waugh and Orwell. He comes from the same class background, in a sense. He’s upper middle class. He went to a public school, that’s to say a private school. He was privately educated on in the classics and he lived in a world really of his own imagination, which was very intense and slightly fantastic.

[00:04:33] He was also blessed with what you might call in industry terms perfect pitch. The reasons that they say he the best writer of English is his sentences are perfectly poised, perfectly constructed, and brilliantly fashioned.


Mark: I think that the metaphor perfect pitch gets my sense of Wodehouse’s prose exactly right. You get the wit, you get the coinages. [00:05:00] Yep. You have the voice of the young Bertie and then the voice of the older Jeeves. Yeah. And his dialogue is fantastic.


Robert: And he would do draft after this is, this wasn’t just dashed off. It was worked on all the time from day to day. And he was a great polisher and a great reviser and you don’t get that kind of level of  perfection casually. He plotted many lines to get to that point. But I think he was a natural, he was blessed with a kind of innocence of spirit himself as a human being, which translates more or less directly into the innocence of Bertie Wooster and the absurd scrapes into which he gets.

Mark: We came across a quote here when we were reviewing things where wood. Described his writing processes. I just sit at my typewriter and curse. Yeah. A bit. Yeah. Now, one thing I was amazed at, I mean, you talk about his discipline, his work ethic. He sat down every day. He did the work for hours, but I mean, over 70 years, he produced 100 stories, plays, screenplay. He co-wrote the book for the Broadway musical “Anything Goes.” It is amazing because editing, polishing those sentences that takes time. you can’t just rush through it quickly unless you’re a genius and maybe,

[00:06:16] maybe that was him.

[00:06:17] Robert: Yeah. If I may correct you. He did, he published, I mean, there are approximately 100 books. many of those books, I mean the stories are in the high hundreds and the, you know, he also wrote poetry, comic poetry, scripts for musicals. the books and lyrics for musicals, plays. He adapted plays. He worked in virtually every genre there is, and he didn’t cease to work. In some ways, ee’s quite a hard person to write about from a biographical point of view, because very little happened to him and he’d get up in the morning and work all day and then have a drink in the evening and get to bed. There wasn’t a lot going on, but that as I was doing the book, I found more and more to get interested in because he’s somebody who’s fascinating to delve.

[00:06:56] Robert: What was his upbringing? Where did this comic genius—any origins that we can point to?

Robert: Of course, that is a bit of a mystery, but I think one of the keys to him is that he still grew up as a kind of imperial orphan. Which is to say his, his father was a colonial civil servant. His father was stationed in Hong Kong, and his mother in the customer of the day abandoned her baby’s son at the age of one or two years old to the care of her sisters, i.e. his aunts and aunts play a very big role in, his work. He grew up completely cut off from what you and I would call family life as a kind of orphan and I think one of the things that happens to, kids who grew up away from their family is that they begin to tell themselves fantasies in the absence of family, you fill in the gap by finding other stories to tell.

[00:07:47] And I think he’s somebody who, who had an extraordinary imagination, a great gift here, as I say, perfect pitch, a great gift for language and his isolation and I’ve described his innocence, his natural innocence of spirit leads to these wonderfully benign—I mean, one of the things about the humor, which is really worth, pointing out is that in the history of English or American comic writing, there is literally no other character close to the innocent—Bertie Wooster is an  absolute innocent, he’s a complete nincompoop, but he’s completely harmless. And there’s nobody in the canon of comic writing in both our countries who is as innocent as he is. And it’s an extraordinary achievement to make someone who on the face of it, is quite dull and bland so engaging.

[00:08:33] So, and that’s one of the many extraordinary achievements of the books is to make Bertie into somebody who we sympathize with, we follow closely. The other thing about Bertie, which is extraordinary, is again, his sleight of hand that he introduces into his work—is that is described as mentally negligible, a nincompoop. He’s a complete twit, and yet at the same time as well as being this hopeless failure just lounging about, going to the Friends Club at the same time. because after all, he is the narrator of these stories, he’s a narrator of genius. And it is amazing that Wodehouse can pull this off, that he’s got this halfwit telling these stories. So, I mean, they are brilliantly told, constructed. And that’s one of the many bits of magic you get from Wodehouse.

[00:09:20] Mark: And yet, Bertie sometimes has these moments of discernment, right? He’s able to say, oh, wait a minute. I sense something bad is going on here. He sort of has instinct or radar for situations.

[00:09:35] Robert: No. And, and then of course he gets it terribly wrong and Jeeves has to help you out. So, it’s a comic. device. Which the other thing about Wodehouse is, and he was trained in Latin and Greek, he was trained in the classics. very much at his school, Dulwich College, in London College, which actually he was, where he was taught, he was only a little bit younger than Raymond Chandler. You know, your great writer, great American writer. He and Chandler were taught by the same man. And you can see that in their love of, simile. They both have fantastic similes and they were both taught by the same man called Jilks, and Wodehouse and Chandler both grew up steeped in the classics and classical modes and devices run through both their works. So in Wodehouse’s case the big steal that he pulls off is, the stupid master and the clever slave, which just goes back to Roman comedy. It’s very, very old and a, it’s a device and it’s brilliant.

[00:10:31] Mark: One of the great pleasures there really, in the relationship between these two vastly different human beings., Bertie and Jeeves. I mean, there’s a certain, deference and respect back and forth, but there’s an intimacy there. Yeah. As, as well, an appreciation. why do people love that relationship so much that.

[00:10:53] Robert: There is a love between them, which is, if you wanna cast it today in the contemporary world and I hesitate to use this word, but there is a sort of a very, very mild homoerotic connection. And I, I don’t wish to push that too hard. But, these two men are living. Blissfully happily in, department, in, barky dimensions, in, in the middle of Mayfair and Jeeves is laying out his clothes, bringing him his tea, looking after him, getting him out of terrible scrapes and so so Jeeves is the husband and Bertie is the wife, and I think that’s what readers respond to that.

[00:11:26] Mark: Yeah. I need a Jeeves myself!

[00:11:29] Robert: We all need a Jeeves. We, the other interesting thing is that Wodehouse stumbled on these two characters quite late in life. He was well into his thirties before he wrote the first Jeeves and Wooster story. But the minute he invented this, ballad. He wasn’t a battler. He’s a gentleman’s gentleman. which is a big distinction. He must be very clear about that. He was, he was somebody whose his job was to look after this nincompoop. But the moment he stumbled on him, he realized he’d struck gold and the other thing that’s, which we haven’t mentioned yet is, which you alluded to earlier on, was Wodehouse’s tone is completely brilliant. The tone of Bertie, you know, you can hear his voice in your head all the time. And Jeeves is imperturbable grave slightly sardonic controlling of the situation is also a brilliant tone. And it’s a wonderful stunt that he pulls.


Mark: You mentioned Wodehouse’s education. Mm-hmm. and you referred to Roman satire. Are there any models for Jeeves that we can think of in the English literary tradition? I’m trying to think myself.

Robert: When I was doing my book, I searched high and low. There really aren’t. I mean, of course, Congreve has clever servants and stupid masters.

[00:12:46] Mark: Yeah. The restoration comedy you have. Yeah.

[00:12:48] Robert: Restoration comedy. And there are some Shakespearean situations if you play it in a certain way, you can play a kind of Jeeves and Woosterish double act. But it’s unique. And its inspiration, as I say, comes from the classics and it goes a long way back and he would’ve understood.

[00:13:04] Mark: Wodehouse himself didn’t circulate among the aristocracy very much.

[00:13:10] Robert: No. he used to describe himself jokingly as a downstart. He came from a family of down starts and he was, he came from a family, which did indeed have a title, but it was a, he was a long way off from the the Earl of Wodehouse. But he came from a, what you might call English gentry. And he went to a public school, it’s to say a private school and Dunwich College, and he grew. In a metropolitan milieu. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he had some money. His father was a colonial civil servant. He grew up in a world of privilege, imperial service, and as I say, profound childhood isolation which is something he shares in some strange way with Orwell. You mentioned Orwell earlier on and Orwell and Waugh, and Wodehouse would. Well, they’ve all understood each other. [00:14:00] In fact, there’s a funny story of uh, although the story is told at the time that Wodehouse and Orwell met in, I’m jumping ahead here, but there was a period when Wodehouse was stuck in Paris during World War II, and Orwell was the correspondent for my newspaper, The Observer.

[00:14:15] And he went out to Paris to do various interviews and he contrived to have lunch with Wodehouse. And after the lunch was over, , someone that’s reflecting on the meeting of these two giants over the English literary scene asked Orwell what they talked about. Oh, well, paused. And he said, we really spent most of our time talking about the respective performances of our school cricket teams, and they had indeed spent, so Wodehouse would say, so my college Dunwich, we played Marlborough and we beat Marlborough, and then Marlborough played and they lost to Eaton. Then Ethan played Dunwich and beat. they would discuss the mystery as you might discuss, a, basketball, baseball game. Which is a way of saying that they would be very comfortable in the world in which they grew up.

[00:15:01] Mark: You can almost see that familiarity in the lingo that he picks up. Yep. In, birdie and birdie, sometimes words top in, they’re just perfect. Mm-hmm. and, and you, you never see them.You see them for the first time. They, oh, that’s good that matches very nicely. I mean, Wodehouse is, he’s endlessly quotable. I have a few examples here. quote, this was not Aunt Dahlia, my good and kindly aunt, but my Aunt Agatha, the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.” Here’s another one: “Unseen in the background fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove. He has a look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.” Wodehouse is the kind of character where anyone who’s read him, if you hear the name Wodehouse or Bertie or Jeeves in, conversation, everyone automatically smiles. Right? Yeah. there’s just an instant joy that comes with that. was. an [00:16:00] issue there with this kind of humor being so needed after the years World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic and, the sense of Britain’s imperial decline. What was this just the right humor a lot

of people wanted?

Robert: I think you can push that a little too hard, but I do think I’ve said this in the book actually. I say that there’s an aspect of all of this, which is a kind of allergy for lost English paradise. And I think a lot of the best of English writing has this rather melancholy, mournful, backward at a path which never existed, which we all believe in. And I think Wodehouse, by giving it a comic spin, made that allergy particularly attractive. And it was also an analogy which was designed to appeal to a class of Rita, which. It doesn’t really exist today. One of the big differences between the literary market and the reading market of his time and our time is that he was writing books for readers who were essentially like him.

[00:17:06] They’d all been to private schools, they’d been to university. They’d read classics and they were civil servants. There was a very well-defined market for what he was writing, and so he could appeal to his readers very effortlessly. Going back to what you were saying earlier on about lingo, which is a good word to use, in his case, he and Chandler, who as I said before, were both educated at Dunwich at the same time, they had a tremendous eye for the delights of English language, particularly they loved slang and Wodehouse will slip in a slang into, into his writing whenever he can. And, and Charlie does the same. And it’s, it’s a really interesting thing to compare the way in which they do. I haven’t got examples in front of it, but it’s a game. If you just take down your copy of The Big Sleep and just look at two or three pages, you’ll see a Wodehousian sort of conceit jumping out at you.

Mark: Is Wodehouse very popular outside the Anglo-American world? Has he been translated? He’s been translated into virtually every known language. He’s, very popular. I tell you now he’s very popular in Japan. We, these are really weird examples. Japan, Spain, and Sweden love Wodehouse. And he’s been translated into French, which those are the mine boggles of the idea of him in French. The Germans love him. The Germans love him cuz they, see him as, a kind of parody of an English aristocracy, which they long to believe in . Yeah, yeah. But no, I mean, what to go to your question.

[00:18:35] I mean, I think in my lifetime and certainly the time since I’ve finished this book, he’s moved from being a popular, comic writer to being really now one of the great English classics, you know, the world in which he, when I was growing up, the world of Butlers and, silly young men and girls driving about in two seaters was only just over the horizon.

[00:18:57] Now it’s really ancient history but the books survive as miracles of style. They are people turn to them, I think. I mean, they are brilliantly funny. They’re effortlessly funny. They’re funny in a way, which is very, very hard to, it is so effortless. You can’t see, I mean, I used, used to, when I was doing my biography, I used to occasionally take one of his novels, try and take it apart to see how, how it was put together. And you really can’t do it. It’s very difficult. It was completely effortless. It was instinctive. That’s why, if he’s popular now, it’s because—which he is—I mean, the main Jeeves books sell. There are a lot of books which don’t sell so well, but the main Jeeves books continue to sell year after year. But it’s a world which really has vanished. And so, you are left really with, this miracle of style, as I say. And I think that’s the most important thing about him. He’s a master of English prose and will always be read in that light.


Mark: You’re an editor. I’m an editor, and I think maybe editors have a unique understanding of how rare—and how much effort it takes—to make writing look effortless.


Robert: Mm-hmm, absolutely.

Mark: You know, about that facility that Wodehouse had, there was a certain political naivete about him. And, how did that get him into trouble during World War II?


Robert: Ooh, I’ll try to keep it short. It’s a long story. I mean, first of all, he was somebody who, when he was working on a book, was in his own, the world of Wodehouse is a fantasy land, but it’s a world what’s, going back to what I was saying about his childhood. It was a fantasyland, which gave him great comfort. It was more real to him than real life. And so that when in 1939 he was finishing a new novel called Join the Morning, living in a house in northern France near town called Le Touckay just across the border from Holland and Belgium. And he was working on his novel and the Germans began to invade France.

[00:20:58] He paid no attention, which was. he should have fled. He didn’t flee. He carried on. He, he just carried on writing and yeah, which you could say is an extraordinary example of soulfire courage or something stoicism, but turned out to be very stupid because he was then interned by the Germans, by the Nazis in an internal camp for what we’ll call enemy alien. He wasn’t a prisoner of war. He wasn’t a prisoner, he was just an element alien in occupied territory. And so, he was interned and you or I, in that situation would have revolted against the Nazi regime, even in the prison he was in. But in his case, he just, he saw as an opportunity to get a lot more work.

[00:21:40] You know, he wrote three novels in prison. He just settled down and just got on with it. He paid no attention to really, to what was going on around him. And I think he was, more or less oblivious to what was going on in Germany, which is quite possible, in fact, during the early 1940s.

[00:21:56] And so, you know, he’s often said to be naive, which he wasn’t, and stupid, which he wasn’t, but he was innocent and he was very self-centered. You know, he’s a great—he is what you might call a very great artist—and as an artist, the world of his art was more real to him than even the dreadful reality of the Nazi regime. So, when he was invited to give a series of broadcasts about time in this internment camp where again, you or I would’ve said, I’m sorry, I can’t possibly have anything, anything to do with this regime or find an excuse, because he wanted, he always needed an audience. He liked to please the audience.

[00:22:36] He jumped at the opportunity and made these six fatal broadcasts, which caused a terrific stink and really wrecked his reputation for a while, and it’s, really in his life, it’s the only thing of any interest that ever happened to him. If you write a biography, Wodehouse, the war years , are the fascinating ones cuz he’s mixed up in, the 20th century in a terrible, terrible way.

[00:23:00] And it becomes a very great tragedy for him that he, he can never shake off disgrace of having who didn’t collaborate but having accepted Nazi, he was never paid for them. He just, cracked. You know, you as you, I know this as, people who work in the media, you can’t make jokes about the Nazis. And he tried to make a joke about the Nazi regime in the aftermath— this was just as the first information about the Holocaust was breaking. So,the timing was ridiculous and he made a complete ass of himself. And the only what I can say, he himself was somewhat baffled about what had happened to him.

[00:23:39] Yeah. And I, and I think he never really understood what his crime was. But he, knew he’d, committed a crime against morality and against good taste, against innocent, so on and all. One of the things that I, I’m most pleased about my biography, which is 500 pages, the last 200, which cover his life and work from 1945 to the end of his life, he was literally into his nineties.

[00:24:03] But the bit that covers from World War II to the end of his life, I make it very clear on virtually every page how much he regretted what had happened in Germany. And I think he paid a very high psychic price in his last. Yeah. but he never understood what his crime was.

[00:24:22] Mark: No, I think that I mean, he was isolated, right? He didn’t know anything.

Robert: No, no. He didn’t know. he was cut off the minute his wife, his wife turns up and she shuts him down very rapidly. She knew what the school was. And I could recommend this to your listeners if you want to understand the tragedy and the drama of the broadcast and how, upsetting it was to British and American readers in 1943, 44 during World War II, the best single bit of writing on this is by George Orwell, and it’s called, it’s an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse.” This is the best thing ever written about him in this time, in this situation.

[00:25:03] And even that is Orwell—who is a pretty shrewd analyst—he is somewhat defeated by what he finds. It’s the one thing uh, which comes up whenever I’m asked about his life, his work, my book. It’s the one thing that always comes up and it’s always a, it’s always a long explanation that, and there’s no way around it, you know, it’s just a terrible mistake. And it’s a tragedy.

Mark: To close out, I wonder if there is a brief paragraph from your biography of Wodehouse you’d like to read to send us home?

[00:25:35] Robert: I’d love to do that. It’s not long. It’s the very end and also summarizes what we have been talking about, because I think it’s quite a good way to end: “Wodehouse is often described as an innocent, and so he was in many ways, but with the innocence came an exceptional good nature and a profound humanity. He believed in doing the square thing by his fellow man and in an understated tolerance of human frailty. His biggest trouble, the terrible wartime blunder, sprang from an admirable motive, the expression of gratitude to readers who liked his work. And so, finally, it is the work, an extraordinary body of English prose, novels, stories, poems, plays, reportage, correspondence, lyrics, and memoirs that give him consequence. Successive generations of readers will return again and again to his books, to admire his inimitable gifts, to laugh at the follies of the human comedy, and to celebrate the magic of an English prose caught at a singular moment between mass culture and high art. In the lives of most great writers, there are usually two lasting themes—love and work. With Wodehouse, these are indistinguishable and both prevail.

Mark: Fantastic.

Robert: I believe every word of that to be true. that’s my summary in [00:27:00] a way. He’s a fascinating man, a truly great writer, know, he’s a minor figure, but he’s a great minor figure.

Mark: Mr. McCrum, thank you again for joining us and this has been an enjoyable and engaging discussion that we hope has been fun. A little levity in an overly serious, dour modern world. Please tune in to our regular episode of the Learning Curve next on Wednesday with Cara and Gerard.