Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Politics of Farcing - Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse

It's extraordinarily difficult to review a Wodehouse novel and finding something new or different to say.  And that applies on both the level of a single novel and his output as a whole.  It's de rigeur to note the immaculate nature of his story construction, the clockwork precision of  his farce. They're comedy symphonies, each note in the right place, each theme and instrument expertly foreshadowed and coming in at precisely the right time.  Farce has had a bad reputation in my lifetime, the sophisticates of the Eighties dismissing them as uncool and beneath them, primarily due to their associations with the seaside postcard humour of the Carry On films or the trouser dropping of Brian Rix.  Bawdy, unsophisticated and reliant on nudges and winks, they were as embarrassing as Eric Idle's character in the Monty Python 'nudge nudge, wink wink' sketch.  Arguably, given the decline of the farce through the Seventies and the desperation to avoid the label in subsequent decades you can trace the apparent decline of the genre back to that Python sketch, and perhaps to the satire boom heralded by Private Eye and Beyond the Fringe.  What one generation saw as sophisticated replacing the entertainments of previous generations.

Arguably that's down to a decline in the quality of farce during the Sixties too - it happens when a genre becomes popular, every writer cashes in, no matter how ill suited they are to writing it, or how tapped out of ideas they are.  Eventually you end up with the likes of Carry On Emmanuelle, an attempt to spoof soft porn via sex farce. My generation, the children of the baby boomers, grew up with farce as a dirty word.  Which might explain why I came to Wodehouse relatively late, subconsciously tarring him by association.  But on a nuts and bolts level there's little difference between Wodehouse and Talbot Rothwell, it's simply a matter of presentation and class.  Sex is too vulgar to impinge on Wodehouse's interwar aristocratic bliss, it's Rothwell's only trick - Wodehouse deals almost exclusively with the upper classes, Rothwell with the lower.  But the embarrassment, the characters only entangling themselves deeper in the web as they struggle to escape it, are common to both.  Wodehouse is simply classier, an exemplar from before it was debased by the inevitable lowest common denominator reintroduction of sex as a prime plot driver - a return to the roots of the form after its appropriation by the dilettante upper classes.

But then perhaps it's best to come to Wodehouse late.  It really wouldn't have said enough to the me of twenty years ago, it wasn't daring or angry about anything. Not on the surface anyway.   Instead he's content to be entertaining, to be light and funny.  And therein lies Wodehouse's brilliance.  Overtly there's no point to the stories but to entertain, to make people laugh with something of no real consequence.  But under the surface, whether Wodehouse meant it or not, it's scathing of the upper classes.  The whole series of Jeeves novels revolves around the idiocy of Bertie Wooster and similarly solipsistic upper classes. The boom of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression of the Thirties - they have little effect on Wooster's world, perhaps only through the parodying of the British fascists in The Code of the Woosters.  If nothing else, Wodehouse's immediate reaction, to laugh at Moseley's Blackshirts, should tell anyone precisely why fascism never really took hold of Britain whilst it rose in other cultures.  Which might be precisely why we should worry about the prominence of the right wing press in Britain now, who seem to have had their sense of humour and perspective surgically extracted.  But anyway...  really, Wodehouse might be the first popular modern satirist, encouraging laughter at the aristocratic classes and providing the roots of the comedy form that eventually supplanted farce as the most popular form of comedy.  And all under the cover of perfectly constructed popular entertainment, where the satire is only an extra level to enjoy. It's there that the likes of Rothwell fell down, trying to apply farce to complex issues such as trade unionism.  Wodehouse is clever enough to be broad in his targets, so as not to offend, Rothwell too specific and engaging with issues beyond his capability to deal with.  It's the difference between a Da Vinci or Van Gogh and a child's drawing.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit itself?  It's a quintessential Wodehouse farce, Wooster amiably stupid and eventually rescued from his well-intentioned misdoings by Jeeves.  All done with typical Wodehousian charm, another trademark.  Unlike other authors Wodehouse never descends to contempt for his characters, no matter how much he writes for them.  That might be the best lesson to learn from these books, particularly for the less adept of the satirists that became the comedy establishment.  Simple contempt can be ill directed, an ill reasoned view based on one's own prejudices.  And it's unattractive.  Gentle ribbing, using characters who audiences can sympathise with work better, and endure longer.  Being inclusive can increase the audience, being caustic only erodes that audience.  Wodehouse was clever enough that the world he created, of feckless aristocrats, became timeless, transcending those times to become almost a bubble outside the times.    It's proof that satire's most effective when it's an iron fist in a velvet glove.  Spearing the targets of your time specifically is a quick way to ensure your work becomes dated, that it won't survive time's inevitable effect of altering language and context.  Wodehouse's amiability and way with a well turned phrase doesn't mean he'll necessarily survive forever, but it's given him a longevity beyond that of many peers.  Wheaton's Law* it seems, has always held true, even if you're dead.

* Don't be a dick

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