P. G. Wodehouse - Writing Style

Writing Style

Wodehouse took a modest attitude to his own works. In Over Seventy (1957) he wrote: "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."

However, he also lightly taunted his critics, as in the introduction to Summer Lightning.

"A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names'. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elijah; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy."

His writing style is notable for its unique blend of contemporary London clubroom slang with elegant, classically-informed drawing-room English; for example:

"I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast."

Much of the charm of characters like Bertie Wooster in the Jeeves-Wooster novels, derives from the light hearted cheeriness and bonhomie that Wodehouse conveys through a particularly effective choice of language. While Bertie is often described by acquaintances as mentally negligible, the reader more often sees him as the hapless victim of circumstances, very often, circumstances which his “code”, his aspiration to be preux chevalier, prevents his avoiding. For example, Bertie is frequently made the unwilling fiancé of girls who announce their engagement to him after discarding another suitor. Bertie would never get out of such a fix simply by saying no, or as he would put it, issuing a nolle prosequi, because his code does not allow him to be so ungallant.

This is Bertie’s appeal. He hasn’t an ill tempered, mean spirited bone in his body, and apart from some mischievous penchant for purloining policemen’s helmets, is always a gentleman. Wodehouse’s language, and Bertie’s peculiar slang, neatly reinforces all of our hero’s charm. Bertie always has a nice detachment from his problems, an ability to see them from the outside, to put himself in the third person. Thus, he will find himself “deep in the mulligantawny with no hope of striking for shore,” “ knee deep in the bisque.” He will refer to himself as B. Wooster, or Bertram, or Wooster, Bertram, and announce that “It is pretty generally recognized by those who know him best”…, and “the Woosters are always magnanimous.” However others may slight his mental acuity, or however much he may admire Jeeves for his ability to come up with schemes to extract Bertie from the tureen, he never loses his self-confidence, and remains convinced that he is a man of iron will, a man who can, with the arch of an eyebrow, or relying on just a touch of steel in his voice make others see that he is unmoved on a given point, showing the velvet fist in the iron glove, “if that is the phrase I want”, and confident, in matters sartorial, of his own diabliere.

Wodehouse gives Bertie a rich vocabulary of slang, from abbreviated words, like enjoying the “b & e” at breakfast, or “seeing at a g”, to enjoying a drink, or lubricating the tonsils. He will describe another character as looking “like a seal waiting for a slice of fish,” or “a tiger after his morning ration of coolie.” He has clearly enjoyed the benefits of a fine education at Eton and Oxford, particularly in the early novels, when he can spout a Shakespearean line to suit the occasion, or revert to the Latin citation, rem acu tetigisti, when putting his finger on the problem. If memory fails to bring back the literary reference, he can at least point Jeeves in the right direction: “what is that poem about someone looking at someone looking at something?” (Keats On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer) It is only in the later stories that he loses his smattering of learning, and attributes the most familiar Shakespearian quotations to Jeeves. Wodehouse's use of language was outstanding, including coining new words. "She wasn't disgruntled, but she couldn't possibly be described as gruntled".

Read more about this topic:  P. G. Wodehouse

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