P.G. Wodehouse: English Literature’s Performing Flea

One of the good things about having graduated from school is that I get to read fiction again. And one of the great things about reading fiction is the work of P.G. Wodehouse.

Wodehouse (pronounced WOOD-house) was an English writer of comic fiction. These days, he is probably best known as the creator of the butler Jeeves and his incompetent master, Bertie Wooster. He was also a playwright, and wrote lyrics for musicals. He was called “English literature’s performing flea” by playwright Sean O’Casey, and embraced the nickname as his own. (He even published a volume of his letters under the title Performing Flea) I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Wodehouse when I was a kid, because he is one of my mom’s favorite authors and we had several of his books around the house.

What I love about Wodehouse is not that he writes books that are profound works of Literature. He is a wonderful writer in terms of his style, but he chose throughout his life to devote his great talent to writing, as he called his books, “musical comedies without music.” If you, dear reader, are looking for some summer reading to pass the time while you lay beside the pool, there can be no finer choice than a book by Wodehouse. And he wrote 96 books over his 73-year writing career, so there are lots to choose from. One of my personal favorites is Joy in the Morning (sometimes published in the U.S. as Jeeves in the Morning). It is a typical Jeeves and Wooster book, featuring the main characters immersing themselves in all kinds of trouble, with everything ending happily in the end (and it probably features an engagement, as many of his books do, but I can’t remember).

One of the more entertaining aspects of Wodehouse’s prose style are his similes. Here are a few entertaining samples from Wodehouse’s works (you can find more at the Random Wodehouse Quote page):

“Alf Todd,” said Ukridge, soaring to an impressive burst of imagery, “has about as much chance as a one-armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild cat’s left ear with a red-hot needle.” – Ukridge (1924)

Chimp Twist was looking like a monkey that had bitten into a bad nut, and Soapy Molloy like an American Senator who has received an anonymous telegram saying, “All is discovered. Fly at once.”

She looked at me like someone who has just solved the crossword puzzle with a shrewd “Emu” in the top right hand corner.

He uttered a sound much like a bull dog swallowing a pork chop whose dimensions it has underestimated.

He looked haggard and careworn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to shove cyanide in the consomme, and the dinner-gong due any moment.

The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin. – Mr Mulliner Speaking (1929)

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”.

He looked like a bishop who has just discovered Schism and Doubt among the minor clergy.

Do yourself a favor and go pick up some Wodehouse at the nearest used book store with all speed.

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5 thoughts on “P.G. Wodehouse: English Literature’s Performing Flea

  1. Nancy June 3, 2008 / 2:55 pm

    I confess I was ignorant of Wodehouse before you introduced me to him, but I have been a devoted follower since my first Jeeves and Wooster story. Now he ranks among my favorites. Thanks, Elliot. 🙂 And congratulations on your graduation!

  2. timothycairns June 23, 2008 / 1:00 pm

    you can get some great BBC radio plays for your ipod based on the Jeeves stuff and the best TV adaptaion has Hugh Lawrie (thats House) playing Bertie Wooster – I recommend it

  3. betty richardson June 25, 2008 / 9:06 pm

    I still recall after 40 years, my English Professor, an American Nun, reading P.G. Wodehouse to us, (also very young nuns) on Friday afternoon. We all laughed so much while she read to us. So, now a retired teacher & former nun of that long ago in the 60’s I wanted to see if PG’s writings were still funny. Indeed they were great writings and wonderful. I’m passing him along to my daughter (28), who last week received her BA in English from Univ. of WA. Thanks much.

  4. eliintexas October 16, 2008 / 4:56 pm

    Just reading your post made me want to rush out to my bookcase and pick up one of my Wodehouse books and search for more of my favorite similes. Thanks for a great post.

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