I wonder if anyone reads P.G. Wodehouse any longer? Apart from weirdos like me, that is. And was he ever respectable, in academic terms? I rather doubt it.
For them as don't know -- and there are always new generations coming along -- P.G. Wodehouse was once a very famous and successful English writer. Like a number of other illustrious names from the past (John Buchan, Margery Allingham) he has a Society of hard-core admirers, and you can find a useful biography on the Society's web site.
Born in 1881, Wodehouse gave up working in a bank in 1902, and from then on he had a string of successes both in the book world and in the theatre (his first play opened in New York in 1911). His speciality was humour, and he was enormously popular until the second world war. At that point Wodehouse had a little setback.
In 1940, Wodehouse and his family found themselves stuck in France when the German army invaded. They tried to get back to England but failed. When the Germans asked him to make some broadcasts to his fans in the neutral USA, Wodehouse ill-advisedly did so. These broadcasts were bitterly resented back in England, where he was regarded as a collaborator and traitor.
The result was that Wodehouse readers seldom raised their heads for a decade or two. However, by the 1960s I had several colleagues who were great fans, and public opinion gradually came round to the view that Wodehouse had been foolish rather than wicked. In 1975, he was knighted by the Queen, in recognition of his achievements, and he died a few months later at the age of 93.
Wodehouse produced a vast quantity of fiction. Like Terry Pratchett, he invented a universe of his own, based on England in the years from about 1900 to 1930. This was an England full of rich and idle people whose mostly misguided attempts to get married, avoid getting married, and so forth, could be made richly comic -- if you like that sort of thing.
The book of Wodehouse's which I have recently been reading consists of a number of short stories, as related by Mr Mulliner in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest. Mr Mulliner has a seemingly inexhaustible number of nephews, nieces, and second cousins once removed. Each of these seems to get himself, or herself, into terrible scrapes.
The stories are even more absurd, and the characters even more dim-witted and clueless, than in the average Wodehouse work -- and that is saying a great deal. In one, for instance, there is a budding romance between a wealthy young man (Archibald) whose sole talent, after a very expensive education, is his ability to give a wonderful imitation of a chicken laying an egg. The target of his affections is an equally wealthy and intellectually challenged young woman (Aurelia) who has spent her entire lifetime searching for a man who can give such an excellent imitation of a chicken laying an egg.
And yet, and yet... All does not go smoothly. Archibald is led to believe that Aurelia is in search of a chap with far more highbrow interests than the noises generated by broody hens, and so, when challenged by Aurelia, denies that he has that very talent which he has spent so many years polishing, and which would in fact make him the object of her undying admiration. Aurelia therefore gives Archibald the brush-off. In due course, however, Archibald discovers his mistake, performs nobly as required, and is rewarded by Aurelia's promise of marriage.
'Do it again,' Aurelia sighs. Archibald does do it again. He does it four times, in fact. And no, it's not what you're thinking, you dirty beast. It was the chicken thing that he did. Five times in all, and truly excelled himself.
As you will have gathered, you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Wodehouse.
Mr Mulliner Speaking was the second volume of Mulliner stories, and it was first published in 1929. The stories themselves are timeless, as is Wodehouse's prose; he was renowned as an elegant stylist. But the date shows in the spelling: we have to-day, and to-morrow, whereas today we would omit the hyphens; we have sha'n't, which is technically correct, but today we have dropped one of the apostrophes; and we have week end for weekend; and so forth.
A further indication of period is the fact that Wodehouse quotes from Swinburne, another writer who was once a household name but is now forgotten. Except, as I say, by a few weirdos like me.