Ineffectual gentry, cunning servants, horrendous aunts—all these were contributed to the Genteel Interbellum Setting by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse ("Plum" to friends—and the last name is prounounced "Woodhouse," not "Woadhouse") (5 October 1881 – 14 February 1975), a prolific writer of light comedies, who was also responsible for many early Broadway musicals.
Beginning his career in the earliest years of the 20th century as a writer of topical verse for the newspapers, he first made a name as an author mainly of boys' school stories. Wodehouse soon moved into the more lucrative field of light romance, and finally, in the late Twenties, shifted permanently to the pure comedies he preferred. He additionally wrote the book to several long-running Broadway musicals, adapted some others to the stage, and rewrote Cole Porter's Anything Goes.
In 1940 Wodehouse was living in France when the Germans showed up. After spending nearly a year in internment as an enemy alien, he was released and allowed to live in Berlin and occupied Paris. While in Berlin, he recorded six radio broadcasts recounting his experiences as a captive of the Germans. They were meant to be humorous talks in typical Wodehouse style, and they contained no pro-German or anti-British propaganda, but when second-hand information about their production finally filtered back to England, they went over very badly. His former friend A. A. Milne said that Wodehouse should be tried for treason as a German collaborator. MI-5 judged that Wodehouse had exhibited poor judgement but was not a traitor. Wodehouse reacted to the criticism by emigrating to the United States, becoming an American citizen, and never coming back to England for the rest of his life. He still got a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1975. He died the same year at the age of 93, saying that with his knighthood and a waxwork in Madame Tussaud's, he had achieved all of his life's ambitions. Nevertheless, he worked right to the end; his last Jeeves novel was published a few months before his death and he was working on a Blandings novel when he passed away, which was published posthumously and half-finished as Sunset at Blandings.
Wodehouse's stories are generally tangles of zany schemes motivated by frustrated love. For example, say a young Mr. Reggie Worthington wants to be engaged to Betty Harte, but first must (a) disengage himself from Wilhelmina "Billie" Wreckham by pairing her up with Cyril "Bunny" Rabbington-Vole; (b) match Cyril's jealous fiancée, Edith Pilsworth, with Billie's equally green-eyed brother Freddie, who has been trying to keep all men away from his sister, and (c) blackmail Aunt Geraldine into allowing the engagements by holding hostage her prized 17th Century silver MacGuffin. Naturally, Betty, Billie, Cyril, Edith and Freddie all have devised their own zany schemes, each flawlessly assured to land our Reggie example in the soup. Mistaken identities, misinterpretations of events, secrets, blackmail, theft, ludicrous bets, accidental engagements, and, of course, True Love also contribute. A typical Wodehouse novel, as nonsensical and as breezy as it strives to be, is actually very tightly plotted, with many examples of Chekhov's Gun and all its related tropes.
Although Wodehouse penned several overlapping series, among them the "Oldest Member" golf stories, Mr. Mulliner's tall tales, the ongoing adventures of Psmith, and the ever-hopeful scheming of Stanley Ukridge, today he is best remembered for two — Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings Castle:
Wodehouse's most famous Upper-Class Twit, Bertram Wilberforce "Bertie" Wooster, is the character who probably best embodies Wodehouse's gift for language. Bertie expresses himself with a loopy eloquence, giving this series its much-beloved Cloud Cuckoo Lander sense of humor. His Servile Snarker valet (not butler), Reginald Jeeves, is as capable as Bertie is ineffectual. With, apparently, the same effort most people put into buttoning their cuffs, Jeeves rescues Bertie and/or his friends from their entanglements and restores the status quo.
Blandings, meanwhile, a castle which "has impostors the way other places have mice", is the home of the elderly and ineffectual Clarence Threepwood, Eighth Earl of Emsworth, which is routinely used by his many domineering sisters to imprison nieces or nephews intent on an unsuitable marriage. The would-be fiance has to infiltrate the castle in disguise, often with help from the Earl's ne'er-do-well brother Galahad Threepwood, and capable, sporting butler Sebastian Beach (who actually is a butler), or less often his good friend Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, Earl of Ickenham, who aims always to spread sweetness and light, and persuade Emsworth to overrule his sister, which will, of course, give the Earl the nudge he needs to do what it takes for his prize pig, The Empress of Blandings, to win the prize at the country fair away from their arch-rival, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, Bart., and his Pride of Matchinghham.
Sound complicated enough yet?
Wodehouse's books have been the basis for a number of films and television series. The Blandings series has seen Clive Currie and Horace Hodges as Lord Emsworth in movie versions, and Fritz Schultz (in German), Sir Ralph Richardson, and Peter O'Toole on television, although many regard the BBC radio Lord Emsworth, Richard Vernon (who also lent his voice to Slartibartfast), as definitive. Arthur Treacher was well-known as the embodiment of Jeeves in the 1930s, with David Niven (!) taking the part of Bertie Wooster; in the Sixties, Ian Carmichael (also known for playing Lord Peter Wimsey and the BBC radio Galahad Threepwood) as Bertie and Dennis Price as Jeeves. (It is on record that Wodehouse did not care much for any of these adaptations.) Wodehouse himself appeared in the last year of his life to introduce episodes of the well-regarded BBC Wodehouse Playhouse, which brilliantly adapted many of the Mulliner and the Golf stories.
The Jeeves stories were also the basis and inspiration for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Jeeves, which was released in 1975 and failed so spectacularly both critically and commercially that it's still thought of as Webber's only real flop. However, in 1996 the musical was reworked, rewritten and re-released as By Jeeves, which was far more successful and got generally positive reviews.
Works by P. G. Wodehouse with their own trope pages include:
- Jeeves and Wooster
- Blandings Castle
Other works by P. G. Wodehouse provide examples of:
- Accidental Misnaming: Waddington's inability to get other people's names right (he keeps calling Finch 'Winch' and 'Pinch') becomes an important plot point in The Small Bachelor.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Parodied in the golf story "The Rough Stuff", in which hapless dweeb but talented golfer Ramsden Waters is madly in love with beautiful Eunice Bray. She treats him like a combination doormat/child-minder because he's willing to take her much younger brother Wilberforce out on the links with him, and when he clumsily proposes marriage to her she's almost more baffled than insulted that such a hopeless dork would think he had a chance with her. However, when he and she are paired in the mixed doubles, to her considerable surprise he turns into a curt, focused, steely-eyed Determinator who plays to win, and she finds it irresistible.
- Affectionate Parody: "Honeysuckle Cottage" is a loving parody of Henry James and his tales of haunted houses that distort the lives of those who live in them. Except, of course, instead of finding himself in a supernatural horror battling sinister ghosts from the past, the main character is horrified to find himself trapped in an unbearably sentimental romance.
- Author Avatar: Corky Corcoran in the Ukridge series, whose life incorporates a few details of Wodehouse's own early career (like living in a boarding-house run by a retired butler).
- Best Her to Bed Her: As, for example, in the short story "There's Always Golf," where Clarice Fitch longs for a man to hit her with a riding-crop—used in Wodehouse to mock its serious use in the typical "sheik" romances of the period, and hilariously inverted in the Mulliner story, "A Voice From The Past."
- Boarding School: He got started writing stories of his type; the introduction of Psmith bridges the gap between his school stories and his comedies.
- Ceiling Banger: The short story "The Man Upstairs" uses this as a Meet Cute for its main characters.
- Celebrity Paradox: Short story "The Clicking of Cuthbert", 1922, via a bragging Russian novelist."No novelists anywhere any good except me. P G Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad."
- Chekhov's Gun: As noted above, these are often put on display, most notably in Right Ho, Jeeves: "We stayed at Cannes about two months, and except for the fact that Aunt Dahlia lost her shirt at baccarat and Angela nearly got inhaled by a shark while aquaplaning, a pleasant time was had by all." The shark is the indirect cause of Angela's severed engagement later in the novel.
- Children Are Innocent: Subverted at every opportunity — if a child appears in a Wodehouse story, nine times out of ten he (it's usually a he) will be an obnoxious grubby little pest.Bertie: I've never been able to bear with fortitude anything in the shape of a kid with golden curls. Confronted with one, I feel the urge to drop things on him from a height.
Jeeves: Many strong natures are affected in the same way, sir.
- Sacksby Senior of the novel Cocktail Time.Sacksby: Have you ever been to Jerusalem?
Nanny Bruce: No, sir.
Sacksby: Ah. You must tell me about it sometime.
- Sacksby Senior of the novel Cocktail Time.
- Contrived Coincidence: Make their appearance, especially in Mr. Mulliner's tales; Wodehouse in fact created the character to give himself a venue for some of the more implausible story-ideas which occurred to him.
- Cool Old Guy: The Wodehouseverse has a fair few of 'em. Uncle Fred and the Honourable Galahad are perhaps the best examples, regularly helping their younger acquaintances out of trouble (or, certainly in Uncle Fred's case, cheerfully getting them into it), often with rather impressive Zany Schemes.
- Don't forget "The Oldest Member". Herewith, his famous counsel to a young golfer:Oldest Member: Do you love her?
Young Man: Madly.
Oldest Member: And how do you find it affects your game?
Young Man: I've started shanking a bit.
Oldest Member: I am sorry, but not surprised. Either that or missing short putts is what happens on these occasions. I doubt if golfers ought to fall in love. I have known it to cost men ten shots in a medal round.
- Don't forget "The Oldest Member". Herewith, his famous counsel to a young golfer:
- Could Say It, But...: A memorable one from Jill the Reckless:"... I'm rather sorry we agreed to keep clear of personalities, because I should have liked to say that, if ever they have a skunk-show at Madison Square Garden, you ought to enter — and win the blue ribbon. Still, of course, under our agreement my lips are sealed, and I can't even hint at it. ..."
- Cue the Rain: Indiscretions of Archie contains a subversion. In one story (originally published under the title "First Aid for Loonie Biddle"), Archie goes through a series of misfortunes trying to ensure the success of a particularly rash bet he placed on a ball game. When things are at their lowest, Cue The Rain—which rains out the ball game, negating his original problem.
- Dogged Nice Guy: Quite a few of his heroes: see the short stories "The Best Sauce" and "Ruth in Exile" for two good examples.
- Embarrassing First Name: Many members of the Drones Club go by nicknames, often for excellent reasons.
- Also, poor Pelham Grenville Wodehouse himself. Rumour has it he refused knighthood for years to keep it a secret. One of his characters, a Mr. Trotter, avoids knighthood for much the same reason — fear of becoming "Sir Lemuel."
- W. N. Connor, who publicly denounced Wodehouse at the behest of the Ministry of Information, made a point of sneering at Wodehouse's high-falutin' given names. To his credit, he apologised to Wodehouse after the war; to his credit, Wodehouse forgave him, but insisted on calling him "Walpurgis"("Walp" for short) thereafter. (Connor's actual first name was "William.")
- Also, poor Pelham Grenville Wodehouse himself. Rumour has it he refused knighthood for years to keep it a secret. One of his characters, a Mr. Trotter, avoids knighthood for much the same reason — fear of becoming "Sir Lemuel."
- Embarrassing Middle Name: In The Head of Kay's it's mentioned in passing that Fenn's name is Robert Mowbray, "the second of which he had spent much of his time in concealing."
- Bertie is shocked to discover his uncle's middle name: "Portarlington".
- External Retcon: Of Tom Brown's Schooldays. In "The Tom Brown Question", Wodehouse puts forward a theory that the second half of the book was rewritten by The Secret Society For Putting Wholesome Literature Within The Reach Of Every Boy And Seeing That He Gets It to conform to contemporary standards of uplifting morality.
- Extreme Doormat: Ukridge's friend and faithful chronicler "Corky" Corcoran lets himself be talked into just about anything, although at least as a writer he is able make a bit of money selling the resulting narratives.
- Failure Is the Only Option: Ukridge's schemes almost invariably blow up in his face.
- Framing Device: Wodehouse had several series of short stories that used this, including the Mr. Mulliner series, the Drones Club stories, and most of the golfing stories.
- Geeky Turn-On: Sally in Doctor Sally starts to take an interest in Bill when she finds out he's not just an Idle Rich layabout, but she really warms up when she finds out he can recite all the common bacteria found in milk.
- Genre Savvy:
- In "Honeysuckle Cottage", a manly-man detective novelist moves into his Romance Novel-writing aunt's cottage as a condition of her will. He gradually realizes, to his horror, that he's becoming the hero of a romance novel, and is powerless to do anything about it despite recognizing all the tropes involved as they come up.
- In Jill the Reckless, Mrs. Barker recognizes lovers' problems from her reading.
- Genteel Interbellum Setting: In an 1958 interview (around 2:20) he said that nowadays he's writing "historical novels". In a 1973 interview with the Paris Review, he said that his stories are set "between the wars, rather. I try not to date them at all".
- However, as Christopher Hitchens and other critics point out, the attitudes and actions of Wooster & Co. are actually reflections of Edwardian comedy and mores (as in the stories of Saki) rather than the post-WWI era. Wodehouse himself addressed the accusation of his works being Edwardian in the (highly entertaining) preface to Joy In The Morning.
- The novel Ring For Jeeves was released in 1953, and clearly set in the '50s — World War II is mentioned, and the post-war social change which caused the aristocrats to seek employment is a major plot point.
- There is also the Bingo Little short story, "Bingo Bans The Bomb." Wodehouse never intended his novels to be read as period pieces, and would update them from time to time, adjusting dates, commodity prices, and so on. The novels only seem Edwardian because Wodehouse himself was — an Edwardian gentleman who survived well into the late Twentieth century.
- In Cocktail Time the characters not only discuss their service during World War II, but make it clear that no-one would like to see a World War III.
- Glurge: One of Wodehouse's frequent targets was the novelist—particularly the woman novelist—whose attempts to tug on the heartstrings are generally referred to by Wodehouse as "stearine bilge" or the like. Among many in-universe examples are Leila J. Pinckney in "Honeysuckle Cottage" (of whom one review consisted entirely of the words, "Oh, God!") and Bobbie Wickham's mother; but undoubtedly the pinnacle is Bingo Little's wife, Rosie M. Banks, whose romance Mervyn Keene, Clubman (related to Bertie by Madeline Bassett in The Mating Season) is something of a Glurgic Apotheosis.
- Grande Dame: Wodehouse (very likely under the inspiration of W. S. Gilbert) may well claim to be the patron saint of this trope. For well over sixty years, he devised every variation imaginable, from the lovable Aunt Dahlia to the truly horrible Heloise, Princess von und zu Dwornitzchek (a Rich Bitch who is not even funny). Perhaps the most typical is the formidable Lady Constance (she is, of course, the sister of the many-sistered Lord Emsworth in the "Blandings Castle" saga), but the apotheosis is Bertie's Aunt Agatha, who "chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth."
- A Handful for an Eye: In The Small Bachelor, Mrs Waddington blinds Officer Garroway by throwing the contents of a pepperpot into his face in order to escape.
- Happy Dance: Freddie Rooke does one in Jill The Reckless on coming up with a plan to reunite Derek and Jill, much to Derek's annoyance.
- Hero of Another Story: A minor character in one work will often appear as a major character in another. For instance, Monty Bodkin, a supporting character in Heavy Weather, is the hero of The Luck of the Bodkins and Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin.
- I Will Find You: Maud has to be kept at Belpher Castle to prevent this in A Damsel in Distress.
- Last Girl Wins: If the focus character or a close friend has been pursuing the same girl across multiple books, it's almost a given he'll run off with the cook in the last installment. Monty Bodkin is a prime example.
- Licked by the Dog: James Rodman in "Honeysuckle Cottage". Although he greatly dislikes the dog in question, it ends up saving him from a bad engagement and becomes his Canine Companion.
- Liquid Courage: Wodehouse loves this trope. Several of his books feature timid young men having a slug of brandy or the like when nerving themselves up to propose to their dream girls. A particularly notable incident involving Gussie Fink-Nottle and some spiked orange juice appears in Right Ho, Jeeves.
- MacGuffin: This is very often a diamond or pearl necklace, though perhaps the most famous is the Seventeenth-Century English (not Modern Dutch!) Silver Cow-Creamer, the attempted theft of which starts off an entire multi-book uproar in Bertie's love life. The Empress of Blandings herself and the French chef Anatole often serve as Living MacGuffins.
- Meaningful Name: Wodehouse had his own Naming Conventions.
- Men with simple one or two-syllable first names, such as Bill or Jimmy, are likely to be the hero, especially in his early romances.
- Likewise, heroines will have simple one- or two-syllable names like Joan or Betty.
- Girls with two-syllable masculine sounding names ending in -y or -ie, like Billie or Corky, are likely to be perky, fun-loving, and rather dangerous to their male attachments.
- Males with two-syllable names ending in -ie, like Freddie or Reggie, are generally silly asses.
- Males with nicknames, e.g., Barmy or Bingo, are not to be taken seriously even by the silly asses.
- Young men with names like serious romantic heroes, such as Desmond or Derek, are often heels, as are men whose names end in -o, like Orlo or Rollo.
- Young women with poetic or pretentious names like Kathrynne or Melusine are usually pills.
- Meet Cute: Averted surprisingly often when you consider that each book typically has three or four couples. However, it does happen sometimes:
- Maud ducking into George's cab to hide from her brother in A Damsel in Distress, for example.
- Barmy accidentally setting Dinty Moore's hat on fire in Barmy in Wonderland.
- Psmith stealing an umbrella for Eve, who's standing in the rain, in Leave It to Psmith.
- "Metaphor" Is My Middle Name: "The Salvation of George Mackintosh" takes it a few steps farther."But I am diffident. What's the good of saying I mustn't be diffident when I'm the man who wrote the words and music, when Diffidence is my middle name and my telegraphic address? I can't help being diffident."
- Mistaken for Servant: The Earl of Marshmoreton (A Damsel in Distress), mistaken for the gardener.
- Noodle Incident: What happened to/with/by Uncle Fred and Pongo "that day at the dog-races".
- No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: Appears in-story in Cocktail Time. An aristocrat, Sir Raymond Bastable writes a novel (called Cocktail Time) exposing the younger generation. The book goes almost completely without notice, until a bishop catches his daughter reading it and denounces it from the pulpit:The burden of his address was a denunciation of the novel Cocktail Time in the course of which he described it as obscene, immoral, shocking, impure, corrupt, shameless, graceless and depraved, and all over the sacred edifice you could see eager men jotting the name down on their shirt cuffs, scarcely able to wait to add it to their library list.
- Oblivious to Love: Packy in Hot Water, as soon as his engagement with Beatrice is over and he sees Jane, realizes he has been this.
- Officer O'Hara: Officer Garroway in The Small Bachelor. When Waddington goes in search of Garroway to attmpt to buy back some shares he sold him, he can't remember Garroway's name; only that it was something Irish. As a result, he ends up encountering an endless succession of other policemen with Irish names.
- Oh, Crap!:
- On one or two occasions, this is the attitude displayed by listeners upon realizing they've gotten themselves trapped into hearing one of Mr. Mulliner's pub-stories.
- Even more so with the golfer stories, as the younger players have learned to dread when The Oldest Member starts an unavoidable story. (Mr. Mulliner's audience tends to be more receptive, for most part.) Turned Up to Eleven when a golfer (who clearly have been scarred by The Oldest Member in the past) finds his way to The Angler's Rest, and finds out the hard way that there is another...
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Or Three Conversations, in the case of "The Nodder". The studio heads who employ Mr. Wilmot Mulliner as a "nodder" think that he's learned that one of their child stars is in fact an adult midget and is subtly trying to blackmail them with his knowledge of the secret. Mr. Mulliner, after Drowning My Sorrows the night before due to being rejected by the woman he loves, is in fact trying to pretend that he's paying attention while at the same time trying to hide his raging hangover. And then Mabel Potter — the woman Mr. Mulliner admires from afar — gets it into her head that those concerned are, throughout this conversation, actually attacking her knowledge of what a cuckoo sounds like. Things get complicated.
- One Steve Limit: Enforced by the author, to the extent that, if two previously-established characters with the same first name later appear in the same book, he'll change one.
- Paralysis by Analysis: In "The Heart of a Goof", this turns out to be the main problem that Ferdinand Dribble, the titular 'goof', has when playing golf. He overthinks things by reading all the books and trying to follow their instructions exactly, to the point where he keeps tensing up and second guessing himself, leading him to choke. Conversely, when he thinks that the woman he loves is in love with someone else, he ends up so miserable and dejected that he can't be bothered thinking about his game, and plays excellently.
- Pepper Sneeze: In The Small Bachelor, Officer Garroway finds himself unable to stop sneezing after Mrs Waddington throws the contents of a pepperpot in his face.
- Pink Elephants: Nutty assumes this in Uneasy Money when he sees a monkey, and Elizabeth encourages him.
- Plagiarism in Fiction: Two very similar school stories involve plagiarism in school poetry competitions.
- Plato Is a Moron: In "The Clicking of Cuthbert," Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff opines that no novelists anywhere are any good besides himself, though Tolstoy and P.G. Wodehouse are "not bad."
- Psmith Psyndrome: The Psmith series is the Trope Namer, but it also shows up in the Mr. Mulliner story "A Slice of Life" with a man named ffinch-ffarrowmere.
- Releasing from the Promise: In a Mr. Mulliner story, he explains that a Mulliner can't break an engagement; only the woman can.
- Rhymes on a Dime: The news article in A Damsel in Distress detailing Lord Belpher's altercation with George, and the consequences. "Outside the Carlton, 'tis averred / These stirring happenings occurred..."
- Serious Business: The climax of "The Nodder" involves a debate over the correct sound that a cuckoo makes getting so heated that it climaxes with a man clarifying the matter as if he's passionately inciting a jury to acquit someone facing a wrongful conviction on an unjust murder charge.
- Shout-Out: In his short story "Honeysuckle Cottage", Wodehouse called his soupy heroine "Rose Maynard" as a tribute to W. S. Gilbert, whose plots he freely admitted to admiring more than Shakespeare's.
- Smoky Gentlemen's Club: The Drones is one of the archetypical examples.
- Strictly Formula: Wodehouse's plots are very formulaic, but most readers don't mind, due to his highly entertaining style.
- Talk About the Weather: In Hot Water, one character's timidity is described as he would talk about the weather.
- Take That!: After Wodehouse had been denounced by the orders of the Minister of Information, Alfred Duff Cooper, he was lambasted in the newspapers by his fellow-author, A. A. Milne. In The Mating Season, written while Wodehouse was being held by the Germans, Gussie Fink-Nottle on being arrested gives his name as "Duff Cooper"; in the same novel, Bertie Wooster is sickened by the prospect of reading Milne's "Christopher Robin" poems publicly. Wodehouse returned to the attack in "Rodney Has A Relapse", in which reformed vers libre poet Rodney Spelvin writes smarmy poems about his toddler son, "Timothy Bobbin".
- An affectionate one occurs in the dedication of The Heart of a Goof: "To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time."
- Take That, Us: Jill The Reckless features a writer, well-known for creating successful stage comedies, trying his hand at a drama, with disastrous results...in a book that is more of a drama than standard Wodehouse fare.
- Theory of Narrative Causality: The titular house of "Honeysuckle Cottage" seems to have an unerring ability to turn the life of anyone who lives in it into a plot straight out of a sentimental romance novel.
- Tough Room: The golf stories are told by the Oldest Member to various young men, who desperately try to avoid having to listen to them. Mulliner also sometimes traps people into hearing his tales of his countless relatives.
- A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Played with and ultimately averted in Jill the Reckless. Jill's impulsiveness is frowned upon by quite a few characters and even causes her fiancé to break off the engagement. However, it turns out that the fiancé wasn't such a great guy anyway, and Jill's Second Love understands that her recklessness is one of her finest qualities.
- Unintentional Period Piece: All his earlier books. He used the same setting up through the 60s and into the 70s, by which time they had become straight Historical Fiction.
- Unreliable Narrator: Mr. Mulliner is a fisherman spinning tales in his local pub; Wodehouse deliberately used him to frame the more ridiculous story ideas that occurred to him.
- The 'Verse: Virtually all of his works seem to be set in the same world; major characters from one work will often be mentioned casually in another, and the same fictional locations pop up in various works as well.