What Ho!

what-ho

A linguistic virtuoso for the post-Edwardian age.

P.G. Wodehouse probably needs little introduction – he is one of the most highly regarded comedic English writers of the twentieth century. His prodigious body of work spans almost a hundred novels and covers a vast assortment of comedic icons, from the immortal pairing of Jeeves and Wooster to the Fawlty-Towers-esque menagerie of Blandings Castle, to less well-known creations like Psmith and Mr Mulliner and his farcical stories derived from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of young relatives.

What Ho! is a collection of some of the finest and funniest of these stories, chosen to represent a representative swath of Wodehouse’s creations. Compiled with the input of Wodehousian societies the world over, and fulsomely introduced by the inestimable Stephen Fry, the compendium is a truly valuable resource for getting up to speed on one’s Wodehousian.

The best thing about reading Wodehouse is that one gets to experience the full power of the English language as it is brought to bear to tackle the immortal problem of how to make things sound funny. Wodehouse’s stories are, while immaculately crafted with their attention to detail, not the most striking thing about Wodehouse, nor are they the active ingredient in his literary immortality. Indeed, the vast majority of Wodehouse’s stories are almost frivolous variations on the studied frippery of the Edwardian men-about-town set (as seen in his Drones Club stories or the adventures of Psmith/Mike or Wooster/Jeeves), or of storm-in-a-teacup type crises in the almost Edenic setting of Blandings castle. In the hands of any lesser writer, such stories would have been well-written but ultimately forgettable comic yarns, of interest only to literary historians of the 1910s.

But Wodehouse – his scintillating prose, his mastery of metaphor and imagery, his studied comic timing, and the sheer elegance of his diction – elevates the art of comedic storytelling to heights hitherto unknown. His narratives are vibrant canvases upon which he paints masterworks of language.

His characters are perhaps another reason why Wodehouse has reached the ranks of comedic immortality. They are all people of a certain comedic archetype – the spurs-wearing dilettante, the harridan aunt, the beautiful young woman in search of a worthy husband, the querulous lord of a country estate, the layabout with the get-rich-quick scheme – and Wodehouse expertly maneuvers them into positions where those archetypes have maximum freedom of play, where he can concoct scenarios that are at once fresh and yet still adhering to their essential qualities. It is, essentially, a branding exercise, one which has succeeded in making these characters comic icons that persist in mimetic fashion.

Wodehouse’s stories are, as Stephen Fry puts it, fundamentally innocent – bereft of adult themes and preoccupations, wistfully unaware of war, suffering and famine – or, for that matter, the privations imposed by colonialism – they have often been described as safe spaces for the soul, brain candy to indulge in on a bad day. Most of his stories have relatively little in the way of guile in them, but I’d actually like to point out an exception in his various Hollywood stories, which are hilarious and rather acerbic satires of the excesses of Hollywood, no doubt gleaned from the days when he was writing scripts for them (and getting paid exorbitant amounts of moolah for what amounted to comparatively little work) while living in a house in Beverly Hills.

So, to sum, Wodehouse’s facility with the English language, paired with his carefully crafted comic plotlines as well as his modular building blocks of iconic comic archetypes, assure him a place in the hallowed annals of comic English writing, and What, Ho! is an excellent place to start one’s Wodehousian journey.

I give this collection: 5/5 cuckoos

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