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Why PG Wodehouse deserves his place among the literary greats

Some of Andrzej Klimowski's covers for Everyman Library's PG Wodehouse series 
Some of Andrzej Klimowski's covers for Everyman Library's PG Wodehouse series  Credit: Andrzej Klimowski/Pocko

As a memorial stone to PG Wodehouse is installed at Westminster Abbey, it's time to take his comic genius seriously

In my university days reading English, I remember weeks of wading through thousand-page 18th-century tomes in black despair. To cheer me up, my mother gave me a set of collected PG Wodehouse novels for Christmas. Each night I’d pick a story, dive in and immediately feel the gloom lift. In the morning I’d wake up with three or four books poking me in the ribs under the duvet, urging me to get up, like Jeeves with a hangover cure.

At the time they were a guilty pleasure, an escape from the real work of proper literature. Now I’m not so sure. For decades, Wodehouse’s closest association with the mantle of literary greatness was that he once played cricket with Arthur Conan Doyle. But today he will become the latest writer to be given a memorial at Westminster Abbey, an honour previously bestowed on Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

 It’s about time, too. Wodehouse’s farcical world of aristocratic Edwardian and interwar shenanigans has been loved ever since he first created it in the Twenties. But that hasn’t stopped him being dismissed as a “performing flea” of literature, a peddler of pleasant fluff, his reputation even tarnished by a perception of him as a Hitler sympathiser thanks to his participation in German radio broadcasts while interned by the Nazis in France.

No matter that British secret services exonerated him and he was later knighted. The mud stuck. Even after George Orwell wrote an essay defending him as not guilty of “anything worse than stupidity”, he was shunned by the literary establishment as the throwaway humorist with an embarrassing Fascist association.

We have a strange lack of respect for geniuses who make us laugh. Funny books are usually ignored by literary prizes, and we generally insist on remembering Austen and Shakespeare for their romances and tragedies, rather than admit they can also be absolutely hilarious.

PG Wodehouse at the door of Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk Credit: -/Sasha/Getty Images

The names of Wodehouse’s characters alone are worthy of eternal praise. Where else would you find  “Gazeka” Firby-Smith (thus named “because he looks like one”); D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright; or the newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle and his nemesis Roderick Spode.

Too often when we think of literature, we think of worthily ploughing through giant slabs by eminent Russians. We assume that just because a book is easy to read, it must have been easy to write. In fact the opposite is true. He spent years meticulously plotting every masterpiece, making sure each joke was note-perfect and stylistically exact, so that his glorious world of summers in country houses and madcap dashes through city streets would never falter. It’s a mark of true genius that you can sail through his books with laughter filling your heart on every page.

Flaubert wrote that his own dearest ambition was to write “a book about nothing… held together by the inner force of its style, as the earth without support is held in the air.” Well, where Flaubert may have failed, Wodehouse triumphed. His books may be about nothing at all really, but in fact they are about everything: joy, fun, adventure and silliness.

Wodehouse is a literary master as good as anyone, and I know who I’d rather take to bed.