Note: During my first year as a PhD student, I took a class on utopian and dystopian literature in Britain. The class looked at authors such as Thomas More, C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, P.G. Wodehouse, and others. For the course, we had to write brief responses (2-3 pages) to the novels and discussions. Recently, I came across some of these responses and thought I would share some of them here over the next couple of posts. I am not altering what I originally wrote, unless it provides more clarity. There may be some questions contained within the posts that I did not have answers for when I wrote them, so I will leave those questions where there are, hoping they will spark conversation about the topic. I wrote today’s post on October 15, 2009.
P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, while attempting to present an idyllic portrait of British society, maintains the true feelings permeating throughout Britain during the interwar years. The economic crisis occurring in Britian during this time causes the novel to act as an escape from reality with a jaunt through the country. However, even though it serves as an escape from reality, the fears of uncertainty and pessimism do not leave the work altogether. These undercurrents, not readily situated on the surface of Wodehouse’s novel, appear in fleeting moments.
Uncle Tom, the anti-social husband of Aunt Dahilia, plays the role of the pessimist in the novel. As an aside to the comedy of manners that the other characters participate in, Uncle Tom maintains an outlook of utter disaster at every turn. Even though Bertie asks Aunt Dahila to remove the picture of Uncle Tom in Masonic robe from his wall, she refuses. She tells him, in Bertie’s words, that it is “[a] useful discipline [. . . ] teaching me that there is a darker side to life rhat we were not put into this world for pleasure only” (72). In every way, this comment counteracts the actions present in the novel. Even though the characters experience problems, the adversities do not deviate far, if at all, from the realm of pleasure. Aunt Dahilia’s comment, about her pessimistic husband, hints that while this utopian upper class British escapade moves along problems reside, just beneath the surface.
We continue to see this undercurrent when we see Uncle Tom in the flesh. At the beginning of Chapter 14, Bertie tries to talk with Angela about her relationship with Tuppy in the drawing-room. Uncle Tom, during this conversation, “crouched in the corner waiting for the end” (82). After Tuppy exits his chair with a burst, Uncle Tom jumps up from his and “probably imagined that this was civilization crashing at last” (88). During the late 20’s and early 30’s, the problems facing Britain, and the world, created an overwhelming fear that must have been extrapolated by the Great War. Aunt Dahilia’s predicament centers around her need for money to maintain her magazine because she lost the amount needed in Cannes, so she must ask Uncle Tom for the money. Worrying about money, especially during an economic fallout, Aunt Dahilia cannot has a hard time asking her husband for the money because he lives a life filled with pessimism. According to Gussy, Uncle Tom becomes irritated with him because he tells Uncle Tom to stop talking idiocy about “the world [being] in a deplorable state” (108). Even though the real world sees storm clouds rising, the created world attempts, with all its might, to push them to the side.
Before Gussy’s speech to the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, Bertie informs Jeeves that “[h]owever dark the prospect may be, Jeeves, however murkily the storm clouds may seem to gather, a keen eye can usually discern the blue bird” (103). Even though this refers to Gussy’s ingestion of alcohol, Bertie’s statement sets up the richest chapter in the book that presents the fear prevalent in Britain. Gussy’s entire drunken speech deals with pessimism and fear. He mentions Uncle Tom’s vision of the world and denounces it. He impresses upon the students that they must go out into the world and “use every effort to prevent [themselves from] becoming pessimists and talking rot like old Tom Travers” (108). Even though the economy and society appear to be falling in reality, Wodehouse sees, and preaches, the need to practice optimism during these tough times.
As Gussy presents the prizes to the students, he accuses G.G. Simmons of cheating to win the Scripture prize and points out that Bertie did the same by concealing answers in his pockets. During a time of social and economic turmoil, and thinking about the organization and impacts on unions in relation to big business, this accusation correlates with the subverted fears prevalent in the novel. After Gussy attacks Uncle Tom, Bertie maintains that he finds comfort in the fact that he did not sit in the second row with his aunt and uncle instead of standing in the back. He even says, “It might be unworthy of the prestige of a Wooster to squash in among the proletariat in the standing-room-only section” (109). Here, Bertie displays his rank, representing upper-class society, and finds it “unworthy” to stand with the common man. At the end of the novel, Bertie’s role appears to be switched. While the servants enjoy themselves at the party, Bertie thinks, as she rides nine miles to Kingham Manor,
There was something about the thought of these people carelessly reveling at a time when, for all they knew, I was probably being dragged about the countryside by goats or chewed by elephants, that struck home at me like a poisoned dart. It was the sort of thing you read about as having happened just before the French Revolution—the haughty nobles in their castles callously digging in and quaffing while the unfortunate blighters outside were suffering frightful privations.
In contrast to his previous statement, Bertie has become one of the common people, at least in his thoughts at this moment in the novel. He comments on the feudal, monopolistic system that has caused the economic crisis. However, if a union uprising and strike occurs, he views himself on the outside looking in, switching places with the individuals below him.
Even though Right Ho, Jeeves paints an opulent utopia that does not exist, Wodehouse injects comments into his satire that reflect the true nature of Britain, and the world, during the interwar years. The pessimistic fears that permeated society manifest themselves in Uncle Tom. Gussy attempts to quell the fears by pointing individuals towards an optimistic outlook, while Bertie comments on the social changes occurring throughout Europe and America. While these ideas do not present themselves on the surface of the novel, Wodehouse uses them to strengthen his satire of British upper-class society by informing us that problems reside underneath the surface.