A P.G. Wodehouse query

Requesting enlightenment on a small point, from Wodehouse fans – which I essentially am not: have in the course of my life read a very few Wodehouse novels (a couple of Bertie Wooster / Jeeves ones, a couple of others), and found them mildly amusing, but far from addictive.

I am, however, interested in the period which includes the earlier part of Wodehouse’s life, and in which Bertie and Jeeves basically “did their thing”. One takes it from the general time-scale, that Bertie would have been of prime military age to have taken part in World War I. So far as I’m aware, though, there is no mention in the novels, of what he did in the war. I’ve consulted Wikipedia; and found that the author tells of Bertie’s having attended Malvern House Preparatory School, then Eton, then Magdalen College, Oxford (the mind boggles) – but no mention in Wiki re Bertie’s life and times, of the traumatic-for-all-who-lived-through-it 1914 – 1918 period.

Is there mention of “Bertie and the War” (whether he fought in it, or for whatever reason didn’t) in the books – or is there not? I’d be grateful for an answer on this, from any knowledgeable devotee. It does occur to me: one has the picture that Wodehouse was a rather naive, and totally apolitical, guy, with zero interest in current affairs – did he perhaps set the Wooster novels in a kind of alternative universe in which World War I never happened?

Because fighting in the trenches of WWI, with gas attacks, futile charges in the face of machine gun fire, trench foot, and dying corpses is the perfect background to set a light comedy of manners.*

Imagine you’re Woodhouse. Why would you even consider mentioning the war? I

*No, Blackadder is not a light comedy.

It’s kind of important to understand Bertie Wooster was essentially a pre-war Edwardian ‘Knut’, not starting as a 20s person — an earlier incarnation was Reggie Pepper, whose stories were later repurposed as Bertie stories. A Knut was a young man about town, successor to the Mashers of the '90s ( every generation appears to have it’s own version, from the Mohawks of the early 18th century on ). So Bertie’s attitudes were of a previous generation. Wodehouse was excused joining because of his poor sight.

I vaguely remember Bertie referring to the Great War as the late unpleasantness, which was a common ironic euphemism of the time, and he may have referred to some past service in one sentence here and there in the stories published immediately post-war. And occasionally he may have suggested his manservant should have been a general or field-marshal. But the period immediately after was incredibly dualistic: on the one hand it had been — as later was the Second World War — the high point and resolution of individuals’ existence, fanned by the official praise purposed to get them to join in; but on the other, people just wanted to forget it ( particularly if they had been too young to fight and have their youth snatched away ). Not referring to the War became quite popular, even if one had fought.

The Jeeves and Wooster stories don’t take place in any specific time. Sometimes references are made to vague trends—the stories written in the 1970s refer to what could be hippie war protesters. It doesn’t make any sense to try to figure out a “real” timeline for Bertie’s life.

Bertie was a knut:

He made his first appearance in 1915, during the Great War, and his last in 1974, during Vietnam: needless to say, he fought in neither. Bertie’s stylised, idealised Edwardian world was deliberately artificial, and largely existed outside history and politics; that was rather the point of it. In 1929 a chum might be broke after an uncle lost a bundle when his bank went smash, and in 1934 the comic fascist Roderick Spode might be rampaging about Brinkley Court forbidding the banns for another, but that was as far as reality impinged upon his world, as a plot device. You might as well ask whether it was wet in the Forest of Arden.

Thanks, all – seems that my hypothesis of a Wodehouse “parallel universe” where the war didn’t happen – or didn’t matter or count – was not all that far off the mark.

Picture often got, that during and after WWI, participants in it just did not talk about it other than in the most general terms, to relatives and friends back home: the horror and the whole scale of same, was such that there’s no way that those who were not there first-hand, could have even begun to “get” the whole thing.

Good heavens – I had no idea about the “duration” as described above. (As said, I’m not a Wodehouse fan or extensive reader, as such.) A bit of a parallel seen with Richmal Crompton’s naughty-schoolboy (anti)-hero William Brown, who achieved the remarkable feat of staying at the age of 10 / 11 from approximately 1923 to 1963 – his parents and siblings frozen-in-time in parallel with him.

I truly like the “outside history and politics” aspect. In part, my initial post was prompted by something I came across on another board, a while ago: a “crossover fanfic” offering, involving Lord Peter Wimsey, and Bertie Wooster. Much of the premise of this fanfic, revolved around Bertie’s having served in the front line in WWI, and having a terrible time there, and getting shell-shocked; whence his apparent almost-imbecility and losing of virtually all life skills. He was made over thus, into a tragic figure (and various readers earnestly applauded). My reaction to this piece was – “there are people around, who regard humour and anything being funny, as outright blasphemous; and who are avid to re-write everything, accordingly. I really don’t think that this bod’s Wooster, is in the spirit originally intended by Wodehouse.” It did get me wondering, though, re Bertie and the war.

Given that one-third of Oxford’s graduating class of 1913 died in the war, it would be too sensitive a subject to refer to. Wimsey’s experiences show the only course that an author could properly take.

Besides, the idea of Bertie as an officer is almost as bad as the idea of Britain’s real generals during the war.

I can’t recall in which book, but I think Bertie mentioned something about Jeeves’ stint in military intelligence in the war.

Also I think that a lot of the humour in the books stems from treating minor social embarrassments as monumental catastrophes, and that wouldn’t work so well if you had a real catastrophe looming in the background.

Though heroic twitticism in the face of war was possible, as shown by Ernest Thesiger,who described the war like this: “Oh, my dear, the noise! and the people!”)

I’ve attempted to rationalise in my mind, Bertie’s non-involvement with the conflict: theories occurred, about his having been rejected for service because of thorough and complete imbecility; or his perhaps having been marginally too young to have fought (born 1900 or 1901?). I like better, though, the ideas aired in this thread – of Bertie, and “Wooster-World”, being kind of timeless, and detached from grubby reality.

As mentioned earlier, I find it hard to get my head round the idea of Bertie attending Oxford (or any) university. One is aware of the prominent tradition of sons of the aristocracy / idle rich, who would never have to earn a living, spending their years at Oxford / Cambridge fooling around and having a good time, with minimal, or no, actual studying; but the picture is got, that these guys were endowed with at least a modicum of intelligence. Bertie – though a sweet fellow – comes across as “borderline certifiable”. I suppose that, as with the business of WWI, one needs to see the books as taking place in an alternative, rather Lewis-Carroll-ish universe, where the dreary rules of our own world need not apply.

I’d hitherto heard that one attributed to an anonymous, rather “camp” upper-class officer, back home shortly after being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940: describing in those words, that episode of WWII. One can imagine such a guy’s being aware of Thesiger’s summing-up re the previous conflict, and “borrowing” it for his own purpose…

Mycroft utters a variation of this line in new episode of Sherlock, The Empty Hearse. It sounded like it should have had some extra resonance. Thanks for illuminating its source.

Back in the early 1990s, when Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were doing the “Jeeves and Wooster” television series for Granada, it was shown in the US on Masterpiece Theater. At the time, I saw an interview with the two of them about making the series, and about the Wodehouse stories in general.

Hugh Laurie (who played Bertie) actually brought up this topic. To the best of my recollection (it was almost two decades ago, and I haven’t been able to find it online despite some Googling), Laurie said something about how if you thought about it, a huge percentage of Bertie’s old chums should have been killed in the War. But there was none of that in the books, instead the characters just seemed to float along in a world where that sort of horrible thing never happened and couldn’t even be imagined. He obviously considered that a virtue of the stories.

I wish that I could find those interviews again. They were shown at the end of each Masterpiece Theater episode, and they were pretty interesting as I recall. They don’t seem to be online, and I don’t believe that they’re on the “Jeeves and Wooster” DVDs, either.

No question that Bertie is a comic caricature. Wodehouse is careful to give him some nuance, though. He’s not “dim;” he merely has no sense. The comic consequences of that are profoundly different.

Plenty of truly dim sons of the aristocracy went to Oxbridge and survived, and a similar number of them got through Harvard and Yale. That’s where the tradition of a “Gentleman’s C” comes from.

The stupidity of the aristocracy is a constant theme in critiques of them, along with their hatred/scorn/belittlement of anyone thought to be smart. The archetypal proto-nerd Gussie Fink-Nottle is treated much worse than any of Bertie’s average friends.

I don’t think it’s really right to say he lives in an alternate universe. He stays essentially the same age over a period of 60 years. So, I don’t think there’s a “universe” at all. It’s just a series of stories. There is no time line, there is no logic. There are a certain number of comic characters and a series of incidents. The background and the details are not important; they keep changing.

For example, there are allusions (as posts above have pointed out) to the war or fascism or socialism or anti-war protests, etc., but these are not “clues” to the logic of the world Bertie lives in. He doesn’t really live in a coherent universe, alternative or not.

If you believe Alan Moore, in What Ho, Gods of the Abyss Bertie Wooster met Cthulu.

I take your point – your description more accurate, than alternative-universe notions.

All that you set out here re Bertie and his milieu and treatment thereof, would apply equally well to Richmal Crompton’s very numerous “Just William” short stories for “kids of all ages”, written over roughly the same time-span; I’ve mentioned those stories, upthread. The parallels are remarkably close: even to political and current-affairs stuff being occasionally touched on in the background, seen through – usually bemused – eleven-year-old eyes.

IMO the “William” stories vary in quality; but many of them I’ve found, lifelong, hilariously funny. Whether “in touch with my inner eleven-year-old”, or what: I admit to finding Crompton’s “William” tales much funnier and more entertaining, than any of the rather little of Wodehouse – including a couple of Bertie Woosters – that I’ve read.

The William stories had somewhat more grounding in reality than Wooster, though, Richmal Crompton actively providing commentary on events of the day. In one story William’s older brother George and his friends become Bolsheviks and try writing to Stalin, although they are taught a lesson by William and his gang deciding to redistribute their elder brothers’ wealth {and also not being able to find out the postage to Russia}. Rather worse, in William and the Nasties, William and the Nasties, William and the Outlaws try to emulate what they know of the Nazis by persecuting a Jewish shopkeeper, Mr Isaacs {!}. Presumably this was intended as a satire, but it was badly misjudged and has subsequently been omitted in reprints; I can’t even find a text of it online.

Good lord; I hope it wasn’t a Slash.