"I believe there are only two ways of writing a novel," Pelham Grenville Wodehouse once said. "One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right down deep into life, and not caring a damn."
Never did an author describe his work so well. The adventures of Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, ignored real life about as totally as it could be ignored over the course of six decades when they filled several novels and dozens of short stories, and they have now become a PBS five-part series, "Jeeves and Wooster," commencing this week on "Masterpiece Theatre."
P.G. Wodehouse (pronounced Woodhouse) died in 1975 at the age of 93 after an astonishingly prolific life. He published 96 books, several of them collections of his 300 short stories. He collaborated on 16 plays and 28 musical comedies and for Hollywood wrote the scripts of six movies. In his early years he wrote under so many pseudonyms that his total output will probably never be known.
Wodehouse sold his first article before he was 20 and received 10 shillings and sixpence for it. He was typing away on yet another novel, "Sunset at Blandings," on the morning of the day he died. It was published posthumously in its unfinished form, with his notes for the rest. The world could never get enough of Wodehouse.
Wodehouse also wrote the lyrics for dozens of songs, and one of them, Jerome Kern's "Bill," has become a standard.
Yet it was the Wooster-Jeeves stories that assured Wodehouse immortality, read and re-read in English and translated into many foreign languages. The character who became Bertie Wooster made his first appearance as Reggie Pepper in a story in 1915 and appeared under his own name in a collection titled "The Man With Two Left Feet" two years later. By then, Wodehouse was already in his mid-30s and well-known as a humorous writer for both print and the theater.
The stories seem to arise in the expansive late Edwardian world of the British upper-class, in Mayfair flats and country houses, a time when rich and foolish young men thought about work without ever actually having to do any, and the young women they cavorted with were equally rich and foolish but also beautiful and desirable.
It was, of course, a world Wodehouse created--and sustained in its airy distance from the real world--through two wars and a global Depression.
Jeeves apparently got his name from a cricket player Wodehouse admired. His traits as the consummate valet, shrewder by several dozen IQ points than his amiably feckless master, may have been partly inspired by the displaced valet, Ruggles, of Harry Leon Wilson's American novel, "Ruggles of Red Gap."
Bertie Wooster, his brain a vast interstellar vacuum crossed by occasional wandering notions, was a dazzling invention, a farcical enlargement of every foolish chap, serenely self-assured with precious little justification.
"I always imagine I am writing for a cast of actors," Wodehouse once said. (Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the PBS series must surely delight in the lines he created for them to say.)
Wodehouse indeed worked with a kind of stock company of generic characters: Young Men, Young Women, Imperious Aunts, Pompous Aristocrats, all linked of course to The Perfect Servant.
Wodehouse, who was Plum or Plummie to his friends, had what sounds to American ears like a dreadful early life. He was sent back to England at age 2 from Hong Kong, where both his parents were colonial workers, to be raised by two aunts (neither said to be the model for the awful Aunt Agatha in the TV series) and by a grandmother. He saw his parents every four years on their home leave.
He was shipped off to boarding school at 5, thence to a public school and Dulwich College. Wodehouse and his wife spent the last 30 years of his life in Remsenberg, Long Island, and he became an American citizen in 1955. But he continued to write of the musical comedy version of England that he had created and populated so well. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth only a few weeks before his death.
Here are airtimes for "Jeeves and Wooster" on various PBS stations.
Channel 28: 9-10 p.m. Sunday, repeated Sundays from 11 a.m.-noon starting Nov. 18.
Channel 15: 9-10 p.m. Sunday, repeated Wednesdays at 1 p.m. starting this week.
Channel 24: 8-9 p.m. Sunday, repeated Mondays 11 p.m.-midnight.
Channel 50: 8-9 p.m. Sunday.
Channel 58: 9-10 p.m. Saturday.