The cult of P.G. Wodehouse continues on as strong as ever. A recent article by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker is the latest in a seemingly endless series of articles by "serious" critics explaining their fascination with this most un-serious of writers. What more is there to say about him?
Well, there's one element in Wodehouse's work that often gets overlooked, which is the parody element: Almost everything he wrote began life as a parody of some then-popular genre of stories. Stories about idle young men who belong to clubs (the Drones Club stories, the Bertie and Jeeves stories), "frame" stories told by old adventurers (Mr. Mulliner; the golf stories), stories about stern Aunts who won't consent to their niece's marriage (the Blandings series); these were all familiar to readers when Wodehouse started doing funny versions of them. Wodehouse published most of his best work in the Saturday Evening Post -- not only the short stories, but the novels, which were serialized there. (Though he wrote about the England of his youth -- an England which, as Orwell pointed out and as Wodehous eagerly agreed, was an Edwardian fantasy world filled with the insolvent younger sons of peers -- he lived much of the time in America and wrote for a largely American audience.) At the time Wodehouse started writing for the Saturday Evening Post, these were types of stories that were being told seriously in the Post and many other magazines, and Wodehouse basically made his name by writing stories that took those elements and rechannelled them into farce.
Jeeves and Bertie are still funny, but they had an additional layer of humour at the time because they satirized the tropes of then-popular magazine fiction; for example, Madeline Bassett, the soupy young woman who thinks "that the stars are God's daisy chain," is a sendup of the "soulful" heroines of many a Post story. Whenever Wodehouse writes about an intimidatingly tall and handsome young woman (usually to contrast her with his heroines, who tend to be small and slight in build), he's parodying the "queenly" heroines of many novels at the time, particularly those of Ethel M. Dell (I've actually read an Ethel M. Dell novel and hope to write about it after the shell-shock wears off). And the early Mr. Mulliner stories are virtually all spoofs of typical Saturday Evening Post stories. Someday I hope to look at back issues of The Saturday Evening Post and try to better identify the authors who wrote the kinds of stories that Wodehouse was sending up.