The Uses of Laughter

PG Wodehouse and the comic tradition

31 July 2021
PG Wodehouse has been described as the greatest comic writer of the twentieth century.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
PG Wodehouse has been described as the greatest comic writer of the twentieth century.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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FEW POPULAR WRITERS can have received quite as much critical praise in their own lifetimes as PG Wodehouse. Yet not long ago, the critic Philip Hensher could remark that “apart from England … the only country in the world which truly loves and understands Wodehouse is India.” This affinity is supposedly embodied in Indian English, said to be based (rather like Wodehouse’s prose) on “English grammar at its most formal” and “the vivid and racy idiom in un-English contexts.” This might be persuasive if it weren’t for the difficulty of proving that Indian English actually exists. English takes different forms in different parts of the country, but none ever possessed sufficient consistency and verve to develop into a recognised dialect. There was a time when fluent speakers favoured the Received Standard—the educated dialect of southwestern England—but American English has outstripped it in popularity and even the range of accents is now flattening out.

What Hensher calls Indian English is largely a literary invention. In Kim, Kipling uses Hurree Babu as a comic foil, to make fun of educated Indians, by having him jumble different registers in a way that might be expected of someone who learns English from books in school instead of speaking it at home. At the same time, he takes care to make him a sharply delineated figure in his own right. Other writers were to adapt this patois with varying degrees of success: Wodehouse uses it in The Luck Stone, an early adventure serial rediscovered and published in 1997. But I doubt if this tells us anything useful about his own prose.

Shashank Kela is the author of a historical monograph, A Rogue and Peasant Slave: Adivasi Resistance 1800-2000 (2012), and a novel, The Other Man (2017).

Keywords: PG Wodehouse
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