The English Imagination: Bravo for British Books!

Of all the cultures in the world, there is one that seems to endear itself to readers everywhere: British culture. (I will here on use the word “English” though it is inaccurate, because it refers to the language as well as England, where many writers from Great Britain based themselves.) The tradition of English literature is long and vast, starting all the way back from the time of The Canterbury Tales, through the development of the novel in the 1700s, into the beloved Victorian period, and even through the 20th century with canonical classics like 1984. And the love of the English novel has been rekindled in the 21st century with the Harry Potter series, spreading globally like a wildfire.

Given this centuries-long, global mania that has touched the lives of literally millions, if not hundreds of millions, we must simply ask, Why? What is it about the English imagination that captivates us so?

Here are some possible reasons:
-The English have an imagination. This tautology might at first strike the reader as silly, but we need to acknowledge that the English have given us fanciful settings like in A Clockwork Orange, imaginary characters, talking and anthropomorphized animals like Winnie the Pooh, creatures that can perform magical spells, and even myths and legends like King Arthur. The presence of the Celts is certainly one factor in the English collective imagination. The isolation of an island nation may be another, for in an isolated setting, one must create and invent stories and fantasies to keep oneself entertained. Also, in a culture of rigid social hierarchy, the imagination is what makes one free.

-The English have royalty. Kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses, nobility, palaces, and their courts–there is plenty of glamour, intrigue, history, and power struggles that keep the reader entertained. Royalty = continuity, both in terms of a dynasty and a place. Place is very important to royals, as they are defined by the land they own.

-The landscape. There are the seacoast, lakes, stately homes on grand parks with magnificent gardens. There are parlors warm and cozy in which to do needlework while it is cold and dreary outside. There are beautiful spring days in the unparalleled English countryside in which to have a tryst, as Julia and Winston do in 1984. By contrast, there are the industrial wastelands, belching smoke and coated in grime, the sad byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. There is Dickens’s London, squalid and overcrowded. And of course, one cannot discuss the English landscape without including the gloomy, tempestuous Moors as in Wuthering Heights, a setting that is perhaps the original “dark and stormy night.”

-A sense of mysticism. Someone (likely JB Priestley) said that the English are “reasonable, not rational,” which can be interpreted as that the English are willing to entertain ideas that are not entirely pragmatic and realistic. Anglicanism embraces a sense of mysticism, and as mentioned above, the culture of the Celts and pagan traditions embrace gods and goddesses, fairies, et cetera. There might be trolls, wizards, signs, and omens. None of these are considered too far-fetched or outlandish, though Continental readers might find it so.

-Women sometimes feature prominently. While I think it is very wrong to look back on centuries of literature through a modern lens of political correctness and gender studies, we cannot fail to note that English literature has quite frequently featured female protagonists or major characters. This includes characters by both male and female authors. Jane Eyre, Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth Bowen’s Stella in The Heat of the Day, Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Virginia Woolf’s women and especially A Room of One’s Own, even Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character Alice – the list goes on and on. This is not to deny the sexism and secondary status of women through the history of English literature; rather, there has been a significant presence of women that is indeed influential.

-Colonialism. Needless to say, this has been an atrocious facet of history that still has a negative impact today. But strictly from a literary point of view, it broadened the scope of literature. Jane Eyre features the exotic subplot of Mr. Rochester’s time in the Caribbean and his marriage to the tempestuous Bertha. Kipling, for however politically incorrect he is now, set works in India, and one of his most vocal critics, George Orwell, spent time in India and in Burma, the latter providing fodder for his work.
Ironically, it is those who have grown up in former British colonies who read primarily British literature and have a great affinity and even affection for it. Global powerhouse Salman Rushdie has spoken of his love for The Lord of the Rings and Wodehouse. Ask a typical Indian reader (not a current literary scholar or writer) whom s/he admires, and you may very likely hear “Dickens.” Nobel laureate St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott has spoken of his very English education and influence by British poets and writers.

-The class system. Another skeleton in England’s closet, in addition to colonialism, the stratified class society of England has made for very important themes that entrance the reader, namely from low-high. Austen’s novels prominently feature poor women marrying wealthier men. Jane Eyre is a penniless orphan who marries the rich man in the stately home who favors her over the glamorous Lady. The foundlings on the doorstep turn out to be kings–or at least, they marry well. Shakespeare abounds with this theme, in works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (recall a character named “Bottom”).  High-to low, and vice-versa, makes for a thrilling story.

-A sense of decorum. This relates to in some degree the previous point about class. The stiff upper lip and social conventions expected of people can be both a source of humor, as we see in Wodehouse or Pride and Prejudice, as well as a source of discomfort and tension, as in Great Expectations. Impropriety makes for good humor or good stories, as it is a form of transgression. How does it get resolved? This is a key question that keeps the reader engaged.

Here’s to hoping that England will continue to produce more writers that capture our imaginations and our hearts through the 21st century and centuries to come!

Thank You, Wodehouse: The Comic Genius of Jeeves and Wooster

I just recently finished reading Thank You, Jeeves by the English writer P.G. Wodehouse, and I must confess, it was my first Wodehouse novel. For some reason, in my experience as an American, Wodehouse is not so widely read or popular or well known. Perhaps it is because he is not considered one of the heavyweights of English literature whom we read, such as Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, or even the modern master, Ian McEwan. However, I found it an extremely enjoyable experience, and would like to offer some praise for Wodehouse. Let me first add the disclaimer, though, that the whole blackface incident in the novel is by current American standards very backward, offensive, and racist. No modern American—-or even British—-writer would dare to do such a thing today. Let me also mention, to those highbrow literary types, that yes, I do find there is a certain flat, cartoony quality to the characters in the book. The characters are there to serve a purpose in Bertie’s story, and we do not know their inner workings or inner lives. We scarcely see anything of Jeeves, except that which is shown to us through dialogue.

But let us evaluate Thank You, Jeeves for qualities other than bad racial stereotypes and popularity, and we shall see that he is quite a brilliant writer; there is a reason his novels are still read today around the globe. First of all, the novel is funny. In a world where novels are often grim, dealing with terrorism, family dysfunction, mental illness, or trauma, here, there is a lighthearted sense of humor that pervades. Once the reader gets into the particular rhythm of Wodehouse’s language, s/he might find her/himself actually laughing out loud: when was the last time you actually laughed out loud when reading a novel? Writing comedy is not an easy task, as numerous comedians, script-, and screenwriters will tell you. Wodehouse’s output is extremely large, as he was a prolific writer up to the end of his life. He had even written screenplays, and so the structure of his book follows very traditional plot lines. Just when one episode or character arc seems to be resolved, some sort of crisis arises that creates more tension in the story. The fact that Thank You, Jeeves was serialized meant that it had to keep the readers entertained for each episode, and then leave them waiting for the next. This understanding of how to write structure is an extremely important skill for any fiction writer to have.

The prose is clear and it flows smoothly; I read the novel over 3 or 4 days. Wodehouse’s dialogue is also a marvel, seemingly representative of its era. Naturally, there is a rather mannered nature to his language that seems quaint or a bit stilted today, just as the language in films from the 1930s and 40s. But Wodehouse has mastery of language; he uses it with great skill to generate humor through convoluted descriptions of things or people. We know that Bertie finds Master Seabury (even this name is quite comic, given the character’s youth) to be a repulsive brat with ears that stick out through his verbose descriptions of the little boy: “He continued to regard me with that supercilious gaze which had got him so disliked among the right-minded. He was a smallish, freckled kid with aeroplane ears… In my Rogues’ Gallery of repulsive small boys I suppose he would come about third…” With a description like that, who can’t laugh?

But if we take it for what it is, and are aware of the time period in which it was written, we must admire its merit. It’s like watching a good old-fashioned 1930s or 40s screwball comedy (or perhaps an Ealing Comedy?) full of slapstick, errors, mixups that fortunately get resolved in the end. And therefore, we have to keep in mind the tradition of the English Comedy of Errors, from the time of Shakespeare through to modern era. I would even argue that Thank You, Jeeves also follows in the vein of earlier English novels such as Fielding’s Tom Jones or Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, with clever narrators and comic mishaps. Bertie Wooster also plays the role of the bumbling fool that we see featured in English popular culture with such personages as Mr. Bean, Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or even the awkward Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. And if we were to step outside of the English tradition, we might relate Bertie and Wooster to none other than Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they go through a series of scrapes together, the latter ever loyal to the former. Panza helps the Don through all of his mishaps, just as Jeeves always comes to the rescue with a better idea for Bertram Wooster.

Naturally, there is always the issue of class differences, which are so prevalent in British society. Though Jeeves is quite intelligent and appears well read, he is still in the subservient position of the butler. Wooster, in order to escape, has to pretend he is one of the black minstrels who are entertaining the aristocrats’ party. Master Seabury seems to be a sort of urchin that the Dowager Lady Chuffnell has picked up somewhere and is not therefore positioned to be the heir to a title or fortune. And certainly, the central financial problem of the book is Lord “Chuffy” Chuffnell’s inability to maintain his ancestral home, and the need for the American Stoker to purchase it and thereby relieve him of his monetary woes. Wodehouse had lived in America for much of his life, and so he was able to render the differences between the cultures to humorous effect.

True, Thank You, Jeeves is not a work of literature that will change one’s life or leave a profound impact upon the reader. But one must give due credit to the craft of writing in the book, and also admire Wodehouse’s great wit. It is not a serious work à la One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but sometimes a cheery tonic in the form of a comic novel is exactly what we need.