chapter  1
20 Pages

Know Your Audience

Middlebrow Aesthetic and Literary Positioning in the Fiction of P.G. Wodehouse
WithAnn-Marie Einhaus

Although praised exuberantly by Evelyn Waugh and Hilaire Belloc, translated into dozens of languages and avidly read worldwide, it appears that P.G. Wodehouse is everybody’s favourite comic author, but nobody’s canonical writer – except when seen as the centre of his own particular canon of Wodehouseiana. In his 1953 review of The Inimitable Jeeves, Julian Maclaren-Ross deplored that ‘in spite of the superlatives with which these [reviews] are studded, the reviewers seem content to pigeon-hole him conveniently as ideal light reading for beach, train, or week-end trip’ rather than probing further (351). This essay strives to explain Wodehouse’s status as a popular writer, whose work is read with enjoyment by academics, critics and the general reader alike, as resulting from his particular positioning within the literary field, scrutinizing his relationship to both popular commercial fiction and avant-garde literary output. Wodehouse as a writer of enduring popularity and yet non-canonical status fits in with a range of critical discourses of the middlebrow, both modern and contemporary. Like most writers, however, he inevitably puts his own stamp on the term ‘middlebrow’. But how middlebrow is Wodehouse, and how far does he subscribe to a middlebrow aesthetic? As Erica Brown and Mary Grover have recently reasserted, the middlebrow remains notoriously hard to define, and is more often than not approached purely in contrast to its avant-garde contemporaries (Brown and Grover 1–21). Despite the efforts of a whole range of recent critical studies, ‘middlebrow’ largely remains ‘a pejorative label, its dismissive effect designed to credit its users with superior powers of discrimination’ (Brown and Grover 1–2). The purpose of this essay is not to pin such a pejorative label on Wodehouse’s writing. Rather than take the term ‘middlebrow’ for granted, it will investigate precisely what qualities of Wodehouse’s writing can be termed middlebrow and why Wodehouse’s particular brand of the middlebrow can be seen as closely linked with J.B. Priestley’s original defence of the middlebrow – or ‘Broadbrow’ – as ‘an inclusive stance’, a ‘happy medium’ (Pollentier 46), part of a long tradition of such writing reaching back as far as Shakespeare. Like Priestley, the early champion of the middlebrow, Wodehouse reclaimed Shakespeare as a popular writer whom Robert Scholes has boldly identified as an early practitioner of ‘durable fluff’ (Scholes 144).