From Chapter 2, 'The Course of True Love':
[Sue Brown, a chorus girl, has just revealed to her fiancé, Ronnie Fish, nephew of Lord Emsworth, that her mother was a music-hall singer]
'What they used to call a Serio. You know — Pink tights and rather risky songs.'
This time Ronnie did not say 'Juk!' He merely swallowed painfully. The information had come as a shock to him. Somehow or other, he had never thought of Sue as having encumbrances in the shape of relatives; and he could not hide from himself the fact that a pink-tighted Serio might stir the Family up quite a little. He pictured something with peroxide hair who would call his Uncle Clarence "dearie".
'English, do you mean? On the Halls here in London?'
'Yes. Her stage name was Dolly Henderson.'
'Never heard of her.'
'I daresay not. But she was the rage of London twenty years ago.'
'I always thought you were American,' said Ronnie, aggrieved. 'I distinctly recollect Hugo, when he introduced us, telling me that you had just come over from New York.'
'So I had. Father took me to America soon after mother died.'
'Oh, your mother is — er — no longer with us?'
'Too bad,' said Ronnie, brightening.
Seriously — comme disent les jeunes — wtf? Bad enough that, when your beloved tells you at a weirdly late stage in your relationship that her mother is dead, you feel relief rather than compassion; but can't you disguise the blank spot in your soul more effectually?
I'm tempted to make the case that Wodehouse merely chronicled the mores of the English upper classes, and here he's depicting the emotional inadequacy that is so often a side-effect of a boarding-school education. The Hon. Galahad Threepwood's functional alcoholism, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge and Rupert Psmith's sense of entitlement, Bertie Wooster's low-level sexual panic, the pervasive contempt for the lower classes and the assumption that marriage is primarily a mechanism for converting female sex appeal into hard cash — they're part of the same picture. Or, I could suggest that what Plum records is his own immaturity, that he endows his characters with his own inability to form adult emotional bonds.
Or, more boring but truer, that Wodehouse's characters only have emotions insofar as those are necessary to make the plot run smoothly: Ronnie and Sue and the rest have been run through the lathe, machined into components in an ingenious clockwork device; a Wodehouse story is no more alive than is a mechanical Turk. Likewise Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Miss Marple: if you met them you would assume they were psychopaths. The emotional simplification is a necessary element of genre fiction — we can enjoy it because the people are puppets; we don't have to feel their pain. (Fans of genre fiction sometimes claim that "literary fiction" is simply another genre, but I disagree: one of the things that defines literary fiction is its attempt to avoid simplification, the artificial limitations placed on plot and personality by genre rules. Some would-be literary fiction does start to unconsciously follow rules and habits, but at that point it starts to be something else: I might accept "failed literary fiction" as a genre.)
The preface to Summer Lightning begins: "A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names'." I am that critic. Once I adored Wodehouse, all of it; these days most of the books, including all the Blandings stories, strike me as repetitious and artificial. Still, The Code of the Woosters, Right Ho, Jeeves and a couple of dozen short stories — Jeeves, Mr. Mulliner, miscellaneous golf — are flawless. James Wood, op. cit., is good on Wodehouse's odd combination of seriousness about writing and bottomless frivolity. It makes me think of 'The Lotos-Eaters': "Like a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong".
This is the 1973 Penguin edition of Summer Lightning (which was first published 1929), which cost me 60p in the mid-1970s. The cover illustration is by Ionicus: better than the cartoonish would-be funny illustrations that other publishers plump for, but incongruously flat and literal.