George Orwell’s In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse is both a fine piece of criticism and a monument to Orwell’s decency and courage. Wodehouse, having foolishly made some broadcasts on German radio after being captured during the conquest of France (he lived at La Touquet), faced some risk of prosecution as the war wound down, based on the accusation that he had been a pro-fascist on the model of Amery or Lord Haw-Haw or Ezra Pound. Orwell, by examining the moral and political atmosphere of Wodehouse’s stories, showed how ludicrous that accusation was.
But Orwell admits that he hadn’t read the entire Wodehouse ouevre, and in fact he seems to have missed a key piece of evidence, which supports his main thesis but weakens his secondary claim that Wodehouse was entirely innocent of politics and utterly out of touch with the England of the 1930s (being, by Orwell’s account, stuck in the mentality of 1912).
In 1938 there appeared The Code of the Woosters, the third novel in the Jeeves-Wooster cycle. A central character in that story is Sir Roderick Spode, Bt.. Spode is introduced in these terms: (p. 66) “It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.” Then another character fills Bertie in on the background (p. 67):
Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea, if he doesnâ€™t get knocked on the head with a bottle in one of the frequent brawls in which he and his followers indulge, is to make himself a Dictator.
But it turns out that Spode (while waiting for his uncle the earl to die) runs a ladies’ ligerie shop, and Bertie uses his knowledge of that fact to put Spode – a rival of Bertie’s friend for the affections of Miss Madeline Bassett – in his place.
Spode is thus a fairly vicious satire of Sir Oswald Mosley, Bt., the leader of the British Union of Fascists, whose brawlers were known as the Blackshirts. Uniformed political gangs had been banned at the beginning of 1937 (after violence broke out in late 1936 when residents of a Jewish area of London resisted a BUF march through their neighborhood) but the BUF was still active, and Mosley remained a political player (advocating a compromise peace) until his internment in 1940. An attack published in 1936 would have been more politically relevant and required more nerve, but an attack in 1938 was still on an active force.
So Wodehouse’s pitiless mockery of Mosley, at the time it was published, showed both some awareness of contemporary English politics and some anti-fascist spirit. Of course the whole thing is light-hearted: political violence and the ambition to become dictator are treated mostly as instances of vulgarity, like the black shorts themselves (“Shorts? Footer bags, you mean? How perfectly foul.”) Of course there’s no detailed political critique. Still, Wodehouse never portrayed an equivalently sinister figure on the Left.
Oddly, I’ve never seen the Spode character mentioned in discussions of Wodehouse’s wartime behavior. It seems to me highly relevant, and makes me happy he got his knighthood before he died.