Wodehouse, Orwell, and the Black Shorts

P.G. Wodehouse published a light-hearted but viciously effective satirical attack on Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, in 1938. That seems relevant to judging his motives in making broadcasts on German radio after having been captured during the conquest of France.

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 doesn’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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

41 thoughts on “Wodehouse, Orwell, and the Black Shorts”

  1. Part of Mosley’s appeal was a full-blooded Keynesian policy against unemployment, as practised by Schacht in Hitler’s Germany. You can’t of course blame Keynes for some of those that read him with attention.

  2. I think you’re mistaken here — Wodehouse fairly regularly writes satires of reformers and liberal candidates for this or that office, and of course pretty much completely ignores the suffrage movement except for his generally terrifying portraits of strong women (including La Bassett.) It’s fairly easy to read the satire of Mosley as being much more about vulgarity (Mosley was a social climber as well as a fascist) and homophobia than about fascism, especially if you do think of Wodehouse as stuck in 1912, when marching through the streets for pretty much anything was simply Not Done.

    Of course, even for 1912, Wodehouse is fairly free of the violently rightwing and antisemitic strains that pervaded much of turn-of-the-century popular literature, where every dissatisfied worker is a traitorous, cowardly bomb-thrower, and every ambitious person of business is a conniving jew. He even portrays a sort of benevolent trade union (the Junior Ganymedes) where servants cement their dominion over their masters by sharing (in utmost confidence) their domestic secrets.

    1. True about the satirical presentation of reformers, radicals – I remember at least one aristocrat posing as a Marxist working man for love – and strong women. But I think Spode is, as the OP says, a uniquely sinister figure. (The lingerie thing is arguably the sole humanizing thing about him, once it’s discovered.)

    2. Also, as I recall from reading (and enjoying) the Jeeves stories, everyone who isn’t a privileged aristocrat (and is in any way a character, rather than a prop) turns out to be a privileged aristocrat in disguise, or a striving youngster soon to join the aristocracy, or a servile and complacent figure – or, in a couple of cases, a sneering bolshie figure consumed with ill will and characterized by poor graces, seeking to exploit his betters in a vindictive manner.

      1. I might quibble with calling Jeeves servile or complacent – although he acts both parts well enough.

        The Wooster and Psmith stories, at least, are making fun of every character but one – and even the one gets a bit of gentle joshing for his (always his) foibles and prejudices.

        I’d say – not having picked up any of the stories in several years – that Spode is Wodehouse’s far-and-away least sympathetic character. But that could be me projecting – I find Wooster’s terror of Aunt Agatha ridiculous, but Spode’s threats of violence seem much more real than the regular threats of a thrashing that other characters dish out. I feel like I need to go back and see what Jeeves had to say about Spode to get a sense of whether Wodehouse meant him to be a true villain…

        1. Jeeves sends Bertie out on stage – drunk – to sing Danny Boy in front of an audience
          that has already heard the song twice. And he burns or gives away Bertie’s garish
          clothes. Hardly servile.

          Also I think you have to separate out the “privileged” from the “aristocrat” – a common
          plot point is someone, e.g. Bingo Little, from the upper class who is nevertheless
          penniless, at least temporarily.

          I always found Spode more absurd than sinister. But I wouldn’t take that as strong
          evidence of Wodehouse’s political views: AFAIK he was pretty much apolitical.

          1. I think when faced with a situation where he could possibly make some kind of point, Wodehouse would invariably go for a laugh.

    3. “Homophobia”? Where does that come in? Spode is portrayed as both straight (in love with Madeline Bassett) and as hyper-masculine. I don’t know Mosley’s biography, but I wasn’t there a spat between his mistress and first wife’s sister about which one he would marry after the first wife died?

      1. Homophobia coming from “designs ladies’ undergarments” – but you probably got that.
        I, too, would quibble with calling Wodehouse’s choice for Spode’s dark secret “homophobic” – it’s certainly indicative of something nasty (in present-day terms) about gender stuff, of course.
        Second comment in this thread to put me in mind of Downton Abbey. Am I the only one wishing Fellowes would make next season’s storyline about a stolen cream-pitcher or something? That show needs some Wodehouse-ian humor. Or something. 🙂

      2. IIRC Mosley called a friend or relative and said his wife was coming over and would be upset. When asked why she might be upset he (allgedly) said “I listed all of the women I’ve slept with since we married except for her mother and her sister.”

        I can’t remember where I read that (I know it was in a book review entitled “Beloved Bounder” of a biography of O Mosley ritten by his son, but have no idea where it was published).

    4. I kind of hate to comment yet again on this thread – but (here I am!), the Junior Ganymedes (?) is yet another reason I love me some Wodehouse. It’s what I and my former retail colleagues aspired to when we got together after work to bitch about customers. We had equally hi-larious stories, but no names to inscribe in a big book – unless we snuck a glance at the customer’s credit card … or they had pitched such a fit that everyone knew their name!

    5. Mosley was a social climber as well as a fascist

      In what universe was Mosley a social climber? His family had been baronets since the 18th century; he was educated at Winchester and Sandhurst and served in a prestigious cavalry regiment during the great war; he inherited millions. He wasn’t a climber because he was born at the top, socially – unless he wanted a dukedom there wasn’t much further for him to go. He was a political climber, for sure, but that’s a very different thing.

      1. I’m not an expert on the English nobility, but I am at least English. And my understanding is that
        being a baronet is pretty much the bottom rank of hereditary titles – it doesn’t even get you
        in the House of Lords. So there are many ranks above that to climb. And being anything “since the
        18th century” is also nothing to brag about, when many titles date back 400 years earlier.

        As for the millions, social rank among the English nobility is not strongly correlated with wealth.
        Especially not wealth in the form of actual money, as opposed to wealth tied up in vast badly-managed
        estates that have been in the family for centuries, as in Downton.

        It’s a stupid pointless system. But for those who cared about it, Mosley was down near the bottom
        of the heap (except for the common people, as in 1066 And All That), not anywhere near the top.

        1. FWIW, until recently there were 700 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, all of whom
          would have outranked any Baronet. Not sure what the figure was back in the 1930s,
          probably similar.

          1. If you’re English you’ll be aware that for the last 300 years or so the aristocracy, both titled and untitled, has always regarded solidarity among its own class as far more important than nice distinctions of rank. You’ll also be aware that in the aftermath of the agricultural depression of the 1870s, cash money became extremely important to them and they largely stopped pretending otherwise – Wodehouse gets this right with his characters’ constant pursuit of American heiresses. It’s not a stupid pointless system for them: broader class solidarity (Engels makes a number of cracks in the mid 19th century about England’s “bourgeois aristocracy”) permitted the British aristocracy to hang onto power far longer and far more securely than most of their European counterparts. When Mosley, as an aspiring young Tory, married a Curzon, it was all about advancing in the Conservative Party, not because he wanted a posher title.

          2. Nevertheless, they cared about those “nice distinctions” quite a lot, even if not as much as keeping the
            lower classes in their place. And the gap between the hundreds of Baronets and the handful of Dukes was big.
            As for the money, yes indeed, they needed money. But money was not rank in itself; money was necessary to maintain
            the lifestyle appropriate to high rank; and those with high rank, but short of money, were often willing
            to to marry heiresses. But that was an exchange of two distinct commodities – rank for money. The two
            were exchangeable, but not identical.

            As for Mosley’s motives, he was quite odious, whether his motives were social or political.

  3. Hopefully Mark’s spirited defense here will discourage the Tea Party from emailing fundraisers with P.G. Wodehouse in SS drag.

  4. Still, Wodehouse never portrayed an equivalently sinister figure on the Left.

    Sinister, I’m not sure, but there’s a short story where Bingo Little is attempting to endear himself to a Communist agitator. She, her brother, and another communist end up having tea at Bertie’s, and ask if the food had been ripped from the bleeding lips of the starving poor. (After the meal is over, Bertie comments that if the amount of jam left had been rubbed on on the bleeding lips of the starving poor, it would hardly have made them sticky.)

    There’s also a Russian novelist in a golf story who talks about playing golf with Trotsky while anarchists throw bombs at them.

    1. The contrast between the rather gentle fun poked at Bingo’s inamorata and her comrades and the vicious portrait of Spode was precisely what I had in mind.

  5. Are there any fatal car accidents in Wodehouse? Any women dying in childbirth? I need to escape from my escapism…..

    1. I guess that might be a rhetorical question, but if not: no. Escape away!

      (Was that a Downton Abbey joke? Cause the only thing I’m escaping to when I watch it lately is fury at Fellowes’s piss-poor writing.)

    2. I’m hoping Rose will liven up Downton next season – I want to see her puncture
      Mary’s hot water bottle with a darning needle, and maybe strand her on an
      island in the lake with a pair of angry swans.

    3. BTW, the only problem I have with Downton’s tragic illnesses and violent deaths is that
      they happen to the wrong characters 🙂 It’s a mystery to me how Lord Grantham could survive
      a day on the moors with a rifle without shooting his own foot off. Though maybe that’s why the
      ghillie – no fool – holds it and aims it before he lets the aristocrats touch it.

  6. That would be “Defence”, wouldn’t it?

    Bertie doesn’t use his knowledge of Spode’s lingerie shop to put Spode in his place; he uses Jeeves’s knowledge. Jeeves just tells Bertie to tell Spode “I know about Eulalie!” (this is from a memory several decades old, so I may not have it letter perfect). Bertie learns that “Eulalie” refers to the Eulalie Soeurs knicker shop only after his declaration has had its effect.

    I hope all who read RBC will be familiar with the more recent affaire Mosley, involving Max Mosley, son of the British fascist (who married Max’s mother, Diana Mitford, at Josef Goebbels’s house in Berlin with Hitler among the guests). Suffice it to say that it involved multiple prostitutes, bondage and discipline, and, allegedly, Nazi/concentration-camp role-playing, all served up elaborately in the late and possibly lamented News of the World (which Max Mosley successfully sued, it should be acknowledged).

    Important note: To anyone reading this who has not seen every minute of the Jeeves and Wooster television series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, let me advise you: See every minute. It’s among the masterpieces of television.

    1. I would also recommend “Wodehouse Playhouse – The Complete Collection” (1974-1978)

      A series of dramatisations of some of P.G. Wodehouse’s comic short stories starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins – in which P.G. Wodehouse, himself, introduced some of the early episodes.

      No Jeeves stories IIEC but some howlingly funny stuff.

      1. Agreed, “Wodehouse Playhouse” was very good. I believe all of the stories were from the “Mulliner” series, which is also very much worth a read.

    2. Quite agree about the Fry & Laurie tele-versions of “Jeeves and Wooster” – classics to be sure but:

      Still, Wodehouse never portrayed an equivalently sinister figure on the Left.

      Although the characterization of Roderick Spode may have read differently in the original story, in the TV version, he was way more of a ridiculous figure than a “sinister” one: in the several episodes he appeared in, Spode was usually played as a blustering buffoon, and his pseudo-tough-guy political philosophizing as mock-worthy nonsense. In any case, it would be a stretch, IMO, to paint this as a sympathetic portrayal…

      1. The books’ portrayal of Spode (I think there were at least two featuring him?) is a lot nastier than the TV version – I think. But that may be me finding fascists scary, not Wodehouse’s characterization.
        I am totally busy tonight, but one of the things I love about Wodehouse is … I’m pretty confident I can cruise through two of the novels (granted, I’ve read them already) in about an hour and a half. So I will totally check this out!

        1. I’d say Spode’s presented as a buffoon, and as politically ridiculous, but as physically frightening and violent in the books. Bertie’s always concerned that Spode is going to attempt to see the color of his insides.

    3. I’ve never seen it, but with the recent passing of Richard Briers I saw some commentary asserting that his, and not Hugh Laurie’s, was the definitive television Wooster. Take such unsupported claims for what you will; certainly, Briers was a brilliant comic actor on the radio, which is where I’ve encountered his work.

      PS is anyone else finding they have to re-enter their name practically every time they comment?

      1. Yes. For some reason, the cookie expiration time was set to a rather low value recently (20 minutes or so).

      2. Gosh, I hadn’t heard that Richard Briers had died, nor did I know that he had portrayed Bertie Wooster. According to Wikipedia, though, for what it’s worth, he played Bertie Wooster only on the radio, so he can’t have challenged Hugh Laurie for the definitive television Wooster. I have to say, I find it hard to imagine a Bertie Wooster superior to Laurie’s. (IMDb, which covers movies and television, has no mention of Bertie in the entry for Briers, by the way.)

        1. I always think of Ian Carmichael, who I saw as Wooster (1965-67) before I
          could read the books. Though at 45+ he was really too old for the part.

          Didn’t see much of the Fry and Laurie version – I must remedy that.

    4. Bertie doesn’t use his knowledge of Spode’s lingerie shop to put Spode in his place; he uses Jeeves’s knowledge. Jeeves just tells Bertie to tell Spode “I know about Eulalie!” (this is from a memory several decades old, so I may not have it letter perfect). Bertie learns that “Eulalie” refers to the Eulalie Soeurs knicker shop only after his declaration has had its effect.

      Just as Downton Abbey’s Thomas doesn’t know what Bates is talking about when he tells him that whispering “Her Ladyship’s soap” in the right ear will save the day

  7. See A MAN CALLED INTREPID (The Secret War; the authentic account of the most decisive intelligence operations of World War II — and the superspy who controlled them) by William Stevenson) for a reference to Wodehouse as someone “in Nazi hands and pretending to collaborate” . . .

    1. That sounds overly generous. I’d thought the consensus view was that Wodehouse thought he could simply act as if there were no war – indeed, that’s why he was caught – and wound up somewhat blithely doing some lighthearted stuff on the radio in the hopes it would raise people’s spirits, thinking such cooperation to be harmless and meaningless. Not that he was cleverly plotting to undermine the Third Reich through a carefully contrived aping of collaboration, nor that he was terrorized into doing their bidding.

  8. I love Orwell too, and it seems to me that when I read him, I can feel myself being made smarter, like babies who listen to Mozart supposedly are. I don’t know how long it lasts though!

  9. I agree with the OP except I have seen Spode mentioned several times as a defense of Wodehouse. Here’s just one: http://yoyogod.20m.com/Heil.htm

    The one contrary argument I can think of for Wodehouse being apolitical and Spode being extra-ridiculous and unsympathetic is that Spode’s model, Mosley, was extra-ridiculous and unsympathetic. Under this argument the fault for Spode lies not in Wodehouse but in reality.

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