PG rating – Éanna Brophy on Wodehouse in Wokeland

Trigger warning

The recent news that the publishers of Penguin books are “cleaning up” the writings of PG Wodehouse caused disbelief and indignation among the many devotees who worship at the shrine of the writer they consider to be the greatest stylist in the English language. As he himself would have put it: if not disgruntled they were far from being gruntled.

Although he was the essence of Englishness (despite living for years in America) his books once had a big following in Ireland and – as a previous Diary contributor pointed out – Dáil records show references to Wodehouse in sundry debates.

But apart from one character named O’Hara in early school stories, Ireland does not loom large in the world of Wodehouse, unless you count Thomas Portarlington Travers, husband of Bertie Wooster’s ebullient but good-hearted Aunt Dahlia.

But there is no explanation of how the Co Laois town was attached to Mr Travers, nor any Huguenot connection.


Sean O’Casey didn’t think much of Wodehouse, calling him “English literature’s performing flea”, but the late Hugh Leonard revered him as “the master”.

The only other Irish personages given reference in his works are Pat and Mike. Bertie Wooster mentions them once or twice, but they have no surnames: they are an early version of what was later known as the “Irish joke”, being a pair of idiots who constantly misunderstand the English language.

Which brings us back to Penguin’s concerns about words or phrases in the Wodehouse oeuvre that might offend sensitive modern ears.

Picture the scene in the bachelor pad of Bertram Wooster on the morning the news broke of the impending bowdlerisation. His manservant Jeeves has just shimmered into the breakfast room with the morning paper.

“What-ho Jeeves!” is his master’s greeting. Jeeves coughs discreetly prior to speaking.

“I regret to say, sir, that the Penguin publishing company have announced that they intend to (cough) sanitise your memoirs.”

A forkful of prime bacon stops halfway to the Wooster lips.

Aghast, he asks, “But why, Jeeves? I ask you, have I ever emitted a single word that might cause offence to anyone? With the exception of Roderick Spode of course.”

Jeeves gives another discreet cough, the sort that Wodehouse once likened to that of a sheep with a blade of grass caught in its throat.

“I gather that there are phrases that, in the past did not disturb the readers, but that today might cause some people to be triggered, to use a 21st-century expression.”

“But who could take offence Jeeves?”

“I understand, sir, that the mentions of Patrick and his friend Michael do not go down well with the Irish.”

“Pat and Mike? But they’ve been music hall stalwarts for years! It’s all jolly good fun! Oh, very well then, Penguin can take them out.”

“There are also the references to minstrel shows, sir.”

“What on earth could cause offence there?”

“They have usually been preceded by an adjective now considered unacceptable in any context whatsoever.”

“Oh! Of course Jeeves. Quite right! It should never have been allowed in the first place. They’ll have to go.”

Jeeves does the throat-clearing again. “And then there is your Aunt Agatha, sir.”

Wooster’s voice rises an octave. “Aunt Agatha? But she’s a major figure in my memoirs - albeit a threatening and frightening one!”

“Precisely, sir”, says Jeeves, “The modern reader might be alarmed to read that she kills rats with her teeth, devours broken bottles, wears barbed wire next to the skin and conducts human sacrifices at the time of the full moon.”

Wooster protests “But that was said in jest, Jeeves! It was good old knockabout hyperbole!”

Jeeves demurs: “Alas, sir, the word ‘jest’ does not figure in the vocabulary of the woke generation.”

Just then the phone in the hall rings. Jeeves goes to answer it and returns looking solemn.

“Bad news, I’m afraid, sir. Your Uncle Thomas Portarlington Travers says your Aunt Dahlia has been arrested.”

By this stage Bertie Wooster is traumatised. “Arrested?”, he croaks, “But why on earth?”

“Fox-hunting, sir. Mr Travers added that it was her colourful phrases of encouragement aimed at fellow members of the Quorn and Pytchley Hunt. They could be heard over a wide distance: three ploughed fields and a spinney to be precise.”

“But they never minded before, Jeeves!”

“I gather, sir, that on this occasion several horses took fright.”

A loud ring of the doorbell is followed by the sudden appearance of a tall, thin bespectacled man who gazes distractedly around him.

“Who on earth are you?”, demands Wooster, “I don’t think we’ve ever met’”

Jeeves intervenes. “This is Clarence, the Ninth Earl of Blandings, sir, better known as Lord Emsworth. He is one of Mr Wodehouse’s other creations.”

The new arrival finally speaks. “Help! You have to hide me! The woke police force are after me. Someone said they heard me referring to the Empress of Blandings as a fat pig.”

And on that bombshell we will draw the curtain. Even those with a passing acquaintance with Wodehouse will know that the Empress is indeed Lord Emsworth’s prize porker, a pig of epic proportions.

But will Penguin be prescribing her a daintier diet in future?