Monday, May 05, 2014

Piketty, Wodehouse, and the Mid-Twentieth Century Great Easing

As has been widely reported, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century extensively discusses the novels of Balzac and Jane Austen, as illustrations of what a rentier society looks like, with labor income mattering far less than inheriting capital or else acquiring it by marriage.

The natural question for me was: What about Wodehouse?  Not only is he on the short list of my favorite authors, but frequently his protagonists are young men who live off inherited wealth, and who are not only unemployed but verging on unemployable, owing to what (despite Piketty’s dislike for the phrase) one could only term low human capital.  Yet, in a truly shocking omission, Piketty never mentions Wodehouse.  (Perhaps Wodehouse, despite the nod to Austen, is too idiosyncratically English?)

Luckily, I think the gap is easily filled in.  Although Wodehouse started writing in the first decade of the twentieth century, or during the pre-World War I inequality peak, he found his voice as a writer in the 1920s, after the World War I shock, and then wrote throughout the Kuznets era of lesser inequality.  Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising how comic and ineffectual the young gentlemen with comfortable livings seem to be in his work, compared to their predecessors in the Austen novels.  What’s more, Wodehouse stories and novels frequently feature wealthy inventors, self-made American millionaires, and the like, who are pushing their way into English society, and who may be a bit obnoxious and threatening, but who are not truly dangerous to the stability of what Evelyn Waugh called “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world.”

Wodehouse himself grew up in a family that was comfortable enough to send an older brother to university but then, due to unexpected financial reverses, couldn’t send him.  Instead, he was dispatched to London to work as a bank apprentice or clerk.  He appears to have seen himself, no doubt rightly, as verging on long-term unemployable in an office setting. Yet he quickly found his way to self-support as a writer, through extraordinary energy that considerably predated his actually being any good (although at least some trace of the mature Wodehouse’s comic sensibility was there from the start).

No doubt Wodehouse’s rapid success as a self-supporting writer - at least to the level of staying above water (although the huge successes only came later, after a lot of hard work) – helped him to take a bemused view of the fortunate few who could live off inheritances.  But surely it’s also a broader signpost of the mid-twentieth century Great Easing that rentiers in his world, while certainly having very pleasant lives, so frequently are comic and ineffectual.

"From Darcy to Bertie Wooster: [insert here your choice of subtitle]" - possible dissertation title on offer for English nineteenth to twentieth century economic and social history.


Unknown said...

Are you aware that there is a Wodehouse Society for folks who like his writing? Actually, there are many Wodehouse societies all over the world, but I am referring here to The Wodehouse Society, which has worldwide membership but the majority are from the U.S. If you are interested, you can find out more about us at

Daniel Shaviro said...

Thanks. I'll check this out. I have been a huge Wodehouse fan for decades and have even written a very loosely Wodehouse-influenced novel.