I just finished George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier," published in 1937, and immediately afterward, as a humorous palate-cleanser, picked up P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred in the Springtime," published in 1939. Two books by English writers who were contemporaries could not be more different or portray a different version of life in England.
(As a fascinating side note, I just discovered that Orwell defended Wodehouse in an essay following World War II, when Wodehouse was in a legal limbo, facing possible prosecution in England because of a handful of humorous wartime broadcasts he made on German radio during a year in which he was imprisoned by the Germans. The case was never prosecuted and eventually, decades later, Wodehouse was knighted as a sort of official forgiveness.)
Orwell's nonfiction book is in two parts — the first a journalistic exploration of the life lived by miners in northern England. It is fascinating and notable for the vividness of Orwell's descriptions of the miners' living and working conditions, which were hellish. The second half of the book is Orwell's sometimes-rambling often-dated but occasionally piercing discussion of class in England and the challenges facing those, like him, trying to promote socialism in the country.
Orwell's discussion of class divisions is insightful. His own family had been wealthy a couple of generations back but was no longer. It retained its privileged attitude but not the money that was the source of it. From this vantage point, Orwell could peer with some perspective at the upper class, middle class and lower class. His thoughts on socialism lack the same perceptiveness and reflect what was, I suspect, a growing disillusionment with the movement.
Then you have Wodehouse, who wrote fabulous, intricate fantasies about upper-class nitwits and schemers with nothing better to do than obsess over a pet pig, cadge money from friends and relatives or run elaborate scams on their acquaintances, the point of which gets forgotten as the complications, coincidences and comedy piles up. The books are a delight, although you do occasionally run up against some offensive caricatures in the midst of the general satire that can sap a little bit of the fun out.
Interestingly, although Wodehouse was born in 1881, about 20 years before Orwell, he died in 1975, well into his 90s, while Orwell died of tuberculosis in 1950 at the age of 46. You could argue, despite the relative shortness of his life and paucity of his output — Orwell wrote 9 books, Wodehouse almost 100 — that Orwell has been the more influential author. Certainly, Orwell's books are force-fed to many more high school and college students than Wodehouse's. You read Wodehouse for one reason, and that is to laugh. But is there a better reason to read a book?