Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wild About Wodehouse

What ho, old beans! Ring the bell for the tea things and we’ll flap the old gums for a bit.

What’s gotten into me lately? There’s only one explanation. I’ve been reading P. G. Wodehouse. Not just reading- more like devouring. The past three books I’ve read have all been in the Jeeves series: The Inimitable Jeeves; Thank You, Jeeves; and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.

Some of you might be familiar with Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his “gentleman’s person gentleman” (read: valet) Reginald Jeeves from the sixteen novels P. G. Wodehouse wrote about their misadventures in the early 20th century. Other of you might have enjoyed the TV series “Jeeves & Wooster”, starring the pictured Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, respectively. Most of you, however, will at least remember the former mascot of, Jeeves the butler. Jeeves has since gone into retirement on the American version of the search engine, but in the UK and Canada where the character is more recognizable, Jeeves is still in attendance to fetch the answers to your everyday queries.

Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are definitely Wodehouse’s best-loved characters. Wooster is a bumbling, good-natured minor aristocrat, described by Jeeves as “mentally negligible but with a heart of gold.” His language is a riot- his pals from his social club are greeted as old eggs, old beans, old chaps, old gargoyles (I promise I did not make that up). He is upbeat, goofy, and has all the emotional an intellectual maturity of a thirteen year old. His most shining quality is his total inability to say no to anyone, especially when plied with the magic words, “But Bertie! We were at school together!” Needless to say, his good nature is taken advantage of constantly. He harangued constantly by his bull-like Aunt Agatha, arrested, sent to jail, embroiled in a series of unfortunate love affairs with thoroughly unpleasant women, declared legally insane, trapped in a potting shed, and kidnapped an help prisoner on a yacht, all in the span of less than four hundred pages.

And in every single one of these cases, Jeeves has materialized, and with understated brilliance and impeccable grace, extricated his young master from the “horns of the dilemma”. Jeeves is a mysterious figure, who always appears in the exact moment when he is needed. Jeeves also has a particular fashion sensibility, and Wooster often asserts his authority by donning an article of clothing that is particularly offensive to Jeeves, such as a white casino jacket, a straw gondolier hat, or mauve socks. In every case, immediately after the offensive garment in introduced, Wooster will inevitably get into a sticky situation which Jeeves, always at least two silent steps ahead, will resolve for him with a carefully executed scheme. After his situation is resolved to its happy normal, Wooster always gives Jeeves permission to discard, donate, or even burn the garment that offended him most recently which Jeeves will, having anticipated his master’s movements, already have done.

Bertie was a member of a social class known as the “idle rich,” a class which comprised most of the High Society scene in Britain before World War II. These were people born either into aristocratic, or simply tremendously wealthy families, who were left huge sums of money, which was allotted to them in the form of monthly allowances. So, being financially independent but without any kind of job or responsibility, these people had a whole lot of money at their disposal, and a whole lot of time to spend it. The world was their playground, and in London, they were in the center of the social world. Having a staff, including cooks, butlers, and valets (it should be noted that contrary to popular belief, Jeeves is a valet, not a butler) was almost a requirement to run in those circles. The language in these books, the yes-sir no-sir very-good-sir I-could-not-presume-an-opinion-sir austerity of Jeeves and the bubbly, slang-heavy barrage of Wooster’s dialogue are period-perfect.

My favorite of the three Wodehouse books I’ve read so far is definitely The Inimitable Jeeves. It is most episodic than the other two, and easier to take in small doses. These stories, to me, are like children’s stories; humorous, light, clever, and, being marked with Jeeves’ presence, they have the guarantee of a happy ending.

Toodle pip and cheers, chaps!


PS. For all you P.G.W. devotees out there, the book “Plum Sauce” by Richard Usborne is a peerless companion to all things Wodehouse, and a must-have for every Jeeves and Wooster fan. Highly recommend.

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