I probably didn’t need COVID as an excuse to re-read P. G. Wodehouse, but I will say that going back to one of my favourite writers has given me a much-needed sense of comfort in these stressful times. There is something soothing about retreating into a world where there are gentle rules that must not be broken and, when they are, the consequences are not very dreadful.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, or “Plum”, as he preferred to be called, published more than 90 books, 40 plays, and 200 short stories. He wrote scripts and screenplays and the lyrics to musical comedies; at one time, in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, he had five Broadway shows and 12 companies on the road.
Despite his prodigous output, Wodehouse was offhand about his oeuvre. Once, when asked about his technique, he said, “Oh, I don’t know. I just sit down at the typewriter and curse a bit.” He was being disingenuous; the fact is, he filled entire notebooks with the plots for his stories and then wrote and re-wrote them until they were perfect. As he put it, “In a Jeeves story every line has to have entertainment value.”
And he took it seriously. “Writing a book is like building a coral reef,” he told his friend William Townend. “One goes on adding tiny bits. I must say the result is much better. With my stuff it is largely a matter of adding color and seeing that I don’t let anything through that’s at all flat.”
Wodehouse, who died on 14 February 1975 at the age of 93, kept writing right up to his death. But it’s a particular segment of his literary output that we continue to cherish: the unforgettable but likeable nitwit, Bertie Wooster, and his inimitable valet, Jeeves.
I have eight of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, all in paperback and published variously by Harper & Row, Penguin Books, and Random House. There are anywhere from 17 to 21 in total, depending on which website you check, and I do think I had a few more once upon a time. (Note: When you lend out a Jeeves and Wooster novel to a friend, you’re unlikely to get it back.)
If I had to pick a favourite – and I feel, for the sake of this blog, that I do – I would probably choose The Code of the Woosters, written just before WWII when he was living in Le Touquet, France. Wodehouse was at the height of his powers when he wrote this, but I should mention that I’m not picking this book because of the plot. In spite of the work involved in constructing these stories, they tend to follow a similar narrative: Bertie finds himself in a difficult situation, either due to his own bumbling missteps or because of something a friend or an aunt has persuaded him to do, and Jeeves comes up with a solution.
In The Code of the Woosters, his Aunt Dahlia blackmails him into stealing an 18th century silver cow creamer from Sir Watkyn Basset, a magistrate who is also, like Aunt Dahlia’s husband, a collector of these kinds of things. (The blackmail, such as it is, is based on the threat that if Bertie doesn’t follow through and do what she asks, he will be permanently banned from her home, meaning he will be denied the gastronomic delights prepared by Anatole, her cook. If you really want to punish Bertie, you do it through his stomach.)
Things, of course, go horribly wrong, and the situation is exacerbated by his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle’s courtship of Madeline Bassett. Madeline was once engaged to be married to Bertie, a fate worse than death, in his opinion: “A droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and rabbits. I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that the stars were God’s daisy chain. Perfect rot, of course.” If things turn out badly for Gussie and Madeline, there’s the strong possibility she may change her mind about Bertie and renew their engagement.
Rest assured, of course, that all ends well for Bertie. Jeeves saves the day and is rewarded by Bertie agreeing to take the two of them on a world cruise, something Jeeves has been wanting to do since the beginning of the story. As Bertie puts it, “The snail was on the wing and the lark on the thorn – or rather, the other way round – and God was in his Heaven and all right with the world.”
Many of Bertie’s adventures find him on the precipice of marital bliss and, at the 11th hour, being rescued from it. We’re pretty sure – and by “we” I mean those of us who consider ourselves Wodehousians – that Bertie never had sex. He wasn’t against it, per se – it just never came up. And aside from his Aunt Dahlia and one or two gal pals, the women in his fiction are a pretty deadly bunch.
You might assume from this that he wasn’t fond of us. Women, that is.
Well, you would be wrong. In August, 1914, on a visit to New York, Wodehouse met Ethel Wayman, an energetic, extroverted young widow also visiting New York from England. They were married eight weeks later and enjoyed, by all accounts, 61 years of a happy, harmonious relationship. As one critic put it, “He made the money and his wife spent it, an arrangement which suited them both.”
I read the Jeeves and Wooster books for the sheer enjoyment of reading Wodehouse – a man, I am convinced, who was incapable of writing an awkward sentence. He could sum up a character in a sentence – maybe two. Take his description of J. Washburn Stoker’s second cousin, George, currently under the psychiatric care of Sir Roderick Glossop: “After a lifetime of doing down the widow and orphan, he [George] had begun to feel the strain a bit. His conversation was odd, and he had a tendency to walk on his hands.” That is all we ever learn about George and it is all we need to know.
When he tells us his Aunt Agatha “eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next to her skin” – well, we know she is one tough cookie.
As for Jeeves, he never just leaves a room – he “shimmers off”.
I think Wodehouse wrote some of the funniest sentences in fiction. I’ll leave you with a few of my favourites:
“It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away.”
“He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”
“What ho!” I said. “What ho!” said Motty. “What ho! What ho!” “What ho! What ho! What ho!” After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.
“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
“He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.”
“One prefers, of course, on all occasions to be stainless and above reproach, but, failing that, the next best thing is unquestionably to have got rid of the body.”
Okay, you get the picture.