After reading a string of depressing, although well-written books, I decided that I needed a definite change of pace. P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves seemed just the ticket, old thing.
If you have any sense of humor, then you will appreciate Wodehouse’s creations of Bertram Wooster and his man Jeeves. Bertie is a complete twit, constantly getting himself into awkward, potentially embarrassing predicaments, while Jeeves is the calm, perceptive, and always sensible gentleman’s man who somehow solves Bertie’s dilemmas. This is a plot device that goes back to the stock characters of Roman comedy, servants are frequently far cleverer than their masters. This is quintessentially true with Jeeves, who always pulls Bertie Wooster out of the direst scrapes by means of cunning and resource, often by deceptively manipulating him or by convincing him to sacrifice himself.
During the middle 60 years of the 20th century, P.G. Wodehouse (1881- 1975)—familiarly known as Plum—was the finest writer of comic fiction in the English language. His novels and stories, especially those about sun-dappled Blandings Castle or the immortal duo of dimwitted but lovable Bertie Wooster and his formidable valet Jeeves, are nearly all masterpieces of intricate plotting and clockwork timing, packed with Keystone Kop action, outmoded slang, literary and scriptural quotation, and, not least, smile-inducing similes on every page.
“My motto is ‘Love and let love’ – with the one stipulation that people who love in glass-houses should breathe on the windows.” From Come On, Jeeves
Just reading sentences like that makes life worthwhile. Here, in capsule form, are the Master’s mature virtues: the curiously arch tone, the beautifully balanced syntax and elegantly contrived diction, the learned allusion, some re-purposed stock phrases, and a simile that slowly unfolds to a zinger.
Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing 96 books in his remarkable seventy-three-year long career (1902 to 1975). His works include novels, collections of short stories, and musical comedies. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by “series”. I know this is lengthy, but here it goes:
• The Blandings Castle stories (later dubbed “the Blandings Castle Saga” by Wodehouse, about the upper class inhabitants of the fictional rural Blandings Castle.
• The Drones Club stories, about the mishaps of certain members of a raucous social club for London’s idle rich.
• The Golf and Oldest Member stories.
• The Jeeves and Wooster stories, narrated by the wealthy, scatterbrained Bertie Wooster. A number of stories and novels that recount the improbable and unfortunate situations in which he and his friends find themselves and the manner in which his ingenious valet Jeeves is always able to extricate them. Collectively called “the Jeeves stories”, or “Jeeves and Wooster”, they are Wodehouse’s most famous. The Jeeves stories are a valuable compendium of pre–World War II English slang in use.
• The Mr. Mulliner stories, narrated by a genial pub raconteur who can take any topic of conversation and turn it into an involved, implausible story about a member of his family.
• The School stories, which launched Wodehouse’s career with their comparative realism.
• The Psmith stories, about an ingenious jack-of-all-trades with a charming, exaggeratedly refined manner..
• The Ukridge stories, about the charming but unprincipled Stanley Featherstonehaugh
• The Uncle Fred stories, about the eccentric Earl of Ickenham..
• The stand-alone stories. Stories which are not part of a series (although they may contain overlapping minor characters), such as Piccadilly Jim, Quick Service, Summer Moonshine, Sam the Sudden, and Laughing Gas.
Almost all of these series overlap: Psmith appears in a “School” story and a Blandings novel; Bertie Wooster is a member of the Drones Club; Uncle Fred and Pongo Twistleton appear in both the Blandings Saga and the Drones club stories; Sir Roderick Glossop, one of Bertie’s nemeses, visits Blandings in one story; Bingo Little is a regular character in the Jeeves stories and the Drones Club stories, etc.
Where do you start? According to Michael Dirda in the Wall Street Journal (August 30, 2013), among the novels, the top tours de force were Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), The Code of the Woosters (1938) and Joy in the Morning (also published as Jeeves in the Morning) (1947). Among the short stories the winners were “Uncle Fred Flits By”—in which Frederick, Lord Ickenham and his nephew Pongo impersonate increasingly improbable characters—and the touching “Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend,” followed by only marginally lesser classics such as “Sonny Boy,” “Tried in the Furnace” and “From a Detective’s Notebook.” These masterworks are, of course, only the tip of the oeuvre.
Along with E. Nesbit’s (an author with whom I am very familiar – see PhD dissertation subject) contemporaneous books about the Bastables, the Railway Children, and the children in her fantasies, Wodehouse’s children’s stories helped liberate children’s literature from goody-goody Victorian moralism. And even when Wodehouse stopped writing them, many of his adult characters—notably Bertie Wooster and the various members of the Drones Club—continued to behave like carefree schoolboys, living for practical jokes, rags and silly competitions; afraid of fearsome aunts and authority figures; prey to puppy love rather than sexual passion.
Also, you may have seen House with Hugh Laurie. About 20 years ago, he and his best friend Stephen Fry (a fantastic actor, e.g. Wilde with, incidentally, a very young Jude Law as Bosie) starred in the Bertie and Jeeves series on the BBC. (Why do they get some of the best TV?) You can watch some episodes on YouTube. They were born to play those roles. The series is also available on DVD. They also had a series; they are marvelous comedians. You don’t see that so much on House, but it is there.
Some of Wodehouse’s quotable quotes:
“Misery loves company, and seldom gets it.”
“She looked like a martyr at the stake, who deprecatingly lodges a timid complaint, fearful the while lest she may be hurting the feelings of her persecutors by appearing even for a moment out of sympathy with their activities.”
“I remained motionless, like a ventriloquist’s dummy whose ventriloquist has gone off to the local and left it sitting.”
If you go to the P. G. Wodehouse website, you can find a quotation generator plus lots of other things Wodehouse http://www.wodehouse.co.uk/ .
The work of P.G. Wodehouse possesses many virtues, and one of them is inexhaustibility. I suggest you begin with Bertie and Jeeves. From now, when I am down I will reach for Bertie and Jeeves.