Alabama Jubilee

52 Authors, Week 7: P.G. Wodehouse

The most difficult thing about reading P.G. Wodehouse is the attempt to fix in one's mind that it's Woodhouse, “wood” as in “wood,” and not, as it plainly should be, Wodehouse, as in “We wode the twain.” After many years of reading him, this still bothers me. It would be easier if his name were one of those odd British names that are spelled so differently from the way they're pronounced that one soon begins to ignore the spelling and see the word as a whole as representing its sound, such as Worcester. Or Chalmondely. (All right, I admit I haven't really got the last one down yet, but the need doesn't arise very often.)

Perhaps it was some awareness of the many mental stumbles that would be caused by his name that made Wodehouse call one of his two most famous characters “Wooster” rather than “Worcester.” Bertie Wooster and his valet, his “gentleman's gentleman,” Jeeves, are probably about as well-known as any characters in literature, except perhaps for superstars like Hamlet, in part surely thanks to the Hugh Laurie-Steven Fry adaptations of some of the Jeeves and Wooster stories for the BBC.

Bertie, as you probably know, is an idiotic, idle, rich young bachelor for whom Monty Python might have coined the phrase “upper-class twit.” He's always getting himself into trouble, and Jeeves is the almost supernaturally shrewd counselor who's always getting him out of it, while feeding him, dressing him, curing his hangovers, and generally running his life for him. It is by way of a miraculous hangover remedy that Jeeves first makes himself indispensable:

“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”

I'd have preferred an undertaker; but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr.... He had a grave, sympathetic face, as if he, too, knew what it was to sup with the lads.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said gently.

Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn't there any longer. I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass on a tray.

“If you would drink this, sir,” he said with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its color. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me that they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

“You're engaged!” I said, as soon as I could say anything.

—“Jeeves Takes Charge”

Jeeves polices Bertie's dress for any deviations from perfect taste:

“Pardon me, sir, are you proposing to appear in those garments in public?”

I had been wondering when my new plus-fours would come under discussion, and I was prepared to battle for them like a tigress for her young.

“Certainly, Jeeves,” I said. “Why? Don't you like them?”

“No, sir.”

“You think them on the bright side?”

“Yes, sir.”

“A little vivid, they strike you as?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I think highly of them, Jeeves,” I said firmly.

—“Jeeves and the Kid Clementina”

But by the end of the story Bertie will lose this battle, as he always does.

Jeeves even looks out for Bertie's intellectual development, though that of course is too strong a word. In an early story, “Bertie Changes His Mind,” which as far as I know is the only one told from Jeeves's point of view, Jeeves describes Bertie as “mentally negligible.” Nevertheless, he tries to preserve him from bad, or perhaps merely taxing, influences. Having cured the hangover in “Jeeves Takes Charge,” Jeeves saves Bertie from a disastrous engagement to a girl who “was particularly keen on boosting [him] up a bit nearer her own plane of intellect. She was a girl with a wonderful profile, but steeped to the gills in serious purpose.” Having disengaged Bertie from her, Jeeves explains:

“I think you would also have found her educational methods a little trying, sir. I have glanced at the book her ladyship gave you—it has been lying on your table since our arrival—and it is, in my opinion, quite unsuitable. You would not have enjoyed it. And I have it from her ladyship's own maid, who happened to overhear a conversation between her ladyship and one of the gentlemen staying here—Mr. Maxwell, who is employed in an editorial capacity by one of the reviews—that it was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

—“Jeeves Takes Charge”

This is not, clearly, fiction for those who want naturalism, much less deep thoughts and big ideas. It's pure innocent enjoyment, like a Mozart divertimento. But, as with the divertimento, that doesn't mean that it isn't the very skilled work of a very fine artist. Wodehouse's touch may be light, but it's the touch of a master. The comparison to Mozart is apropos: Wodehouse is a virtuoso. Another comparison that comes to mind, unlikely on its face, is to Charlie Parker. I've been listening to him lately, and although I don't know exactly what he's doing technically, I apprehend his solos as a wild and roundabout ride getting from point A to point B by entirely unexpected routes. A Wodehouse sentence or paragraph is often similar. His language is a fast-moving stream of formal English, biblical and literary allusion, and both English and American slang. Sometimes you—well, I, anyway—just have to guess at the meaning of the slang, since it was probably current no later than the 1920s, but usually the context makes it reasonably clear. And although a contemporary reader is not likely to recognize allusions to popular novels of Wodehouse's time, it is pretty clear when he is making sport of sentimental literature. I sometimes wonder how he could be translated, but he is, and seems to have many fans who don't read him in English.

Here is Bertie, on his way to a country cottage (“Wee Nooke”) crossing the path of an old acquaintance, G. D'Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright,who views him (erroneously, of course) as a romantic rival:

All along, I had been far from comfortable when speculating as to what this Othello's reactions would be on discovering me in the neighbourhood. The way in which he had received the information that I was an old acquaintance of Florence's had shown that his thoughts had been given a morbid turn, causing him to view Bertram with suspicion, and I had been afraid that he was going to place an unfortunate construction on my sudden arrival in her vicinity. It was almost inevitable, I mean, that the thing should smack, in his view, far too strongly of Young Lochinvar coming out of the West....

Joy In the Morning

JoyInTheMorning

The literary allusions in that paragraph are a bit different from Bertie's usual, in that they are complete and coherent. More often they're mangled, or paraphrased in Bertie's vernacular: “As Shakespeare says, if you're going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.”

Here he is stealing, with the help of a female friend named Bobbie, a dog called McIntosh (“an Aberdeen terrier of weak intellect”). The plan, devised of course by Jeeves, involves Bertie sprinkling his trousers with aniseed:

On the present occasion everything went absolutely according to plan. I had never realized before that dog-stealing could be so simple, having always regarded it rather as something that called for the ice-cool brain and the nerve of steel. I see now that a child can do it, if directed by Jeeves. I got to the hotel, sneaked up the stairs, hung about in the corridor trying to look like a potted palm in case anybody came along, and presently the door of the suite opened and Bobbie appeared, and suddenly, as I approached, out shot McIntosh, sniffing passionately, and the next moment his nose was up against my Spring trouserings and he was drinking me in with every evidence of enjoyment. If I had been a bird that had been dead about five days, he could not have nuzzled me more heartily. Aniseed isn't a scent that I care for particularly myself, but it seemed to speak straight to the deeps in McIntosh's soul.

—“Episode of the Dog McIntosh”

When I say that Bertie is always getting into trouble, I don't mean real trouble, of course. The possibility of being punched by Stilton Cheesewright is about as close to real danger as he gets. Mostly he is at risk of receiving a tongue-lashing from his Aunt Agatha—frightening enough, to be sure—or from one of the fierce old men of Agatha's set, such as her husband, Lord Worplesdon, or of being embarrassed, or of getting married.

As the ones just mentioned suggest, many of the names in Wodehouse alone are enough to make you laugh. Boko Fittleworth. Tuppy Glossop. Gussie Fink-Nottle. The Rt. Hon. Freddie Threepwood. Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. There is a place called Steeple Bumpleigh. And one called Market Snodsbury, near Droitwich. The name of Bertie's club is, wonderfully, the Drones. And on and on.

Although the Jeeves and Wooster stories and novels are the most widely known of Wodehouse's work, there is a great deal more—roughly a hundred books, of which I feel safe in supposing that at least fifty are worth reading. I can testify that several of the Blandings Castle series are as good as the best of Jeeves and Wooster. Of the rest, I've read only a fairly early novel, Picadilly Jim, which is enjoyable but not in the class with the others.

I didn't take to Wodehouse immediately. It's possible that my memory is deceiving me, but I think I listened to an audio version of one of his novels sometime in the 1980s, when I was in my thirties. I have a vague idea that there was an obnoxious boy in the story, which certainly lends support to my vague memory that it was a Jeeves and Wooster story; perhaps it was Joy in the Morning, which features an obnoxious boy. But it did not make a strong impression on me; the fact that I'm not quite certain that it was Wodehouse is evidence enough of that.

It was ten or fifteen years later that I gave him another try. There were a number of difficult things going on in my life then, and I was in pretty low spirits much of the time. I had a Wodehouse paperback or two lying around the house, and one day I picked one up. It was a Jeeves and Wooster book, a story collection I think, but I don't remember which one.

After a few pages, the low spirits began to rise. Sometimes I smiled, sometimes I chuckled, sometimes I laughed aloud. A couple of stories in, I realized that I had found a remarkably effective anti-depressant. I have often compared the sensation of reading Wodehouse to that of drinking champagne, but champagne is, after all, a form of alcohol, and its effects, apart from the immediate sensation of tasting it, are the same as those of other forms. Reading Wodehouse is better. It makes you feel the way champagne looks, the way champagne ought to make you feel: bright and sparkling, with tiny bubbles of levity continually forming, rising, and bursting.

Although Wodehouse has his millions of enthusiastic readers, I didn't know that the particular therapeutic effect that his work has on me was common until recently, when I began reading Robert McCrum's 2004 biography, Wodehouse, and found this in the prologue:

In the past hundred years, his admirers have included T.S. Eliot, Kaiser Wilhelm, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Balfour, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Ludwig Wittgenstein [ed: !], Eudora Welty, Ogden Nash, John Le Carre, H.L. Mencken, Cardinal Basil Hume, Salman Rushdie, and two contrasting Adamses, Douglas and Gerry [ed: !!]. To all his readers, high and low, Wodehouse still promises a release from everyday cares into a paradise of innocent comic mayhem, narrated in a prose so light and airy, and so perfectly pitched, that the perusal of a few pages rarely fails to banish the demons of darkness, sickness and despair.

As Jeeves would say, “Precisely, sir.”

WodehouseShelf

For lack of space and time, I've said nothing about Wodehouse the man—his life, the sources of his work, his career; for that, I leave you to Wikipedia

—Yr hmbl srvnt, the proprietor of this blog.

Comments

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Well, I'm smiling now.

Did you take that last picture? You should do a Google image search on it so you can see the "visually similar images."

AMDG

Yes, that's my Wodehouse collection. We recently acquired another couple of bookshelves and for the time being there's a fair amount of free space. The books that look very similar in that picture are part of a complete edition published by The Overlook Press. They're *really* nice hardbacks, the kind of book it's a pleasure to hold and read. I've been getting two or three a year for Christmas for several years now.

I'm not sure what you mean about "visually similar images"--is that a Google feature? But I see somebody named Rod Collins has a very nice Wodehouse shelf.

You can right-click on the picture and then click on "Search Google for this image" in the drop-down box. It will take you to a page that shows you any other occurrence of the image on the web, and below there are images that Google "thinks" are similar to your image. Sometimes it's really funny. In this case, it's moderately funny.

AMDG

Excellent!

I still think wode instead of wood, although I try to remember to say wood so people won't think I'm ignorant.

that made Wodehouse call one of his two most famous characters “Wooster” rather than “Worcester.”

Yes, but then there's worcester sauce in the hangover remedy to confuse us.

I have read some of Wodehouse's books, but I really love to listen to Hugh Laurie reading them. They are perfect for long car trips. When I read, I hear the words in Laurie's voice. Rather paradoxical that someone who has been so depressed brings everyone else so much joy.

I remember that in the most depressed period of my life, the only thing I could stand to read was the All Creatures Great and Small Series, probably because they have episodes that make one laugh out loud.

Those books look really nice. I went and looked at the Overlook Press website. That was probably a big mistake. I'm supposed to be divesting myself of books, not buying $40 editions of Dickens novels.

AMDG

Ha! yes, that "similar images" thing is funny. Also a bit annoying. :-)

I can well imagine that Laurie would do a great job reading Wodehouse. Do you mean Laurie is/was depressed, or Wodehouse? So far in the bio there's been no particular depression in evidence. But I'm only up to 1920 or so.

Glad you liked it, Rob.

Laurie.

AMDG

Laurie and Frye and my favorite Wooster and Jeeves bit.

"Ho-dee-Ho-dee-Ho-dee-Ho, sir." "You know, it shows the proper feudal spirit and all that..."

Laurie is actually playing the piano. My son has a CD of Laurie and his band doing a bunch of old blues songs.

I'm with Janet -- just reading this review made me smile.

Love this: "She was a girl with a wonderful profile, but steeped to the gills in serious purpose.” And this on Nietzsche is really all one needs to say about him: "You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

It is hard to see how stuff like "steeped to the gills in serious purpose" translates into other languages. But then I've often wondered the same about Shakespeare and he's read and performed everywhere, in every language.

Wode a twain actually made me laugh.

AMDG

I confess that it did me, too.

I think I actually had a blog post some years back that consisted entirely or almost entirely of that Nietzsche quote. Later in the same book Bertie says that "Florence is one of those girls who look on modern enlightened thought as a sort of personal buddy, and receive with an ill grace cracks at its expense." That was a blog post, too, I think. At any rate she is certainly very much with us still.

There's evidence that Laurie would rather be a musician. He did a PBS show a while back in which he travelled to New Orleans and did a blues/jazz concert. He's good, though better as an actor. Let's see...here it is. Naturally at least some of it is available on YouTube.

Lovely! Lovely!

I might have to prescribe Wodehouse as our household's general anti-depressant!

Good reading, Mac! As I have told you, I have never read any Wodehouse, but I do have a Psmith book here in my office which is quite slim. I'm sure it will be fun to peruse.

After reading this yesterday I went home last night and pulled out an old collection of Wodehouse I've had for years called The Most of P.G. Wodehouse. It's a sort of Wodehouse reader, with a selection of various stories grouped by character, and one complete novel at the end. I read one of the Ukridge stories, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge that is, with the middle name apparently pronounced "Fanshawe." He's a get-rich-quick schemer with a good heart. I remember liking the stories when I read them some years ago, and I was not disappointed with the one I read last night, "Ukridge's Dog College."

I haven't sampled either the Psmith or Ukridge stories, which predate Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings. Picadilly Jim left me with lowered expectations for the work of that period. But no doubt they're still worth reading. The title of that Ukridge story sounds promising.

Speaking of Blandings, apparently there was a recent BBC mini-series based on some of the Blandings stories. Anyone know if it was any good?

Recently I watched a couple of the less well-known (at least in the States) Ealing comedies -- 'Whisky Galore' and 'Passport to Pimlico.' Both were very enjoyable, and I noted while watching them that the humor was occasionally quite Wodehousian. Of course, that sort of English humor can be traced back further, to writers like Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat is very funny) and even Dickens, whose humor is rather Wodehousian, to speak anachronistically.

Leave it to Psmith is very funny, but the other Psmith books I've read aren't Wodehouse's best.

But even then the writing is delightful. Wooster, Jeeves, and Blandings helped me through a rough patch a few years ago.

I don't think it was a mini-series, and it was probably more than 15 years ago, but there was some kind of British-made Blandings thing on PBS that was very funny. Can't remember what it was called.

You're thinking of Heavy Weather, with Peter O'Toole, I believe. But there is apparently a newer one from the last two or three years.

Yep, here it is (wikipedia is our friend). Reviews appear to be mixed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blandings_(TV_series)

I have a German translation of a Wodehouse novel. It is utterly astonishing how frothy and Wodehousian the German language can be made to sound.

One of the delights of Wodehouse is that Bertie, though "intellectually negligible," nevertheless fills his thoughts with literary and Biblical allusions. The combination of high-culture references with woolly grasp of their meanings is hilarious. I wonder whether it's funnier to us now, with our sunken general cultural level, than it was to Wodehouse's contemporaries.

I can't imagine frothy, much less Wodehousian, German.

Actually I've thought the opposite about Wodehouse's high-culture vs low-grasp humor (which I agree is one of the delights of the Wooster stories)--that a lot of it would be lost on people with little to no exposure to literature, the King James Bible, and the like. I just picked up Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit hoping to find a quick example, and the first sentence I saw was "I spent the night in durance vile." I only vaguely recognize that myself, and could not have told you where it comes from, but I did recognize it as an antique or literary way of saying "in jail." But would it get anything more than bewilderment from a product of today's schools? Or for that matter from anyone who wasn't somewhat well-read.

There's certain amount of sleight-of-hand in the character of Bertie, in that if he were really as dumb as he's supposed to be he wouldn't be throwing in those references at all, much less maintaining that flow of complex sentences.

I believe you're right about Heavy Weather, Rob. I was about so say no, it didn't have Peter O'Toole in it, but that has to be it. I taped it (yes, taped--it was 1996) and looked forward to seeing it more than once--this was about the time I was becoming a Wodehouse fan--but the reception of our local PBS station was so bad that it wasn't really worth keeping. That was one of the things that resulted, five years or so later, in us finally getting cable. I was really sick of having the few things I actually wanted to watch on tv be mangled by bad reception.

Anyway, that new one sounds worth a look, at minimum. I had heard there was something like that coming, but obviously am a couple of years behind.

I love the high culture/low culture thing too. That type of humor always appeals to me no matter where it shows up. It's in Booth Tarkington's Penrod, which is probably the single funniest book I've ever read, in the form of a highbrow, omniscient narrator telling the stories of a mischievous 12 y.o. boy in a voice that approaches the epic -- Dennis the Menace as written by Gibbon.

It's also in a lot of the Coen Bros.' best dialogue, from the asides of various characters in Raising Arizona, through George Clooney's smart alecky witticisms in O Brother, and into The Big Lebowski, with Walter's (John Goodman) hilariously educated but inappropriate observations about history and politics.

Maybe I'll give TBL another chance sometime. As we've discussed before, it didn't make that big an impression on me.

The new Blandings series is on Netflix, btw. Heavy Weather is not, alas.

You can watch it on Amazon Prime for LOTS of money-Blandings that is. It is the most expensive video per episode that I've ever seen. So, I put it on my Netflix queue, but I won't be able to watch it until Easter.

AMDG

Yeah, TBL is all about the writing (and the acting). The plot actually doesn't matter that much. And all the notorious f-bombs serve (purposely?) as a sort of smoke screen for how clever the script really is.

And do try Penrod sometime. It's a riot.

Sorry, I didn't mean that modern people, being more ignorant than Wodehouse's contemporaries, would find the high/low bit funnier. I meant that to well-read people in modern culture, "mentally negligible" is even lower than it was to Wodehouse's contemporaries, so the gap between it and Bertie's pronouncements appears wider and perhaps funnier. In other words, the sleight of hand seems bigger to us.

Oh, I see. I can't even imagine a Bertie-like character in a modern context. Certainly not an American context, and I can't manage it in a British one, either.

I wonder if the idea with Bertie is that he would have been expected to memorise and recite passages of the Bible and Shakespeare and Romantic poetry in prep school, so it would form his language whether he understood it or not. That was certainly true of my own parents' much less expensive education in the 1950s.

I've always assumed that was part of it. Frequently he'll have only fragments of a bit of poetry, and Jeeves will complete it for him. Bertie says something like "Jeeves, sometimes I wonder whether 'tis something in the mind to suffer the something something." Then Jeeves quotes it in full.

More important even than the issue of same-sex "marriage" is how on earth can I get my hands on some copies of Wodehouse without resorting to Amazon?

http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=wodehouse&sts=t

AMDG

Thank you Janet!!

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