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?”
“You think them on the bright side?”
“A little vivid, they strike you as?”
“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
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.”
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.