Sunday, January 11, 2015

Jeeves to the Rescue

When I came down with the annual cold recently, I followed my usual procedure:  Brewed a cup of hot tea, grabbed a box of tissues and pulled a P.G. Wodehouse novel down from the bookshelf.  If you were hearing hearty chortles emanating from California, that would have been me.

This time it was a Jeeves and Wooster title, The Code of the Woosters.   In it, Bertram Wooster endeavors to assure that his college friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle, an amateur scientist devoted to the study of newts, goes through with his marriage to Madeline Bassett, a thoroughly sappy young woman who believes that "Stars are God's fairy chain."

Bassett, in a previous book, had come to believe that Bertie was in love with her, and she accepted the presumed proffer of marriage from an extremely unwilling Bertie.  He got out of the jam, as usual, with the aid of Jeeves, his smarter, more polished man's man who is always quick with a strategy to save the day, almost always embarrassing Bertie along the way.

In other Jeeves books, Bertie fends off another potential fiancee, Honoria Glossup.  He gets into scrapes with his Drones Club buddies, including Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright and D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright.   He does his best to avoid his greatest scourge, Aunt Agatha, and is only a bit more fond of his Aunt Dahlia because her chef, Anatole, is a fabulous cook.

In fact, Dahlia sets Bertie a task in The Code of the Woosters, and then tracks him down to take him to task at the country home where he has taken refuge.  His observation:

         "It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts.  At the core,
          they are all alike.  Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof."

In every book, Jeeves "shimmers" into the room to steer Bertie straight, but only after Bertie has got himself into a seemingly hopeless pickle.

Jeeves and Wooster in Other Media

There have been several television serials of these stories, but the 1990s PBS Jeeves and Wooster series featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie is by far the most popular.  (Hugh Laurie camps it up gleefully and is far more fun as Bertie than in his later role on American television.) The series can be found in DVD form or in full episodes on YouTube.  Almost but not quite as good as the books themselves.

Last year in London, a Jeeves-derived play, Perfect Nonsense, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.  Since it closed on the West End in September, it has been touring the country.

And in 2013, author Sebastian Faulks published Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, an addition to the well-loved series, at the request of the Wodehouse estate.  I of course have read it, and it too is great fun, even if its premise is at odds with an earlier Jeeves declaration that Bertie is "one of nature's single men."

The Author

P.G. Wodehouse
Pelham (Plum) Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881 and seems to have had a dreary childhood, raised first by a nanny and then in boarding schools.  After college, he served two years as a banker in London and then broke free to make his living as a writer, following his true passion.

Happily for us, his work found an audience.  After a few years of the subsistence-level piecework that is the scourge of early writerdom, Plum's humor began appearing as serials in magazines, and the author developed a huge fan base in the Anglosphere and the United States.

What is remarkable to me is that virtually no reader alive today is familiar with the world in which Wodehouse set most of his books:  the idle rich in between-the-wars Britain.  Surely, I think, there will come along a generation so distant from this situation that the humor, for them, will fall flat.

So far, no.


Wodehouse was living in the south of France in 1940 and did not get out of town (a dog lover, he spent too much time worrying about his Pekingese) before the German occupation.  He was interned in Silesia for some months and then was released to Paris, where he spent the rest of the war at the Hotel Adlon, living on the aid of friends.  He wrote and read on radio five essays about the experience, in a stiff-upper-lip, Wodehousian style.  After the war, British critics accused him of collaboration and being in the pay of the Germans, but neither charge proved true.  Wodehouse moved from Paris to the U.S. in 1947, became an American citizen in 1955 and was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth shortly before his death at 93 in 1975.  In 2000, the Bollinger company established the annual Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize, the only UK award for comic literature.

Wodehouse has been accused of anti-Semitism because of his stereotypic characterization of Jewish people as clustered in the fields of theater, movies, art, music and banking.  His American agent was Jewish, and he worked on theater productions with Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein and Irving Berlin.  In one letter, he said "apart from my inner circle (numbering about three) most of the men I like best are Jews".  Last year, the website said this:  "The simple fact is that Wodehouse did exhibit what modernity would consider anti-jewish stereotypes (as well as 'racist' ones [in his early years in particular] on a frequent basis) but that these would not have been such to Wodehouse who simply was reporting reality which just happened to broadly conform to some of the substance of anti-jewish argument made then and now."

As to racism, I will say that in one book, Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie referred regularly to some black musicians by a term that is now deeply offensive.  (Jeeves, interestingly, did not do this.)  The plot made clear that Bertie admired the musicians' skill and hoped to meet them and gain their help in learning to play his own musical instrument.  The usage, painful to read now, was almost certainly more acceptable many decades ago.  In fact, Wodehouse disparaged the shallowness of Wooster and his friends, albeit humorously, and in the telling admired the qualities of his much less prominent black characters.

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