Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975)

Rereading books one has enjoyed can be enormous fun. Sadly, due to some sort of residual streak of puritanism, a feeling that one should be getting on with new things, this is not a pleasure I often allow myself.

Fortunately a collection of circumstances last week allowed for a change of perspective. First was the need to read again a novel by Galsworthy, which turned out to be particularly illuminating. Second was a bad attack of flu, convalescence from which required activity that was not too demanding. And finally, there was a decision to bring out a book based on these essays, which endowed preparation for them with the sanctity of productive work. Since I had less to occupy myself with currently than at any time over the last few years, rereading Wodehouse and others of that ilk seemed then positively a virtue.

Wodehouse, I must admit, has not been someone who commanded my devotion, as he does that of others with more distinguished literary credentials than my own. It was Yasmine Gooneratne who first suggested that I include Wodehouse in this series, and she has kindly supplied me with a draft chart of links between the various characters who appear in the Jeeves books.

Jeeves, for those very few who might not have read Wodehouse but are still interested in this series, is the endlessly resourceful manservant of Bertie Wooster, the narrator and principal character of fourteen Wodehouse books. Bertie is a classic upper class twit, who has no ambitions and little intellect, but is full of loyalty to his friends, chivalry towards ladies, and a healthy appetite for good food and much drink. He made his first appearance in 1923 and hardly changed in the fifty years that passed before the last book in which he features, ‘Aunts aren’t Gentlemen’.

That title sums up a lot of what the Jeeves books are about. The gentlemen in them are generally well-meaning blunderers, falling in and out of love with beautiful or spirited young ladies, in affairs that the senior female relations of one party or the other think unsuitable. Bertie actually has one aunt he quite likes, amongst the plethora of older ladies who think him beyond redemption – though even she, while treating him as a friend and ally, often finds him feckless and irritating.

Their relationship is perhaps best summed up in the conclusion of ‘Jeeves in the Offing’, where she summons Bertie to rescue a god-daughter from getting engaged to an American she thinks unsavoury. Another ally in the scheme is the loony doctor, Roderick Glossop, who masquerades as her butler while trying to establish that the American is certifiable. After many tribulations, it transpires that this American is perfectly acceptable, it was his brother who was questionable.

The tribulations included the butler stealing some silver that Bertie thought the young man had stolen from the family, but which had in fact been sold to him. His mother, a writer of detective stories called Mrs Cream, finds the silver in the butler’s room and calls in the police, at which point restoring peace and harmony might have seemed difficult.  But Jeeves has a simple solution, which is to explain that the loony doctor had been called in to keep Bertie under observation.

Mrs Cream is satisfied with the story, as is everyone else, except Bertie, who has visions of the story being told all over America, ‘with the result that when I go over there again, keen looks will be shot at me at every house I go into and spoons counted before I leave…It hurts the pride of the Woosters, Jeeves.’

But Jeeves offers a cocktail and the suggestion that Bertie has done a good deed for his uncle, who was hoping for a profitable business deal with Mr Cream. And Bertie, thinking of the postal orders his uncle had sent him when he was a schoolboy, is suitably mollified.

The story was entertaining enough, but rereading it convinced me that I had not been wrong in finding the Jeeves stories only mildly entertaining. One does not expect subtle characterization or brilliant plotting in books meant only to entertain, but the springs of action should not be too simplistic. Here, apart from the mistaken identity factor, the other main reason for confusion is a paper notice announcing her engagement to Bertie placed by a young lady who wants to marry someone else. Her rationale is that her mother dislikes Bertie so much, that anyone else will be a relief. Unfortunately she omitted to tell him, so that he breaks off the engagement and gets engaged to someone else, and passions rise high on either side, only to cool down again immediately.

But, while I remembered that my introduction to Jeeves, many years ago, had not been a great success, nor indeed my introduction to Wodehouse in the form of his golfing stories (the ramblings of the oldest member about antics in the club could mean little to someone in the days when golf in Sri Lanka seemed a highly esoteric exercise), I had enjoyed much more the other series which Wodehouse had developed.

This is the saga of Blandings Castle, the central feature of which is a prize-winning pig, the pride and joy of the eccentric Earl of Emsworth. He is blessed with a host of sisters, who are certainly not gentlemen, plus a playboy brother called Galahad. And my reading this week of ‘Full Moon’ certainly did not prove disappointing.

There were distinct similarities to the Jeeves book, in that there were two love stories, one involving a rich American, the other a young man of limited means and ugly appearance. The former loves a beautiful young lady with no brainpower at all, whose family are even more anxious for her to marry than she is. The other is passionately loved by a determined young lady whose family disapprove strongly of the alliance.

The two plots are tied together in a wonderfully lunatic fashion in the Blandings book, in that the rich American, Tipton Plimsoll, is warned off drink by a doctor who predicts that he will soon begin to see things. What he does see, haunting him at odd moments, generally when he has had a drink, is the inordinately ugly face of Bill Lister, who falls in Galahad’s various bizarre plans to get him to Blandings where his true love is incarcerated. These involve commissions to paint the prize-winning pig as well as pretending to be a gardener, for which he wears an Assyrian style false beard to disguise his startling features.

In short, the farce here is completely over the top, but the various preposterous strands are satisfyingly tied together. And binding it all is the eccentric Earl, who mixes up everything he is asked to do, in between mooning over his pig.

The world of Wodehouse is obviously not supposed to be real, so that it does not really matter that it hardly changes over the decades through which he kept writing, interrupted only by being caught in Germany during the Second World War, when he made broadcasts that some thought traitorous. Those allegations however were allowed to fade away, and Wodehouse was back in action almost immediately after the war, his books perhaps reassurance that the old world had not entirely faded, a world of totally anonymous gardeners, of three manservants bringing in tea, of cocktails and dressing for dinner.

But of course it had begun to fade even before the war, or rather to change, and in his own way Wodehouse had noted how the old families were giving way to the new rich as owners of country estates, not just Americans, but also businessmen, such as the two husbands of Bertie’s most formidable aunt. That perhaps explains Bertie’s enduring charm in the face of all this, his incapacity rather than a thought out refusal to adjust to circumstances. Lord Emsworth’s disregard of society is even more definite and, since it is manifested in a world in which the lack of flexibility has no adverse effects, it continues endearing when so much writing is about transition and change.

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