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119: MASTER AND MAN

#119: MASTER AND MAN. Robert Graves once wrote, “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good—in spite of all the people who say he is very good.” Something of this clings to P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, which, by universal consent, are simply some of the funniest in all of English literature. Surely, we think, the stories, true to the limited shelf-life that afflicts most comic writing, must have staled, but no. Indeed, we may have a slight advantage over the readers who saw them as they were first being published, as the later ones were picked at for being anachronistic, the Edwardian world of Bertie Wooster as it existed when the first Jeeves story saw the light in 1915 having long vanished fifty-plus years later, when the last of the stories appeared. We now read them as taking place in a world as cheerfully removed from time and reality as the forest of Arden, a fictional world as defined and consistent as the London of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

There are, curiously, some parallels between the worlds of Jeeves and Wooster and of Holmes and Watson. Both figure in a combination of short stories and novels (or, as Doyle insisted, “long stories”). The stories in both are narrated by what might kindly be called the lesser intelligence of the pair, but Jeeves takes up the narration in one of the stories, as Holmes does in two. What struck me recently, though, when I took to reading The World of Jeeves with my breakfast, was that the stories are quite as tightly and ingeniously plotted as those of Conan Doyle. Where I had expected just funny dialogue but perhaps a story-line as thin as a Fred Astaire musical (one of which, Damsel in Distress, was scripted by Wodehouse) I found plots wonderfully and cogently mapped, so that Jeeves’s solutions to Bertie’s predicaments are like highly elaborated and delightful slipknots.

Some of the comedy comes from the standard ammunition of British writers: British names, for instance. Anyone who introduces you to characters with names like Tuppy Glossop, Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng, Boko Fittleton and Gussy Fink-Nottle (who raises newts) may stand with head unbowed in the company of Dickens or, for that matter, J.K. Rowling. And there are the Byzantine roundabouts and proprieties of the British class system, which for someone like Wodehouse are so many fish in a barrel. But specific to Wodehouse is that atmosphere of radiantly good-natured silliness, which could not have been achieved without deliberate skill and care. So ghastly a character as the fascistic Roderick Spode, for instance (based on Oswald Mosley, an entirely less amusing figure) is defanged by being exposed as the owner of a ladies’ underwear shop with the pitch-perfect name of Eulalie Soeurs. Sir Roderick Glossop (Pop Glossop, father to Tuppy) begins as one of Bertie’s nemeses, but ends on good buddy terms after Bertie’s escapades render him nostalgic for his own days of boarding-school mischief. Evil thus having been largely banished, the drama must derive—as it only could in England—from the collisions of a closed social group and from various draconian aunts whose demands must be avoided or obeyed. (Bertie is one in the long line of British literary orphans.) It also derives from Bertie’s simple inability to say no—he is constantly being touched for funds and cannot refuse even people he dislikes; the plots almost invariably turn on people imposing on him; he sees himself as the “preux chevalier” and, silly goop that he is, he’s not entirely wrong. That in turn, though it is never labored or even mentioned, is no doubt the source of Jeeves’s inexhaustible patience (except in sartorial matters) and devotion. Jeeves is the shepherd who keeps his charge from being hopelessly and repeatedly fleeced; if his manipulations were ever from selfish motives, the charm of the stories would vanish. Wodehouse never has the ferocity of black humor as we find it in Dickens or the bitter snarl of satire; he is comedy, pure and simple, of a kind of unshadowed geniality.

Perhaps Wodehouse never really comprehended evil in real life, which might explain the sad backfire of his affable broadcasts during the second World War. But hardly any other writer’s stories are both so funny and so genuinely cheering. A friend once credited Wodehouse with helping her survive a bout of depression. When I mentioned to a co-worker that I was reading Jeeves at breakfast, he said, “That’s perfect. Jolly you right up for the rest of the day.” No better tonic exists, to be taken at breakfast or supper, with food or without: a Jeeves story is a lovely vacation from life’s worries, a buoyant twenty-page trip in a perfected lighter-than-air craft to a better (and much funnier) place. Enjoy.

The World of Jeeves (Harper and Row, 1967) is an omnibus of the thirty-four short stories. The eleven novels exist, in Britain and the U.S., under similar, inconclusive and bafflingly similar titles; the Jeeves article on Wikipedia will help you sort them all out. A valuable book is Wodehouse at War (Ticknor and Fields, 1981), in which the author Iain Sproat patiently digs Wodehouse out of the hole he dug himself into with the wartime broadcasts, convincing us indeed that Wodehouse was basically an apolitical, innocent, well-meaning dimwit. The texts of the broadcasts, which are included, are the sort of thing that could only have provoked the vituperative reaction Wodehouse faced by being done during the panic and anger of war. One detail, about a Gestapo vehicle being commandeered to get food to Ethel Wodehouse’s canary, is itself pure Wodehousian surrealism. Case adjourned.

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