Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Mr Mulliner’s endless stories about his relations, golfing stories about people rich enough to play golf all day, Lord Emsworth and his pig, I mean, who cares? Isn’t Pelham Grenville (Plum) Wodehouse a relic of the past?
OK, I know. Wodehouse writes about nothing, really. Highly privileged, upper class twits, and their ridiculous problems.
Bertie Wooster accidentally gets engaged to the kind of girl who thinks the stars are God’s daisy chain, because she misunderstands his halting attempt to let her know newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle is in love with her. And he can’t just tell her she’s an idiot, because that wouldn’t be gentlemanly.
Aunt Dahlia makes Bertie steal an antique milk jug, because otherwise he’ll never eat her French chef Anatole’s Mignonette de Poulet Petit Duc again.
Bertie and Jeeves fall out over Bertie’s playing the ukulele.
The Blandings series, which has Lord Emsworth and his neighbour, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, locked in combat over which of their pigs will win the coveted Fat Pigs title at the local show.
But it’s all about the language. The misused quotations, the faintly Edwardian English, the similes, the wit. I could quote writer after writer who adore Wodehouse – Evelyn Waugh, Stephen Fry, Richard Glover, Douglas Adams, J K Rowling, LynneTruss – but I’ll let the man himself do the talking. The man who, when writing each book, would pin each page to the top, middle, or bottom of the wall, according to how well the page was written. Each page would then be rewritten until it belonged at the top of the wall.
Over to you, Plum.
How can you not love Wodehouse’s use of similes?
I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast.
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps….
Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.
She came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room.
Or his Shakespearean or other literary references, half remembered:
I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.
Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.
He’s good at relationship advice too:
Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice.
However devoutly a girl may worship the man of her choice, there always comes a time when she feels an irresistible urge to haul him off and let him have it in the neck.
Unlike the male codfish which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.
‘Have you lost the girl you love?’ ‘That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I can’t make up my mind. It all depends what construction you place on the words “I never want to see or speak to you again in this world or the next, you miserable fathead.”’ ‘Did she say that?’
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.
Years before, when a boy, and romantic as most boys are, his lordship had sometimes regretted that the Emsworths, though an ancient clan, did not possess a Family Curse. How little he had suspected that he was shortly to become the father of it.
She seemed glad to see me. In fact, she actually said she was glad to see me – a statement no other aunt on the list would have committed herself to, the customary reaction of these near and dear ones to the spectacle of Bertram arriving for a visit being a sort of sick horror.
“Hear that, Eustace? He wishes we were staying a good long time.”
“I expect it will seem a good long time,” said Eustace, philosophically.
And haven’t we all been to events like this?
It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.
Let’s finish with some life, and death, advice:
There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?” “The mood will pass, sir.”
This is the age of the specialist, and years ago Rollo had settled on his career. Even as a boy, hardly capable of connected thought, he had been convinced that his speciality, the one thing he could do really well, was to inherit money.
It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A. B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn’t.
So now you’re convinced.
Where to start, though? Which of his 97 books should you begin with? My favourites are any of the Jeeves and Bertie books – the short stories, or the novels – and it doesn’t really matter if you read them in order or not. Joy in the Morning is probably his masterpiece, but Right Ho Jeeves is ticketty-boo too.
The Blandings books are close runners-up – with poor old dreamy Lord Emsworth, who just wants to be left alone with the pig, but whose family conspire against him – here, Summer Lightning is a good start.
Want more? Wodehouse on screen
The Jeeves and Wooster series starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves, and Hugh Laurie as Bertie, is wonderful – there have been lots of versions, but this one’s terrific.
And the recent Blandings series, starring Timothy Spall as Lord Emsworth, and Jennifer Saunders as his sister, Lady Constance, was perfect. What’s more, it’s available on ClickView, along with a few episodes of the Jeeves and Wooster series.