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The carefree life of the upper-class twit? Ask Jeeves
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The Herald (Glasgow), 23 August 2004

The carefree life of the upper-class twit? Ask Jeeves

Susan Maguire

"I pressed down the mental accelerator. The old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea."

The thinking process of Bertie Wooster Esquire, supreme creation of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Perhaps Robert McCrum's lemon throbbed in a similar fashion while he wrote a substantial new biography of Wodehouse due out in September.

The imminent arrival of that tome, and the 30 years since the publication of Aunts Aren't Gentlemen the final Jeeves and Wooster novel are reason enough to celebrate such a unique talent.

The conceit of the Wooster novels is that the carefree life of an upper-class twit is almost entirely governed by the intelligence of his "gentleman's personal gentleman".

Jeeves considers Spinoza light reading and eats plenty of fish to keep his brain cells in tip-top condition so that he can extricate the young master from the soup into which he so frequently plunges. Theft, blackmail, lightning engagements and escape from the frightful consequences of Bertie's follies form the basis of most of the plots.

The other major theme concerns the appalling possibility of Wooster being without his penguin-suited mentor. Bertie's ocassional lapses in taste give rise to periods of distinct froideur from Jeeves. Take the matter of the lilac socks, or the new moustache, the fancy waistcoats, or, indeed, the banjolele, which, in the pair's first novel-length outing, Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie has taken up, to the horror of all. Jeeves departs, Bertie goes to the country estate of a friend, mayhem ensues; by the end of the book the banjolele is dust, and order is once again restored to the lives of the odd couple, enabling Bertie to continue his life of idleness.

If such a plot seems frothy, foolish and insubstantial, it is, just like the perfect souffle. The beauty of it lies in the way Wodehouse used language a skill honed by years of writing dialogue and lyrics for musical comedies on Broadway and in Hollywood's early talkies and the effortless evocation of an era and a stratum of society, unknown to most of us. To quote Evelyn Waugh: "Mr Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale.

He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in." A world of eccentrics: Aunt Agatha "who eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next to the skin" and Aunt Dahlia (imagine Clarissa Dickson Wright in handmade tweeds and a jaunty hat). Bertie's friends have names such as Gussie Fink-Nottle and Stiffy Byng. He falls foul of psychiatrists, policemen, judges and American millionaires, and falls in love with girls whose profiles remind him of Helen of Troy, poor blighter.

The whole series, and many of the other novels by Wodehouse, is being republished by Everyman in a smart hardback edition priced at £10.99. If you prefer to seek your comedy classics second hand, there are plenty around; look out, too, for Wooster's World by Geoffrey Jaggard (first published in 1967), an excellent companion volume.

# Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum is published by Viking on September 2,

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