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