P.G. Wodehouse is one of my all-time favorite authors, exclusively for his novels about the antics of Bertie Wooster, a wealthy aristocrat who operated in the 1930s and 40s. Bertie is characterized by an overall lack of intellect, but also for his valiant efforts to get along in a world that has designs on him and his freedom. He is helped officiously along by his eminently capable “gentleman’s personal gentleman,” Jeeves. Jeeves eats a lot of fish, has a head that sticks out at the back, possesses definitive opinions on men’s fashions, and gets Bertie out of any number of scrapes. Jeeves is also too dignified to supply his first name, though we can only suppose he is in possession of one.
The various dramas – which span eleven novels and a number of short stories – are best presented in audiobook form. I have had the chance to listen to three of them recently, as I have with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, while toiling over windows. The best of the audiobooks are read by Johnathan Cecil, period. (I love it when a period comes after a period. Twice!)
Over the course of a week and a half, I listened to Thank You, Jeeves (1934), The Code of the Woosters: Jeeves to the Rescue (1938), and Stiff Upper Lip (1963). Given that I was already familiar with these stories and that I listened to them in a close succession, fueled by window-based desperation, I found there to be a number of similarities running through each of the books. This by no means makes them less entertaining: it does, however, make you wonder at what points in the story each element is to be introduced.
A few of the common threads are:
- Stubborn rich old men, pretty young ladies, and scheming aunts get Bertie into a lot of trouble.
- Bertie is, of course, manipulated and therefore largely blameless.
- Women are instigators of doom.
- Young women who are not yet under bonds of matrimony either wish to marry Bertie (usually as a safety) or wish to appear as though they would, as a form of blackmail.
- Bertie usually is in orbit of these young women because he is making frantic attempts to ensure that said women will indeed marry their fiancées. Usually every engagement is broken over the course of the book, driving Bertie into a frenzy of ill-guided matchmaking.
- Young boys are harbingers of doom. They ruin shoes, escape plans, and generally lower the desired tone of the affair. One blighter tried to touch Bertie for “protection money” in the wake of seeing a gang film.
- Bertie is threatened by a large man, who generally indicates that his neck will be broken.
- Bertie is tree’d or forced to alight on a piece of furniture by a small but ferocious dog.
- Police are diligent in their duties, but very much in the way.
- The threat of prison time – like the sword of Damocles – is near-constant.
- Bertie is placed under lock and key, generally by one of the stubborn old men.
- Many of these stubborn old men think Bertie is a high-class criminal or completely insane.
- In reality, Bertie’s criminal activities extend to attempting to steal a policeman’s helmet on Boatrace Night, when Cambridge and Oxford compete in rowing (and when alcohol has a somewhat determining factor in the evening’s festivities).
- Bertie’s apparent insanity is more a reflection of his numbed mental faculties or a ploy to avoid wedded bliss, as with that episode of the fleet of cats in his bedroom.
- Breakfast is sacrosanct.
- Breakfast is often accompanied by one of Jeeves’ “specials,” the sort of drink that makes the weak strong and the strong as meek as puppies. It has the effect of forcing the eyeballs to do a transit of the room before settling back into the cranial cavities they usually occupy.
- Household decorations – and particularly porcelain figurines on mantelpieces – are expendable in fits of pique. However, this also extends to paintings; one of which was thrust rather forcefully upon one prospective dictator’s head in a scuffle, breaking the canvas.
- Jeeves – after getting Bertie clear of all charges, just in the nick of time – gets Bertie to do something. As a favor for services rendered, Bertie has shaved a rather offensive mustache, given up his violent passion and dedication to the banjulele, jettisoned a jaunty alpine hat, and gone on a round-the-world cruise.
- All of this happens in a setting of bucolic bliss of a stately home in the countryside.
Throughout all of this, Bertie stumbles his way around a maze of half-finished sayings, adages, literary references (whose authorship he generally attributes to Jeeves or a close personal friend of Jeeves), and vocabulary words he can’t quite recall.
It should make for rather difficult listening, but it really doesn’t. The story is produced for us in a strictly chronological timeline, and is made clear for the meanest intelligence (partially because it’s told in the first person, and Bertie doesn’t have an extra set of neurons to rub together). It is easy, then, to follow the ensemble casts trying to make Bertie bend to their will – through blackmail or through pleas – and Bertie’s mental fumblings, while he talks about cats in adages and about all the things that he heard from somewhere.
Of course, every story is different; in one, a hideous silver cow creamer is the focus of the action; in another, there might be an inebriated Communist butler who burns down a picturesque country cottage; still others could discuss the privations that a vegetarian diet makes upon the sensitive soul. (Made no less funny by the fact that I am a vegetarian.)
I’m not really in the business of suggesting that my blog readers trot out and consume what I have just read, but if I did, these audiobooks would be in close proximity to the top of the list. They are consistently funny, strangely intricate, and make you believe that people such as these could behave in such a manner. Five stars!