I adore P.G. Wodehouse’s stories, especially the Jeeves and Wooster series. But it is difficult to convey the joy I find in reading his books. Quoting individual snippets that are hilarious in context may sometimes fall flat on their own. In addition, I’ve seen some 1-star reviews on Amazon that show not everyone “gets” it. Let’s be clear, these are comedies; I compare them to “Screwball Comedies” of the Depression. Interestingly enough, Jeeves and Wooster stories come from that same era. So, to get the most enjoyment of P.G. Wodehouse’s works you need to apply that same “willing suspension of disbelief” that Coleridge said poetry needs.
Bertram “Bertie” Wooster is a rich, bumbling single man and Jeeves is his valet, or as he calls himself, a “Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman.” Jeeves is as wise and unflappable as Bertie is clueless and panicky. In describing him employer to a woman in this story, Jeeves sums him up:
“‘Mr Wooster, miss’ he said, ‘is perhaps mentally somewhat negligible, but he has a heart of gold.” [p 76]
The novels are told in the first person by Bertram as a reminiscence of the latest close call. Bertie is forever getting in trouble by trying to help someone – usually in a matter of love – and requires Jeeves’ help. In this story – P.G. Wodenouse’s first Jeeves and Wooster novel – Bertie is practising his new banjo in his London flat. The other tenants, Mr. Manglehoffer, the Honourable Mrs Tinkler-Moulke, and Lieutenant-Colnel J.J. Bustard, [OMG THE NAMES!] take issue with the racket, causing Bertie to take a country cottage on the grounds of a friend’s manor house. Along the way he runs into Pauline Stoker – a woman to whom he was once mistakenly engaged – to the outrage of her father and Bertie’s friend who is smitten with Pauline and is jealous. The more Bertie tries to help, the deeper into trouble he gets. The other characters have troubles of their own and eventually Jeeves fixes everything.
Wodehouse is a master of comedy. In addition to the absurd plots, he has the most wonderful touch in the turn of phrase or description of events. The best dialogues are those between Bertie and Jeeves. I derive joy from reading Wodehouse by putting myself in that time and place and hearing myself reading the passage. Here, Bertie is reacting to a problem.
“‘But, Jeeves, this is frightful.’’
‘Most disturbing, sir.’
If Jeeves has a fault, it is that his demeanour on these occasions too frequently tends to be rather more calm and unemotional than one could wish. One lodges no protest, as a rule, because he generally has the situation well in hand and loses no time in coming before the Board with one of his ripe solutions. But I have often felt that I could do with a little more leaping about with rolling eyeballs on his part, and I felt it now. At a moment like the present, the adjective ‘disturbing’ seemed to me to miss the facts by about ten parasangs.'” [p 169]
These stories are the perfect antidote today’s doom and gloom.
This book does have one problem when reading it in the 21st century. There is a group of banjo playing minstrels that figure into the plot and they are referred to using the “N” word. And in order to escape one scrape Bertram has to don black face with shoe polish. I don’t know how wrong this was in 1934 England, but certainly is a problem today. So, you may want to start with another of his novels; maybe “Right Ho, Jeeves” or “The Code of the Woosters.”
Or you might want a taste of the characters by watching a few episodes of the Jeeves and Wooster comedy series starring the comedy team of Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. You get a nice view of the characters, but the episodes lack the intricacies of the novels.