FYI if you are looking to fill in a #Birthday square on your card, Wodehouse’s birthdate is 10/15 (same as mine!)
Back in my junior high/high school days, my sister worked at a bookstore and among the treasures she brought home were P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels. I could not get enough of them, and I thoroughly enjoyed the British TV series from the 1990s starring Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. Even now when I reread these gems, I hear their voices as the main characters — Bertie, the wealthy and somewhat dim witted young man, and Jeeves, his valet, who possesses enormous intelligence, diplomacy and forbearance. The Code of the Woosters, the seventh Jeeves & Wooster novel, was published in 1938 and along with its hilarious take on upper class bumblers and schemers, it also alludes to the rise of nationalism and fascist dictators. Make no mistake though, this is mostly a kind of screwball comedy with delightfully witty language.
In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie relates the events of a few short days prior to the nuptials of his chum and fellow Drones club member Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle. Gussie is engaged to Madeline, whose father is the retired magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett. Bertie is keen to avoid the whole wedding scene due to an unfortunate series of incidents that had involved him with the Bassetts in the past. This, however, is not to be. In a flurry of frantic telegrams, Gussie begs Bertie to come down to Totleigh Towers, the Bassetts’ home, because Madeline has called off the wedding. Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia, meanwhile, has enlisted Bertie to assist her in getting a particular antique cow creamer for Uncle Tom so that she can butter him up and put the touch on him for some money for her magazine. Bertie, loyal friend and loving nephew, feels an obligation to help Gussie and Aunt Dahlia, but matters become more complicated with alarming rapidity. Sir Watkyn Bassett is jockeying to get not only Uncle Tom’s cow creamer but also Aunt Dahlia’s revered and envied French chef Anatole. Gussie has misplaced a small notebook full of blunt, angry criticism of Sir Watkyn Bassett and his associate Roderick Spode, a fascist thug and dictator in the making. And Sir Watkyn Bassett’s niece Stiffy Byng, an old friend of Bertie’s, has become secretly engaged to Bertie’s old university pal “Stinker” Pinker, who is the local curate. Stiffy needs to convince her uncle that a curate is a worthy mate for her, and like Gussie and Aunt Dahlia, turns to Bertie for help. Unfortunately, the help that Aunt Dahlia and Stiffy require from Bertie would involve crimes, and Sir Watkyn Bassett and Spode are already suspicious and keep a close watch on him. Before the story ends, the cow creamer, the notebook and a policeman’s helmet will be in play with various characters using blackmail, usually against Bertie, to achieve their goals.
And what of Jeeves? Jeeves is the man toward whom Bertie and his friends will ultimately turn in order to get themselves out of the pickles in which they find themselves. Jeeves “shimmers” into rooms the moment his services are needed, whether it be to pour brandy or suggest a way to placate Aunt Dahlia, and then melts away again. Jeeves is the soul of discretion and, according to Bertie, has an unusually large brain. He is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to finding solutions to tricky problems. Jeeves has connections of his own and is not above a little blackmail in order to help Bertie and perhaps even himself.
Bertie, although sometimes clueless, is still a sympathetic character. He does genuinely want to help those around him, despite his complaining about it. And because he is sort of an easy mark, he often gets left holding the bag or cow creamer or policeman’s helmet, as the case may be. He is the fall guy or, as he might say, “the mug.” Bertie serves as narrator and his descriptions of people and events are colorful and hilarious, a mix of high and low brow expression, of judgment and self-deprecation. About the reverend “Stinker” Pinker, he says,
…of all the pumpkin-headed foozles who ever preached about Hivites and Jebusites, he is the foremost.
I mused on Augustus Fink-Nottle for a moment, recalling how he had always stood by himself in the chump class. The best judges had been saying it for years. Why, at our private school, where I had first met him, he had been known as ‘Fat-head’, and that was in competition with fellows like Bingo Little, Freddie Widgeon and myself.
Bertie is a delight and reading his description of what unfolds at Totleigh Towers still makes me laugh after several decades. It also makes me want to rewatch the Laurie/Fry series again. If you haven’t read any Wodehouse, I highly recommend, especially if you are a fan of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat or of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm or if you enjoy British comedy or the jazzy repartee of Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies.