By Annie Nichol
As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, ‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar,’ it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy. –Bertie Wooster Sees It Through
One could certainly argue that P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic creations, Bertie Wooster and his exalted valet, Jeeves, do not fully embody the spectrum of human experience as could be found among their literary contemporaries. They do not seek to master the summits of spiritual potentiality nor do they frequently find themselves excavating the innermost depths of the human soul. However, I would consider any life lived without a hefty exposure to Wodehouse’s world of decadence and misadventure to be a desolate and deprived existence, one severely lacking in outlandish formal-wear, hooliganism, and the well-timed hangover cure. As a humorist, Wodehouse’s artistry is unparalleled, outlasting the Edwardian era of England in which it was written and imbuing a modern-day readership with pearls of wisdom leftover from the mythical English aristocracy of his stories. As a shameless Wodehouse devotee, I consider his works to be something of an opus for living the hedonistic lifestyle, a guide for the lackadaisical existence, and a recommendation for greeting each day as another opportunity for indulgence and debauchery.
Wodehouse’s humor developed in the typical fashion of British comedy; that is, in direct opposition to the overly stringent and suppressive structures of boarding schools and Dulwich College where he spent his youth. D.R. Benson, a Wodehouse scholar, writes,
These institutions, ostensibly intended to provide military, political, academic, commercial and clerical leaders for the late-Victorian Empire, were in fact remarkably similar to well-run minimum security prisons of the present day and afforded their inmates a sound education in guerrilla warfare on authority and circumvention of any and all rules.
Bertie’s propensity for stealing policemen’s helmets can be easily traced back to this sentiment. Wodehouse spent little more than six months in the company of his parents throughout the entirety of his childhood, and was instead shuffled between aunts during the holidays (manifesting as the Wooster gaggle of Mafioso matriarchs, whom Wodehouse depicts as intent on bringing about Bertie’s downfall). It would seem that an integral element in the evolution of British humor is this backlash from strict social pressures into the realm of the ridiculous and nonsensical. And so it is with Wodehouse, who draws on such predecessors as Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Conan Doyle as fodder for inspiration, resulting in stories that feel very much like being wrapped up in a tweed jacket with a nightcap on hand and a perfectly elevated footstool conveying the warmth of a crackling fire through woolen socks.
Wodehouse lovingly conceives characters whose self-centeredness and “negligible intellect” would in any other context render them fairly intolerable, but manages to impart a lasting camaraderie and deeply-rooted affection in the reader. Bertie is the perfect comedic paradox (one to which I like to aspire on my off-days), a figure of foppish disposition and descriptive agility, of keen soulful insight and unrelenting dimwittedness. As Isaac Asimov puts it, “All Wodehouse wastrels have passed through Oxford untouched by human thought.” Nonetheless Bertie endeavors to be a good nephew and a loyal friend to his comrades, but is often foiled by his own noble intentions and over-elaborate schemes. His sense of chivalry and decorum dictates that he never degrade the dignity of a young lady upon finding himself unwittingly engaged to her. In such a case, he must preserve her sense of self-worth by either submitting to the unwelcome engagement or going to lengths to prove himself an undesirable marital prospect. With unflinching self-awareness, Bertie addresses this paradoxical position in a passage preceding his earnest effort to unite his friend Sippy with an aloof poetess in Very Good, Jeeves!:
“If you ask my Aunt Agatha she will tell you…that I am a vapid and irreverent chump. Barely sentient, was the way she once described me: and I’m not saying that in a broad, general sense she isn’t right. But there is one department of life in which I am Hawkshaw the detective in person. I can recognize Young Love’s Dream more quickly than any other bloke of my weight and age in the Metropolis.”
Bertie’s “perceptivity” extends to his descriptions of the cacophony of characters he frequently encounters: “The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!’” In Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, he paints a flattering picture of the matrimonial sand trap that is Lady Florence Cray: “She is tall and willowy and handsome, with a terrific profile and luxuriant platinum blonde hair, and might, so far as looks are concerned, be the star unit of the harem of one of the better class sultans.” (He then goes on to say that she is quite chummy with modern enlightened thought and is frequently whistled at by visiting Americans.)
Not all of Wodehouse’s characters, of course, exhibit such pleasing traits. Many of his villains, for instance (excluding the occasional malevolent swan or poetry-spouting female), suffer from an incurable Malvolio complex. Like the insufferably snooty butler from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night who receives a righteous debasement at the hands of the play’s merry revelers, Wodehouse’s antagonists are portraits of severity, intolerance and hubris. Wodehouse and Shakespeare seem to be of the same mind that the harsh and humorless make up the lowest forms of life. Such is evident in Bertie’s Aunt Agatha or the psychiatric doctor, Sir Roderick Glossop, who interprets any and all erratic behavior as an act of insanity. Bertie describes his feeling of betrayal when he unknowingly commits a prank on the wrong party:
What was disturbing me was the discovery that, whoever else the bloke in the bed might be, he was not young Tuppy. Tuppy has one of those high, squeaky voices that sound like the tenor of the village choir failing to hit a high note. This was something in between the last Trump and a tiger calling for breakfast after being on a diet for a day or two… Among the qualities it lacked were kindliness, suavity, and that sort of dove-like cooing note which makes a fellow feel he has found a friend.
I think this is an important lesson for P.G.W. readers to take away and internalize: When confronted with an individual of an overly serious or cynical disposition, one should always revert to a state of caution and suspicion until it can be determined that this is the sort of person who might chuckle at having their hot water bottle mistakenly punctured by a darning needle in the middle of the night.
Fortunately for the fantastical world in which Wodehouse’s characters safely reside, there is a force at work that is greater than all of them, a transcendent power with the ability to restore balance in an often cruel and irreverent universe. I speak, of course, of Jeeves. Jeeves is the purveyor of justice, a mystical force who can right all wrongs, if occasionally at Bertie’s expense. Bertie refers to the valet’s “majesty of demeanor,” describing how he “shimmers” in and out of rooms, “manifests” at opportune moments, and conveys approval or perturbation with the flickering of eyebrows. At the heart of all of Bertie’s predicaments and scrapes is often a larger conflict between the two of them, typically implicating a lavish accessory or growth of facial hair offensive to Jeeves’s delicate sensibilities. With such high stakes overarching the storylines, the disputes inevitably resolve in Jeeves’s favor, but not before he skillfully extricates his master from some misguided venture that threatens to land them all “in the soup.” Jeeves’s brand of brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge extends from matters of social grace and diplomacy to household tasks, which he performs with super-human finesse in The Inimitable Jeeves:
He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip. Just right, as usual. Not too hot, not too weak, not too strong, not too much milk, and not a drop spilled in the saucer. A most amazing cove, Jeeves.
Truly, these are the things to appreciate in life.
The reader feels that Jeeves teeters between the role of domestic partner and something more closely resembling a watchful mother hen pondering her young in wary amusement. And yet nothing is known of Jeeves, his background, his thoughts or feelings (except on the subject of mustaches, cravats, dinner jackets, and leg-wear)—he is, by nature, entirely a mystery. Oscar Wilde authored the original savvy servant archetype (featured notably in The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband), a recurring character he described as a “mask with manners” and a “figure without form,” and from whom Jeeves is directly descended. Though unique and embellished, Jeeves nonetheless retains the essential aspects of the archetype, offering his clever insights into his master’s state of affairs while carefully cloaking his own. Perhaps Jeeves’ withholding of his inner life marks the one realistic element of Wodehouse’s tales, but that is not to say that the valet’s pleasures and pursuits go entirely unobserved:
From the moment I had accepted the [yachting] invitation, there had been a sort of nautical glitter in his eye, and I’m not sure I hadn’t heard him trolling Chanties in the kitchen. I think some ancestor of his must have been one of Nelson’s tars or something, for he has always had the urge of the salt sea in his blood. I have noticed him on liners…striding the deck with a sailorly roll and giving the distinct impression of being just about to heave the main-brace or splice the binnacle.
Sometimes (possibly oftentimes) it is good and right to inhabit Bertie’s sense of innocence, to embody the child-like wonder with which he perceives Jeeves’s power to restore a karmic equilibrium to the universe or craft a pristine pre-dinner cocktail. Wodehouse’s world is untroubled by the common cares we carry each day, and every endeavor is undertaken so that Bertie may again enjoy the sanctuary of his comfortable flat, sipping snifters and putting golf balls into glasses. Wodehouse helps us realize the importance of stepping back every now and again regaining our perspective so that we might ponder the greater truths that we as a species face. As an example from Right Ho, Jeeves!: “There is enough sadness in Life without chaps like Gussie Finknottle going about in sea boots.” And, of course, the grand questions he poses in Very Good, Jeeves!:
“Jeeves. What have we here?” I asked, inspecting the tray.
“Kippered herrings, sir.”
“And I shouldn’t wonder,” I said, for I was in a thoughtful mood, “if even herrings haven’t troubles of their own.”
“Quite possibly, sir.”
“I mean, apart from getting kippered.”
“And so it goes on, Jeeves, so it goes on.”