I finally got around to reading Wodehouse! I’ve not known where to start for so many years, and as I’ve mentioned before I’m highly sensitive to the first book I read by an author. If it’s a terrible book — if, say, I’d started my Philip Roth career with the quite awful [book: Plot Against America] — I’m likely never to read anything by that author again. I was concerned that the same would happen with Wodehouse.
I needn’t have feared. My sense, after reading this absolutely delightful story, novel, and autobiographical-essay anthology, is that the bulk of Wodehouse’s stories are essentially the same and are all pure joy. It’s not fair to call Wodehouse a “one-trick pony,” because the real trick that makes all his stories work is an effortless command of English prose. It’s just that the skeleton of the stories, if this anthology is any indication, is more or less the same. I couldn’t have been happier during the hours I spent in Wodehouse’s company.
The structure is like so. Some young member of the English upper class is hard up for money, his allowance from a rich uncle having been frittered away gambling on horses. He’s not so bad off, you’ll understand — his valet still attends to his every need, and his time is spent sauntering from one leisurely meal over one linen tablecloth to another. In fact his needs are so taken care of that he pines — whether or not he acknowledges it — for a bit of spice.
The spice typically comes in the form of a girl he wants to marry, or in some scheme that his (likewise entirely-taken-care-of) aunt hatches. The novel that begins this anthology, for instance, is entirely ridiculous and centers on a “cow creamer” that Wooster’s aunt covets. She commands Wooster to steal it. And why would he do such a thing? Well, because she holds the sword of Damocles over his head: if he doesn’t steal it, she’ll deny him any future meals prepared by her godlike French chef, Anatole. That settles it for Wooster: he will steal that cow-creamer. Anything for Anatole.
From there we head down endless ridiculous paths. Wooster, during an earlier moment of debauchery, tried to steal a policeman’s helmet and thereby drew the judge’s undying enmity. Through various [foreign: dei ex machina], he ends up needing to do the very same thing again. I think he gets engaged a couple times in there.
What exactly happens doesn’t matter. What makes these stories endless fun is watching Wodehouse pull the strings and lead you through ever more confusing paths. It’s maybe the reverse of a mystery novel: you keep your eyes peeled throughout a mystery novel to see where the big important clue is, knowing all along that it’s The Person You Never Expected at the very end; in Wodehouse you convince yourself, at every fleeting “well, I guess that mess is over with” moment, that the mess really is over with, only to find a moment later that Wooster is back in the soup.
Jeeves saves everything at the end, of course. Jeeves saves things repeatedly throughout all the Jeeves/Wooster stories. He’s the ultimate, patient, wise, unerring butler. Once during this anthology, Jeeves was off on a vacation somewhere, but eventually Wodehouse realized that this just wouldn’t do: Jeeves came back and saved the day again.
The novel near the end of this anthology — [book: Uncle Fred in the Springtime] — does without Jeeves or Wooster. Instead it features the kindly, doddering old Ninth Earl of Emsworth and the perpetually youthful Fifth Early of Ickenham. These are two wonderful characters who recur in several stories throughout the collection; as with every other story here, they are pure delight. Emsworth is basically senile and mostly deaf; he lives with Constance, his harpy of a sister. She controls everything he does, except for those occasions when she steps out for a bit and the old man does something silly, like shoot his private secretary with an air gun (see “The Crime Wave at Blandings” — see, in general, any number of entertainments that take place at Blandings).
The Earl of Ickenham is similarly situated but not so doddering as the Ninth Earl; whenever his relative (wife, sister, it doesn’t really matter — she exists in these stories to step out at opportune moments) disappears, he finds an excuse to pull his shy, perpetually nervous nephew, Pongo, into a trip to London. These trips rejuvenate the old man, and he finds some new inventive way to make trouble every time. In one story he schemes his and Pongo’s way into a house while pretending to be parrot groomers. [book: Uncle Fred in the Springtime], by contrast, is 200 pages of Ickenham’s scheming — a smile on his face throughout, pretending to be someone new as the situation calls for it, getting everyone out of scrapes through his ingenious improvising. He’s the Jeeves character in these stories, though he’s sprightly and voluble while Jeeves is as careful and standoffish as you’d expect from the perfect valet. In any case, they both specialize in using their speedy brains to get others out of trouble.
The plot matters little in these stories. One, “The Amazing Hat Mystery,” goes like this: two gentlemen — one tall with a massive head, the other short with a little head — buy hats from London’s premier hat-maker; this is the king’s own hat-provider, we’re given to understand. The hats are delivered a short time later. There is a mix-up, with the small hat going to the big man and the big hat to the small. The gentlemen each head out to woo their respective love interests: the tall man is in love with the short woman, the short man with the tall. The respective ladies tell their respective gentlemen that their respective hats are vastly mis-sized: the one looks like a thimble atop the massive man’s head, while the other comes down to the small man’s knees. Both gentlemen take great umbrage at the shot that’s been fired across the bow of London’s premier hat-maker. Both assert the impossibility of a mis-sized hat. Both storm out of their partners’ company, declaring the end of each love affair. They retire to the same public house to drown their sorrows. They hang up their hats on the hat rack. As they leave, they each pick up the right hat. On the street, the tall man runs into the tall woman, the short man into the short woman. Each woman compliments each man on the perfection of his hat. Each man and each woman finds his or her proper mate. No one ever figures out why the hats initially failed to do the trick. The end.
You know from the start of this story how it’s going to work out. The great trick that Wodehouse pulls off is that he’s a magician of the obvious story. He’s laid out all his cards within the first couple pages, yet you are unavoidably hooked. Over and over throughout this anthology, I lost myself in the story — and in Wodehouse’s effortless prose — within moments. 800 pages, containing two novels, 14 short stories, and an autobiographical afterword, flew by.
Now I’m a member of the Church of Wodehouse. I have no choice but to read everything he wrote.