I was reading an interview with Alexander Armstrong the other day, and he was extolling the work of PG Wodehouse. Pelham Greville’s first book was published 100 years ago this year, and it occurred to me that I’ve been reading his stuff for half that time, maybe a tad more.
Some of his work is a bit tedious, but the Psmith novels are things of wonder, and the Jeeves and Wooster stories are things of beauty and joys forever. There are a couple of reasons for this, the first being the panoply of characters.
Bertie Wooster could be seen by some as a dimwitted dilettante (though he’s deceptively and paradoxically literate and widely read), but he’s somehow engaging in a way that Made In Chelsea characters aren’t. His gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, is a star, even if at the valets’ club he is a member of he refers to his employer as ‘a pleasant gentleman but mentally negligible.’ Bertie’s battleaxe Aunt Agatha, and the more amiable Aunt Dahlia, who between them contrive to make Bertie’s existence hell.
Bertie’s life consists of a series of inadvertent romantic entanglements that he has to weasel out of. The ferocious Honoria Glossop and the ineffably drippy Madeline Basset feature a lot, though he ends up engaged to his cousin Angela on a regular basis too.
Then there’s the villainous Roderick Spode. Erstwhile leader of the Brownshirts, Wooster gets to drop on him when he finds that Spode owns a lingerie company called Eulalie Soeurs. The various members of the Drones Club, including the splendid Oofy Prosser and Bingo Little. The list goes on.
The second reason is his love of language. He can play with English in a way I can only dream of. Honoria Glossop has a ‘laugh like a squadron of cavalry galloping across a bridge.’ There’s the famous, ‘I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.’ Instead of referring to one of Bertie’s female visitors as stout, she ‘looked as if she knew they were wearing armchairs tight across the hips this season.’ Aunt Agatha’s malevolent stare could ‘open an oyster at 20 paces.’ Bertie spots Jeeves at a dance, and ‘he was swinging a dashed efficient shoe.’
One of my favourite quotes is one that sums up the relationship between Bertie and his valet. Jeeves has got him out of yet another scrape by dint of some arcane knowledge that was beyond Bertie.
‘Dash it Jeeves! Is there anything you don’t know?’
‘I really couldn’t say, sir.’
You have to love that.
PS PGW was also a talented librettist, and at one time had five musical shows on Broadway at the same time.