The Nightmare World of P.G. Wodehouse

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Of late I have spent some time in the nightmare world of P.G. Wodehouse, reading his 1946 novel Joy in the Morning.* Written though it was after WW2, it is set in a timeless travesty of pre-WW1 England. Much of the humour, as you will know, revolves around the interplay between the mentally challenged Bertram Wooster and his manservant Jeeves who possesses Holmes-like intelligence and enormous erudition.

Wooster is about 30 and independently wealthy. He spends much of his time at gentleman’s clubs, when not getting snagged in extremely contrived intrigues that usually involve people blackmailing him to do embarrassing things. Women are immensely powerful and threatening beings in this world, whether they are forbidding aunts or the 20ish girls of which Wooster and his friends keep finding themselves semi-unwilling fiancés. Sex isn’t mentioned, though implied, and these girls of good family come across at the same time as heading straight for an early marriage and as man-crazed polyamorists. Matrimony is like unto death.

People’s motivations (at least in this late novel) are so unrealistic that the whole story seems surreal and dream-like. Hapless Wooster is shunted from one sticky situation to another, being saved by Jeeves or some coincidence, until a suitable book-length text is on the table.

Toward the end of Joy in the Morning, for instance, Wooster has been forced for the second time into betrothal to young Lady Florence and is too afraid of her to tell her “no”. He has previously written a drunken letter to a friend where he enumerates Florence’s many unattractive traits. This friend now offers to show the letter to Florence, thus letting Wooster off the marital hook, if he will only perform an embarrassing task.

Wooster must attend a fancy dress ball wearing a policeman’s uniform stolen from Florence’s former fiancé, who has threatened to put Wooster in jail. The motive for this demand is murky, as all Wooster is required to do at the ball is a) encourage his uncle (who needs to be there for a secret business meeting but is embarrassed about the setting), b) recommend his friend to the uncle so that the friend may marry a girl some months before her 21st birthday instead of after that date. And why Wooster goes along with the scheme against his will is even harder to understand, since he could easily get drunk and write another unflattering letter about Lady Florence. Or simply tell her “Sorry, but I refuse to marry you”. Jeeves would know that. But needless to say, Wooster gets off the betrothal hook again in the end. And the book is a pretty entertaining read between the spots of agonising embarrassment.

* A fresh copy of the first UK printing of 1947, no less. I wonder how it ended up at the Stockholm Archipelago Museum’s summer rummage sale.

Comments

  1. #1 Thinker
    July 21, 2011

    For those of you not up to reading the adventures of Wooster and Jeeves, I can highly recommend the TV series based on the books, with Hugh Laurie as Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. Especially the latter is superb for the role!

  2. #2 Nariane
    July 21, 2011

    I love those books! They’re so light and silly and fun escapism.

    I read once that they were written to “send up” the types of people that P.G. grew up with as a child… don’t know how accurate that is.

    I also love the fabulous TV series Jeeves and Wooster starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Brilliant!

  3. #3 Bill
    July 21, 2011

    It’s not a textbook, Doctor, or even a Serious Novel. Just lighten up and go with it. It’s a wonderful world.

    Ditto on the Laurie/Fry series. There are also some good shows based on the Mulliner stories, but I don’t know where to find them.

  4. #4 Martin R
    July 21, 2011

    What do you mean it’s not a textbook? Next I suppose you’ll tell me that the War of the Ring never happened.

  5. #5 solandis
    July 21, 2011

    Some adaptations of the Mulliner stories are found in the Wodehouse Playhouse series from the BBC, mostly starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins. They’ve been collected on DVD and are available for purchase from Amazon and elswewhere – well worth it, in my opinion.

  6. #6 Bill
    July 21, 2011

    @ Martin R – I am told that the War of the Rings did actually happen, but I cannot vouch for it personally because I was visiting Blandings Castle at the time.

    @Solandis – Wodehouse Playhouse! Could not think of it. Thank you.

  7. #7 judith weingarten
    July 21, 2011

    If Wodehouse is your idea of a “nightmare world”, you must live a very protected existence :-)

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    July 21, 2011

    I read one Jeeves & Wooster novel and it was painfully obvious that Wodehouse didn’t know how to sustain such a long piece of writing. His curse is that he was too good at short stories, and couldn’t adapt.

    Which is better that Beachcomber, who had difficulty sustaining anything longer than blog post length (although he could at least string several together).

  9. #9 Tacitus2
    July 22, 2011

    PG, or “Plum” to his fans was no stranger to nightmares although it never intruded on his work. Being one assumes distracted he did not notice the invasion of France until the Wehrmacht turned up unexpectedly at his villa in 1940. He spent the war in civilian internment camps. His daughter died there.
    T2

  10. #10 Deborah
    July 24, 2011

    Jeeves & Wooster are hilarious. And I concur with the first comment, the series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry is brilliant. I watched it recently on DVD, sitting up in bed till all hours with my laptop & headphones, trying not to laugh out loud and keep my husband awake.

  11. #11 Rikard
    July 27, 2011

    If you haven’t, you should check out The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier. There’s a story in it where Wodehouse is married to Lovecraft. Totally excellent. But then, Alan Moore is a genius. And it comes with a pair of 3D glasses.

  12. #12 Martin R
    July 27, 2011

    Sounds awesome! I’ll put it on my wish list.

  13. #13 Prup (aka Jim Benton)
    July 28, 2011

    Some of you who may remember my occasional comments here may know I am far from a ‘television snob’ and am much the opposite. But I’m sorry, Wodehouse is so much ‘about’ the style and language that ‘knowing’ Wodehouse through any dramatized version is like ‘knowing’ a concert after watching it on ‘close captioned.’

    This isn’t to downplay how great they may be at showing off the talents of some great comedic actors. Laurie and Fry in the Jeeves series of course, but you might check TCM or your local DVD store and find a copy of PICCADILLY JIM, a 1936 adaptation which stars Frank Morgan — whose “Wizard of Oz” roles were just the culmination of a career as a wonderful character actor — and the vastly underestimated Robert Montgomery and which includes Billie Burke, Robert Benchley and Eric Blore in the cast. And there were also series based on the Blandings Castle stories (with Ralph Richardson and Stanley Holloway and on the wonderful Ukridge. (My bet is that these, like the early DOCTOR WHOs and the show DETECTIVE were lost in the BBC’s ‘housecleaning’ — ‘who the hell’s ever going to need these old tapes, let’s reuse them and save money’)

    But you have to actually read them to appreciate them. Fortunately, for those of you who can get Project Gutenberg, they have a very large selection of Wodehouse — many of which were extreme rarieties including uncollected works. But I can’t resist a sample from RIGHT HO!, JEEVES:

    “I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.

    Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

    And in opening my report of the complex case of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, my Cousin Angela, my Aunt Dahlia, my Uncle Thomas, young Tuppy Glossop and the cook, Anatole, with the above spot of dialogue, I see that I have made the second of these two floaters.

    I shall have to hark back a bit. And taking it for all in all and weighing this against that, I suppose the affair may be said to have had its inception, if inception is the word I want, with that visit of mine to Cannes. If I hadn’t gone to Cannes, I shouldn’t have met the Bassett or bought that white mess jacket, and Angela wouldn’t have met her shark, and Aunt Dahlia wouldn’t have played baccarat.

    You can’t do that on tv, or in the movies, it takes print.

  14. #14 Martin R
    July 28, 2011

    Welcome back, Jim!

  15. #15 Prup (aka Jim Benton)
    July 28, 2011

    Thanks, Martin. Not sure how long I’ll be able to stay, between the pulls of politics — and watching the Republicans destroy the economy for what they wrongly think is political advantage — and probable up-coming knee surgery (which might give me much more time or none during the recuperation) but always glad to check in.

    Back on topic, you call Jeeves “Holmesian” but the real echo is Poirot and Hastings — there are numerous references to Dame Agatha throughout Wodehouse and there must be a good thesis out there tracking the cross-influences between both of them. (Christie had much more humor than is usually realized.)

  16. #16 Prup (aka Jim Benton)
    July 28, 2011

    One more thing: I won’t be too specific for fear of getting anyone in trouble, but there are a LOT of complete British tv shows on YouTube if you look hard enough. (One teenager — who isn’t particularly a fan of britcoms — was left a whole collection of them by “Nana” and is psting them in her honor, and there are many others who are putting up various shows — in one case, almost every BriTec show made.)

  17. #17 Kaleberg
    July 30, 2011

    You often get an author who creates a marvelous description of a dying world. Often it is his or her creations that everyone remembers, despite what you archeologists might discover. Jane Austen was one of the best, describing England’s pre-industrial revolution upper clases. Sholom Aleikem described the eastern European Jewish communities. Marcel Proust described the upper classes of pre-WWI France. PG Wodehouse captured the English classes pre-WWII, and his representation was further strengthened by WWII propaganda, pushing Englishness to both the English and Americans as something important to be preserved.

    Dig up a shtetl or an old chateau. You will find physical truth, but for cultural truth, reach for a book.

  18. “And why Wooster goes along with the scheme against his will is even harder to understand, since he could easily get drunk and write another unflattering letter about Lady Florence. Or simply tell her “Sorry, but I refuse to marry you”. Jeeves would know that.”

    And Nostradamus laughs at the US debt Ceiling crisis performed at the playhouse across the alley.
    –ml

  19. #19 Larry Ayers
    August 1, 2011

    Every now and then I go on a Wodehouse binge. The man can write such clever dialog, and the interplay between dim Wooster and brilliant Jeeves is priceless.

    The TV series is wonderful, if only to see Hugh Laurie as a young man — before he became bitter and dour Dr. House. Fry does Jeeves impeccably.