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.