Road to the Wodehouse

A new collection of stories by P.G. Wodehouse has recently been released, reigniting interest in one of the most underapprecitated writers of the 20th century, as measured in references to newts, aunts, and antique cow-creamers.

P.G. Wodehouse is one of those peculiar British institutions, much like queuing and standing six hours hovering over a kitchen sink scraping a carrot and calling it a soap opera. Most people may not realize the impact that Wodehouse has on American popular culture, mostly in the form of Jeeves, the impenetrable and iconoclastic butler.

In the Wodehouse stories, Jeeves is in the employ of the much lesser-known Bertram Wooster, an elite ne’er do well who goes about his daily routine pissing the afternoons away at social clubs with other like-minded fortunate sons and getting invited to stay at country estates where the chance of getting engaged to a member of the opposite sex that he dislikes with an intensity normally reserved for Klan members and meter maids is approximately 100%.

Personally, I find it appalling that “Wooster” hasn’t entered the vernacular with as much integration as “Jeeves” has. I wouldn’t mind there being a proper noun appropriated for the representation of a born-to-comfort, out-of-touch, trust-fund busybody who assumes that they know what is best despite never having to deal with any aspect of the real world whatsoever. The only phrase in currency that approximates this idea is “presidential nominee for a major political party.”

Technically, as all proper Wodehousians know, Jeeves really isn’t a butler at all. He’s a valet, a distinction that is nearly as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is paid attention to about as much as the terror warning alert system. Jeeves is a butler, by jove, and there’s not much in the American mind that’s going to change that. (For the record, a valet, or gentleman’s gentleman, took care of their employer’s personal attire, such as laying out clothes and drawing baths and the like. A butler is the head of the domestic help. Butler is Dad, valet is your little brother you made your personal slave.)

The plots were clever, witty, and—let’s face it—incredibly redundant. As anyone who has watched Keeping Up Appearances or the Liberal Democrats knows, the British are very fond of using the exact same situations over and over and over again, apparently finding newfound humor in excrementally minute differences in execution. The standard Jeeves & Wooster plot would be something like the following:

1) Wooster purchases some ridiculous item, such as a lavender safari hat, that he is convinced is the height of fashion;
2) Jeeves bitches about it
3) An aunt comes to visit and deliver an ultimatum, usually in the form of:
a. Becoming engaged to a female;
b. Breaking up an engagement
c. Committing some nefarious crime, such as pilfering a pinch of table salt, for some incredibly insufferable reason
4) Wooster screws the pooch on the deal
5) Jeeves fixes it
6) At some point everybody ends up at a country estate
7) Wooster agrees to destroy the item mentioned in the first page of the book that was never mentioned again up to this point.

(Sorry about the outline. Writing about Jeeves and his overcompensating orderliness to rectify the Katrina that is Wooster’s daily routine, one can hardly be helped slanting passionately towards the formal.)

While Wodehouse was a voluminous writer—he has written over ninety books, including eighteen Jeeves & Wooster novels to his name, though one would kind of be hard pressed to claim that there were eighteen different stories—other forms of media bearing the Jeeves & Wooster brand have also been perpetuated. In the early nineties, a well-regarded series was created starring Hugh Laurie (known to us Americans as Dr. Gregory House) as Wooster and Stephen Fry (known to us Americans as “Stock homosexual British guy” in every major motion picture that calls for such a character) as Jeeves. The episodes are largely faithful to the spirit to the books, in characterization, setting, and dialogue. And yet it’s very hard to compare the two; Wodehouse’s ability to stretch even the most minute detail into eight pages of decidedly purple prose just can’t be matched by a youthful Wooster you expect to yell “Is Cameron on the rag again?” at any given moment.

In certain senses, Wodehouse himself could easily have been mistaken for Wooster. While he lived a reasonably gentle life, he was decidedly detached from the real world. I mean, very, very, alarmingly detached. As in during World War II he chose to stay in France because he didn’t realize that this war might, in fact, turn into somewhat of a big deal. And once captured by the Nazis, he was “persuaded” to record some witty bantering about the war, which pretty much boiled down to “Nazis, British, what’s the difference? We’re all just men,” a sentiment that understandably went over just about as well as the Blitz did. (George Orwell, of all people, defended Wodehouse, the defense pretty much boiling down to “Rich guys don’t know any better.” The Home Office officially declared him “naïve and foolish but not traitorous.” With friends like these, and all that.)

Stained as a collaborator, he permanently moved to New York, where the disappearance of policeman’s hats reached an all-time high. The correlation was impeachable. As Jeeves may say, in that amazingly understated manner only Jeeves could do, If you say so, sir.

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