Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Code of the Woosters

The Code of the Woosters, which appeared in 1938, was the third of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels. It continues the saga of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett which began in Right Ho, Jeeves.

The prospective marriage between Gussie and Madeline is starting to look like not such a sure thing after all. This is alarming to say the least since it means that, for various comlicated reasons, Bertie Wooster may have to marry her instead. And if there’s one thing Bertie intends to avoid at all costs it is marrying Madeline Bassett. The problem, as ever, is that while Gussie is a wizard with newts he’s pretty much hopeless at dealing with people.

The situation is made more dangerous by the fact that Madeline’s father Sir Watkyn, a magistrate, had fined Bertie five quid for stealing a policeman’s helmet on Boat Race night.  As a result Sir Watkyn is convinced that Bertie is a hardened criminal who really should be behind bars. To make things worse Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia wants him to go to Totleigh Towers, Sir Watkyn’s country seat, to steal a silver cow creamer. 

Further difficulties are caused by the romance between Sir Watkyn’s ward Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng and Bertie’s old school chum Harold “Stinker” Pinker, now an impoverished curate. There’s also the presence of Sir Watkyns’ chum Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts and would-be dictator.

As you would expect it all gets insanely complicated, Bertie’s efforts to avoid the hideous fate of marriage to Madeline make things worse and Jeeves will have his work cut out for him saving the situation. And even Jeeves, despite his enormous brain, proves to be no match for an enraged Aberdeen terrier.

Those who are only familiar with the ITV TV series Jeeves and Wooster may be surprised upon reading the original stories to discover that Bertie Wooster is not actually a congenital idiot. His judgments on people are usually sound and often quite shrewd and he certainly has a well-developed sense of self-preservation. He’s definitely an intellectual lightweight and he has an amazing ability to convert potentially awkward situations into full-scale disasters. The plans he comes up with to extricate himself from catastrophe are not always entirely stupid but they tend to be over-complicated, to rely too much on a finesse that he does not possess and most fatally they are based on the assumption that other people will react in the way he hopes they will. Jeeves by contrast lays his plans with military precision.

Bertie might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but he’s a good-natured fellow and he’s quite impossible to dislike. 

Wodehouse uses similar plot devices in most of his stories. His genius lay in his ability to use these plot devices to create sublime comic set-pieces. And of course, most of all, it is his sparkling prose style that makes his tales so delightful. Bertie is the narrator of almost all the Jeeves-Wooster stories and much of the humour comes from his obliviousness to his own limitations.

Wodehouse’s reputation as the foremost comic writer of the 20th century is richly deserved. The Code of the Woosters is a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended.

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