While there is never an unfavorable time to read a good book, there are some works and authors which seem to command our interest at very particular occasions of the year. It is an almost indefinable property which makes it so, an affinity woven into the very fabric of a story; but I imagine that all enthusiastic readers have, at some time or other, experienced the exquisite appropriateness of a given book to some interval in the calendar’s passing days. In my opinion, for example, The Wind in the Willows seems best suited to the springtime, whereas Treasure Island utterly belongs to the tropical warmth of summer. Conan Doyle’s accounts of Sherlock Holmes, I have always thought, are most comfortably read during the cold and blustery months of the late fall and winter. Washington Irving’s tales surely must be recited in October; one could hardly do better than look to Dante’s Divine Comedy during Lent; but Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas are principally men for all seasons.
True enough, my reader might say; but what has any of this to do with the great English comic author, P. G. Wodehouse?
Just this. In celebrating the triumphant Resurrection of Our Lord at Easter, and His sacrificial reconciliation of all men to their Creator, we have so lately entered the most joyful, ebullient, and exhilarating season of the Church year. After the arduous, penitential journey of Lent, we are met with a time of celebration and rejoicing—and we are at last enabled to feel, as we ought to feel, the profound holiness and healthiness of all that God has lovingly bestowed upon us, including the singular gift of laughter. What, then, could be better suited to our present delight than the whimsical stories of the most joyful, ebullient and exhilarating English author of the previous century?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Simply stated, P. G. Wodehouse’s comic stories of young Bertie Wooster and his unflappable valet, Jeeves, are beyond comparison or imitation. In witty prose and absurdly amusing dialect, Wodehouse frames a fantastical picture of the English upper classes during the years which intervened between the two world wars. Nearly every story carries the reader through a series of trumped-up plights which befall Mr. Wooster and his equally feckless friends, often through the sights and clubs of London and New York, or amongst the stately homes of the English gentry.
Wooster, who frequently serves as the narrator of his own adventures, stands as an artistic illustration of providence at work. Perhaps the young man’s case is best stated according to his own description in an early story: “Now, those who know me, if you ask them, will tell you that I’m a chump. My Aunt Agatha would testify to this effect…. Well, I don’t mind. I admit it. I am a chump.” Therefore, by the grace of God, a man hardly fit to make his own way in the world is happily endowed with a robust fortune, leaving him benevolent and financially carefree. He is even saved from the burden of his naiveté and otherwise reckless misjudgments through the wise and solicitous care of his famous manservant, Jeeves. But Wooster’s innocent and foolish eye paints a hilarious picture, indeed; and through him we gain the advantage of myriad acquaintances, such as Sir Roderick Glossop, Bingo Little, and, of course, Charles Edward Biffen, “as vague and woolen-headed a blighter as ever bit a sandwich.”
Naturally, the Jeeves stories need not be seen as all flippancy and foolishness. If the wisdom of the ages is a prerequisite for your reading pleasure, the attentive eye will observe no shortage of maxims and aphorisms in the mind of Wodehouse. At moments of particular duress, someone or other in each tale will render an infinitely charming observation. In considering the unfortunate case of his spendthrift colleagues, for example, Wooster aptly strikes in: “That’s always the way in this world. The chappies you’d like to lend money to won’t let you, whereas the chappies you don’t want to lend it to will do everything except actually stand you on your head and lift the specie out of your pockets.” Now what, dear reader, could be wiser than that?
And his philosophy in the face of trying circumstances is astonishing! At every instance Wooster is painfully slow to judge, though always chivalrously loyal to his friends’ difficulties. On one occasion, in reply to the intelligent admonitions of his valet concerning a certain romantic interest, the young master offers the following extraordinary rebuke: “You’re talking absolute rot, Jeeves. You know as well as I do that Honoria Glossop is an Act of God. You might as well blame a fellow for getting run over by a truck.” Quite so, you might say. Or, with all decency, you could join Jeeves in adopting a gaze of mild disapprobation, and retort, “Very good, sir.”
As I hope you will appreciate from these passing examples, Wodehouse’s humor markedly contrasts with the type of ubiquitous vulgarity and tiresome grievance which somehow passes for wit amongst today’s comedians. The Jeeves stories are refreshingly free from the most sneeringly unwholesome and hackneyed tricks. Indeed, Wodehouse deserves our admiration, if only because he displays the rare talent of writing truly funny satire without feeling the need to descend to anything like scorn—that bitter, sarcastic form of malice in which far too many moderns seem to take special delight.
Yet, if all of the above reasons are not sufficient to convince my reader to give Wodehouse a fair hearing—that is, if you are not persuaded that anyone who made a living writing comic novelettes could be a quintessentially good author—perhaps I could bolster the argument by simply adding that Wodehouse is also quintessentially English. No man who calls himself an Anglophile, or who is otherwise learned in the sights and scenes of the British Isles, could fail in his sympathy with the Jeeves stories. To quote another giant of twentieth-century English letters, Hilaire Belloc:
The English people more than any other have created in their literature living men and women rather than types. Mr. Wodehouse has created Jeeves…. He has formed a man filled with the breath of life. If in, say, 50 years, Jeeves and any other of that great company—but in particular, Jeeves—shall have faded, then what we have so long called England will be no longer.
In closing, then, I would point out that although Wodehouse wrote several longer pieces involving this famous duo, I most highly recommend the pithy short stories which are collected in the volumes Carry On, Jeeves and Very Good, Jeeves!. These succinct narratives form an excellent introduction to Wodehouse in general, and to the Jeeves genre in particular, since they represent the original substance from which the most famous of his works proceeded. As Wodehouse himself cheekily remarked in recommending his earliest collections:
“I like to think that this country contains men of spirit who will not rest content till they have dug down into the old oak chest and fetched up the sum necessary [for these early volumes]…. Only so can the best results be obtained!”
So, if you find yourself moved this festive season, take a moment to read, and laugh, and rejoice; for it is God alone who made wit and humor a special gift of our nature. Happy Easter!