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The “Real” Wooster, B. Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 07 January 2014

“Lord Erringham had for some time been treated for aggra-something by the well-known loony doctor, Sir Roderick Glossop.” Where else in English letters could the adjective “loony” appear so amusingly but in Wodehouse?

Two friends independently sent me Christopher Buckley’s delightful review of Sebastian Faulks’ “Homage to P. G. Wodehouse,” entitled Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. If imitation is the best form of flattery, the unforgettable Wodehouse, in that English country house in the sky wherein he surely dwells, is most pleased.

The book’s front page lists fourteen novels in which the learned Jeeves “butlered” for the dashing, spiffily attired, but often unlucky in love, Bertram Wooster, whose ancestors, we are informed, once fought in the Crusades and braved the arrows at Agincourt.

The first principle in reading Wodehouse – and a fortiori Faulks – is that you must know ancient lore, Scripture, feudalism, English history, modern philosophers from at least Kant to Schopenhauer, the names of the finer port wines (Warre 1885), and the proper dress of ladies and gentlemen – “Damn it, Jeeves, there are times when the question of the appropriate dress is simply not on the agenda.’ ‘I have yet to encounter one, sir.’”


If you do not know Wordsworth, Keats, and “Browdig,” as a young lass lisped at the Malbury Hall Fête, your sojourn at Oxford or at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, was rather a bust.

Shakespeare, of course, is essential. The current plot revolves around Bottom and Titania in Midsummer’s Night Dream. The heroine of this tale once played Rosalind in As You Like It. In addition, you need to know about thoroughbreds and the wagering habits of the Honest Sid Levy’s of this world.

Knowledge of the game of cricket, likewise, is vital. This sport is to England and its former possessions, especially India, as baseball is to America. If you don’t know cricket, you don’t know England, to paraphrase George Will.

When Wooster, B. failed to catch a crucial fly ball to win the featured match, thereby nixing Lord Hackwood’s considerable wager, there was no joy in Mudville, or, in more elegant English-English imagery: “My dinner as Melbury Hall that night was about as much fun as the burial of Sir John More, at Corunna.” (1809, Spain, the poem of Charles Wolfe reads: “Not a drum was sounded…”).

The women in Wooster, B.’s life had often been formidable, beginning with his Aunt Agatha, who, it turns out, went to school with Lady Hackwood and Dame Julia Puxley. None of these imposing ladies gave Bertie credit for the slightest flicker of intelligence.

And the too numerous young ladies that the young Wooster, B. once sought to woo –Cora “Corky” Pilbright, Zenobia “Nobby” Hopwood, Pauline Stoker, Florence Craye, Bobbie Wickham, and the unforgettable Madeline Bassett, who thought the stars were God’s daisy chains – all proved in the end worth fleeing. As Jeeves put it, “Your previous entanglements with the fair sex have seldom ended happily.”


      Sebastian Faulks, CBE

On the vast difference between male and female, Wodehouse is counter-cultural: “The female of the species is not only deadlier than the m, it’s also a jolly sight rummier.” Bertie confesses his own perplexity: “I have never understood why girls fall for chaps at all, to be quite frank, but I suppose if a 24-carat popsy like Pauline Stoker can declare undying love for an ass like Chuffy Chufnell, then all things are possible.” It is well to recall that the phrase, “all things are possible,” appears in Scripture (Matthew 19:26).

This complementary but providential difference between men and women forms the heart of the “wedding bells” that Wooster, B. finally, much to his astonishment, hears after his initial seemingly chance encounter with one Georgiana Meadowes on the Cǒte d’Azur.

I say “seemingly chance.” For Wooster, B., after he realizes that he has finally found his match – she  “understands the ‘real’ Bertram” – reflects on whether we are “playthings of Unseen Forces.” As it turns out, such “Unseen Forces” have been “bunged” along by Jeeves and his own affianced Mrs. Tilmon. Jeeves describes the latter as a “student of the individual,” something characteristic of all good ladies. They see into the souls of men before they worry about the ideas, noble or otherwise, that occupy the “gents.” Both Jeeves and Mrs. Tilmon had been the human agents of these unseen providential forces in facilitating the wedding bells of Bertie and Georgiana.

On finishing “wedding bells,” we realize that Faulks has managed to give Wooster, B. a proper ending whereby we can finally say of him, as Wodehouse himself did not, that he and Georgiana lived happily ever after. Bertie even noticed that one of the rooms in Malbury Hall, which Georgiana was to inherit, could be a nursery. The “Code of the Woosters” neither allowed nor desired any further escapades.

 
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
 
 
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Comments (9)Add Comment
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written by Mack Hall, HSG, January 07, 2014
Thank you, Fr. Schall!

Pastiches almost always have to escape down a drainpipe in order to avoid awkward moments, but Mr. Faulks makes his work. However, I am optimistic that Bertie will once again avoid committing matrimony, for he is forever 24, free, and delightfully irresponsible.

Again, thanks for celebrating what Waugh called Wodehouse's unfallen world.
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written by Matt Franck, January 07, 2014
I'm afraid the estimable Fr. Schall has trodden on the rake this time. Christopher Buckley's NYT review was an appalling failure actually to review the book, and was cringe-making in its own right, setting one's teeth on edge like a cup of weak tea with too much sugar in it. I took the advice of Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic and have given Faulks's clumsily written "fan fiction" a wide berth. Back to PGW for me.
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written by Allan Cheung, January 07, 2014
So, Mr. Franck, you haven't actually read Mr. Faulk's book. Do you get all your opinions from TNR?
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written by Scott Walter, January 07, 2014
Always a delight to have Fr. Schall pondering the Wodehouse world. Two qts. to add a lagniappe:

One Carmelite, asked after Wodehouse’s death to remember him at Mass, wisely replied, “Well, I will, since you ask me. But in the case of someone who has brought such joy to so many people in the course of his life, do you think it is necessary?”

Ogden Nash’s reaction to news of yet another Jeeves novel:

Bound to your bookseller, leap to your library
Deluge your dealer with bakshish and bribery,
Lean on the counter and never say when,
Wodehouse and Wooster are at it again.
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written by debby, January 07, 2014
oh, YEA! and THANK YOU, Fr!
NOW i know what to buy my daughter for her up coming b'day!!
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written by Matt Franck, January 07, 2014
Dear me, Mr. Cheung, what a reaction. Good book reviews, wherever one finds them, serve various functions, one of which is to save readers the trouble of reading bad books inadvertently. Chotiner's review was competent, packed with evidence that Faulks's book is bad. Buckley's review was incompetent, almost information-free.
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written by Daniel Morse, January 07, 2014
My Dear Mr. Franck, if I may intrude into your discussion with Mr. Cheung I would strongly recommend that using your own standard you avoid reading Richard Dawkins' review of the Bible. Good day, Sir.
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written by Kevin, January 07, 2014
As a big Wodehouse fan, I have been debating whether to read this new book. Due to my own character flaw, I would read it with a chip on my shoulder, looking for reasons to harrumph. I also don't know if I can bring myself to read a book in which Bertie gets married - it simply isn't done. In that same persnickety spirit, I am compelled to point out that Corky's surname is Pirbright, not Pilbright.

One question for the commenters or Fr. Schall. In Wodehouse, when a couple breaks a marriage engagement, they are said to have "parted brass rags". I have looked for the origin of the phrase (which I have only ever read in Wodehouse) but have come up short. Can anyone offer insight?
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written by Laurie Morrow, July 03, 2014
Dear Kevin,

Here's a persuasive etymology of the phrase "parted brass rags":

In sum, it seems a nautical term. One of the jobs assigned the least-experienced sailors was to polish the brass on the ship. Sharing one's polish and/or polishing rags with someone who'd run short of either was a mark of trust and friendship, for he who didn't "polish up the handle so carefully" was sure not to succeed as a member of the Queen's navy.

The rags, incidentally, matter. I helped my mother polish the little brass rails around the fireplace and the horse brasses that hung on the wall with Noxon and the softest cotton rags she had. She'd wash and re-use these rags over and over, as you needed fabric that would hold the polish and wouldn't scratch. And you needed a lot of rags, some to apply the polish, others to rub off the tarnish, and a third set to polish the brass to a high gleam.

Father Schall, I am absolutely delighted to discover that you are a Wodehouse fan - as are the good gentlemen above.

And now, back to my newts.

With best wishes to all,

Laurie

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