“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.