The Shorter Fiction of P. G. Wodehouse – A Book Review

Pelham Grenville (P. G.) Wodehouse was an Englishman who came to America in the early years of the twentieth century and made his name as an author of comic fiction and musical comedies.  I’ve never indulged in his work for the stage but I have read a good dose of his novels, both long and short and probably all his short stories.  You may know of him as the author of the Jeeves books.  In these stories, Jeeves is gentleman’s gentleman to a rather dim-witted young British aristocrat named Bertie Wooster who invariable runs afoul of everything in his life from unsympathetic aunts, to equally dim-witted friends, to ill-fated romances, to, …, well basically anything more complicated than a highball glass.  The charm in the stories is the narration and dialog that Wodehouse assigns to these characters.  Bertie is an amiable and good-hearted nitwit and Jeeves is the brilliant, ever sympathetic and always accommodating vassal to his hare-brained liege.

In addition to his Jeeves stories Wodehouse had a number of other series that all take place in a semi-mythical England inhabited by, the useless younger sons of English peers at the Drones Club, the friends of Mr. Mulliner hearing about his various relatives at the Anglers’ Rest pub, the golfers buttonholed by the Oldest Member of the country club and the unfortunate associates of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge reliving the misadventures of that much suffering man.

There is something like six hundred pages of Jeeves stories available and probably another six hundred pages of the shorter fiction for the other storylines.  But I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that there is a great deal of sameness in the plots in the Wodehouse universe.  Bertie runs afoul of a number of girlfriends.  His Aunt Agatha is the cause of more than a few of his misadventures, and the romantic disasters of his friends Tuppy Glossop, Bingo Little and Gussie Fink-Nottle all start to run into each other in the matter of plot elements.

And this is unsurprising.  Wodehouse admitted that he approached his comic fiction in the same manner as he wrote musical comedy.  The plots are straight forward and paper thin.  But the whole thing is an excuse for the dialog that showcases the blithering idiocy of the protagonists and forces them to throw their fate into the lap of Jeeves who like some kind of domestic genie provides a miraculous solution to the tempest in a teapot that Bertie and his circle of acquaintances have gotten themselves into.

I enjoy the stories.  But I recognize that tastes will vary.  Luckily any library will contain copies of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and other works to try out.  As a fairly representative sample I would recommend the story titled Jeeves and the Song of Songs.  Read it and put up some comments on what you think of it.

Here’s a representative sample of the prose:

“I don’t know why, but somehow, I had got it into my head that the first thing thrown at Tuppy would be a potato. One gets these fancies. It was, however, as a matter of fact, a banana, and I saw in an instant that the choice had been made by wiser heads than mine. These blokes who have grown up from childhood in the knowledge of how to treat a dramatic entertainment that doesn’t please them are aware by a sort of instinct just what to do for the best, and the moment I saw that banana splash on Tuppy’s shirt-front I realized how infinitely more effective and artistic it was than any potato could have been.  Not that the potato school of thought had not also its supporters. As the proceedings warmed up, I noticed several intelligent-looking fellows who threw nothing else.   The effect on young Tuppy was rather remarkable.  His eyes bulged and his hair seemed to stand up, and yet his mouth went on opening and shutting, and you could see that in a dazed, automatic way he was still singing ‘Sonny Boy.’  Then, coming out of his trance, he began to pull for the shore with some rapidity. The last seen of him, he was beating a tomato to the exit by a short head.

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