The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse

Second and third paragraphs of third chapter:

I hoped he was not going to say “Ha!” but he did. And as I had not yet mastered the vocal cords sufficiently to be able to reply, that concluded the dialogue sequence for the moment. Then, still keeping his eyes glued on me, he shouted:
“Sir Watkyn!”

After the tough work of getting the Hugos over the line, I felt like a bit of a rest from my usual reading fare and got hold of this, the top Wodehouse novel by ownership on LibraryThing and third on Goodreads. I had a phase of reading Wodehouse when I was thirteen; I cannot remember if I had read this or not, but they are all very similar so I may well have done.

The plot is simple, and also complicated. Wooster, our somewhat dim aristocratic narrator, is sent to a country house on two simultaneous missions, to rescue the relationship of a friend whose engagement is in trouble, and to steal or otherwise acquire an antique cow-creamer which has been acquired by his host, Sir Watkyn Bassett. Wooster’s valet, Jeeves, comes too and by research and quick thinking saves the day on all counts

But honestly, one reads it not for the plot, and certainly not for the social commentary (for there is none apart from “fascism is silly”), but for the delightful turns of phrase. For instance, here we are introduced to the McGuffin, the antique cow-creamer:

It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you may observe loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence. It was about four inches high and six long. Its back opened on a hinge. Its tail was arched, so that the tip touched the spine—thus, I suppose, affording a handle for the cream-lover to grasp. The sight of it seemed to take me into a different and dreadful world.

or more simply:

I suppose a man who has been hit over the head with a picture of a girl chirruping to a pigeon and almost immediately afterwards enmeshed in a sheet can never really retain the cool, intelligent outlook.

The book was published in 1938, and one of the comic relief characters is Roderick Spode, a would-be dictator of Britain. Wodehouse later got into serious trouble for making wartime broadcasts after he was captured by the Germans, but he had prepared his defence well in advance:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

I have not checked in detail, but I strongly suspect that it is a Bechdel fail. The named female characters are Bertie’s aunt Dahlia, Sir Watkyn’s daughter Madeleine Bassett and her cousin Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng (Bertie narrowly escapes marriage to each of the latter two in quick succession). But I am not sure that any two of them even appear in the same scene, the story being told tightly from Bertie’s point of view. Madeleine and Stiffy do have off-screen confrontations, but they are always about Madeleine’s boyfriend, Gussie Fink-Nottle.

One other point that struck me – Bertie and his boy and girl friends are clearly intended by the author to be quite young, in their mid to late twenties. But I have found only one case of an actor under 35 being cast as Bertie for the screen, David Niven in the 1936 film Thank You, Jeeves, which veers far from Wodehouse’s characterisation. In general much older actors have been cast. Ian Carmichael was in his mid-40s for the 1960s BBC series The World of Wooster, and Hugh Laurie in his early 40s for the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster. An innovative creative team could inject a totally different energy into a TV or film adaptation by choosing a much younger cast.

My reading of The Code of the Woosters was much enhanced by the notes supplied by the Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums website, which has similar annotations for all of the other Wodehouse books.

Anyway, a delight if not exactly a stretching read. You can get it here.

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