Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse, the greatest comic writer in the English language bar none, is always very funny. But some of his books soar above the others--comic masterpieces which never grow old.

One of these is Leave it to Psmith, which I think is his best book; but the admitted pinnacle of his whole career is the series of books kicked off with Right Ho Jeeves, which tells of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster's frantic attempts to make sure Miss Madeleine Bassett, that droopy, goopy female, remains safely affianced to Gussie Fink-Nottle, the celebrated newt-studier.

The Code of the Woosters comes second in this epic. It has been some time since the events narrated in Right Ho, Jeeves. And like in Right Ho, Jeeves, the looming trouble on Bertie's horizon is first signified by a telegram.

Serious rift Madeleine and self. Come at once Totleigh Towers. Gussie.

Bertie's first impulse is to run for the Himalayas. Totleigh Towers is the very lair of the beast. It is the home of Sir Watkyn Bassett, a hanging judge who once fined Bertie for ten pounds for stealing a policeman's helmet on Boat Race Night—and stealing a policeman's helmet on Boat Race Night is positively de rigeur. It is moreover the home of Madeleine Bassett, who has the wholly mistaken notion that Bertie is madly in love with her, and who has vowed to marry him “and make him happy” should her engagement with Gussie ever fall through; of Roderick Spode, an amateur dictator (his organisation is known as the Black Shorts), who has loved Madeleine since she was so high and is determined to crush any man who makes her unhappy into a fine paste; of the rising young curate, a beefy old school-fellow of Bertie's known as the Rev Harold “Stinker” Pinker; and last but oh-so-very-much-not-least, young Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng, whose mad schemes to revenge herself on a local policeman may well prevent her fiance Stinker from ever becoming a vicar.

With all this in mind, Bertie is inclined to oil off and let the rift in Love's lute fix itself. But then his Aunt Dahlia takes charge. Her husband Tom and Sir Watkyn Bassett are rival collectors of old silver, and Sir Watkyn has just nipped in and bought an antique silver cow-creamer (it's a cream-jug that looks like a cow) which Tom was in the final stages of negotiations to buy. Aunt Dahlia regards Sir Watkyn as little better than a thief, and now she orders the hapless Bertie to go to Totleigh Towers and pinch it back...

With Sir Watkyn and the formidable Spode already under the impression that Bertie is a criminal of the blackest dye, Madeleine and Gussie on the rocks with the threat of an engagement to the former hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, Stiffy's insistence that Bertie be the stooge in a variety of halfwit operations, and with the cow-creamer changing hands between the different players in this mind-boggling game of wits, you could forgive even Bertie's peerless valet Jeeves for not quite knowing what to do next.

The Code of the Woosters is Wodehouse at the very peak of his abilities. I laughed till I cried the first time I read it, and despite having read it a dozen times since, it has never ceased to amuse. From Stiffy's Aberdeen terrier Angus, who “looks like a Scottish elder rebuking sin from the pulpit”, to the cryptic pronunciation, “I know all about Eulalie” which reduces Spode from a ravening beast to gentle, cooing compliance, this book is unforgettable. Read it, enjoy it, and marvel at Wodehouse's skill.

1 comment:

Radagast said...

It certainly is a gem!


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