Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Aparna Narrain - What ho! Celebrating 100 years of Bertie, Jeeves and Blandings

It's a deuce of a situation really. Does one spend time introducing the cast of characters and laying out the background or just plunge straight into writing a tribute? The problem lies in the fact that the first lot who are well acquainted with Bertie, Jeeves, and the gang at Blandings are liable to yell "Old hat! Get on with it!", while the second lot has no idea what to make of it all and is left asking questions like who is Jeeves and what is a Blandings.

I suppose there is no choice really but to explain who is who, while telling the first lot to drink a cup of refreshing tea or potter around the garden till I finish. So to get down to the res, this month marks the 100th anniversary of two of English comic writer P.G. Wodehouse's most-beloved creations. The m. b. c.'s in question are good-natured Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and the ultimate gentleman's personal gentleman, Jeeves, who made their first appearance in the short story, 'Extricating Young Gussie', published in the U.S. in the 15th September, 1915, issue of 'The Saturday Evening Post'.

Bertie, the narrator of the majority of these stories, is perhaps the most likeable character of all. He is sweet, loyal, goes to extreme lengths to help his friends and always aims to be a preux chevalier. The imperturbable Jeeves is the guiding light in Bertie's life and no problem is too big for that great brain to solve.

Over the course of 11 novels and 35 short stories, we were also introduced to other memorable characters, including, but not limited to, Aunt Dahlia, described by Bertie as his good and deserving aunt; formidable Aunt Agatha who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth (or so Bertie says and I have no reason to doubt him); Anatole, God's gift to the gastric juices; Madeline Bassett who believes that the stars are God's daisy chain, and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose, a baby is born; Gussie Fink-Nottle, the newt-keeper with a face like a halibut; Roderick Spode, Sir Roderick Glossop, Sir Watkyn Bassett, and the various members of the Drones Club to which Bertie belongs.

Over at Blandings Castle, the first book in the saga was published as 'Something New' in the U.S. on 3rd September, 1915, and as 'Something Fresh' in the U.K. on 16th September, 1915.
The main characters include Lord Emsworth, the absent-minded ninth Earl of Blandings, who has a tendency to gape like a fish under all circumstances; his sister Lady Constance who has no patience with her brother's tendency to do so; the Empress of Blandings, the apple of Lord Emsworth's eye and three-time silver medallist in the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show; cheery Galahad, member of the erstwhile Pelican Club and bane of his sister Lady Constance's life; Lord Ickenham, better known as Uncle Fred, who strives to spread sweetness and light and give service with a smile; that old misogynist, the Duke of Dunstable; Beach the butler; Freddie Threepwood, younger son of Lord Emsworth; the pig-man George Cyril Wellbeloved, and of course, the Efficient Baxter whose efficiency is so often his undoing. 

Right, so that's the lot.

Now, for the first-time reader, a perusal of a Jeeves or Blandings plot may well result in a raised eyebrow. For here is a world where the biggest calamities are sundered hearts, an already rotund pig refusing to eat, a silver cow creamer in high demand, a small, brown, leather-covered notebook that has to be found, imposters in every nook and cranny, girls consenting to marry unwilling boys, and boys hoping to get out of said engagement as delicately as possible.

But, as any Wodehouse aficionado worth his or her salt will tell you, what draws them like a moth to a flame are not only the wonderful assortment of characters, but, more importantly, the brilliant way the English language is moulded to produce the most magical effect. In fact, it is...What's that word beginning with an s? It's on the tip of my tongue. Surreal? No, that's not it. Sublime. I knew I would get it eventually. The prose is quite simply sublime.

Allow me to illustrate my point. In 'Right Ho Jeeves', Bertie, while musing on the amount of alcohol Gussie Fink-Nottle has imbued, says "...the entire contents of that jug are at this moment reposing on top of the existing cargo in that already brilliantly lit man's interior."

And this is the description of Lord Emsworth's emotions pertaining to Dame Daphne Winkworth in 'Galahad at Blandings'. "And the thought of actually marrying her made him feel that instead of the cucumber sandwich at which he was nibbling, he was swallowing butterflies."

A very Wodehousian trait is the use of transferred epithets and hyperbolic similes. For example, "...I now lighted a feverish cigarette (from 'Code of the Woosters'), and "...I said, twiddling a thoughtful steering wheel..." (from 'Right Ho, Jeeves'.)

"She had risen and for perhaps half a minute stood staring at me in a sad sort of way, like the Mona Lisa on one of the mornings when the sorrows of the world had been coming over the plate a bit too fast for her." (Bertie referring to Madeline Bassett in 'Code of the Woosters'.)

It takes a little getting used to if you have never read Wodehouse's work before but for a fan, his trademark abbreviations soon become a fun thing to spot. Makes you feel dashed good about yourself when you know what it is.  Example: "He uncovered the fragrant eggs and b. and I pronged a moody forkful (from Jeeves and the Impending Doom'.) (An abbreviation and a transferred epithet for the price of one.)

Having started reading these stories when I was a slip of a girl, something else that made a strong impression was the vocabulary. Words like obtuse and opprobrious were thrown around as well as interesting phrases like mud in your eye, tight as an owl, and pure as the driven snow. 

I also particularly enjoyed the feeling of knowing exactly how a character felt, whether someone was talking about twisting the knife in the wound or when Bertie asks Jeeves not to say "Indeed sir?" telling him that it's virtually tantamount to saying "Oh yeah?" Even Keats, Burns and Shakespeare made their presence felt as the books are replete with quotations and allusions to their works. 
All in all, it was quite an education.

There are some who may question the continuing appeal of these stories that are set in a time and place far removed from today. But, as writer Evelyn Waugh said, "Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in." And for those few hours you are engrossed in that world, you can be assured that, to borrow one of Wodehouse's favourite quotations, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world."

See also

Some observations I made about PGW in response to a newspaper questionnaire in 2007: 

Q.1 What prompted the setting up of the Wodehouse Society in St Stephen's College?

A/ There was an irreverence in PGW's style that appealed to us as undergraduates. The content of his fiction was so far removed from our immediate environment that it appealed to our sense of the nonsensical. Sheer absurdity became the meeting point between his world and ours. In a time of turmoil, PGW's gentle but intensely funny humour somehow brought us down to earth. He infused ordinary things with mischievous incongruity without being crude in any way - thus, Jeeves, the gentleman's personal gentleman who read Spinoza in his spare time; Aunt Agatha, who chewed broken glass and wore barbed wire next to skin; dogs with a secret sorrow; the American tycoon who
prided himself on being Third Vice President of the Amalgamated Nailcutter's and Eyebrow Tweezer's Corporation; or Mr Mulliner's pharmacist nephew with his famous invention, Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo. And the very name of the minor aristocrat, Lemuel Gengulphus, Bart.

The Wodehouse Society was our boyish response to the intensity of our times - the late sixties. We produced a rag named Spice, full of nonsensical articles, held Lord Ickenham Professor Imitation Contests, and hosted debates and essay competitions. And we poked fun at everyone and anyone, including the authorities. PGW made life interesting and bearable, because he taught us never to take ourselves too seriously. After you read him you could never get rid of the sneaking suspicion that in all of us there was a particle of the well-meaning oaf Bertie Wooster, lurching his way from one disaster to the next, and whose greatest achievement was his imitation of a hen laying an egg. And Wodehouse could evoke tender human feelings too, quite effortlessly, as in that most famous of short stories, Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend.

Q.2. What first attracted you to Wodehouse's stories?

A./ First, a correction. PGW wrote collections of stories, but he was primarily a novelist. What attracted me? My father's collection! He used to buy them religiously, and after I'd gone through the lot, I began reading whatever appeared. There were over seventy titles, and by my late twenties, I think I had read most of them.

Q.3 What, according to you, are the reasons, Wodehouse is popular in India?

A./ Perhaps the familiarity of Indians with colonial English manners makes them receptive to PGW's love for puncturing pomposity. He was always ridiculing the English aristocracy. After all, we have our own stuffed-shirt social strata with their noses in the air. Humour is the most subversive thing there is. The best way of dealing with high and mighty oppressors is to laugh at them. Wodehouse takes the clothes off all emperors.

Q. 4. Do you think the Wodehouse brand of humour is still relevant?

A./ Relevant? PG Wodehouse is timeless.