Whangees, Newts, and Killer Aunts: The Comedy of P.G. Wodehouse

No one who spends five minutes talking to me about books would be surprised to learn that P.G. Wodehouse is one of my favorite authors. A grad-school acquaintance once told me that my whole manner changes—body language, inflection, everything—when I discuss comic novels and films. I suppose the same is true for all of us: We become more animated, more engaged in conversation, when the topic is one that we feel passionate about. And few things bring me more enjoyment, to talk about as well as to consume, than books and films that make me laugh.

The only surprise is that I came to Wodehouse so late in life.  When I was a high-school student, I watched more Monty Python and early Woody Allen and early Marx Brothers (the films up to A Day at the Races) than I probably should have. I read S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley and James Thurber. I considered myself a connoisseur of a certain type of comedy, what I liked to call erudite silliness. Pratfalls and seltzer bottles I could take or leave, but Cardinal Richelieu singing “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” was humor that spoke to me.

Yet not until I was 23, when a colleague equally besotted by this type of wonderful nonsense learned that I had never read the works of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, did I experience the master’s unique brand of humor. My colleague recommended that I read The Inimitable Jeeves, a collection of 18 linked stories about the eponymous gentleman’s gentleman and Bertie Wooster, the likable but dim Edwardian idle rich boy whose talent for laziness is exceeded only by his talent for getting into mischief. The first story in the collection, “Jeeves Exerts the Old Cerebellum”, chronicles Bertie’s attempts to help his pal Bingo Little convince his wealthy upper-class parents to let him marry a waitress named Mabel. From the moment Bertie said to his disapproving valet, “[B]ring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I’m going into the park to do pastoral dances,” I was captivated by a comic voice unlike any I had heard before.

Bertie, Jeeves, and Bingo Little were only the first of many Wodehouse creations I would come to adore over the years. There was Bertie’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, “a fish-faced pal of mine,” who “devoted himself entirely to the study of newts.” (This from The Code of the Woosters.) Gussie’s drunken distribution of grammar school awards in Right Ho, Jeeves is the single funniest piece of writing I have ever read. And there were also Bertie’s many relations, foremost among them the formidable Aunt Agatha, who, according to Bertie, “kills rats with her teeth and devours her young.”

My colleague and I loved these stories so much that we got half a dozen friends to join us at the Hasty Pudding Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Edward Duke, an English stage actor, came to town in 1989 to perform Jeeves Takes Charge, his one-man show. Duke acted out two of the Bertie and Jeeves stories and played all twelve characters. For the performance, we smuggled into the theater plastic champagne glasses and a can of ginger ale. During the curtain call, the six of us in the front row held up our filled glasses and toasted Duke with cries of “What ho, old boy!” His smile and wink are among the finest compliments I have ever received.

I would soon discover the many other categories of Wodehouse’s writing: the Mulliner stories, the golf stories, the Psmith stories, the Blandings Castle stories. All of them delightful, but the Jeeves stories are my favorites. They are the books I turn to most often when I’m low, or when I need to be reminded of just how funny literature can be. The other day, I was flipping through passages in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, the final Jeeves novel, published in 1974. My five-year-old son noticed me laughing in the living room and wanted to know what I was reading. He put down his Legos, climbed onto the sofa, and sat next to me. I’m not sure he caught all the humor as I read aloud to him. But he sat with me for half an hour, and his attention never wavered. Will he one day become as big a Wodehouse fan as his father? It’s too early to tell. But it’s nice to know that, 97 years after Jeeves first shimmered into a room, these stories still retain their charming, magical power. To paraphrase Jeeves, most gentlemen and ladies find them rather enjoyable.

 

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5 thoughts on “Whangees, Newts, and Killer Aunts: The Comedy of P.G. Wodehouse

  1. Ah, long time since I read P.G.Wodehouse but I do have fond memories. Reading a Wodehouse is like floating from one ripple of laughter to the next. JB 🙂

  2. Thank you for the comments, folks. It’s lovely to know not only that there are so many Wodehouse fans in the world but also that a new generation of fans is about to discover his work. Even fans who are only five years old! My son will be laughing with Uncle Fred and the Oldest Member in no time.

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