Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2209
Between 1902 and 1974, Wodehouse published more than ninety books—novels, collections of stories, and memoirs. His fiction, set mostly in London and the country houses of England with frequent excursions to the United States, bears little resemblance to real life in any place or time. Wodehouse creates a unique comic universe crammed with aristocrats, servants, secretaries, clerks, clergy, poets, police officers, judges, thieves, and, significantly, musical comedy performers.
With the emphasis on plot and two-dimensional characters, Wodehouse’s fiction resembles nothing so much, as the writer himself observed, as musical comedy without the music. The stories and novels concern chiefly romantic and financial difficulties, with all problems resolved by the conclusion.
The only occurrence of anything resembling political commentary is the portrait of Roderick Spode as the founder of a fascist organization ludicrously known as the Black Shorts in The Code of the Woosters (1938). Wodehouse ridicules Spode further by making him a secret designer of ladies’ underwear. Such episodes seem to place Wodehouse’s fiction in a particular time, since foreign and domestic fascism was a threat to Great Britain in the 1930’s, but most of Wodehouse’s characters and events seem drawn from an England that has changed little since the start of the twentieth century. His characters are slightly modified Edwardians. Anachronisms abound in the later novels and are fitting since they add to the comic absurdity.
More than half of Wodehouse’s fiction deals with continuing characters: Uncle Fred, Mr. Mulliner, Ukridge, Psmith, Lord Emsworth, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster. The most significant of these are the last four. Psmith becomes Wodehouse’s first notable adult character. He is rich in Psmith in the City: A Sequel to “Mike” (1910) and Psmith Journalist (1915), poor in Leave It to Psmith (1923), but regardless of his economic circumstances, he is bored by ordinary life and longs to take risks. These chances, from operating a New York newspaper and running into gangsters to posing as a Canadian poet, lead to typically complicated Wodehouse plots. Psmith is a smarter version of Bertie Wooster, a fast-thinking swindler who talks himself both into and out of trouble. Throwing himself rashly into situations with little regard for the consequences, his sole purpose seems to be to start something.
Ronald Eustace Psmith prefigures later characters in frequently quoting poetry and in speaking in characteristic metaphors. Tea is never simply tea but “a cup of the steaming.” Rather than resort to a cliché like “in the soup” to indicate trouble, Psmith uses phrases such as “consommé splashing about the ankles” or “knee-deep in the bouillon.” Such verbal silliness is indicative of P. G. Wodehouse’s style at its best.
Wodehouse writes about Lord Emsworth and the goings-on at Blandings Castle in ten novels from Something Fresh (1915) to A Pelican at Blandings (1969; also known as No Nudes Is Good Nudes). These farces feature dotty Lord Emsworth devoting as much time as possible to his flowers or pigs, his sister Lady Constance trying to run his life for him, and assorted ninnies such as his brother Galahad Threepwood. Everything at Blandings Castle appears to be in flux, with numerous characters running down corridors or across terraces in pursuit of or in flight from mischief. Lord Emsworth keeps firing his secretary Rupert Baxter, and Lady Constance constantly rehires him. Baxter longs to impose order on the chaos of Blandings.
Wodehouse’s greatest triumph is Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, who appear in eleven novels and more than fifty stories published between 1917 and 1974. The basic plot involves Bertie getting into trouble, making matters worse by trying to extricate himself, and finally relying upon his valet Jeeves to resolve the situation. The problems are often created by Bertie’s stern Aunt Agatha or his blustery Aunt Dahlia, by such friends as Bingo Little or Tuppy Glossop, or by someone to whom Bertie is engaged and who is determined to reform him. Through all of these misadventures, Bertie remains cheerfully optimistic.
Having Bertie narrate the stories and novels is a stroke of genius by Wodehouse. Bertie is an ironic narrator who never realizes the ramifications of the events that he is describing. Unusual for a first-person narrator, Bertie is not merely an observer but the central participant, since he influences almost all that happens. Jeeves narrates one Bertie story and one non-Bertie novel, and the effect is not the same. One of the virtues of Bertie as narrator is his use—or misuse—of the language. Combining jargon, slang, clichés, and mangled quotations from literary giants with his absentminded eccentricity, Bertie speaks in a style all his own:It is pretty generally recognized in the circles in which he moves that Bertram Wooster is not a man who lightly throws in the towel and admits defeat. Beneath the thingummies of what-d’you-call-it, his head, wind and weather permitting, is as a rule bloody but unbowed, and if the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune want to crush his proud spirit, they have to pull their socks up and make a special effort.
Bertie is Dr. Watson to Jeeves’s Sherlock Holmes, for the only rival of this gentleman’s gentleman for intellect in fiction is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. Bertie explains his admiration for Jeeves: “The man’s a genius. From the collar upward he stands alone. I gave up trying to run my own affairs within a week of his coming to me.” Jeeves is the godlike force who miraculously engineers the denouements of the Bertie stories and novels. Because Bertie has to have a problem to be solved and then compounds matters by attempting to deal with it himself, Jeeves’s powers of ingenuity are supremely tested in the best of the fiction, such as the novels Thank You, Jeeves (1934), Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; also known as Brinkley Manor: A Novel About Jeeves), The Code of the Woosters, and Joy in the Morning (1946), and such stories as “The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy,” “Jeeves and the Impending Doom,” “Jeeves and the Song of Songs,” and “Indian Summer of an Uncle.” Because numerous obstacles must be placed in Jeeves’s way, Wodehouse also tests himself by making the plots as convoluted as possible. The pieces often fit together with almost mathematical precision.
The Inimitable Jeeves
First published: 1923
Type of work: Novel
Bertie Wooster and Jeeves attempt to assist in the love life of Bingo Little with comic consequences.
Four Bertie and Jeeves stories are included in My Man Jeeves (1919), but The Inimitable Jeeves is the first book completely about these characters as Wodehouse weaves eleven previously published stories together to create a mostly unified narrative. The first true novel in the series is Thank You, Jeeves (1934).
Many of the loose strands of The Inimitable Jeeves are held together by the romantic travails of Bertie’s friend Bingo Little. Bingo is forever falling in love, and Bertie, with Jeeves’s assistance, either promotes the romance or attempts to prevent it, depending on the suitability of the young woman. At the beginning of the book, Bingo is infatuated with a waitress and wants Bertie to make his uncle, Lord Bittlesham, the source of Bingo’s income, receptive to Bingo’s marrying someone from the working class. Jeeves suggests having Bingo read the uncle such Rosie M. Banks novels as “Only a Factory Girl,” in which marriage to someone of lesser social status is advocated. As a result, Lord Bittlesham marries his cook.
Bingo next falls for Honoria Glossop, but Bertie’s domineering Aunt Agatha wants her nephew to marry Honoria. Attempting to resolve the problem without Jeeves’s help, Bertie pushes Honoria’s young brother into a pond so that Bingo can save the boy and appear heroic, but on his way to the pond, fickle Bingo discovers someone else. Bertie becomes engaged to Honoria, who says he must get rid of Jeeves. The valet saves his master by creating an elaborate plot to convince Honoria’s father, Sir Roderick, a prominent psychiatrist, that Bertie is crazy.
After Jeeves saves Bertie’s friend from two more ill-considered romances, Bingo falls in love with another waitress, who forces him to marry her without his uncle’s consent. When presented to Lord Bittlesham, she reveals herself to be Rosie M. Banks, having been working as a waitress to research her next book.
In addition to his superior intelligence, Jeeves must be privy to sources of information denied the other characters, adding ironic distance to Bertie’s perception of reality. Jeeves is the all-knowing force manipulating the others as if they were chess pieces. Jeeves even resorts to lying and bribery to achieve his ends. He is everything the naïve Bertie is not.
Though mentally inferior to his servant, Bertie is intelligent enough to rely on Jeeves’s judgment in most matters. Bertie also possesses enough self-awareness to recognize his limitations. He is truly an admirable character whose behavior derives from a strict code of conduct. While this code is that of the privileged late Victorian schoolboy, it allows Bertie to be modest, gracious, and magnanimous. He is always willing to devote time and money to assist his friends. When he hesitates over helping Bingo out of a scrape, all his friend need do is remind him that they were at school together.
The Inimitable Jeeves is significant in the Wodehouse canon for introducing numerous stock Bertie/Jeeves elements. These include the pattern of Bertie getting into trouble, Jeeves getting him out, and the young master having to sacrifice an article of clothing that the valet finds offensive: purple socks, loud cummerbund, spats in Old Etonian colors. Others are Aunt Agatha’s efforts to have Bertie wed, only for him to escape narrowly, and Sir Roderick Glossop’s conviction that Bertie is mad. The Inimitable Jeeves also displays Wodehouse’s comic style at its best.
Leave It to Psmith
First published: 1923
Type of work: Novel
Psmith poses as a Canadian poet to be near the woman he loves and to help steal a diamond necklace in a good cause.
Leave It to Psmith is both a Psmith novel and a Lord Emsworth/Blandings Castle tale. It opens with Rupert Baxter, the overly efficient secretary, completely in charge of Blandings because of Lord Emsworth’s obsession with his garden. Lord Emsworth also dares not diminish Baxter’s power for fear of annoying Lady Constance, the sister who dominates him. Joseph Keeble, Lady Constance’s husband, is also intimidated by her, even allowing her complete control of his money. His beloved stepdaughter Phyllis has recently married the poor Mike Jackson, and he longs to help them get started. Freddie Threepwood, Lord Emsworth’s flighty son, suggests that they steal Lady Constance’s diamond necklace, give Phyllis the money she needs from what his wife gives Joe to buy a new necklace, and replace it with a reset version of itself.
Ronald Eustace Psmith, broke since the death of his father, has placed an advertisement claiming he will perform any task, legal or illegal, for a fee. Freddie goes to London to attempt to hire Psmith, who is not interested until he discovers that the lovely Eve Halliday is going to Blandings to catalog the library. When Lord Emsworth mistakes Psmith for the Canadian poet Ralston McTodd, whom Lady Constance has invited to Blandings, Psmith is given the means to be near Eve.
Psmith knows nothing about poetry and is not even remotely artistic but is such a charmingly convincing liar that he fools everyone—with the notable exception of the always-suspicious Baxter—at Blandings, even Miss Peavey, another poet. The already complicated plot becomes even more so because Freddie is in love with Eve, because Eve cannot return Psmith/McTodd’s affection since the real McTodd is separated from one of her best friends, because Miss Peavey is also a thief after the necklace, and because Eddie Cootes, Miss Peavey’s gun-toting former colleague in confidence games, shows up unexpectedly knowing that Psmith is not McTodd. A typically Wodehousian farcical scene results when Baxter, wearing only pajamas, is locked out in the middle of the night and hysterically resorts to throwing flowerpots through Lord Emsworth’s bedroom window.
Psmith’s prediction to Freddie midway in the novel eventually comes true: “All will doubtless come right in the future.” Since Eve agrees to marry Psmith, he becomes, as a married man, disqualified from being a Wodehouse hero and never appears again except in revised versions of earlier novels.
Leave It to Psmith is a typical Blandings Castle novel full of the usual eccentric characters one finds in musical comedies, but it is even more typically a tale dominated by Psmith, whose verbal skills are seen at their best as he double-talks his way through discussions of poetry. Psmith’s appeal as a fictional character is illustrated by his willingness to let events take their course. He allows Lord Emsworth to think that he is the Canadian poet even before he knows of the connection to Eve or the necklace because of “some innate defect in his character. He was essentially a young man who took life as it came, and the more inconsequently it came the better he liked it.” Psmith’s delight in the confusion he creates is infectious.
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