Goin’ Up the Country

How Right You Are, Jeeves
P.G. Wodehouse

Applesauce. Until now it hadn’t occurred to me that this seasonal comestible could function as a curse word.

That’s why Wodehouse can fill a couple of library shelves and I…well, you can figure that next bit out for yourself. It helps, of course, that he has the perfect delivery mechanism for such utterances: Bertram Wooster.

I’ve written about P.G. Wodehouse, and his most famous characters, before. So there’s some ground I’m not going to cover again. Let’s just say that, at a minimum, Wodehouse is an entertaining, inventive writer.

He is also the man who gave us the great literary pair of Jeeves and Wooster.  If you want to understand why the British and Americans will forever be cousins, rather than brothers, you need go no further than comparing this twosome with famous American pairs you know.

In the USA, where TV and film outshine print, we have lots of pairs. Abbot & Costello. Laurel & Hardy. Murtaugh & Riggs. We even have at least one pair in our great literature: Huck & Jim. What we don’t have, even when one of the pair is a slave, is rigid class distinctions.

Longleat House, Wiltshire
When Bertie decamps to the country for the weekend, this is the sort of house he visits.

Please don’t get all politically correct on me. I’m not denying the abomination of slave holding or Jim being a slave. What I’m saying is that as a character, Jim is Huck’s equal.  That democratic ethos pervades American storytelling, even in the disposable fare from the comic duos listed above.

Our British friends are different, exaggeratedly so.

Allow me to reintroduce our principals. Bertie Wooster is a scion of the English aristocracy. Jeeves is his valet. Master and servant if you will. Bertie is harmless, well-meaning, fun-loving and quite dim-witted. Jeeves is decorous, reserved, well-read and clever. Who better to save a hereditary fool from himself?

While the place is decidedly England the time is, if you ask me, up for grabs. In many ways it’s the 1930s.  I say that mostly because the appurtenances of modern life are taken for granted. Electricity, automobiles, indoor plumbing, radio, telephones, travel by steamship. These things didn’t permeate until after WWI and the creators of the television series went heavy on the Art Deco/Swing Era accoutrements.

I always picture Bertie zipping around the home counties (and beyond) in a car like this.

Then there’s, Bertie’s Jazz Age patter. That could be a holdover from his school days; he is, after all, an overgrown child, playing with his toys and never facing the need to go to business, even if only for the sport of it. Bertie’s is the sort of G-rated mind that naturally substitutes a side dish where a less well-bred gentleman might utter an expletive that comes to us unchanged from the Middle English.

Bertie’s family, though, lives in a splendor I think of as more Edwardian. It’s possible my lack of familiarity with the nuances of English culture in the 20th century is off on this one. But there’s an awful lot of dressing up for dinner and summering at huge piles some distance from the metropolis that makes me think of Edith Wharton and friends.

My previous encounters with Bertie & Jeeves have all been in short story form. This volume–which I have seen listed with “#12” appended, suggesting the expanse of this body of work–is a novel. Even more startling, at the outset Jeeves leaves for his annual vacation at Herne Bay. I worried that there was a bit of bait and switch going on despite the title.

Simple dinners with friends and family at simple country homes. That’s why we can relate to our hero.

One might wonder just how Bertie can get through any period of time without Jeeves. Luckily his father’s sister, Aunt Dahlia, proffers a lifeline–come to Brinkley Court I don’t know about you, but houses with names always make me wonder if I’ve stumbled into the wrong precincts.

Of course there’s a catch, there always is. On the one hand, visit the Travers estate and you get fed by Anatole, the chef there’s a side business in stealing. On the other, Bobbie Wickham, the red-haired temptress and bane of Bertie’s existence, will be in attendance. Still, Jeeves is on holiday and so Bertie accepts the invite.

Upon his arrival Bertie finds more than a few reasons to question his decision. Aubrey Upjohn, the former headmaster of Bertie’s boarding school and a widower who married one of Aunt Dahlia’s friends, is also visiting, accompanied by his step-daughter, Phyliss Mills.  A comely lass, she’s the object of the affections of another guest, Wilbert Cream, an American accompanying his parents on a visit (Cream père, never seen, has business to conduct with Uncle Tom, also a spectre in this tale).

Aunt Dahlia, having been called away, has left Roberta in charge. Bertie’s task: to keep Phyliss from wedding Cream. Seemingly there aren’t enough characters rattling around the Travers manse already, so Bertie enlists an old boarding school friend, Kipper Herring, to help.

More my speed as English country places go. I’d go in a warmer month, personal experience tells me that’d be more cool than cozy come winter.

Just to round things out, there’s Mrs. Cream, a mystery writer, and Sir Roderick Glossop, the eminent psychologist. Glossop has gone undercover, working as a butler to size up young Cream and render him fit (or, hopefully, not) for Miss Mills’ hand. His stage name? Swordfish.

Kipper is besotted with, and episodically engaged to, Ms. Wickham. He’s also just published an unsigned, poison pen review of Aubrey Upjohn’s memoir, which focuses mainly on his days as a headmaster .

Of course it all winds up tumbling in on itself. So much so that, two-thirds of the way in, Bertie summons Jeeves. Strangely, our favorite mastermind is missing for most of the rest of the book. And yet he saves the day. As he must. He’s Jeeves.

I’ve said it before, the pleasure of these tales is in the telling. Pour a cuppa, put your feet up and settle in. The fun is sure to follow.










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