Several years ago Ickie and I discovered the works of P.G. Wodehouse. He wrote nearly one hundred comedies about members of the British upper class who, in their excessive leisure time, devise ludicrous schemes. His most well-known stories are about the daft but likable Bertie Wooster and his eminently capable butler Jeeves (Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry are excellent in the BBC series based on them). I love the stories featuring Uncle Fred (from whom Ickie lifted his web moniker), the crafty Earl of Ickenham who is always getting in and out of trouble with his uncanny ability to lie. My favorite novels by Wodehouse are his early works, which he wrote mainly in the teens and 20s (e.g., Piccadilly Jim, A Damsel in Distress, Something Fresh, Hot Water).
Although Wodehouse's novels often follow a similar formula, they always seem fresh. It’s easy to be swept away by the plot and the laughs and miss Wodehouse’s gift for language. There are apparent jokes—zany schemes and slapstick—but the more subtle humor is found in his clever wordplay. A prominent brain doctor being chased by a goose on a small island is a funny premise, but Wodehouse’s language has a charming wittiness that is unique. He’s a master of similes, for example: “He uttered a sound much like a bull dog swallowing a pork chop whose dimensions it has underestimated.” and “He looked haggard and careworn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to shove cyanide in the consumme, and the dinner-gong due any moment.”
Ickie and I were discussing what makes Wodehouse’s stories so enjoyable the other night. He said “he never lets you take anything seriously.” I said they have an “ordinariness” about them, but they never seem ordinary. It’s hard to explain, so you’ll just have to read them for yourself.
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote an excellent short essay on Wodehouse’s masterful humor, which you'll find in this book. Hugh Laurie also wrote a funny article titled “Wodehouse Saved my Life.”
While intentionally light-hearted, Wodehouse’s depictions of humanity are true and relatable, and that’s part of what makes them not only humorous but also winsome. There is a particular scene in Piccadilly Jim that Ickie and I think echoes our own attraction to each other.
[Jim says to the hot-tempered Ann:] "To a girl with your ardent nature some one with whom you can quarrel is an absolute necessity of life. You and I are affinities. Ours will be an ideally happy marriage. You would be miserable if you had to go through life with a human doormat with 'Welcome' written on him. You want some one made of sterner stuff. You want, as it were, a sparring-partner, some one with whom you can quarrel happily with the certain knowledge that he will not curl up in a ball for you to kick, but will be there with the return wallop. I may have my faults…" He paused expectantly. Ann remained silent. "No, no!" he went on. "But I am such a man. Brisk give-and-take is the foundation of the happy marriage. Do you remember that beautiful line of Tennyson's—'We fell out, my wife and I'? It always conjures up for me a vision of wonderful domestic happiness. I seem to see us in our old age, you on one side of the radiator, I on the other, warming our old limbs and thinking up snappy stuff to hand to each other—sweethearts still! If I were to go out of your life now, you would be miserable. You would have nobody to quarrel with. You would be in the position of the female jaguar of the Indian jungle, who, as you doubtless know, expresses her affection for her mate by biting him shrewdly in the fleshy part of the leg, if she should snap sideways one day and find nothing there."
A few of my favorite Wodehouse titles: Piccadilly Jim, Hot Water, A Damsel in Distress, Something Fresh, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Cocktail Time, Uncle Dynamite, The Inimitable Jeeves, The Mating Season, The Cat-Nappers