One might expect the author of nearly one hundred books over a seventy-five year career to produce checkout-line boilerplate. But despite his own self-description as “a writing machine,” P.G. Wodehouse earned the name “The Master” from none other than Evelyn Waugh. Decades later Douglas Adams said, “I aspire to write like P.G. Wodehouse,” a wish one can easily detect in Adams’s work.
Wodehouse began his writing career at the dawn of the 20th Century, and soon introduced one of his most enduring characters, Psmith (the P is silent, of course), the first of Wodehouse’s classic dandies. Through Psmith we are also introduced to Blandings Castle, a fictional setting Wodehouse returned to time and again, and currently the subject of the BBC television series Blandings.
For many, though, the gateway drug to Wodehouse was the brilliant BBC series Jeeves & Wooster, starring the young comedy duo Fry & Laurie.
Hugh Laurie played the dandyish gadabout Bertie Wooster, who is served, and habitually rescued, by his omnipotent valet Jeeves, played by Stephen Fry.
Among the many joys of the series is the stunning costuming. Wooster’s wardrobe often serves as a battleground of passive-aggressive struggle between Wooster’s sartorial flights of fancy and the (always ultimately victorious) traditionalism of Jeeves. A classic example is the war over a white mess jacket with brass buttons that Wooster picked up while vacationing in Cannes. In “Right Ho, Jeeves,” Wooster, anticipating Jeeves’ impending disapproval, girded his loins:
“This mess-jacket was very near to my heart, and I jolly well intended to fight for it with all the vim of grand old Sieur deWooster at the Battle of Agincourt.”
Wodehouse himself bumbled into a real war. He was taken captive in World War II, dawdling too long at his French coastal home in the face of an approaching Nazi army. During his imprisonment, Wodehouse delivered a series of radio addresses on German radio that are generally characterized as harmless, but clearly naive. It was enough to make Wodehouse persona non grata in his homeland. Unwelcome in the nation he so iconically (if irreverently) portrayed in his writings, he came to America, and lived the remainder of his days there.
If you are new to Wodehouse, or perhaps only know him through Jeeves & Wooster or Blandings, you can get to know him better through attractive editions of the Master’s work published in the US by Overlook Press, with lovely—and funny—illustrated dust jackets. Smaller than typical books, they travel well and look smashing on the shelf - just the sort of thing you might see collecting dust at Bertie’s Drones Club. But an even better use of the books is to read them.