The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse (1938) Everyman (2000) 286 pp
This is going to be a short review. If you’re familiar with Wodehouse, you won’t need my recommendation to read more — you’ve beat me to it. If you haven’t, the bottom line is that you should. My own first experience with Wodehouse was just last year, and Leave It to Psmith quickly became one of my favorite books. I bought copies for my dad and my nephew. They read and loved it. My brother and mom read and loved it — at least, my brother did. I’m not sure my mom cared much one way or the other. In the comments to my review I gleaned that Wodehouse is consistently great but that I might find that too much at one time would be a bit overwhelming — and I’m looking at staying properly whelmed. So almost a year has gone by, time enough to set myself up for The Code of the Woosters.
It brought a smile to my face to read the first lines — Wodehouse’s style, though imitated, is really in a league of its own:
I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.
‘Good evening, Jeeves.’
‘Good morning, sir.’
This surprised me.
The sudden, dry turn leading to the understatement. It might get old if you read it in one book after another (I assume it might), but Wodehouse can definitely sustain it throughout a book. These turns within a few sentences match the larger flow of the plot. We think we’re going one direction and are surprised when we end up somewhere else. Within the first few pages, Wodehouse, through his narrator Bertie Wooster, lays out the set pieces in this twisting plot:
Little knowing, as I crossed that threshold, that in about two shakes of a duck’s tail I was to become involved in an imbroglio that would test the Wooster soul as it had seldom been tested before. I allude to the sinister affair of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H.P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow-creamer and the small, brown, leather-covered notebook.
These characters and set pieces are related to each other in multiple ways. Gussie Fink-Nottle is engaged to Madeline Bassett. It was an unlikely relationship because Fink-Nottle himself used to be shy and stumbled over himself. No one, Wooster included, didn’t think Fink-Nottle would ever marry:
But Love will find a way. Meeting Madeline Bassett one day and falling for her like a ton of bricks, he had emerged from his retirement and started to woo, and after numerous vicissitudes had clicked and was slated at no distant date to don the sponge-bag trousers and gardenia for buttonhole and walk up the aisle with the ghastly girl.
I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl. The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their minds. A droopy, soupy sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and rabbits.
Sadly, the engagement hits a bit of a rough spot:
You know what engaged couples are like in mixed company, as a rule. They put their heads together and converse in whispers. They slap and giggle. They pat and prod. I have even known the female member of the duo to feed her companion with a fork. There was none of this sort of thing about Madeline Bassett and Gussie. He looked pale and corpse-like, she cold and proud and aloof. They put in the time for the most part making bread pills and, as far as I was able to ascertain, didn’t exchange a word from start to finish. Oh, yes, once — when he asked her to pass the salt, and she passed the pepper, and he said ‘I meant the salt,’ and she said, ‘Oh, really?’ and passed the mustard.
Wooster has many tasks, one of which is to help them get over their rough spot. Ah! But that leaves out his own troubles with Pop Bassett and Stiffy Byng. It leaves out the cow creamer that everyone seems to want. There’s a lot of blackmail, a lot of intimidation, and a lot of very dry humour.
I completely enjoyed this book. I completely (plus a bit) enjoyed Leave It to Psmith. I have a feeling I’ll keep enjoying Wodehouse for years and years to come.