Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jeeves in the Offing by P. G. Wodehouse

Jeeves in the Offing, from 1960, is one of the later Bertie Wooster books, and one I have never read before.  I read it in the fourth volume of the 2000 printing of the 1992 collection The Jeeves Omnibus, published by Hutchinson.  I bought all five of the volumes of The Jeeves Omnibus in London like 13 or 14 years ago, and I like them, but don't understand how they are organized; Volume 1 doesn't include the earliest stories.  Maybe they put the best sellers or most famous ones in Volume 1 and the least popular in Volume 5?

Jeeves in the Offing is a solid entry in the chronicles of of the life of Bertram Wooster.  Bertie is an idle gentleman of means who lives in London, a clumsy, silly, selfi-absorbed and ignorant man, but essentially decent.  He finds himself suffering lots of stupid problems, due to his own ineptitude and the ineptitude and meddling of his relatives and friends, but luckily he has a valet, Jeeves, who is some kind of genius and always figures out some way to save the day.  These books are light entertainment, with a veneer of sophistication due to the fact that Bertie and his buddies received classical educations, and Jeeves has encyclopedic knowledge, so Wodehouse has the characters make all kinds of Biblical, classical and Shakespearean references (Bertie's usually garbled to comic effect).  The books provide some insight into the milieu in which Wodehouse lived and worked, that of early 20th century writers and performers in New York and London, and there is also some light satire of communists, fascists, and, during a period when Wodehouse was in a feud with him, A. A. Milne.  The Wooster books are a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy for young men who are lazy and would like to do no work and have someone guide them through all the troubles of private life that are caused by bossy women and impertinent relatives.  Some have suggested that the entire Jeeves canon is a subtle attack on the middle and upper classes, as Bertie and his peers almost all act irresponsibly and have to be rescued again and again by a servant who is undoubtedly more intelligent and responsible than his social superiors.

There is some controversy over how much the appeal of Wodehouse lies in his style, and how much in his plot.  I think all Wodehouse fans love his style and humor, but some of us find the plots of his books, though they help set the tone, to be needlessly complex, somewhat repetitive and ultimately forgettable.  For this reason I think I may prefer Wodehouse's short stories to his novels; there are fewer characters and the plots are easier to follow.  Others, including science fiction writer Jack Vance, admire Wodehouse's plots for their intricacy and the evident care Wodehouse took in getting them to operate like clockwork.              

Jeeves in the Offing, perhaps, provides a good example of a convoluted Wodehouse plot.  In this episode in the life of first person narrator Bertie Wooster, numerous characters descend on the country estate of Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia Travers. Aunt Dahlia’s husband, Tom Travers, is trying to close a business deal with American businessman Homer Cream. Cream’s wife, a writer of murder mysteries, and their son Wilbert ("Willie”), reputedly a New York playboy, have come along. Dahlia invites Bertie down from London to help her butter up Mrs. Cream by pretending to be an ardent fan of her “novels of suspense.”

Also at the estate is Aubrey Upjohn, retired master of Bertie’s old preparatory school and widower of Jane Mills, a friend of Aunt Dahlia’s; Dahlia has the idea that Upjohn should give a speech at a local grammar school event. Upjohn doesn’t like Bertie, who was not only a poor student, but whose clumsiness and carelessness (he was known as "Bungling Wooster" in those days) caused Upjohn no end of difficulty. Upjohn is accompanied by his stepdaughter Phyllis Mills. Willie has begun courting Phyllis, and Aunt Dahlia wants Bertie to help in preventing this relationship from coming to fruition (Dahlia takes a motherly interest in Phyllis, and considers Willie “a screwball.”) Upjohn is urging Phyllis to marry into the wealthy Cream family, so Dahlia has also enlisted the aid of Sir Roderick Glossop. (Glossop is not to be confused with Roderick Spode, one-time fascist and designer of women’s undergarments.) Glossop, variously known as “a brain specialist,” a “nerve specialist,” “the greatest alienist in England,” and (by Bertie) “a loony-doctor,” is disguised as a butler (named Swordfish) so he can observe Willie Cream surreptitiously; Dahlia hopes Glossop will diagnose Willie as insane and thus unsuitable for marriage and convince Upjohn to cease pressing for a Willie-Phyllis engagement. Of course, Dahlia's efforts to prevent the Willie-Phyllis marriage cannot be allowed to damage the prospects of the lucrative Travers-Cream business deal.

Also at the estate is Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham, a pretty, spirited girl dedicated to practical jokes and always eager to take the initiative; Bertie has been the victim of her jokes and misguided leadership in the past and is wary of her. Bobbie is in love with one of Bertie’s friends, Reggie “Kipper” Herring. Reggie returns Bobbie’s feelings, but Bobbie’s mother does not approve of Reggie, so Bobbie announces in The Times of London that she is engaged to Bertie (without telling either Reggie or Bertie beforehand.) Bertie is so famously idle and ignorant that Bobbie figures he will make Reggie, a writer at a London periodical, look like a great catch in comparison. Bobbie and Bertie will break up and Bobbie will spring her engagement to Reggie on her mother while she is filled with relief at escaping an alliance with the useless Bertie.

Reggie attended Upjohn’s prep school at the same time Bertie did, and found the experience as unpleasant as did Bertie. As fate would have it, this very week that Bertie will be spending in the same house with Upjohn is when Reggie will achieve his revenge on Upjohn. Upjohn has published a book full of advice on how to run a school, and Reggie has written a scathing review of it. Upjohn is a subscriber to the journal Reggie writes for, and will no doubt read the review, which is included (under an anonymous byline) in this week’s issue; Reggie hopes Bertie will be present when Upjohn reads the review so he can experience first hand Reggie Upjohn’s expected discomfiture.

I'm not sure if typing all that out makes the plot seem more or less complicated than I thought it was.

Everyone's plans quickly go awry, and new schemes hatched by Aunt Dahlia and Sir Roderick to resolve complications only humiliate poor Bertie.  Finally, Jeeves, his vacation interrupted, is brought to the scene and he rapidly produces solutions to everyone's problems.  These solutions also humiliate poor Bertie, but at least he has sacrificed his pride and reputation for a good cause.

I thought Jeeves in the Offing was approximately as good as most of the other Wooster stories, and I look forward to the next Jeeves adventure, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.    

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