P. G. Wodehouse is considered to be the most successful comic writer of the twentieth century. Indeed, his body of works, ranging from novels to song lyrics, deserves immense respect. He was widely read during his lifetime and continues to be of interest to many. Naturally, the comedy genre has its peculiarities, as any other in fact, but the question here is have readers’ expectations of comedy deteriorated? If a comic writer has the example of Aristophanes and Moliére, and many others to follow, how easy it is to keep the standard high? Is Wodehouse really a great humorist or a mediocre buffoon whose jokes have become famous simply because nothing else is on the market?
With similar questions in mind, I set out to read a novel by Wodehouse, which is claimed to be one of his most glorious achievements, The Code of the Woosters, that is. To begin with, I will introduce the main characters – Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, who are frequent inhabitants of Wodehouse’s literary world. Bertie is a complete idiot who has an almost supernatural ability to get himself in trouble and Jeeves is his manservant, who has a couple of more brain cells compared to his master. So, in The Code of the Woosters, these two adorable fools are, yet again, ‘in the soup’, as Wodehouse would say.
The task they have to complete is of questionable morals and requires long planning and concentration. Bertie’s aunt Dahlia has to secure a fat check from her husband, who collects silver, and could only be made happy if he found himself in a possession of a certain silver cow-creamer, which unfortunately happens to be in Sir Watkyn Bassett’s country house. Dahlia threatens Bertie: if he does not find a way to steal the precious jug, she would ban him from dining at her table, which is nearly as bad as the end of the world for him, because he happens to be the biggest admirer of the cooking skills of her French cook, Anatole. So it happens that Bertie and Bassett’s daughter Madeline are old friends, having gone through a rather shameful marriage proposal in the past, and the opportunity presents itself when Madeline’s fiancée who is also a friend of Bertie’s sends him a number of telegrams, summoning him to the country house in order to prevent the wedding from falling apart. Matters get even more complicated after Bertie and Jeeves get to Bassett’s house, due to the presence of Stiffy Byng (yes, this is her name), Bassett’s niece, who has some leverage over Bertie and is ready to use if he does not help her convince her uncle to let her marry the local curate Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker (I did not make this up, either). This is how it all begins, but in order to not spoil the ending of what starts off as an anecdote but then somehow keeps growing until it reaches the capacity of 230-odd page novel, I will stop here.
The Code of the Woosters has a very specific taste to it. As most of Wodehouse’s works, it is set in pre-1914 England, painting a picture, or a caricature rather, of English upper-class society at the time. Naturally for the comedy genre, the characters are parodies of themselves, but far from being grotesque. Generally, this a very light and pleasant read, full of cultural references and interesting language, however reading it all the way through might prove exhausting, because the same silly situations keep coming up without any change in the outcome. Indeed, repetition is a very important comic device, but when one whole act is a repetition of itself is a bit difficult to appreciate it. The comedy genre has come a long way, but may be the wrong way. I did not really enjoy this book, but it was definitely worth ticking it off my endless books-to-read list.