22 February 2010

Review: Right Ho, Jeeves

I had read somewhere about the P.G. Wodehouse "Jeeves & Wooster" stories. I'm not sure where, and I don't quite remember when, but for some reason it piqued my interest. They were described as riotously funny British humor, and that tends to be something up my alley. After some searching, I found out it didn't matter what order one read the stories in, as none of the plots relied on one another. So I dove into one I found for free on Project Gutenberg: Right Ho, Jeeves. Let me go ahead and ruin any anticipation by saying: go buy this now.

That's Stephen Fry as the butler (actually, valet, but we'll go with butler) Jeeves, and Hugh Laurie as Bertram Wooster. Jeeves is your (stereo)typical tight-lipped butler, always willing to do what is asked of him despite what may be obvious defects in a plan. Bertram Wooster is a well-meaning dunderhead, as well as our narrator. Everything he touches gets all mussed up, and it falls to Jeeves to fix it. In Right Ho, Jeeves alone Wooster messes up (and Jeeves fixes)

  • The engagement of his cousin
  • The love affairs of a school-friend
  • The state of employ of the French chef Anatole at his aunt's estate
  • The viability of his Aunt's newspaper
  • A speech giving awards at a local grammar school
The typical formula is as follows: Jeeves wants to fix something, Wooster thinks he can do better, Wooster fails, Wooster fails some more, Wooster proves that there is no floor to failure, Jeeves fixes it all somehow. This seems like it could get tedious, but Wodehouse writes with such concise wit that it never does. 

Another part of why this book was so delightful is that it's an early-30s period piece. What a fantastic time to set a story in. Neat cars, lots of fine drinks, trains to Cannes for the summer, and the leftover sexual inhibitions of the Victorian era coexisting with a more liberal ideology.

I think it's best just to have a few quotes here. They're taken entirely out of context, but you don't really need the context to get the wit (though it does make it even better).

And yet, if he wants this female to be his wife, he's got to say so, what? I mean, only civil to mention it.

I studied it in a profound reverie for the best part of two dry Martinis and a dividend.

I could not but remember how often, when in her company at Cannes, I had gazed dumbly at her, wishing that some kindly motorist in a racing car would ease the situation by coming along and ramming her amidships. As I have already made abundantly clear, this girl was not one of my most congenial buddies

Uncle Tom, in addition to not liking burglars, is a bloke who has always objected to the idea of being cooked in his sleep, so when he bought the place he saw to it that the fire bell should be something that might give you heart failure.

And finally, on Jeeves:

To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.

The whole thing is delightful, like reading a period version of The Hitchhiker's Guide or the novel on which half of Monty Python was based. If you've got any taste for British humor, it's an absolute must-read.

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