Wednesday, December 07, 2016

P.G. Wodehouse: The Mating Season (1949)

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves (a still from the Eastman/Granada TV series Jeeves and Wooster, screened between 1990 and 1993). 



For around five years in my teens, my reading consisted solely of P.G. Wodehouse, along with a few westerns, half-despised war books (Sven Hassel), and pony books borrowed from girlfriends. Wodehouse’s writing career (of around 75 years) produced 90 books, and I think I owned about sixty of them in the end.

The influence marks me; when I’m being amusing I still appropriate his expressions. Something that I wish to praise stands out “like a jewel in a pile of coke”. Perhaps the influence was baneful; I found a humorous way to justify idleness to myself. Why did I need this?


It's difficult, as pop fans well know, to have any objectivity about the things we adored in our teens.
But I'm certain that of Wodehouse’s "permanent claims to distinction" - to use the language of his own time -  the first five Jeeves novels are pre-eminent: Thank You, Jeeves (1934), Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), The Code of the Woosters (1938), Joy in the Morning (1946) and The Mating Season (1949). Later Jeeves novels are slimmer and repetitious (*SEE NOTE BELOW). His other supreme writings are the earlier Jeeves short stories, maybe the two volumes of golfing stories, and The Luck of the Bodkins, perhaps too the war-time broadcasts: I think that’s all, but it’s more than enough. (On this side of the Atlantic at least, Wodehouse’s distinguished career in musical comedy is unknown.)

In his proper world the Wars do not exist (perhaps, you might add, not in the broadcasts either). But this has given the books longevity: what we do find in them continues to have, at least by analogy, a vigorous existence in daily life; we (at least, we boys) socialise, drink, get into scrapes, bet on horses, make clubman jokes and pretend that cancer or despair don’t exist... we pretend that our chief care is to grab food, or we come over all mock-epic and pretend that to have to spend time with someone socially inept, to attend a boring meeting perhaps, would be an appalling disaster to be avoided at all costs.  

Which is not to deny that the image in Wodehouse has no allure whatsoever for most people.

I thought I would quote from the book, and make the usual sort of comment about how reluctantly one attempts to explicate the humour.


For no dog, white or not white, woolly or not woolly, accepts with a mere raised eyebrow the presence of strangers in bushes.


Or


’Did you hear Master George Kegley-Bassington on the subject of “Ben Battle”?’

‘Yes, sir. A barely adequate performance, I thought.’


As this is Wodehouse’s last truly great book, written in his late sixties, one naturally looks for signs of autumnal decline or “serenity”. There aren't many. The page that is spent recapitulating the story of Bingo Little’s baby is an early example of how Wodehouse will subsequently eke out his last quarter-century of production. The ending (and indeed a page or two of the village concert) have an undramatic sweetness about them, perhaps what might be imagined from an author now banished from England. But the plotting was never more perfect (consider how effortlessly he produces the complex situation of Bertie and Gussie impersonating each other, and how much of the subsequent action derives from this apparently frivolous complication). 

From a biographical point of view there is more about the War than appears openly. The poems of Christopher Robin are pilloried, and surely it’s no accident that A.A. Milne was prominent in the torrent of condemnation that Wodehouse earned for his collaborative acts. The very language of high moral reproof, endlessly voiced during the war, is here used repeatedly for comic effect, for example by Esmond Haddock:


’The fish-faced trailing arbutus!’

’He’s not a bad chap.’  [He, being “Wooster”, i.e. Gussie Fink-Nottle. Bertie’s mild demur reflects a confused desire to speak up for both of them at the same time.]

’That may be your opinion. It is not mine, nor, I should imagine, that of most decent-minded people. Hell is full of men like Wooster...’


or Gussie:

’Well, let me put you quite straight, Wooster, as to what my stand is in this matter. I shall not say “Begorrah”. I shall not say “Faith and begob”. I shall not assault policemen with an umbrella. In short, I absolutely and positively refuse to have the slightest association with this degraded buffoonery...’


Gussie’s Malvolian objections are of course soon deliciously undermined by Corky’s Treatment A, though he remains characteristically brusque. Bertie says:


’You’ll knock ‘em cold. I’m sorry I can’t play Pat myself --‘

‘A good thing, probably. I doubt if you are the type.’

‘Of course I’m the type,’ I retorted hotly. ‘I should have given a sensational performance.’

‘Corky thinks not. She was telling me how thankful she was that you had stepped out and I had taken over. She said the part wants broad, robust treatment and you would have played it too far down. It’s a part that calls for personality and the most precise timing...’


Bertie comments:


I gave it up. You can’t reason with hams, and twenty minutes of Corky’s society seemed to have turned Augustus Fink-Nottle from a blameless newt-fancier into as pronounced a ham as ever drank small ports in Bodegas and called people ‘laddie’.


Corky is a film star. Hollywood and the stage are the author’s cakes and ale. They stand for humanity, tolerance and love, and he must have turned to them with relief as a support against the tirade of righteous condemnation he faced in England.  The values of stage and screen are pervasive in The Mating Season (think of the terms in which Catsmeat and Bertie set about ghosting a Fink-Nottle love-letter: “’A golden-haired child, if you will allow yourself to be guided by me, with blue eyes, pink cheeks and a lisp. I think a lisp is good box-office?’”)

Perhaps, in his incarceration, weakness, age and sense of having done wrong, he also turned to Marcus Aurelius. "

Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.

In The Mating Season a running joke is made out this.

I doubt, as a matter of fact, if Marcus Aurelius’s material is ever the stuff to give the troops when they have just stubbed their toe on the brick of Fate. 

But that's in the world of his fiction, where all troubles are trifling. I think he had really been consoled by Marcus Aurelius, as by Shakespeare. At any rate Bertie’s respect for the classics is a notable complement to his Hollywood values.

Wodehouse’s comedy incorporates tolerance because tolerance is also a way of letting yourself off: as Bertie does about opening telegrams that are not addressed to him. “You know how it is,” he remarks. This argument persuades us completely. 

Bertie’s profound wisdom is after all self-serving.


My mental attitude, in short, was about that of an African explorer who by prompt shinning up a tree has just contrived to elude a quick-tempered crocodile and gathers from a series of shrieks below that his faithful native bearer had not been so fortunate. I mean to say he mourns, no doubt, as he listens to the doings, but though his heart may bleed, he cannot help his primary emotion being one of sober relief that, however sticky life may have become for native bearers, he, personally, is sitting on top of the world.


Bertie’s comic despairs reflect the author’s real ones. There is a double perspective in a sentence such as:

When Esmond Haddock in our exchanges over the port had spoken of the times that try men’s souls, he hadn’t had a notion of what the times that try men’s souls can really be, if they spit on their hands and get right down to it.

To all which it may be objected that Wodehouse’s values were exactly the same before those notorious war broadcasts and all the talk about treachery. Of course; what he did so publically then was just an instance of the same tactic that he had resorted to throughout his life. He knew himself to be a gentle, flexible, timid kind of loser, and his books were written for losers. 

*

Epigaea repens, the "Trailing Arbutus"


The Trailing Arbutus is a well-known wildflower of the NE USA and Canada, but is little-known in the UK. It must have struck Wodehouse that the name would make a splendid insult.


*

NOTE  


The Mating Season was written in France in 1946. Wodehouse delayed his pending emigration to the USA in order to complete it. According to Wikipedia, referencing Robert McCrum, the next few years were unsettled and Wodehouse didn't write another novel until 1951.


One of the later, slimmer and repetitious books is Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, published in 1963 when Wodehouse was in his eighties. Stuck on a desert island with only this, you would still benefit from that curiously powerful shot of joy and optimism that no-one else has found the formula to.

Here we are back in Totleigh Towers, scene of Code of the Woosters (one of the great novels). Motifs from the past abound, e.g. a midnight trip to the kitchen to tuck into steak-and-kidney pie after enforced abstinence; being treed on furniture by Stiffy Byng's fierce Scottie dog Bartholomew; Spode chasing after another character to break his neck; a school treat (reminiscent of that prizegiving and also the village entertainment in The Mating Season, but here presented only from a distance, not as a "big scene"). A good deal of the book is taken up with summarizing material from earlier books; a good deal more with Bertie's intertextual ruminations on the English language, literature and the Bible:  a joyous habit that now threatens to become a tic.  

The conversation that followed was what you might call - I've forgotten the word, but it begins with a d.

But still, I admire that sentence (it's Bertie and Madeline Bassett) even as I write it out, meaning to criticize it. And there is much - just not quite as much - hidden away in this text. e.g. Stiffy Byng: 

"I don't believe Uncle Watkyn likes you, Bertie. I noticed the way he kept staring at you at dinner, as if appalled. Well, I don't wonder your arrival hit him hard. It did me. I've never been so surprised in my life as when you suddenly bobbed up like a corpse rising to the surface of a sheet of water. Harold told me he had pleaded with you to come here, but nothing would induce you. What made you change your mind?" 

Of course I'm quoting this just for the corpse, but a reader needs all of the context in order to fully appreciate the fineness of Stiffy's expression; it only makes its perfect strike when you understand the complete social set-up.









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