If you’re not familiar with the works of P.G. Wodehouse, you are missing out. Now, granted, I have a particular affection for British comedy, but based solely on shelf space in Borders, I have to believe that not only is Wodehouse popular here, but is becoming more so over the years. I saw about fifteen of his books in our local Borders today, when a couple years ago there were usually the standard four or five.
Wodehouse writes most often about class comedy, his most famous works being the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves stories. Wooster, who might be ensconced in Webster’s next to the definition of “idle rich,” is the smartest of his group of young British noble friends, which is not saying very much. Jeeves, his manservant, is much more competent, rescuing him from situations without ever stepping above his station. The interaction between Bertie and Jeeves would be entertaining enough on its own, but Wodehouse also manages to create the most delightfully convoluted and outrageous plots. There was a moment in reading one of his stories where I laughed out loud, but upon being asked what was so funny, I realized that I would have to recite most of the preceding book in order for the person to get the joke. The plot built perfectly to that point, and the payoff was expertly done.
My first exposure to Wodehouse, however, was in the lesser-known “Tales of St. Austin’s,” a collection of short stories about boys at British boarding schools. They are somewhat less accessible, being filled with cultural references and jargon like “fags” and “have an ice” and “Thucydides,” but you can still get a great deal out of them. They also have the distinctive and wonderful Wodehouse voice.
Thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can read many of Wodehouse’s works for free online. “Tales of St. Austin’s” is included in this crowd, as are a couple of the Jeeves stories. If you have an idle moment, instead of checking out CNN or YouTube, take half an hour and read a Wodehouse story. Whether or not you learn anything about writing humor, you’ll at least be vastly entertained.
Bertie Wooster even has some advice for aspiring writers (from “Right Ho, Jeeves“). Look how clearly his voice comes across just in two paragraphs:
I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.
Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.
Words to live by, and laugh by.