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'The Code of the Woosters' was first published in 1938. Of all Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels, which have generally been his most popular thanks to several TV and radio adaptations, this has always been one of the best loved. He wrote about ninety books in his long career, I've read about 75% of them, and I'd certainly place this one in the top five of those I have.
The code of the Wooster family is never to let an old pal down. But it's dashed difficult when your pals, as well as your own flesh and blood, find themselves in trouble and take it into their fat heads that the only solution for them is for you to come to their rescue, even if it gets you in deeper trouble still - as it surely will.
Let's start at the beginning. Bertie Wooster is in bed, nursing another hangover after another bachelor party the night before, while Jeeves is standing by with a bracer in the ice box. There is a slight chillness between master and servant, as the latter thinks it is time the former broadened his outlook a little by coming on a world cruise in the near future. Bertie is not at all enthusiastic about the idea, and makes his feelings clear.
But within a few minutes, the action begins. He is summoned to meet one of his aunts - not the fearsome Agatha, but instead the jolly if sometimes exasperating Dahlia. This time she is jolly and exasperating - both at once. She wants a small favour from her beloved nephew, which involves going to a very upmarket antique shop and belittling an ugly but extremely valuable cow creamer which her husband Tom, a passionate collector, is desperate to buy. If the proprietor can be persuaded by Bertie, posing as an expert on these things, that it is modern, a fake, or poor quality, maybe he will reduce the price just in time for Uncle Tom to march forth and get his hands on a bargain.
It all sounds quite straightforward, but nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. Bertie goes to the shop and gets involved in a major misunderstanding with the proprietor and two other visitors, one of whom has also set his heart on procuring the cow creamer. He is no ordinary customer, but turns out to be Sir Watkyn Bassett, a retired magistrate who once fined Bertie for pinching a policeman's helmet on Boat Race Night - and has not forgotten. The other visitor is Bassett's minder, the obnoxious Roderick Spode.
Here we should note, unusually for Wodehouse, a spot of merciless political satire. Spode, it transpires, is the leader of a mob called the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization whose members wear black shorts, and has ambitions to set himself up as a Dictator. Naturally the thought of Spode marching around the East End at the head of a gang of men all wearing footer bags is, as one of the other characters says, 'perfectly foul'. The inspiration for this frightful blot on the escutcheon of the human race was none other than Sir Oswald Mosley, who was the British equivalent and devoted disciple of Hitler at the time the book was published. [This makes Wodehouse's naïve broadcasts from Berlin while a captive of the regime during the 1939-45 war rather ironic, I grant you].
And thanks to a little skullduggery, Jeeves manages to stumble across Spode's guilty secret. One mention of a certain name in his ear is guaranteed to reduce the would-be Dictator, determined to beat Mr Wooster to a pulp, from a terrifying thug to a simpering, cringeing idiot in five seconds. All is revealed in the last chapter - but not in this review.
From that stage onwards, the plot gets ever more farcical. Bertie is sent to wangle an invitation to Totleigh Towers, Bassett's pile in the country. Other guests, and thus characters in the story, include Bertie's chum Gussie Fink-Nottle, whose hobby is keeping newts and who is forever getting engaged to Bassett's drippy niece Madeleine and then breaking it off (if she does give him the old heave-ho, she intends to marry Bertie on the rebound - he was once engaged to her by accident for about five minutes and is determined to avoid a replay), the scatterbrained Stephanie Byng and her fiancé, the charming but utterly accident-prone Reverend Harold Pinker, and Sergeant Oates, the local police officer whose job it is to mount a 24/7 watch on the cow creamer which it seems everybody wants to steal for various reasons. Oates has a helmet - when certain people are not falling over themselves trying to pinch it, of course. And Gussie has a little notebook in which he regularly writes down the most insulting observations about Bassett, Spode and others. It would be fine if only he hadn't managed to lose it, as someone is bound to find it and read a few home truths.
I won't say any more about the story. But it ends in typical Wodehouse style - very happily. Throughout it is garnished with some of his delightful turns of phrase, not to mention charmingly quotable insults. In the first chapter, a rather irritated Jeeves 'spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice...if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.' (You will find that one reproduced in 'The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations'). And according to Gussie's notebook, the way that Spode eats asparagus 'alters one's whole conception of Man as Nature's last word.' (Quite right too, says Bertie, who informs Spode to his face that when eating he must try to remember he is a human being and not a shark). As for Gussie, the no-nonsense Aunt Dahlia addresses him in a wonderfully alliterative moment of impatience as a 'ghastly goggle-eyed piece of gorgonzola.'
This is pure farce from start to finish, with a chuckle if not a mighty good laugh on nearly every page. In his early writing career, Wodehouse collaborated with others in music theatre, and in places the tale becomes rather like a stage comedy. One character leaves the scene of action and another arrives almost straight afterwards, at the centre of some uproarious incident as the chapter ends, or as the curtain would fall if it was indeed being performed as a play. In that sense it's all rather improbable, but that doesn't matter. Wodehouse's fiction is delightfully escapist. It may be dated, set as it is in the 1920s and 1930s, but to an extent the humour is timeless. I first read this in my teens, and again quite recently. For me it had lost nothing in the intervening years. Personally I think it is one of the funniest books ever written.
[Revised version of a review I originally wrote on ciao]