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18th December
2009
written by Steph
Thanks, but no thanks...

Thanks, but no thanks...

For well over month now, I’ve been struggling to reclaim my reading groove.  I’ve just felt completely listless when it comes to picking my next read, and then worse yet, sticking with it.  With the weather getting increasingly cold and grisly outside, now is the perfect time of year to curl up with a good read.  Just my luck that good reads seem impossible to find right now.  My last few books have been too grim for my tastes, and seem only to increase my winter blahs.  I decided I needed something light and whimsical, so I turned to one of the Jeeves & Wooster novels that I picked up on our trip to New York.  You’ll all recall that I adored my first dalliance with Wodehouse a few months back, so I was certain this would be just the ticket to cure me of my reading malaise.  So, you can imagine my extreme disappointment in discovering that whatever kind of magician Wodehouse might normally be, I did not love Thank You, Jeeves and it was not the panacea to my biblio blues. Now, in saying that I did not love Thank You, Jeeves, I do not want you to think that this means I did not like the book.  Far from it.  It was very funny, very Wodehouse, very English… but it failed to charm me the way that Jeeves in the Morning did.  I have several guesses for why this is, but before I get into it, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the basic premise of the novel:  After being evicted from his London apartment due to his incessant strumming of the banjo, Bertie decides to embark for the country where he can play his instrument in peace.  Alas, Jeeves cannot abide the instrument and the two decide to part company.  A chance encounter with an old friend Chuffy has Bertie heading to an old cottage in the township of Chuffnell Regis where his banjo will bother no one.  But as is the way with Bertie and his rotten bad luck, his visit happens to coincide with that of an old flame, Pauline Stoker, not to mention her overbearing father, and one of Bertie’s old nemeses, Sir Roderick Glossop.  Hijinks ensue as Bertie tries to help Pauline & Chuffy find true love with one another, but as Jeeves would helpfully remind him (were he still in his employ), the course of true love never did run smooth, least of all for Bertie… I’m sure many of you are scratching your heads wondering what my problem is.  After all, that little précis sounds exactly like what one would expect from a Jeeves & Wooster novel, is it not?  And yet, that was a large part of my problem.  This being just my second J&W novel, I found that far too much of the plot overlapped with the novel I read a few months ago.  Sure there were a few new twists thrown in, but largely it felt like we were treading the same ground: the bucolic setting, the meddlesome nephews, the resurfacing of an old fiancée resulting in a short-lived but resumed alliance between she and Bertie, a jealous friend, an overly keen and rather troublesome cop, a cottage fire… all of these things happen in this novel, and yet they all also occur in Jeeves in the Morning.  So, rather than me finding this novel the palate cleanser needed to breathe new life into my reading repertoire, it felt staid and like well-trod ground.  While I wouldn’t argue that many of the twists that take place in Jeeves in the Morning were especially surprising or unexpected (once you get into the Wodehouse groove, certain impending events become fairly obvious), there was even less narrative tension here, simply because I had read something so similar to these exact shenanigans not so long ago. Moreover, it is worth noting that this was the first J&W novel that Wodehouse had ever written (though he did pen several short stories before this), and I personally felt that this showed in the writing.  It wasn’t clunky or poor, there was just something about it that felt slightly less skilled as compared to Jeeves in the Morning, as though Wodehouse were not yet at his full powers when he wrote this.  While there were still the lovely and extremely English turns of phrase throughout, I largely found this novel less laugh-out-loud funny, which was a real shame.  Not once did I break down with the giggles, nor did I guffaw or chortle, and why else does one read a Wodehouse novel if not to be overcome by mirth?  Again, I’m not saying the book isn’t funny – it is – it just was less funny than I have, after just one book, come to expect from Wodehouse.  Such is the risk we take with authors who write so prolifically – in a bid to read their back catalog, we inevitably will come across some clunkers where it’s evident they have yet to fully mature and grow into themselves as writers.  I feel that’s the case here, and were this not the first J&W novel, I don’t doubt this would be one of the novels that is likely to be overlooked by most fans of the books. I must also say that there was one other element about this book that I found difficult to deal with and that I think greatly mitigated my enjoyment of it as a whole.  I realize that this book was written in 1934 and it is very much a product of its time (it focuses on the relationship between a man and his servant, after all!), but this book frequently uses an unfortunate racial slur (the “N word”), which was extremely jarring to me as a modern reader.  Additionally, a large portion of the plot (and the humor) revolves around Bertie and another character being in blackface – something that may have been funny at the time, but is unlikely to draw a chuckle from a 21st century reader.  While I wasn’t exactly offended by the verbiage or the black face (again, it was written in the 1930s, no one would have batted an eye at this stuff then), I just couldn’t find those parts of the book funny.  I’ve read other books that use the N word, namely Huck Finn, and I think the main difference between this and that, is that here it’s said so cavalierly and in the context of humor… whereas although Huck Finn has its funny moments, that book sheds light on slavery and the glib use of the term feels as though it is highlighting the injustice of it all; it’s not used as a punchline, and I think that’s the difference. I admit, I was annoyed when in one scene Bertie startles an unsuspecting maid while in blackface and she winds up in hysterics – not because a man with his face covered in boot polish has appeared at the door, but because she legitimately thinks he’s a black man, and this is terrifying.  I realize these books are silly and not meant to be taken seriously at all, but it just really bothered me that we are meant to honestly believe that covering one’s face in polish or ashes actually allows one to pass credibly as a black person.  I’m not all up in arms about Wodehouse being a raging racist or anything like that, but I just felt this was a huge obstacle to my enjoyment as a reader, and I dearly hope that even if Wodehouse is a fan of recycling certain plot points, that this one was just a one-shot deal. All in all, I felt this was a relatively weak outing for Jeeves and Bertie, and I feel rather torn about how others should approach it.  On the one hand, chronologically it is the natural starting place for someone to approach the novels, and yet I just felt it was a relatively poor showing.  I’m not sure that I would have tumbled so madly in love with Wodehouse had this been the first book of his that I read.  That said, clearly reading it after having read some of his later stuff also puts the reader at a disadvantage since it is probably enjoyed even less when one has better works to compare it against.  I suppose I ultimately counsel against newbies starting here, even if it seems the right place to take up with these fine fellows.  I feel this is one of those books that should perhaps only be read by J&W completists, and perhaps only after a large window of time has passed between reading Jeeves in the Morning! So, not the cureall I was hoping it would be, but not a complete wash either (I've perhaps fixated on the negatives, because much of the positive stuff I already said in my review of Jeeves in the Morning).  Although there is much to criticize here, there was also a lot to appreciate, and I still wish to read much more Wodehouse in the future.  I just hope my next romp is a little less objectionable and a little more innovative. Rating: 3 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. I haven’t read any Wodehouse, but I’ll remember not to pick up this one first!

  2. 12/18/2009

    Sorry to hear that this wasn’t the reading cure you’ve been looking for. I have read a few of the Jeeves books, but I really think that a lot of them tend to recycle a lot of the same plot elements, which can be frustrating when you are on a steady diet of the books. I also don’t think I would find the black face funny either, and I’m really glad that you wrote about your frustration with this, because now I can be aware of it when I read the book. I am really hoping you can get your reading groove back soon! It sucks to be so continually ho-hum about your reads, which is something that is plaguing me at the moment as well. I think it might be time for me to break open Jane Eyre!

  3. 12/18/2009

    I have not read him but also suppose he probably recycles a lot (think Archie, lol). But am really excited to read the one I won from Frances. Also, I’ve added Jeeves in the Morning to the wish list and will remember to stay away from this until I’ve read not a few Wodehouse. I totally get your issues and I probably would’ve felt the same.

  4. 12/18/2009

    Oh! Oh! I totally couldn’t read that with the N word thing going on!

  5. 12/19/2009

    I’ve never read anything by Wodehouse, although I believe I have a couple of his books, but this does not sound like one I’ll be reading.

    Hmmm, I wonder what would be the best Jeeves book to introduce myself to him?

  6. 12/19/2009

    @ Jackie: Agreed. While I’m by no means an expert, and while chronology might inspire you to start here, I’d really say you ought to try something else!
     
    @ zibilee: After this one, I’m not surprised to hear that Wodehouse had a knack for revisiting certain plots points across novels. I think I’ll have to either screen my next read a bit more thoroughly to ensure a more unique read and/or make sure I wait a lengthier period of time between it and this one!
    Mostly I am disappointed that this didn’t snap me out of my funk… but I’m reading Northanger Abbey right now, and while I don’t want to jinx anything, that seems to be doing the trick!
     
    @ claire: Since you haven’t read any Wodehouse, you should be excited to read the one you got from Frances! I was lucky enough to also win one of the books from her giveaways and they’re really very lovely editions! Actually, the one that I won is not a J&W story, so perhaps the next time I’m in the mood for something Wodehousian I should read that!
     
    @ rhapsody: Seriously. I was quite disturbed… casual racism is really not why I read Wodehouse!
     
    @ Sarah: I’ve only read one other Wodehouse myself, but I really enjoyed Jeeves in the Morning, so you might consider giving that a try!

  7. 12/20/2009

    I finished My Man Jeeves a few days ago and that’s more or less how I felt too. I did love the language just like you told me I would, and I was amused, but I wasn’t charmed. But My Man Jeeves was the first of the short story collection, and only half the stories are even Jeeves-centred, so I haven’t lost hope. I’ll try the novels at some point, and hopefully join the Wodehouse fanclub.

  8. 12/21/2009

    @ Lesley: I read Jeeves in the Morning earlier this year – it was my first Wodehouse and I really enjoyed it! You might consider starting there if you have it!
     
    @ Nymeth: I think that perhaps when an author has had as lengthy a writing career as Wodehouse did, it is highly probable that their earlier work just simply isn’t as good as some of their later stuff. I think that the later novel I read was a great example of Wodehouse in his prime, so perhaps the next book you read will be one penned a bit later in his career.

  9. 12/22/2009

    I read one Jeeves book and it might have been this one. I remember not much about it except a black face scene and an annoying instrument sounds familiar too. Was not impressed with Wodehouse. But maybe I need to just try a different one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope you can get into a reading groove again!

  10. 12/30/2009

    instead of Wooster and Jeeves, you could try a Blandings Castle book. They are also pretty funny. I personally categorize Wodehouse as one of a certain brand of british writers such as Christie, Doyle, and even Enid Blyton who all wrote a number of books and did recycle their plots quite a bit.

    I enjoy their books nevertheless.

    I am pretty sure I have read this book, as I have read most Wodehouse, but for the life of me, I cannot remember any N references. I did read them quite a long while ago…

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