After the excitement of Shrove Tuesday (and the successful flipping of many pancakes) Nico and I decided what to ‘give up’ for Lent. For the second year running, I choose to relinquish grumpiness whilst Nico, for the first time in her life, has given up listening to music. Looking for something to stave off the imminent onset of a bad mood last week, I turned to P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, first published in 1934.
Among the finest of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse’s humorous stories, this hilarious novel is full of nostalgia for a centuries-old, upper-class way of life which was coming to an end in England as a second world war loomed ever closer. However, Wodehouse’s fond nostalgia does not prevent him from mocking the inhabitants of the aptly named Brinkley Court, located near the country town of Market Snodsbury. (Wodehouse certainly inherits Dickens’s flair for names.) Travelling from London to this pastoral retreat, Wooster – the bumbling narrator and inveterate socialite – sets out on a quest to (re)kindle the love of three couples. Gussy (who has a precious collection of newts) cannot pluck up the courage to propose to his beloved; Tuppy has quarrelled with his fiancé over a shark-attack; and Aunt Dahlia fears asking her husband for yet more money to support her ladies’ magazine. Wooster’s advice to these three unhappy friends is, of course, ill-conceived. A comedy of errors ensues and the characters waver on the brink of lifelong singleness, insanity, social excommunication, and, most importantly, hunger.
The novel is replete with delicious dishes which remain untouched by virtually all but Wooster himself. Wooster’s first piece of advice to his friends is to mimic the symptoms of true lovers by avoiding food. Gussy heroically resists the enticing smell of bacon and sausages at breakfast. A nighttime visit to the larder to sneak a steak and kidney pie ends in disaster. Several platefuls of nonnettes de poulet are returned to the kitchens untouched after dinner. After much googling, I could only find one description of this mysterious dish. (If you can help, please comment below!) If my source is correct, it appears to involve sautéing a chicken fillet in which is enclosed ortolan, a bird eaten as a French delicacy. It could also be a reference to mignonette de poulet rotie petit duc (chopped roast chicken). Or did Wodehouse invent the mysterious dish?
Whatever the truth of the matter, the consequences of this abstinence are catastrophic: tempers stretch to breaking point as tummies rumble and the French chef Anatole – ‘God’s gift to the gastric juices’ – hands in his notice.
The shockwaves of this event rock the social fabric of Brinkley Court. Civilisation is about to collapse. Luncheon is reduced to salmon mayonnaise. In the midst of this chaos, Gussy accidentally drinks orange juice laced with gin on an empty stomach – I’ll leave you to read the novel yourselves to find out the results of this error.
Today such a story can be slightly uncomfortable reading. I am writing this post just after rereading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and can’t forget that Wodehouse was writing during the Great Depression (watch this space for my thoughts on beans and ketchup in Steinbeck’s novella!). Although Wodehouse pokes fun at the characters’ responses to trivial disasters, he does not puncture the novel’s idyllic setting by contrasting Anatole’s resignation to real hunger. We have to turn to a novel such as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day for a more penetrating analysis of upper-class life in the period.
It is, of course, the strangely omniscient manservant Jeeves who navigates the household through these tumultuous affairs of the heart. As can only be expected, all’s well that ends well – or is fed well. When the confusion is sorted out, the lovers immediately repair to the dining room for eggs, bacon and champagne. The novel concludes with Wooster comfortably consuming an omelette.
As the characters go hungry for much of the novel, this week there is no recipe. However, I do understand that gin and orange juice are a good combination, and probably effective in consoling Nico and I during Lent.
The website of the PG Wodehouse Society (UK) provides lots of useful information (and a weekly quiz!) about the author and his work: http://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk/index.html
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986)
Christopher Hirst, ‘Reader’s Digest: How to Recreate the Great Literary Dishes’, The Independent, 14 May 2011