I had a fairly strong reaction when I last read some Wodehouse, and I suspect my record of the event is intemperate. Having calmed down I returned to ‘Joy in the Morning’ determined to be fair minded. In that same spirit of fairness I ought to acknowledge that Wodehouse has some heavy-weight admirers whose opinion I have rarely had occasion to doubt. Douglas Adams no less is quoted on the cover of this Arrow (2008) edition saying “Wodehouse is the greatest comic writer ever”, and Stephen Fry is on the frontispiece describing Wodehouse as the “funniest and finest writer”. High praise indeed.

Written in the early 1940’s during Wodehouse’s internment in France and Germany during the second world war, this novel tells in Bertie Wooster’s first person narrative the story of his adventures at his uncle’s country home in Steeple Bumpleigh, or in Wooster’s words “the super-sticky affair of Nobby Hopwood, Stilton Cheesewright, Florence Craye, my uncle Percy… is one of those imbroglios that Bertie Wooster believes his biographers will refer to as “The Steeple Bumpleigh Horror”.  The Guardian’s recent review described the novel as “both an elegy and an encore” – an elegy for a lost Edwardian Britain, and an encore because this is very familiar ground – Wodehouse recycled this very limited set of characters and situations endlessly. “

 

‘Joy in the Morning’ (and in my head I keep mixing this title up with ‘Morning Glory’ which is something entirely different) is a ‘greatest hits’ selection of comedic situations: the imposed engagement; a blazing country cottage; a nocturnal confrontation; a fancy-dress ball. The novel also contains an element of self-justification for Wodehouse’s involvement in what some considered war crimes, namely broadcasting on German radio from Berlin. “I doubt,” says Bertie, speaking of the writer Boko Fittleworth, “if you can ever trust an author not to make an ass of himself.”

 

Despite my best intentions I did find myself laughing out loud at some passages. Wooster is such an idiot. But overall the novel is not a success. It is over-long and predictable. Wodehouse claimed to work tirelessly on his plots, and farce well done does require tight plotting in order to be plausible, but the plotting here is a mess. It depends on people behaving in ways that are more than just ridiculous but utterly unbelievable: schoolboys burning houses down, successful businessmen agreeing to conduct private meetings at a fancy dress ball, policemen leaving their uniforms on the riverbank while taking a dip in the river, and so on. The resulting comic situations lose a lot of their impact when they are set up so clumsily – we know Wooster is going to lose an important birthday gift brooch, that Jeeves is going to come up with a cunning plan to rescue the situation, that the imposed engagement will fade away by the end

 

Wodehouse may have been a collaborator, and may have romanticised a lost Britain that depended on a rigid class system that virtually enslaved the working class to preserve the privilege of a small minority, but he could turn a phrase, for example “There was a sound in the background like a distant sheep coughing gently on a mountainside. Jeeves sailing into action.”

 

Wodehouse is adept at using the gap between Wooster’s weaknesses, his village idiot view of the world and reality, to comic effect; many of them are having an affectionate nod towards Shakespeare:

 

 “It was one of those cases where you approve the broad, general principle of an idea but can’t help being in a bit of a twitter at the prospect of putting it into practical effect. I explained this to Jeeves, and he said much the same thing had bothered Hamlet.”

 

“She came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room.”

 

“You can’t go by what a girl says, when she’s giving you the devil for making a chump of yourself. It’s like Shakespeare. Sounds well, but doesn’t mean anything.”

 

The bromance between Wooster and Jeeves is as strong as ever, and even in this strangely sexless world, in which all a chap ever wants is to avoid being ensnared by an eligible young woman (what possible reason could Wooster have for not wanting to get married or be involved with any of the women who circle around him?) is quite touching. Jeeves and Wooster are only going to be apart for a few hours, but still say a tearful goodbye:

 

 “We part, then, for the nonce, do we?’

‘I fear so, sir.’

‘You take the high road, and self taking the low road, as it were?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I shall miss you, Jeeves.’

‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Who was that chap who was always beefing about gazelles?’
‘The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well, it was sure to die.’
‘It’s the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don’t mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?’
‘Not at all, sir.”

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