Monday, March 03, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #44: Jeeves in the Offing

A Wodehouse a Week banner
Jeeves stars in a Saul Bass credits sequence.I've always been a bit puzzled by the title Jeeves in the Offing (1960), and, against my usual inclination, tend to prefer the American retitling of How Right You Are, Jeeves. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, however, I now realize how incredibly apt the title is, and how foolish I was to second-guess Mister Wodehouse. I long suspected an offing was some obscure British word meaning a particular place, not unlike if Wodehouse had titled a book "Jeeves Is Out Standing in His Field." But The Phrase Finder website informs us with confidence that "in the offing" is an old nautical term: "offing" refers to the distant horizon of the sea visible from shore, so a ship "in the offing" is expected to dock soon...not immediately, but in the near future. In other words, you might want to retitle this book as Jeeves Is Imminent...which is exactly what Jeeves is.

Why imminent? That master of gentlemen's men is off-screen for much of the book, allowing Bertie Wooster to get into his own scrapes and dodgy entanglements romantic and familial: he's become without his knowledge inadvertently engaged to tigress Bobbie Wickham (Bobbie's clever plan to make her own fiancé Reggie "Kipper" Herring turn a jealous shade of green, a hilariously libelous review of a book by Bertie and Reggie's old despised school headmaster, and the theft of the leading light of Wodehouse's Silver Cow Creamer MacGuffins: the actual Silver Cow Creamer, the prize of the silver collection owned by Bertie's Uncle Tom. Which means the adventure must be set at Brinkley Court, manorial home of Bertie's boisterous and vociferous Aunt Dahlia. It's always a delight to read Bertie and Dahlia's exchanges:
'Has it occurred to you to put yourself in Wilbert Cream's place and ask yourself how he's going to feel, being followed around all the time? It isn't as if he was Mary.'

'What did you say?'

'I said it isn't as if he was Mary. Mary, as I remember, enjoyed the experience of being tailed up.'

'Bertie, you're tight.'

'Nothing of the kind.'

'Say "British constitution".'

I did so.

'And now "She sells sea shells by the sea shore."'

I reeled it off in a bell-like voice.

'Well, you seem all right,' she said grudgingly. 'How do you mean he isn't Mary? Mary who?'

'I don't think she had a surname, had she? I was alluding to the child who had a little lamb with fleece as white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.'
In addition to the usual star-crossed lovers and curmudgeonly elder statements that periodically haunt Wodehouse's stately homes, Brinkley is in this case occupied by, as is often the case, a Butler Who Is Not All He Seems™—although in this case we're already familiar with the fake butler: he's Sir Roderick Glossop, noted psychiatrist and constant foil of Bertie. Glossop is posing as Swordfish the butler in order to surreptitiously keep his beady eye upon Wilbert Cream, suspected international playboy who's engaged to Phyllis Mills. Sir Roderick has been long a nemesis of Bertie's (since the days when Jeeves filled Bertie's bedroom with cats in order to persuade Glossop that Bertie was a deep-dyed looney), but Jeeves in the Offing actually teams up the two and makes them comrades (if not bosom buddies) in the plan to recover Uncle Tom's missing silver cow creamer. But even the minds of Glossop and Wooster teamed up don't equal one Jeeves, so although he muddles along without him for some ninety-five pages, Bertie is smart enough to know when to call in the professional, a call so needed he'll even skip a dinner by the incomparable chef Anatole:
'Am I boring you?' he said rather stiffly.

'No, no. But I must go and get my car.'

'You going for a ride?'


'But it's nearly dinner time.'

'I don't want any dinner.'

'Where are you going?'

'Herne Bay.'

'Why Herne Bay?'

'Because Jeeves is there, and this thing must be placed on his hands without a moment's delay.'

'What can Jeeves do?'

'That,' I said, 'I cannot say, but he will do something. If he had been eating plenty of fish, as no doubt he would at a seashore resort, his brain will be at the top of its form, and when Jeeves's brain is at the top of its form, all you have to do is press a button and stand out of the way while he takes charge.'
This, Jeeves is indeed in the offing. In fact, tho' he's been offstage for much of the novel, we all know he'll be back before the curtain rises on the final act to sort of everything that needs sorting. You might even call this book Jeeves the Inevitable. And without Jeeves, would we have exchanges like this?
'The core of the matter is,' I said, twiddling the wheel to avoid a passing hen, 'that in Roberta Wickham we are dealing with a girl of high and haughty spirit.'

'Yes, sir.'

'And girls of high and haughty spirit need kidding along. This cannot be done by calling them carrot-topped Jezebels.'

'No, sir.'

'I know if anyone called me a carrot-topped Jezebel, umbrage is the first thing I'd take. Who was Jezebel, by the way? The name seems familiar, but I can't place her.'

'A character in the Old Testament, sir. A queen of Israel.'

'Of course, yes. Be forgetting my own name next. Eaten by dogs, wasn't she?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Can't have been pleasant for her.'

'No, sir.'

'Still, that's the way the ball rolls.'
Still, in some ways, a little too little, a little too late. Like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, we spend most of the first part of the book wondering when Jeeves is going to return to the narrative, and despite his role as narrator and protagonist, Bertie alone is not the draw when I pick up a Jeeves book. As one of Wodehouse's later Bertie and Jeeves novels, it's an interesting progression and a chance to try out something vaguely different with the formula (as if turning Glossop into an ally rather than an antagonist), but the action seems both sketchier than and derivative of earlier Wooster-ventures: the action pivots around yet another theft of the famous cow creamer, but uncharacteristically for Bertie and Wodehouse, there's no real attempt to sum up the previous action in the usual swift but humorous manner but instead we get tossed a quick bone and a note to read the earlier books if we want to find out the story:
...I had what you might call a personal interest in it, once having stolen an eighteenth-century cow-creamer for him. (Long story. No time to go into it now. You will find it elsewhere in the archives.)
Yes, it's the Wodehouse equivalent of a Roy Thomas comic book footnote.

Still, despite the fast pace and the Jeeveslessness of much of the book, it still retains a good deal of humor and charm of the greater Wooster adventures, as in his propensity for the Wodehouse bon motaphor:
'There is none like him, none,' said Kipper, moistening the lips with the top of the tongue and looking like a wolf that has just spotted its Russian peasant.
A snort of about the caliber of an explosion in an ammunition dump escaped my late father's sister.

I've got two British versions of Jeeves in the Offing (and oddly not a single American How Right You Are, Jeeves): a Penguin paperback with the usual lovely Ionicus cartoon cover, and the hardcover Everyman/Overlook Wodehouse reissue, which you can get your hooves on by clicking the link to the right. The Everyman edition's dust jacket features an illustration of Aunt Dahlia, although it's not really the broad, large in size and personality Aunt Dahlia I see in my mind's eye: this cover looks sterner and more whip-slender than I imagined her. This actually looks to me more like Bertie's other famous Aunt, Agatha, she who "is known to devour her young and conduct human sacrifices at the time of the full moon." Still, I like the cover an awful lot. Why, you ask?

Because I think that's my Mama posing in the background right there:

Jeeves in the Offing cover

See her? There she is, standing right out there, in the offing.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.

No comments: