Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #51: Aunts Aren't Gentlemen

A Wodehouse a Week banner

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974) is known as The Cat-Nappers in the US. Both are clever titles but I prefer the less descriptive, more elegiac UK title, which leads us handily to the final words of this Bertie and Jeeves novel:
'There are no aunts here. And in particular we are three thousand miles away from Mrs Dahlia Travers of Brinkley Manor, Market Snodsbury, Worcestershire. Don't get me wrong, Jeeves, I love the old flesh and blood. I fact I revere her. Nobody can say she isn't good company. But her moral code is lax. She cannot distinguish between what is according to Hoyle and what is not according to Hoyle. If she wants to do anything, she doesn't ask herself "Would Emily Post approve of this?", she goes ahead and does it, as she did in this matter of the cat. Do you know what is the trouble with aunts as a class?'

'No, sir.'

'They are not gentlemen,' I said gravely.
A fine, funny, wistful, altogether Wodehousean ending to a novel. And, as it turns out, to his long stretch of work: this is Wodehouse's final finished novel before his death in 1975 (although his unfinished novel posthumously titled Sunset at Blandings is published in 1977). Read with that knowledge, Aunts has some of the hallmarks of a book written in Wodehouse's last years of life: it's much shorter than most of his novels, liberally re-uses subplots and situations from previous books, and doesn't have the full sparkle of a Jeeves novel from Plum's prime. But there's still some lovely moments in this tale of...well, let's let Bertie classify it:
And so began what I suppose my biographers will refer to as The Maiden Eggesford Horror—or possibly The Curious Case Of The Cat Which Kept Popping Up When Least Expected.
Bertie's not quite in the pink as the book begins...as a matter of fact, he's a bit too much in the pink, breaking out in pink spots on his chest. Advised by Harley Street physician E. Jimson Murgatroyd (who appeared in an identical role in the Blandings novel Full Moon, advising a character how to get rid of his pink spots) to take it easy for a while and rest and relax in the country, Bertie and Jeeves scamper off to Maiden Eggesford at the suggestion of Bertie's Aunt Dahlia...
The aunt to whom I alluded was my good and deserving Aunt Dahlia, not to be confused with my Aunt Agatha who eats broken bottles and is strongly suspected of turning into a werewolf at the time of the full moon. Aunt Dahlia is a good a sort as ever said 'Tally Ho' to a fox, which she frequently did in her younger days when out with the Quorn or Pytchley. If she ever turned into a werewolf, it would be one of those jolly breezy werewolves whom it is a pleasure to know.
(Wodehousepedia: Quorn and Pytchley are two of Britain's most prestigious foxhunts, named after the English towns they were based on. Not connected to the story but a lovely bit of synchronicity: Quorn's railway station is shared with adjoining town Woodhouse.)

Aunt Dahlia has, of course, an ulterior motive: she's bet a bundle on a racehorse and like all dedicated punters this side of a Dick Francis mystery, seeks to hobble the main competition. Aunt Dahlia is not the sort to take a tie iron to a horse's knee (that would be an entirely different kind of Wodehouse book...probably ghost-written by Mickey Spillane), so it's lucky for her that leading competitor racehorse Potato Chip has become so fond of a stable cat that he'll pine away without the feline companionship. If you've been paying attention at all to the general plot devices of Bertie and Jeeves novels...in fact, even if you've only paid attention to the American title of this book...you'll know who Dahlia is going to coerced into stealing that cat for her. Naturally, this cat-napping plot backfires...again...and again... Every attempt of Bertie to have the cat restored to its legal owner results in the feline returning. Or, as Friz Freleng might put it: the cat came back:

It's virtual slapstick, but done with such a light touch it's forgivable, as the cat turns up again and again in Bertie's cottage. It's all the more nerve-wracking as Bertie's being stalked by Major Plank, an African explorer from an early Jeeves novel (and an Uncle Fred adventure) who is about to finger Bertie as escaped criminal Alpine Joe, the debonair cat-burglar. That's the least of Bertie's worries; he's also become inadvertently engaged to Vanessa Cook, daughter of Potato Chip's owner. That subplot is reminiscent of many Bertie Wooster scrapes, especially Joy in the Morning, where Bertie must avoid jealous jilted Stilton Cheesewright the same way he's in the soup with beefy Orlo Porter, insurance agent and Vanessa's ex-fiancé. Even this re-used plot device has a new twist: much as he wants to beat Bertie up, Orlo can't touch him because Bertie's taken out a hefty insurance policy through Orlo's firm.

Not that he wants to marry Vanessa. She's just the latest (and, sadly, the last) in a long line of wanna-be Mrs Woosters who see Bertie as a canvas to impress their own image upon:
'...I am quite content with you, Bertie. By the way, I do dislike that name Bertie. I think I shall call you Harold. Yes, I am perfectly satisfied with you. You have many faults, of course. I shall be pointing some of them out when I am at leisure. For one thing," she said, not waiting till she was at leisure, 'you smoke too much. You must give that up when we are married. Smoking is just a habit. Tolstoy,' she said, mentioning someone I had not met, 'says that just as much pleasure can be got from twirling the fingers.'
Poor Bertie! Well, that's what he gets for not speaking up and saying 'Well, I say now...' instead of vehement protests at crucial times. I object to the perception of Bertie as an addle-headed, doltish, gormless twit—his plans to get out of scrapes are as valid as anyone else's—it's just that fate—and Wodehouse—stacks the deck against him. Really, Bertie's cardinal sin is bad timing, not speaking up, and his well-intentioned but misguided sense of chivalry:
'What's wrong with you?'

'I'm engaged to be married to a girl I can't stand the sight of.'

'What, another? Who is it this time?'

'Vanessa Cook.'

'Any relation to old Cook?'

'His daughter.'

'How did it happen?'

'I proposed to her a year ago, and she turned me down, and just not she blew in and said she had changed her mind and would marry me. Came as a nasty shock.'

'You should have told her to go and boil her head.'

'I couldn't.'

'Why couldn't you?'

'Not preux.'

'Not what?'

'Preux. P for potted meat, r for rissole, e for egg nog, and so on. You've heard of a preux chevalier? It is my aim to be one.'

'Oh well, if you go about being preux, you must expect to get into trouble.'
(Wodehousepedia: preux is outdated but still useful French for 'valiant,' and the phrase 'preux chevalier' means 'valiant knight.' Who said Wodehouse isn't educational?)

Luckily, as always and ever, Jeeves is there to save the day, restore the cat, reunite the lovers, and save Bertie from a life inside a prison, or, worse yet, marriage. And in our last looks at them they're happily settled in Manhattan, far enough away from Aunt Dahlia and company, but close enough, as ever, to a cocktail and a cigarette.

For all its end-of-canon briefness and reiteration, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen still has some lovely light Wodehousean moments. Here's Bertie haggling with a shady gameskeeper over the price of returning the cat to its rightful owner:
'...I'd have to make it twenty pounds.'

I was relieved. I had been expecting something higher. He, too, seemed to feel; that he had erred on the side of moderation, for he immediately added:

'Or rather, thirty.'


'Thirty, sir.'

'Let's haggle,' I said.

But when I suggested twenty-five, a nicer-looking sort of number than thirty, he shook his grey head regretfully, so we went on haggling, and he haggled better than me, so that eventually he settled on thirty-five.

It wasn't one of my best haggling days.
Aunts Aren't Gentlemen also gives us this hint of the design of the official Drones Club tie:
'Have you a clean collar?'

'Several, with immaculate shirts attached.'

'Don't wear that Drones Club tie.'

'Certainly not,' I agreed. If the Drones Club tie has a fault, it is a little on the loud side and should not be spring suddenly on nervous people and invalids, and I had no means of knowing if Mrs Briscoe was one of those.
Drones Club tieInterestingly, one of the Wodehouse fan societies designed an "official" Drones club tie, consisting of yellow, black, and (appropriately) plum stripes. I don't know—it doesn't seem as frightening loud or outrageous as Bertie describes it above, but it isn't a bad-lookin' cravat, and after all, it's just fan fiction. Er, fan haberdashery. And how many other authors do you know who can inspire that?

A Wodehouse a Week #59: Aunts Aren't Gentlemen

I've got exactly one copy of Aunts Aren't Gentlemen/The Cat-Nappers in my Wodehouse collection, which I picked up on my very first visit to London (quite some time ago). It's a paperback Penguin with an Ionicus illustration of Jeeves patiently returning the recalcitrant cat, and I've read it so many time it's falling apart at the binding (the book, not the cat). I need to pick myself up a second copy—and you can get one too at the usual Amazon link to the right. Aunts is out of print in both the US and UK (shame! shame!), but there's plenty of used copies in good condition available for a decent price. Wodehouse's final finished book isn't one of his top classics, but it's breezy and fun, and it's lovely to see he went out the same way he came in: entertaining us and making us laugh.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


SallyP said...

This sounds delightful. And not being a gentleman, is the best description of Aunt Dahlia ever...along with the fact that Aunt Agatha eats broken bottles.

Funny though, I've always pictured Bertie wearing an old Etonian tie.

Unknown said...

An all-in-one sort of comment: I congratulate your little stuffed self on producing a fine series, which I have been reading faithfully for months. Just hoping that I haven't missed A Wodehouse a Week #57 and #58 in between #56 and #59 (or maybe you're numbering the weeks rather than the Wodehouses--whatever frequency you write 'em, we'll read 'em).

By the way, I have one of the ties shown, and feel quite natty when wearing it. Since you delicately avoid mentioning the Wodehouse [fan] society in question (and it's not obvious from the link), I also shall refrain.

Bully said...

You've not missed any, Kris&151;while I've definitely been reading a book a week, I'm behind on my reviews. I'm trying to catch up and slot them into the weeks they belong after the fact. I'll post short notices at the head of the blog when I have a batch of them up that might otherwise remain buried. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Now that blogger is back to working again...

This is what I thought you were referring to, rather than the the WB animated short.

Not my absolute favorite Film Board of Canada short (that would be this short) but still amazing stuff.

Tom the Dog said...

I did love this one, though I was sad to realize there would be no more Jeeves and Wooster forthcoming after I finished it. And while I haven't read near as much of old Pelham Grenville as you, I still recognized oodles of reused plots and characters from previous books. But recycled Wodehouse beats no Wodehouse any day of the week!

And yes, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen is a much better title.

Monty Ashley said...

This is one of the books where I have a Good Copy: the Simon & Schuster hardback. "The Catnappers" is in a lovely font seemingly made out of cat tails. And the back cover is an enormous picture of Plum with a dog. It's a little sad, though, because the inside of the back cover flap has a brief mention of his death. So I know this one came out very shortly after February 14, 1975.

According to the front cover-flap, that's one month and two weeks after he was knighted (January 1, 1975), which is about when Aunts Aren't Gentlemen came was published in England. Most cover flaps don't contain this much chronological information!

I don't think I've actually read it, since it's on the "to be read" shelf. It's hard to be sure, because my initial rampage through Wodehouse came via a public library, and ever since I've had to flip through the books mumbling "This sounds familiar... no, wait, does it?"

Anonymous said...

Has anyone come across the word "google" in "The Catnappers"?

Anonymous said...

Delighted to read this.... its one of my Favs of all of the series....