Source of book: I own this.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of old Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (“WOOD-house”). I am trying to read at least one of his each year, even though I am unlikely to finish all of his books at that rate. He lived long and wrote quickly. And hilariously. Here are previous posts about him on this blog:
Because the books often have different titles in the United Kingdom and the United States, it is worth looking up both titles - often one or the other is available.
Before discussing the book, I think it is helpful to have some context. In the run-up to World War Two, various Brits took different approaches to Hitler and the Nazis. Many of these turned out to be embarrassing in retrospect. Kazuo Ishiguro’s best known work is about one of those who more openly collaborated with the fascists, but many others simply failed to fathom the seriousness of the danger.
And then there is the complexity of the case of P. G. Wodehouse. He was a rather well-known author by that time, in his late 50s, and had a villa in Belgium. Apparently a bit oblivious, he didn’t understand the danger, and was caught completely off guard by Hitler’s invasion of the low countries. He was captured and spent time briefly in a prison camp, before his celebrity got him a more cushy hotel. He also naively agreed to do a few “non-political” radio broadcasts (the contents of which appear to have disappeared during the war), which was viewed as traitorous by many. To a degree, his reputation never entirely recovered, and he was denied the knighthood until right before his death.
The thing is, while Wodehouse was a political naif, he was hardly a Nazi sympathiser. His books are largely apolitical, and by his own admission, he largely avoided learning about political issues. In any event, he got a bit of a bad rap for what was clearly a stupid, rather than malevolent decision.
If you want to read more about this, George Orwell (one of the original Antifa sorts) wrote a defence of Wodehouse back in 1945 that is worth reading. Even after the MI5 documents were released, Orwell’s take has stood up to the evidence. Wodehouse was a fool, not a traitor.
The reason this matters for purposes of this book is that shortly before the war, Wodehouse introduced a recurring character, that of Roderick Spode, leader of a local fascist group, the “Black Shorts.” (Shorts, because they were all sold out of shirts at the time…) Spode is, even by Wodehouse standards, played entirely for comedy. He is a lug, a bully, not that bright, and tends to hurt himself when he tries to hurt others. Naturally, he takes a dislike to Bertie Wooster. Spode is based on actual British fascists - specifically Oswald Mosley (yes, they existed, as did American fascists like Charles Lindbergh.) Spode also has a secret, which, while innocent enough, is embarrassing to one who aspires to Fascist toxic masculinity. I won’t spoil it.
The Code of the Woosters is, in my opinion, one of Wodehouse’s best. It has all the elements of a classic Jeeves and Wooster tale, from the narrow escape from marriage to the outrageous scheme that somehow magically comes off at the end by accident.
I have to at least give the setup. Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia (the one he likes, not to be confused with Aunt Agatha) has a problem. Her husband Tom, who has the money, collects old silver, and had his eye on a cow creamer. However, rival collector, Sir Watkyn Bassett, snaps it up. Dahlia wants Bertie to steal it, so Tom will let her have the money she needs to hire a famous author to write for her ladies’ magazine.
But there is so much more! Bertie has had all too much experience with Sir Watkyn. First, he was fined a five spot for pinching a policeman’s helmet. Oh, and he was once engaged to Sir Watkyn’s daughter, the dreamy and over-earnest Madeline. (“The stars are God’s daisy chain!”) Now, Madeline is engaged to Gussie Fink-Nottle, collector of newts, and hapless schlemeil.
But the plot thickens! Sir Watkyn’s friend Spode is there, and he carries a torch for Madeline. And Sir Watkyn’s niece (and ward) Stiffy Byng is secretly engaged to the curate (a school friend of Bertie’s), and she needs Bertie’s help getting Sir Watkyn’s consent. And this involves…wait for it…stealing the cow creamer.
Hilarity ensues. And Jeeves has to extricate the parties from their own webs.
This book was adapted into an episode of the excellent Jeeves and Wooster series, featuring Hugh Laurie (before House MD) and Stephen Fry (before The Hobbit.) The series isn’t completely true to the books, but it preserves a lot of the best dialogue, and is perfectly cast. Here is a bit of Spode.
So many of the best lines are in this book, so I have to share some of them.
“If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn - season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
“Season of what?”
“Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.”
And, of course, a line all of us true Wodehouse fans love - and use.
He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from gruntled.
There is also the description of Spode, at least in Bertie’s view, which might not be entirely reliable.
He was, as I had already been able to perceive, a breath-taking cove. About seven feet in height, and swathed in a plaid ulster which made him look about six feet across, he caught the eye and arrested it. It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.
Ah yes, and the Black Shorts:
“How do you mean, his mission? Is he someone special?”
“Don’t you ever read the papers? Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea, if he doesn’t get knocked on the head with a bottle in one of the frequent brawls in which he and his followers indulge, is to make himself a Dictator.”
“Well, I’m dashed! I thought he was something of that sort. That chin…Those eyes…And, for the matter of that, that moustache. By the way, when you say ‘shorts,’ you mean ‘shirts,’ of course.”
“No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.”
“Footer bags, you mean?”
“How perfectly fowl.”
One might suspect that Wodehouse cared a good bit about garments. Jeeves certainly agrees. Even a confounded mess should never interfere with making sure the pants hang just right.
“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself ‘Do trousers matter?’”
“The mood will pass, sir.”
As should be expected, one of the “complications” is when Gussie and Madeline have to call off their nuptials. Gussie takes it hard, of course, because melodrama is as much his hobby as the newts.
“I suppose,” he said with an absent, soliloquizing voice, “a chap could hang himself with that.”
I resolved to put a stopper on this trend of thought promptly. I had got more or less used by now to my bedroom being treated as a sort of meeting-place of the nations, but I was dashed if I was going to have it turned into the spot marked with an X. It was a point on which I felt strongly.
“You aren’t going to hang yourself here.”
“I shall have to hang myself somewhere.”
“Well, you don’t hang yourself in my bedroom.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Have you any objection to my sitting in your armchair?”
Bertie gets Gussie calmed down enough to explain what happened.
“Sir Watkyn has forbidden it.”
This was an angle I had not foreseen.
“Why? Did you have a row or something?”
“Yes. About newts. He didn’t like me putting them in the bath.”
“You put newts in the bath?”
Like a keen cross-examining counsel, I swooped on the point.
Aunt Dahlia is no fan of Gussie, and constantly botches his name. Here is a representative bit.
“Bertie,” said Aunt Dahlia, “I am only a weak woman, but if you won’t tread on this insect and throw the remains outside, I shall have to see what I can do. The most tremendous issues hanging in the balance…Our plan of action still to be decided on…Every second of priceless importance…and he comes in here, telling us the story of his life. Spink-Bottle, you ghastly goggle-eyed piece of gorgonzola, will you hop it or will you not?”
In the end, Jeeves comes up with a plan, to let Gussie out by the window, and he can also take the suitcase with the purloined creamer and make his escape to London.
I don’t think I have ever assisted at a ceremony which gave such universal pleasure to all concerned. The sheet didn’t split, which pleased Gussie. Nobody came to interrupt us, which pleased me. And when I dropped the suitcase, it hit Gussie on the head, which delighted Aunt Dahlia. As for Jeeves, one could see that the faithful fellow was tickled pink at having been able to cluster round and save the young master in his hour of peril. His motto is ‘service.’
And one might save of the book that it gives universal pleasure to all concerned. Except perhaps Spode and Sir Watkyn, but they will get over it.
More on Oswald Mosley:
Mosley was quite the piece of work. Just a few highlights:
During his first marriage, he was also bonking his both of his wife's sisters and her stepmother. And that one sister, Alexandra, well, she had a long string of affairs, but was deep into the Nazi shit too. In fact, while sleeping with Mosley, she was the courier between him and Mussolini's ambassador (who she was also laying), and also simultaneously sleeping with Lord Halifax.
Mosley's first wife died in her mid thirties of appendicitis. A few years later, he remarried, this time to one of the Mitford sisters. Oh, and the wedding was held at Goebbels' villa, with Hitler as a guest of honor.
It is difficult to think of anyone more deserving of being mocked in the form of Roderick Spode.