The two books here under consideration are absolutely wonderful — no surprise about that — and we’ll get to them in a minute, but first a few words about the remarkable publishing enterprise to which they are the 83rd and 84th additions. “The Collector’s Wodehouse,” as the series is known, was started in 2000, a quarter-century after P.G. Wodehouse’s death, and when it is completed in 2015 it will run to a total of 97 volumes. It is a collaboration of the ancient Everyman’s Library in the United Kingdom and the youthful Overlook Press in the United States. Peter Mayer, the publisher of Overlook Press, writes in a brochure about the series:
“The Collector’s Wodehouse, when complete, will be the first complete hardback series of Wodehouse’s works by any one publisher. In every case, the editor has gone back to the first edition of each book and corrected errors that had crept into the innumerable paperback editions. Each book has been re-typeset using that classic English typeface, Caslon. Further, these are printed on acid-free paper and are sewn and bound in full cloth. Andrzej Klimowski is the perfect illustrator for Wodehouse and both David Campbell [at Everyman’s] and I are certain that no other Wodehouse collection will surpass or outlive this one.”
Publishers, like all other marketers, are given to hyperbole, but in this case there is ample reason for Mayer to boast about his firm’s accomplishment. Fine bookmaking is mostly a lost art in publishing these days, but the volumes of the Collector’s Wodehouse are fine indeed: sturdily bound, with Klimowski’s witty and inviting illustrations on the dust wrappers and with the lines generously spaced inside, making for effortless reading with no design distractions. I am hard-pressed to think of a recent publishing project as ambitious and successful as this one. Viking did a “Uniform Edition” of Graham Greene’s works in the 1970s and ’80s, but it stopped before Greene himself stopped, so it is incomplete and out of print; by contrast all of the Wodehouse volumes are in print and readily available.
There does not seem to have been any particular scheme to the release of these titles, though priority seems to have been awarded to the Jeeves and Wooster novels and short stories; both “Right Ho, Jeeves” and “The Code of the Woosters” were issued in 2000 and are among the 10 best-selling titles in the series. “Jeeves dominates, as expected,” I’m told by Jack Lamplough in Overlook’s publicity department, “but we have had a lot of success with recent volumes such as ‘Leave It to Psmith’ and ‘Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen,’ ” though I hasten to point out that, in fact, the latter actually is a Jeeves and Wooster production. Lamplough also reports that “Uncle Fred in the Springtime” is “#26 in sales for our series,” which surprises and disappoints me as I regard it as the best of all Wodehouse’s books.
On the other hand, what especially pleases me is that as the series nears completion, it gives no evidence of scraping the bottom of the barrel, indeed provides proof that Wodehouse’s barrel had no bottom. A couple of titles published earlier this year, “Mike and Psmith” and “The White Feather,” came out originally in the early 1900s and can be classified as apprentice work, but certainly cannot be dismissed as such because they are the work of a master in the making. By now I have read several dozen of Wodehouse’s novels and many of his stories; though some obviously are better than others, there isn’t a bad one in the lot, or even a mediocre one, and overall they confirm the suspicion that Wodehouse was no mere comic novelist (if such a creature can be called “mere”) but one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century and a writer destined for immortality.
“The Small Bachelor” was published in 1927, the same year as “Meet Mr. Mulliner,” by which point Wodehouse’s fame had been secured; “If I Were You” appeared in 1931, the same year as “Big Money.” Two books a year were scarcely out of the ordinary for the prolific Wodehouse, who also wrote plays and musicals and labored in the vineyards of Hollywood. The jacket of “The Small Bachelor” informs us that it is “based on a 1917 musical comedy script by Wodehouse and his friend, Guy Bolton,” and it is very much in the spirit of the 1920s Broadway stage. Set in New York — don’t forget that Wodehouse first came to the States in the early 1900s and lived most of the rest of his life here — it is a typically zany romantic comedy involving George Finch, “a nice young small bachelor, of the type you see bobbing about the place on every side,” and Molly Waddington, with whom he falls in love over the fierce objections of her stepmother, who rates a classic Wodehouse portrait:
“Mrs Sigsbee H. Waddington was a strong woman. In fact, so commanding was her physique that a stranger might have supposed her to be one in the technical, or circus, sense. She was not tall, but she had bulged so generously in every possible direction that, when seen for the first time, she gave the impression of enormous size. No theatre, however little its programme had managed to attract the public, could be said to be ‘sparsely filled’ if Mrs Waddington had dropped in to look at the show. Public speakers, when Mrs Waddington was present, had the illusion that they were addressing most of the population of the United States. And when she went to Carlsbad or Aix-les-Bains to take the waters, the authorities huddled together nervously and wondered if there would be enough to go round.”
That formidable woman is a stepmother rather than an aunt, but she immediately puts one in mind of Aunt Agatha, Bertie Wooster’s fire-breathing relative, and all the other frightening aunts who populate Wodehouse’s novels. The novel also includes a butler named Mullett, who, though an American ex-convict, manages to sound exactly like Jeeves (“I suppose the English country’s nice?” “I believe it gives uniform satisfaction, sir”), and a fortune-teller named Eulalie, a name that will ring happy bells for anyone who has read, and therefore loves, “The Code of the Woosters.”
As for “If I Were You,” it is the tale of a handsome young English lord and a cockney barber, and the strange twists of familial attachments that bind them in highly unlikely and decidedly hilarious ways. Wodehouse manages to work a lawyer into the plot, for he loved lawyers approximately as much as did his great predecessor Charles Dickens, and he seized every chance to have fun at their expense: “[The] description of Mr. J.G. Wetherby, of the legal firm of Polk, Wetherby, Polk and Polk, as an old bloke with a face like a halibut had been, if not entirely justified, at any rate reasonably close to the mark. The solicitor was well stricken in years, and his large, glassy eyes, peering through their spectacles, did suggest those of some kind of fish. He came in now in that wary manner peculiar to lawyers, looking from side to side as if expecting to see torts hiding behind the curtains and misdemeanours under the piano.”
Both of these novels presumably did well enough when first released, but both subsequently faded into the mists as their author’s fame came to rest on the novels and stories featuring his most celebrated and beloved creations: Jeeves and Wooster, Lord Emsworth, Uncle Fred, Mr. Mulliner et al. Yet they offer almost as many delights as such classics as, oh, “Joy in the Morning” and “Blandings Castle,” which is to say they are Wodehouse through and through. I can think of nothing better.
THE SMALL BACHELOR
By P.G. Wodehouse
Overlook. 287 pp. $19.95
IF I WERE YOU
By P.G. Wodehouse
Overlook. 212 pp. $19.95