Breaking down a passage from Wodehouse

A silver cow creamer

This piece isn’t much of anything. It’s a stretch of Wodehouse broken up with a few comments. The comments are me pointing out to myself what is going on, how it works, and what bits I particularly like. Maybe you’ll like the same ones.

In the scene, taken from the first chapter in Wodehouse’s 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters, he introduces characters and creates the conflicts that will drive the story, and the comedy, forward.

The characters involved are:

Bertie Wooster
the protagonist and narrator
Sir Watkyn Bassett
as we learn earlier in the chapter, he is a retired magistrate who once fined Bertie £5 for stealing a constable’s helmet. He is also the father of a girl Bertie was nearly engaged to, has tried to steal Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s French chef, and, in this scene, is coveting a silver cow creamer being held for Bertie’s Uncle/Dahlia’s husband.
Roderick
accompanying Bassett. We learn little about him here except for his appearance and manner.
Antique shop owner
never named, described in the loosest terms, he’s a mere cog in the plot machinery.

The breakdown

Damn, the three initial clauses are magnificent. The description of the shop is mostly indirect. More words are spent on its smell than its appearance. That’s a nice little strategy for when you don’t want to wade through describing set dressing or researching it.

The antique shop in the Brompton Road proved, as foreshadowed, to be an antique shop in the Brompton Road and, like all antique shops except the swanky ones in the Bond Street neighbourhood, dingy outside and dark and smelly within. I don’t know why it is, but the proprietors of these establishments always seem to be cooking some sort of stew in the back room.

‘I say,’ I began, entering; then paused as I perceived that the bloke in charge was attending to two other customers.

‘Oh, sorry,’ I was about to add, to convey the idea that I had horned in inadvertently, when the words froze on my lips.

Now comes Bassett’s introduction. But first, one of Bertie’s classic misquotes, here messing up the first line of Keat’s To Autumn. All to tell us that it’s foggy outside and somehow inside as well.

Quite a slab of misty fruitfulness had drifted into the emporium, obscuring the view, but in spite of the poor light I was able to note that the smaller and elder of these two customers was no stranger to me. It was old Pop Bassett in person. Himself. Not a picture. There is a tough, bulldog strain in the Woosters which has often caused comment. It came out in me now. A weaker man, no doubt, would have tiptoed from the scene and headed for the horizon, but I stood firm. After all, I felt, the dead past was the dead past. By forking out that fiver, I had paid my debt to Society and had nothing to fear from this shrimp-faced son of a whatnot. So I remained where I was, giving him the surreptitious once-over.

My entry had caused him to turn and shoot a quick look at me, and at intervals since then he had been peering at me sideways. It was only a question of time, I felt, before the hidden chord in his memory would be touched and he would realise that the slight, distinguished-looking figure leaning on its umbrella in the background was an old acquaintance. And now it was plain that he was hep. The bird in charge of the shop had pottered off into an inner room, and he came across to where I stood, giving me the up-and-down through his wind-shields.

Like all good farces, the action begins with some mistaken identity, but not the good kind. Bertie isn’t mistaken for a prince or ambassador.

‘Hullo, hullo,’ he said. ‘I know you, young man. I never forget a face. You came up before me once.’ I bowed slightly. ‘But not twice. Good! Learned your lesson, eh? Going straight now? Capital. Now, let me see, what was it? Don’t tell me. It’s coming back. Of course, yes. Bag-snatching.’

‘No, no. It was — ’

And here we have a ploy that is easily pulled off in print. Bertie could interrupt and explain, but Wodehouse has already moved on. The singular focus that powers (and limits) the serial presentation of text gives Bassett the floor and keeps the action moving forward.

‘Bag-snatching,’ he repeated firmly. ‘I remember it distinctly. Still, it’s all past and done with now, eh? We have turned over a new leaf, have we not? Splendid. Roderick, come over here. This is most interesting.’

Now comes some of the standard blocking that a writer has to do. Re-arranging the mental stage so the action follows expectation. In generic third person, or with a less stylised voice, the paragraph might have ended with a reliable walked over to join us. Instead we get Bertie’s ironic joined the party.

His buddy, who had been examining a salver, put it down and joined the party.

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, Wodehouse’s masterfully comedic turns of phrase. You can see its descendants in the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Black Adder. People try and copy it, but it’s too easy to do badly. The results seldom have the the snap and inventiveness of Wodehouse.

In the middle of defending Bertie’s honour we get nearly two full paragraphs of humorous characterisation.

But it wasn’t merely the sheer expanse of the bird that impressed. Close to, what you noticed more was his face, which was square and powerful and slightly moustached towards the centre. His gaze was keen and piercing. I don’t know if you have even seen those pictures in the papers of Dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes, inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of the opening of a new skittle alley, but that was what he reminded me of.

I can’t resist calling out a phrase from that paragraph:

…slightly moustached towards the centre.

This is the polar opposite of the “slender yellow fruit”. This is a gentle, knowing, and humorous mocking of writing conventions. How do you describe a face? You can try for accuracy, or give an impression, or you can make fun of the process.

‘Roderick,’ said old Bassett, ‘I want you to meet this fellow. Here is a case which illustrates exactly what I have so often maintained — that prison life does not degrade, that it does not warp the character and prevent a man rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things.’

I recognized the gag — one of Jeeves’s — and wondered where he could have heard it.

‘Look at this chap. I gave him three months not long ago for snatching bags at railway stations, and it is quite evident that his term in jail has had the most excellent effect on him. He has reformed.’

‘Oh, yes?’ said the Dictator.

Granted that it wasn’t quite ‘Oh, yeah?’ I still didn’t like the way he spoke. He was looking at me with a nasty sort of supercilious expression. I remember thinking that he would have been the ideal man to sneer at a cow-creamer.

‘What makes you think he has reformed?’

‘Of course he has reformed. Look at him. Well groomed, well dressed, a decent member of Society. What his present walk in life is, I do not know, but it is perfectly obvious that he is no longer stealing bags. What are you doing now, young man?’

And here, for being too slow to set the record straight, that he was guilty of light hooliganism, not a committed criminal freshly out of prison, his actions are cast in the worst light.

‘Stealing umbrellas, apparently,’ said the Dictator. ‘I notice he’s got yours.’

It escaped my notice earlier, but the umbrella appeared in the paragraph after the “misty fruitfulness”. Up there, Wodehouse told us the umbrella was Bertie’s:

…the slight, distinguished-looking figure leaning on its umbrella

Well, Bertie, the unreliable narrator, told us, letting Wodehouse set us up for the switcheroo. Now he backfills the truth. The extended striking metaphor, bordering on clumsy, is saved by defeating our expectation of a similarly long-winded explanation. Instead we get a curt idiom. It acts like a break.

And I was on the point of denying the accusation hotly — I had, indeed, already opened my lips to do so — when there suddenly struck me like a blow on the upper maxillary from a sock stuffed with wet sand the realisation that there was a lot in it.

The break is reinforced by another strategy Wodehouse uses. The long-short pattern. The following paragraph starts with an aside and its comma provides a second, physical break before launching into another wordy stretch.

I mean to say, I remembered now that I had come out without my umbrella, and yet here I was, beyond any question of doubt, umbrellaed to the gills. What had caused me to take up the one that had been leaning against a seventeenth-century chair, I cannot say, unless it was the primeval instinct which makes a man without an umbrella reach out for the nearest one in sight, like a flower groping toward the sun.

It is the long-short that Wodehouse imitators forget about. That’s where they lose the snap and become plodding. Wodehouse has created to his advantage a loose, spoken-word style that is convincing when done in first person. This gives him all of Bertie’s verbal tics, his “I say”’s and “Well”’s and so on, to counterpoint his verbose humour and give it space to be funny instead of droning and tedious.

A manly apology seemed in order. I made it as the blunt instrument changed hands.

‘I say, I’m most frightfully sorry.’

And here is an interesting technique. Wodehouse completes the exchange by alternating between direct and indirect speech, allowing him to include more characterisation without breaking the flow.

Old Bassett said he was, too — sorry and disappointed. He said it was this sort of thing that made a man sick at heart.

The Dictator had to shove his oar in. He asked if he should call a policeman, and old Bassett’s eyes gleamed for a moment. Being a magistrate makes you love the idea of calling policemen. It’s like a tiger tasting blood. But he shook his head.

‘No, Roderick. I couldn’t. Not today — the happiest day of my life.’

The Dictator pursed his lips, as if feeling that the better the day, the better the deed.

‘But listen,’ I bleated, ‘it was a mistake.’

‘Ha!’ said the Dictator. ‘I thought that umbrella was mine.’

‘That,’ said old Bassett, ‘is the fundamental trouble with you, my man. You are totally unable to distinguish between meum and tuum. Well, I am not going to have you arrested this time, but I advise you to be very careful. Come, Roderick.’

They biffed out, the Dictator pausing at the door to give me another look and say ‘Ha!’ again.

Wodehouse isn’t done yet. Sure, Bassett and Roderick now think Bertie’s a career criminal. All due to accident piled upon mistaken identity. But at least they have left. This allows for a lower stakes sequence around a cow creamer.

A most unnerving experience all this had been for a man of sensibility, as you may imagine, and my immediate reaction was a disposition to give Aunt Dahlia’s commission the miss-in-balk and return to the flat and get outside another of Jeeves’s pick-me-ups. You know how harts pant for cooling streams when heated in the chase. Very much that sort of thing. I realised now what madness it had been to go into the streets of London with only one of them under my belt, and I was on the point of melting away and going back to the fountain head, when the proprietor of the shop emerged from the inner room, accompanied by a rich smell of stew and a sandy cat, and enquired what he could do for me. And so, the subject having come up, I said that I understood that he had an eighteenth-century cow-creamer for sale.

He shook his head. He was a rather mildewed bird of gloomy aspect, almost entirely concealed behind a cascade of white whiskers. ‘You’re too late. It’s promised to a customer.’

‘Name of Travers?’

‘Ah.’

‘Then that’s all right. Learn, O thou of unshuffled features and agreeable disposition,’ I said, for one likes to be civil, ‘that the above Travers is my uncle. He sent me here to have a look at the thing. So dig it out, will you? I expect it’s rotten.’

‘It’s a beautiful cow-creamer.’

‘Ha!’ I said, borrowing a bit of the Dictator’s stuff. ‘That’s what you think. We shall see.’

I don’t mind confessing that I’m not much of a lad for old silver, and though I have never pained him by actually telling him so, I have always felt that Uncle Tom’s fondness for it is evidence of a goofiness which he would do well to watch and check before it spreads. So I wasn’t expecting the heart to leap up to any great extent at the sight of this exhibit. But when the whiskered ancient pottered off into the shadows and came back with the thing, I scarcely knew whether to laugh or weep. The thought of an uncle paying hard cash for such an object got right in amongst me.

It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you may observe loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence. It was about four inches high and six long. Its back opened on a hinge. Its tail was arched, so that the tip touched the spine — thus, I suppose, affording a handle for the cream-lover to grasp. The sight of it seemed to take me into a different and dreadful world.

It was, consequently, an easy task for me to carry out the programme indicated by Aunt Dahlia. I curled the lip and clicked the tongue, all in one movement. I also drew in the breath sharply. The whole effect was that of a man absolutely out of sympathy with this cow-creamer, and I saw the mildewed cove start, as if he had been wounded in a tender spot.

‘Oh, tut, tut, tut!’ I said, ‘Oh, dear, dear, dear! Oh, no, no, no, no, no! I don’t think much of this,’ I said, curling and clicking freely. ‘All wrong.’

‘All wrong?’

‘All wrong. Modern Dutch.’

‘Modern Dutch?’ He may have frothed at the mouth, or he may not. I couldn’t be sure. But the agony of spirit was obviously intense. ‘What do you mean, Modern Dutch? It’s eighteenth-century English. Look at the hallmark.’

‘I can’t see any hallmark.’

‘Are you blind? Here, take it outside in the street. It’s lighter there.’

A strange command. But given that the Jeeves and Wooster stories are set in a kind of eternal Edwardian period, before the awfulness of The Great War, which is also before electrification had swept through the UK, it might have been a common refrain from shopkeepers.

‘Right ho,’ I said, and started for the door, sauntering at first in a languid sort of way, like a connoisseur a bit bored at having his time wasted.

I say ‘at first’, because I had only taken a couple of steps when I tripped over the cat, and you can’t combine tripping over cats with languid sauntering. Shifting abruptly into high, I shot out of the door like someone wanted by the police making for the car after a smash-and-grab raid. The cow-creamer flew from my hands, and it was a lucky thing that I happened to barge into a fellow citizen outside, or I should have taken a toss in the gutter.

Well, not absolutely lucky, as a matter of fact, for it turned out to be Sir Watkyn Bassett. He stood there goggling at me with horror and indignation behind the pince-nez, and you could almost see him totting up the score on his fingers. First, bag-snatching, I mean to say; then umbrella-pinching; and now this. His whole demeanour was that of a man confronted with the last straw.

And there we have the return, the amplification of earlier events. Any doubts about Bertie’s character can be dismissed. He is a criminal.

‘Call a policeman, Roderick!’ he cried, skipping like the high hills.

The Dictator sprang to the task. ‘Police!’ he bawled.

‘Police!’ yipped old Bassett, up in the tenor clef.

‘Police!’ roared the Dictator, taking the bass.

And a moment later something large loomed up in the fog and said: ‘What’s all this?’

Well, I dare say I could have explained everything, if I had stuck around and gone into it, but I didn’t want to stick around and go into it. Side-stepping nimbly, I picked up the feet and was gone like the wind. A voice shouted ‘Stop!’ but of course I didn’t. Stop, I mean to say! Of all the damn silly ideas. I legged it down byways and along side streets, and eventually fetched up somewhere in the neighbourhood of Sloane Square. There I got aboard a cab and started back to civilisation.

In the last paragraph character is used to drive the farce forward. Sensible actions aren’t taken. They are recognised and they are dismissed by the character, in character. They are followed by a hilariously entitled, foppish escape ending in Sloane Square. Exactly the spot you’d expect an upper class yahoo to find his way to when on the lam in thick fog.

That’s all there is

I wrote this because I found the scene so effective and so nicely done. If I was a painter I would be one of those guys in a national gallery with an easel in front of an old master, painting, staring, trying to understand how they created their effects.

Wodehouse lined up the fog, the cat and the umbrella in the beginning without drawing attention to them, and then deployed them when the scene needed to escalate, and then when Bertie needed to be able to escape and bring the mayhem to a close.

So tidy, and all done with some cracking lines. Lines that I can’t help hearing in Hugh Laurie’s voice (youtube), since it’s his and Stephen Fry’s Jeeves and Wooster that got me reading the originals.

If you want more youtube links, here is an interview with Wodehouse from the 60s and here is Stephen Fry saying nice things about his books, and a 1 hour 9 minute BBC documentary on the man (not the best quality).

You can find The Code of the Woosters on Amazon (not an affiliate link).

Time passes.

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Image credit: Charles James Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons