Monday, February 18, 2013

Bertie Wooster, Unsung Hero Of Our Modern Times

It's a matter of some embarrassment to me that in my past I was not a fan of P. G. Wodehouse.  But it's true.  You might go so far as to say I was an anti-fan.   I found the books silly, misogynist, even a little mean-spirited. 

But I was wrong.  As I've discussed before, once I heard Jonathan Cecil read the books with his quiet but omnipresent ironic detachment I was able to see the light.  I've never looked back.

In the Wodehouse canon, my special love is for Bertie Wooster. 

Now it is going to be my assertion in this post that Bertie, poor lamb, has gotten a bad rap and is massively under-appreciated as a kind of hero of our times. 

Even if you've never read the books you've probably heard many negative character descriptions.   Bertie is a "foppish" aristocrat who can't manage the simplest tasks without assistance (usually from the famous Jeeves, his genius valet), a silly young man who refuses to settle down or take anything seriously (which enrages his aunt Agatha), and a layabout who favors smoking, drinking and gambling.

But look beyond the surface, and Bertie exemplifies, with no effort at all, certain ideals many of us strive to attain.

1.  Bertie is happy with the simplest of pleasures.

Give Bertie Wooster a cocktail on the lawn, a nicely fried egg, a friend with whom to hash over old times, and Bertie is a contented man.  Bertie does not need the latest technology and gadgets; he does not need to feel he is achieving things and being better than other people and getting noticed; he is not bored sitting around doing nothing.  Bertie is made happy by what he has, and is not endlessly seeking novelty.

He is off the hedonic treadmill. 

2.  Bertie truly lives in the moment.

People think mindfulness and they think meditation and eastern philosophy and effortful practice aimed at the reduction of worry and the appreciation for what is happening right now.  But Bertie has mindfulness naturally and effortlessly. 

Bertie having his morning tea is a man thinking about tea.  He actually has to be reminded to worry about things.

3.  Bertie doesn't have annoying masculinity issues.

Although it is true that true that he can be harsh in his feeling toward women, whom he often suspects of being out to control him and force him to do thing he does not want to do, Bertie is not competitive or athletic and he does not mind being made a fool of. 

He is a bit ruffled when Jeeves refers to him as "mentally negligible," but only for a moment (see #2, above).  In virtually every story he agrees to do something unpleasant (be thought insane, go briefly to jail, etc.) in order to spare his friends some hardship.  Being thought to be a nice guy pleases Bertie, and he doesn't worry about being seen as a chump. 

Even setting aside the interesting interpretation in which Bertie and Jeeves are actually lovers, it is easy to imagine Bertie as gay.  And when Bertie asks, in a moment of crisis, "What do ties matter, Jeeves, at at time like this?"  Jeeves replies, "There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter."  Bertie takes the point.

4.  Bertie is always full of the life force.

I don't know how he does it, but Bertie is always seeing the comic side, making a joke, trying to lighten the mood.  Bertie doesn't have serious problems like being unable to pay the grocery bill, but like a lot of people, he has a lot of other, small problems. 

Sometimes people expect things of him he does not want to do.  Sometimes his friends are in a jam.  Sometimes his friends are -- justly or not -- angry with him.  Bertie, you'll notice, is never angry with them.  And he is never in a bad mood.  Extraordinary.   

Faced with the pompous, bossy, annoying people of life, Bertie typically tries to make light conversation.  When that fails he is philosophical.  No matter what the difficulties, at the end of the day a cocktail and a cigar and some chit chat restores Bertie's good cheer and faith in humanity. 

Given my fondness and even admiration, it amused me to learn on Wikipedia that
"Bertie's foppish foolishness was not popular with everyone. Papers released by the Public Record Office have disclosed that when Wodehouse was recommended for a Companion of Honour in 1967, Sir Patrick Dean, British ambassador in Washington, argued that it 'would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character, which we are doing our best to eradicate'."
Silly Sir Patrick Dean.

So, next time life gets you down, just ask yourself, What Would Bertie Do? 


Your local Franchise Glitz Dealer said...

It always did surprise me that you weren't a fan of Bertie and his ways, but on the other side of that I did question if my own admiration (perhaps that is too strong a word) for him came out of my own Peter Pan complex. I always tried to bring his serenity into my own life, but I guess it takes a certain wherewithall to maintain that. I would love to move though the world with that ability to be in the moment.

Patricia Marino said...

Ha, you remember that I wasn't a fan! Well, I am now. I hadn't thought of it in the light of the Peter Pan complex but I see what you mean.

Serenity and light humor - it is kind of an unbeatable combination.

Tim said...

Bertie is also deeply principled. He is prepared to marry with good cheer (if great dread) rather than disappoint or dishonour Madeline Bassett; to be sent to prison in aid of his aunt; and to risk prison rather than grope Stiffy Byng under base pretences, even in pursuit of stolen property -- "Suffice it to say that the shot is not on the board."

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Tim, Ha, I was just listening to that very scene! Principled indeed. That Stiffy, what a nut. She'd drive a lesser man to distraction!