One of the sterling qualities Bertie Wooster possesses is that of breaking any bad news gently to those who are apt to shiver from the base of their toes to the top of their heads upon receiving it. There is a great deal of finesse to his approach. Seldom do we find him rushing abruptly into a conversation which involves the party of the other part finding itself at the receiving end.
In ‘The Code of the Woosters’, we find that he uses an ultra-soft approach while trying to convey a disturbing news. This is true not only for a pal like Gussie Fink-Nottle but also for a quirky character like Pop Bassett.
Asking for Pop Bassett’s Niece’s Hand in Marriage
Prodded by the inimitable Jeeves, Stiffy Byng manages to persuade Bertie to break it to Pop Bassett that he proposes to get married to her. Since this declaration is likely to leave her uncle all-of-a-twitter, the plan is for Stiffy to walk in and declare her love instead for Stinker Pinker. Pop Bassett is then likely to experience overwhelming relief, leading him to view Stiffy’s union with Stinker with a more kindly eye.
Even though a Justice of the Peace who has already stripped Bertie of five quid for having endeavored to steal a policeman’s helmet is viewed as a formidable foe, he does not wish to break the artificial news of his betrothal to Stiffy in an abrupt manner. A few preliminary pour-parlers are very much in order before getting down to the nub.
The conversation between Bertie and Pop Bassett first touches upon the treatment to be meted out to the culprit who has recently pinched Constable Oates’ helmet. Bertie then steers it around to the love life of newts, starfish, under-sea worms and seaweed.
Eventually, an exasperated Pop Bassett is forced to make a confession thus:
“I am afraid, Mr. Wooster, that you will think me dense, but I have not the remotest notion of what you are talking about.”
This paves the way for Bertie to overcome his diffidence and ask for Stiffy’s hand. Here is a juicy description of how Pop Bassett hits the ceiling.
There was no question as to its being value for money. On the cue ‘niece’s hand’, he had come out of his chair like a rocketing pheasant. He now sank back, fanning himself with the pen. He seemed to have aged quite a lot.
When summoned, Stiffy gives an extremely convincing performance. She stares at Pop Bassett. She stares at Bertie. She clapses her hands and perhaps even manages to blush. She then proceeds to declare her plans to marry Harold Pinker instead, making hope dawn once again in her uncle’s bosom. Understandably, he needs little persuasion to accord his approval for the two to get united in matrimony.
Avoiding the Surgeon’s Knife with Gussie
Earlier in the narrative, we find Bertie treating Gussie with a similar kid-glove treatment. Gussie has made some juicy comments about Sir Watkyn Bassett and Roderick Spode in a notebook, which he has managed to let it fall in the hands of Stiffy Byng. A scheme to make her part with the same while being charmed by Bertie has flopped miserably.
The onus of passing on this dreadful news to Gussie obviously falls on Bertie, who decides to avoid the surgeon’s knife. He shrinks from the mournful task of administering a very substantial sock on the jaw to an old friend.
While Jeeves is ordered to bring in a bottle of brandy, Gussie is first made to sit comfortably in an armchair. A desultory conversation about the weather and the crops follows. Further prattling on part of Bertie leads to a dialogue of this nature:
“Bertie, I believe you’re pie-eyed.”
“Not at all.”
“Then what are you babbling like this for?”
….”You don’t mean she hasn’t got it?”
“That is precisely the nub or crux. She has, and she is going to give it to Pop Bassett.”
I had expected him to take it fairly substantially, and he did. His eyes, like stars, started from their spheres and he leaped from the chair, spilling the contents of the glass and causing the room to niff like the saloon bar of a pub on a Saturday night.
A pat on Gussie’s shoulder starts calming him down. A reference to Archimedes who was apparently killed by a soldier and passed out smiling then follows. Eventually, Reason returns to its throne and a meaningful dialogue takes place between the two.
These are but two specimens of the extent to which Bertie Wooster would go to break some bad news gently to those in his circles.
When the milk of human kindness is sloshing about within us, we try to be gentle while conveying a piece of negative news, whether to a friend or to a foe. This is an invaluable social skill which many of us can imbibe from Bertie Wooster.
(Part 1: Decodifying the Code of the Woosters)