The character of Bertie Wooster is a study in contrasts. He has a dreamy sweetness about him. He is soft and chivalrous. He has a generous soul. He declines all proposals of marriage in a very polished manner. He never bandies about a woman’s name.
But very often he also displays a unique strength of character. He can also speak his mind. If there is a fruity scheme which might result in the Code of the Woosters getting compromised, he is not game.
The delicately nurtured invariably corner Bertie and persuade him to do something truly goofy and get him into a jam. Gwladys puts her boyfriend with a broken leg in his flat. Pauline Stoker invades his rural cottage at the dead of night in a bathing suit. Florence Craye, Pauline Stoker, Roberta Wickham, Vanessa Cook, Nobby and Stiffy Byng are some other characters which immediately spring to one’s mind.
Not to be left behind, his rough and tough aunts also come up with demands which put the hapless Bertie in a fix. But unlike other members of the opposite sex, they also stand up and protect him when they notice a threat to the Wooster clan.
In The Code of the Woosters, both Aunt Dahlia and Stiffy exhort him to pinch a silver cow-creamer. He does not fall prey to their machinations. His views on the opposite sex in general and on aunts in particular reveal to us the underlying code of conduct he normally follows.
When the Delicately nurtured Lie
When girlfriends and wives give the men in their lives a build-up, they often end up overdoing it. They never know when to stop while doing so. But do they lie in the process?
I remember Mrs Bingo Little once telling me, shortly after their marriage, that Bingo said poetic things to her about sunsets – his best friends being perfectly well aware, of course, that the old egg never noticed a sunset in his life and that, if he did by a fluke ever happen to do so, the only thing he would say about it would be that it reminded him of a slice of roast beef, cooked just right.
However, you can’t call a girl a liar; so, as I say, I said: ‘Well, well!’
Being a Preux Chevalier
Bertie has perfected the art of retaining his bachelorhood. This is how he explains his reasons for not willing to take a saunter down the aisle with Madeline.
‘I should feel just the same about marrying many of the world’s noblest women. There are certain females whom one respects, admires, reveres, but only from a distance. If they show any signs of attempting to come closer, one is prepared to fight them off with a blackjack. It is to this group that your cousin Madeline belongs. A charming girl, and the ideal mate for Augustus Fink-Nottle, but ants in the pants to Bertram.’
Being a Shrewd but Level-headed Pig
It is understandable that parents do not normally approve of their daughters marrying curates. Same goes for uncles who are concerned about their nieces. Since Stiffy would like to get married to a curate – Stinker Pinker – she must find a way to sell him to her uncle, Pop Bassett. Bertie’s services are requisitioned. However, Bertie has no intentions of becoming a part of any of her loathsome schemes.
I told myself that I must be firm. But I could not but remember Roberta Wickham and the hot-water bottle. A man thinks he is chilled steel – or adamant, if you prefer the expression – and suddenly the mists clear away and he finds that he has allowed a girl to talk him into something frightful. Samson had the same experience with Delilah.
Plain praise would not work, she feels. Pinker saving a drowning uncle from a boat in the lake is an idea shot down by both of them, simply because there is no lake around. A friend dressing up as a tramp and attacking the uncle, followed by the man in shining armor dashing in and rescuing him, is an idea which is quashed by Bertie. Stiffy then comes up with another terrific idea – that of Bertie stealing Uncle Watkyn’s cow-creamer! Pinker would then secure the object d’art and hand it over to her uncle, thereby earning his gratitude and a vicarage. Bertie refuses to oblige, earning a reprimand from Stiffy.
‘I do mean I won’t do it.’
‘Well, I think you are a pig.’
‘A pig, maybe, but a shrewd, level-headed pig.’
Stiffy then offers a reward to Bertie – return of Gussie’s notebook with juicy comments about Pop Bassett and Roderick Spode. Bertie shudders at the prospect.
The Royal Disapproval
Jeeves and Bertie agree that the modern emancipation of women may not have the royal seal of approval.
‘The whole fact of the matter is that all this modern emancipation of women has resulted in them getting it up their noses and not giving a damn what they do. It was not like this in Queen Victoria’s day. The Prince Consort would have had a word to say about a girl like Stiffy, what?’
‘I can conceive that His Royal Highness might quite possibly not have approved of Miss Byng.’
The effect of a Woman’s Grief
‘But you are going to help us, aren’t you?’
‘I am not.’
‘Well, I do think you might.’
‘I dare say you do, but I won’t.’
Somewhere about the first or second line of this chunk of dialogue, I had observed her eyes begin to moisten and her lips to tremble, and a pearly one had started to steal down the cheek. The bursting of the dam, of which that pearly one had been the first preliminary trickle, now set in with great severity. With a brief word to the effect that she wished she were dead and that I would look pretty silly when I gazed down at her coffin, knowing that my inhumanity had put her there, she flung herself on the bed and started going oomp.
It was the old uncontrollable sob-stuff which she had pulled earlier in the proceedings, and once more I found myself a bit unmanned. I stood there irresolute, plucking nervously at the cravat. I have already alluded to the effect of a woman’s grief on the Woosters.
When Aunts aren’t Gentlemen
Aunts play a stellar role in Bertie’s life. But their affection often comes with a price tag. An invitation to the dining table at Brinkley Court could get withdrawn in case of any deficiency in service.
‘If I had my life to live again, Jeeves, I would start it as an orphan without any aunts. Don’t they put aunts in Turkey in sacks and drop them in the Bosphorous?’
‘Odalisques, sir, I understand. Not aunts.’
‘Well, why not aunts? Look at the trouble they cause in the world. I tell you, Jeeves, and you may quote me as saying this – behind every poor, innocent, harmless blighter who is going down for the first time in the soup, you will find, if you look carefully enough, the aunt who shoved him into it.’
‘There is much in what you say, sir.’
‘It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof. Consider this Dahlia, Jeeves. As sound an egg as ever cursed a foxhound for chasing a rabbit, I have always considered her. And she goes and hands me an assignment like this. Wooster, the pincher of policemen’s helmets, we know. We are familiar with Wooster, the supposed bag-snatcher. But it was left for this aunt to present to the world a Wooster who goes to the houses of retired magistrates and, while eating their bread and salt, swipes their cow-creamers. Faugh!’ I said, for I was a good deal overwrought.
‘Most disturbing, sir.’
Standing Up for the Clan
Aunt Dahlia may be too demanding at times. But when the honor of the Wooster clan is at stake, she does not hesitate to put her foot down. Here are two instances which go on to prove this point.
Stopping Spode in his tracks
‘I must ask you to leave us, madam,’ he said.
‘But I’ve only just come,’ said Aunt Dahlia.
‘I am going to thrash this man within an inch of his life.’
It was quite the wrong tone to take with the aged relative. She has a very clannish spirit and, as I have said, is fond of Bertram. Her brow darkened.
‘You don’t touch a nephew of mine.’
‘I am going to break every bone in his body.’
You aren’t going to do anything of the sort. The idea!….Here, you!’
Getting Bertie dismissed without a Stain on his Character
Butterfield, the butler, has just brought in the missing helmet of Constable Oates on a silver salver. While airing Stiffy’s dog sometime earlier, he has observed Bertie Wooster dropping it from his window. Aunt Dahlia takes the floor, trying to protect Bertie. First, she reasons, the helmet could have been dropped from some other window. Then, she proposes that the butler had himself stolen the helmet and was merely trying to pass on the buck to Bertie. Saintly looking butlers with a furtive eye come in for a sharp criticism.
Overall, Aunt Dahlia injects into the proceedings a very pleasant atmosphere of all-pals-together and hearty let’s-say-no-more-about it. However, Pop Bassett is not inclined to dismiss Bertie without a stain on his character. He sees no reason to revise his earlier resolve to get the perpetrator of the crime to serve a prison sentence.
‘Here, come, I say now, Sir Watkyn, really, dash it,’ she expostulated, always on her toes when the interests of the clan were threatened. ‘You can’t do that sort of thing.’
‘Madam, I both can and will.’
When her repeated pleadings fail, she negotiates a deal with the retired magistrate: he gets Anatole while Bertie gets his release!
The Feudal Spirit
Bertie is profoundly moved when he discovers that Aunt Dahlia is prepared to dispense with the services of Anatole merely to save him from getting bunged into a chokey for a month.
‘You were actually contemplating giving up Anatole for my sake?’ I gasped.
‘Of course jolly well not! I would not hear of such a thing.’
‘But you can’t go to prison.’
‘I certainly can, if my going means that that supreme maestro will continue working at the old stand. Don’t dream of meeting old Bassett’s demands.’
‘Bertie! Do you mean this?’
‘I should say so. What’s a mere thirty days in the second division? A bagatelle. I can do it on my head. Let Bassett do his worst. And,’ I added in a softer voice, ‘when my time is up and I come out into the world once more a free man, let Anatole do his best. A month of bread and water or skilly or whatever they feed you in these establishments, will give me a rare appetite. On the night when I emerge, I shall expect a dinner that will live in legend and song.’
‘You shall have it.’
Opinion on Bertie’s intellectual capabilities could be divided. But there is no doubt that his heart is in the right place. Even if it turns out to be that of chilled steel, the milk of human kindness sloshing about within makes him yield to pressure from pals and aunts alike. Yet, the core of his heart glows with a dazzling sparkle – that of a diamond called the Code of the Woosters.
(Part 3: Decodifying the Code of the Woosters)