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“She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha.” — The opening lines of Educating Young Gussie by P.G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse is doubtless familiar to many Ricochetti, but perhaps there are some among us who have not yet encountered the magic of the master. With these opening words, Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha is perfectly captured. Even readers who have just met her for the first time understand completely the kind of woman she is. Energetic. Firm. Early rising. Filled with plans for improvement that require instant and utter submission. In short, a horror.
Wodehouse is expert with these character sketches. I always want to savor him slowly, aloud with someone else if possible, just so I can share the laughter. His use of metaphor and descriptive language is pure delight. Meeting his friend Rocky’s, or Rockmeteller Todd’s, supposedly invalid aunt, Bertie sees a woman who:
looked less like an invalid than any one I’ve ever seen, except my Aunt Agatha. She had a good deal of Aunt Agatha about her, as a matter of fact. She looked as if she might be deucedly dangerous if put upon; and something seemed to tell me that she would certainly regard herself as put upon if she ever found out the game which poor old Rocky had been pulling on her.
Later in the story, we encounter the aunt in a nightclub in New York. She is:
sitting bolt upright, as usual. It certainly did seem as if she had lost a bit of the zest with which she had started out to explore Broadway. She looked as if she had been thinking a good deal about rather unpleasant things.
“You’ve met Bertie Wooster, Aunt Isabel?” said Rocky.
There was something in her eye that seemed to say: “Out of a city of six million people, why did you pick on me?”
“Take a seat, Bertie. What’ll you have?” said Rocky.
And so the merry party began. It was one of those jolly, happy, bread-crumbling parties where you cough twice before you speak, and then decide not to say it after all.
Fortunately, Bertie is not forced to endure the struggles of life alone. His valet Jeeves is his stalwart help and one of the true wonders of the world. When Bertie first meets Jeeves, he has just found out that his previous man was:
…sneaking my silk socks, a thing no bloke of spirit could stick at any price. It transpiring, moreover, that he had looted a lot of other things here and there about the place, I was reluctantly compelled to hand the blighter the mitten and go to London to ask the registry office to dig up another specimen for my approval. They sent me Jeeves….
“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”
I’d have preferred an undertaker, but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start. Meadowes [the sock thief] had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in. He had a grave, sympathetic face, as if he, too, knew what it was to sup with the lads.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said gently.
Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn’t there any longer. I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass on a tray.
“If you would drink this, sir,” he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”
I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed to get all right. The sun shone in the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.
“You’re engaged!” I said, as soon as I could say anything.
Fortunately for humanity, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, after initially deciding against acting in the BBC’s 1990s series adaptation of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, realized they had an obligation to do the show since they knew they were the right players for the roles. God bless them for it.