“He looked pleased with himself, and who shall blame him? A man whose
mission is to spread sweetness and light and to bring the young folk together may
surely be forgiven a touch of complacency when happy endings start going off like
crackers all around him and he sees the young folk coming together in droves.”
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)
Uncle Dynamite, 1948
Wodehouse published his first book, The Pothunters, in 1902, when he was twenty-one – his last, an unfinished novel, Sunset at Blandings, two years after his death at age 93, in 1977. In between were almost a hundred books – novels, short stories, collections and memoirs. He also teamed up with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern writing lyrics for a number of Broadway musicals, including “Sitting Pretty,” “Have a Heart” and “Oh, Lady! Lady!”. He was busy. Shortly before he died, Wodehouse sat for an interview with “The Paris Review: “I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t remember what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.”
Uncle Dynamite is, in reality, Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred, a sixtyish gentleman whose full name is Frederick Altamont Cornwallis, Fifth Earl of Ickenham. He is a terror to his pleasant but witless and docile nephew, getting him into and then out of scrapes. Uncle Fred is described: “A tall, slim distinguished looking man…with a jaunty grey moustache and a bright enterprising eye, whose air was that of one who had lived life to the full every minute of an enjoyable life and intends to go on doing so till further notice. His hat was on the side of his head, and he bore his cigar like a banner.” His mission, as the rubric declares, is to spread sweetness and light.
Besides his unparalleled mastery of the English language, Wodehouse’s genius was his ability to create plots beyond the imagination of the most visionary reader. He then employs a character with the brains of a Jeeves or the impish resourcefulness of an Uncle Fred to unwind what had appeared to be a skein of knotted yarn. And he does so in a surprising and humorous fashion. This is the third of five books in which Uncle Fred plays the principal character. As a reader you will wish for ten times that number.
Wodehouse’s ‘bon mots’ are inimitable and they are found on almost every page: “A sort of writhing movement behind the moustache showed that Sir Aylmer was smiling.” “It frequently happens that prospective sons-in-laws come as a rather painful shock to their prospective mothers-in-law.” “She is taking a trip to the West Indies.” Jamaica?” “No, she went of her own free will.” “A thing I’ve noticed all my life is that the nicest girls always have the ghastliest brothers.” “’H’ar yer?’ roared Sir Aylmer like a lion which just received an ounce of small shot in the rear quarters.”
In this story Uncle Fred is confronted with three young couples – one not paired as he believes they should be, two individuals are estranged and a third couple has the male is in need of the moxie to pledge his troth. The situation, to the reader, seems impossible to resolve. As Uncle Fred goes to work, Pongo (and the reader) become convinced Uncle Fred should be institutionalized. But resolutely and confidently he leads us down the path only he can see. In the final pages webs of intrigue and mayhem are untangled. Sweetness and light prevail.
So, tomorrow, forget your favorite newspaper about some self-serving, hypocritical politician written by a snot-nosed, sanctimonious reporter; rather, pick up a Wodehouse. Instead of being depressed by the state of affairs in the country and the world, you will find yourself in the make-believe world of Edwardian England. A smile will chase away the frowns, laughter will replace tears of despair. You will be happier and so will your family and friends.
This article was first published on Burrowing into Books.