Having read The Mating Season, I’m of the view that I may enjoy Wodehouse better in smaller doses.
While What Ho! was a curated selection of the best and funniest that Wodehouse had to offer, The Mating Season is but one of many of Wodehouse’s prodigious output of comedic stories about the misadventures of the idle rich. By contrast, it has an almost by-the-numbers sort of feel to it.
That’s not to say that it’s not a rollicking fun read on its own, but there is a sameness to it that speaks to how Wodehouse had perfected a comedic formula for his stories, taking the limited assortment of tropes – harridan aunts, excitable young ladies, bumbling sidekicks, and a variation of an impossible love tangle that Jeeves must solve on behalf of Bertie.
The plot is an excuse for the main attraction – seeing Bertie put into a succession of comic crises from which he must save himself, or have Jeeves rescue him at the end of the whole thing, that arise when one foolishly sets oneself up for sure disaster by impersonating somebody else in front of a group of people who should know better. Like a Shakespearean comedy, the action bungs back and forth until everyone is happily attached, except Bertie, of course, who revels in his bachelorhood.
Bertie himself is a surprisingly compelling narrator, not least because underneath that cheerful, aristocratic obtuseness is a character that can sometimes be an interesting subversion of the spoilt rich brat. Wooster may be self-aggrandising, prejudiced, uppity, and prone to wild spurts of impulse and a sorry lack of capacity for self-introspection, he is still a good-hearted person within the narrow confines of what he deems worthy of his help.
Jeeves, on the other hand, while clearly the doer of the duo, isn’t as compelling as I first surmised. Jeeves himself is a secondary character, an unflappable butler of Bertie who acts as a kind of plot lubricator to move things along; his brilliance is usually spoken about, rather than described. Jeeves is capable of supernatural feats of competence, but they are, in The Mating Season, depicted “off-screen”, as it were, blunting the impact of his accomplishments to the plot. Flashes of the real character behind the stoic mask of servitude, no matter how shrewd, are not nearly enough to make Jeeves the character that he should be. In a nutshell (though it may be sacrilege to say so), Jeeves is more plot device than character.
The world of Jeeves and Wooster is so cloistered and privileged, that the worst that anybody in the stories have to worry about is the wrath of their dreaded aunt and the threat of a romantic mismatch. I won’t even go into its problems with depictions of gender and lack of diversity – it would be too much to demand of a mid-century white English author. Some call it idyllic, others hopelessly elitist, but at the end of the day, it is the fruit juice of the soul, saccharine, eminently drinkable, and comforting, not what you’d call particularly complex or robust.
I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 misplaced envelopes