Of Aunts and Butlers: A Comparison of Walter R. Brooks and P. G. Wodehouse
Once upon a time, in a land far away, (though not quite beyond the Inns river), I worked for an alarmingly chaotic software company. It was still in its startup phase and its clients are large banks. I found the corporate culture clashes to be frustrating but amusing.
One night, I was told to write a memo detailing our equipment needs. It was low priority, which meant it could wait until my manager arrived at headquarters in the morning. I also had to review a very long document as soon as I could hide for a few minutes. I had absolutely no intention of writing this memo.
My client was a German bank. An ongoing theme was that every problem deserved a clever solution. Some examples: 1) To protect privacy from those who can recognize people by their shoes, the bathroom stall doors were as close to the floor tiles as German engineering allowed; 2) after business hours, the lights throughout the building periodically turned off (they did not use motion detectors to turn the lights back on, we had to feel for the light switch); 3) They did, however, have a clever use for motion detectors to solve another problem. If someone went into the men’s room, the motion detector would set off a timer. A careful estimate had been made of how long it takes a Teutonic banker to urinate. Once this time elapsed, all the urinals flushed.
These all must have sounded excellent in the conference room. Now that toilets have optical sensors that invoke the flush sequence as soon as we twitch, it is difficult to appreciate just how absurd the automated flushing procedure seemed at the time. That night I found myself in a bathroom stall in sudden darkness as deep as the climactic moment of a cave tour. As I listened to the urinals flushing, urgent document in hand, I began to compose the memo. I made a mental note (remember, it was too dark to write) that this equipment must include a turbo-charged engine.
The only reasonable explanation of what happened next was that my writing was sharpened by just the right mixture of fatigue, frustration and caffeine. My memo arrived at the fax machine before my manager. It was intercepted and distributed to everyone with a sense of humor. Our colleagues tried to spare my manager the effort of reading it by enthusiastically misquoting their favorite passages. It was published in the company newsletter and I was asked to make regular contributions. In order to complement me and stretch me, a colleague gave me a book that I should use as a model. Naturally, it had a pig in it. It was a novel written by P.G. Wodehouse.
While the Wodehouse gesture has the ring of an excellent pre-adolescent athlete being taken to a professional sporting event, I now note that one of Wodehouse’s detractors described his work as “relentless flippancy.”
Because both of these authors are unusually effective at composing humorous descriptions, I could not help but wonder if Walter R. Brooks took some inspiration from P. G. Wodehouse. I began writing a comparison of their books that involved aunts and a butler, specifically:
-Freddy and Mr. Camphor
-Freddy Goes Camping
–Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen
At one point, I turned to Michael Cart, who told me that Walter did not have a single Wodehouse in his library. I now believe that the inspiration was on the level of having succeeded with baseball, football and various things that fly, Walter thought he might as well try aunts and a butler.
P. G. Wodehouse was born in 1881, five years before Walter. He wrote about 90 novels. The first was published in 1902. He was working on a novel when he died in 1975 at the age of 93. Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen was his last completed novel. Wodehouse wrote several series of novels, which generally poked fun at the rich. Wodehouse’s most famous characters are Bertrand “Bertie” Wooster and his valet, Reginald Jeeves. One of Wodehouse’s most famous lines resulted from an initial setback to Jeeves’ attempts to influence Bertie’s taste in clothing: “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” Bertie described another incident this way: “Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.”
Typically, Bertie is pressured into participating in a complicated scheme, which, of course, backfires. Then Jeeves comes up with a brilliant solution, which also fails due to poor execution and bad luck. Here is a typical summation from Bertie: “As Jeeves said later the whole situation resembled some great moment in a Greek tragedy, where somebody is stepping high, wide and handsome, quite unconscious that all the while Nemesis is at his heels.” Ultimately, Jeeves provides the key to the solution to whatever mess Bertie finds himself in. As a result, Bertie’s friends and relatives are very impressed with Jeeves’ intelligence. It was a fan’s homage that an early internet search engine, ask.com, was originally called Ask Jeeves. As a point of reference, Google, the most famous search engine, was founded in 1998 while Ask Jeeves was founded two years earlier in 1996.
While he is not as well-read as his valet, Bertie clearly has some education. He likes to make literary allusions, such as: She came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room. While Bertie sometimes overestimates himself, he is not preposterously misinformed about his limitations and makes self-deprecating remarks about his own intelligence. However, we get the feeling that even at his most modest, the situation is worse than Bertie realizes. Some of Bertie’s comments betray a garbled sense of logic: “You can’t expect a dog to pass up a policeman on a bicycle. It isn’t human nature.” Certainly, while Bertie often makes the safe bet of attributing clichés to Shakespeare, more often that not he makes the relatively improbable mistake of choosing clichés Shakespeare did not actually invent.
Bertie has redeeming characteristics, and there are a few women who are very interested in marrying him. Bertie is unfailingly polite and is unconvincing when he tries to reject their advances. This inspired one of Bertie’s excellent descriptions of Jeeves: “As always when I tell him I’m engaged to be married, he betrayed no emotion, continuing to look as if he had been stuffed by a good taxidermist.”
Bertie will sometimes try to seem as if he knows more than he really does. A women to whom Bertie was once engaged sees him buying a gift for Jeeves, a book by the famously challenging 17th century philosopher Spinoza. She asks him if he likes Spinoza, and he says: “Oh, rather. When I have a leisure moment, you will generally find me curled up with Spinoza’s latest.” She concludes that Bertie has grown as a result of their relationship. She misinterprets his friendliness, dumps her fiancee and moves forward with ill conceived plans to marry Bertie. The adventure begins.
An important difference between Brooks and Wodehouse’s handling of the rich nephew character is Mr. Camphor’s intelligence. When he we first meet Mr. Camphor, he is spending the summer consulting the government on an important project. Other than a momentary lapse when he believed the father of “the dirty faced boy” rather than Freddy, Jimson Camphor is no fool. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, might very well be a fool.
Walter and Wodehouse both make fun of unsavory characters. For example, this is how Wodehouse described a particularly large and ugly antagonist: It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.
However, Walter is much kinder when he makes fun of people’s weaknesses. On their way to meet Mr. Camphor for the first time, Freddy, Weedly and Jinx walk by the duck pond and notice that the pompous uncle character is pretending to sleep for rather self-important reasons. Alice the duck explained: “He says the things Emma and I talk about aren’t half as interesting as his own thoughts, and he sits that way so he can think and won’t have to listen to our chatter.”
“You mean he’s not listening to us now?” asked Weedly, looking curiously at the sleeping duck.
“I’m sure he doesn’t hear a thing we say,” said Alice.
“Oh, yeah?” said Jinx. He winked at Freddy, then said in a loud voice: “Well, that’s good, because there’s something I wanted to tell you that I didn’t want him to hear.” Then he lowered his voice and said very fast under his breath: “Umbly, umbly, umbly, umbly.”
And Uncle Wesley’s head popped out from under his wing. “Ah!” he said. “Company! Good morning Jinx, Weedly. Good morning, Freddy, my boy. Were you saying something, Jinx?”
“No,” said the cat, pretending to look embarrassed. “No indeed, nothing important. Oh, no.”
“Come, come,” said the duck, waddling up to Jinx in his fussy pompous way, “no need to hide anything from Uncle Wesley. He can keep a secret, I imagine, as well as any of you, eh?”
“Well, if you really want to know what I was saying—” Jinx began, then paused. “Yes, yes,” said Uncle Wesley impatiently.
“I said: umbly, umbly, umbly, umbly.”
Uncle Wesley puffed out his chest. “You said what?”
“Umbly, umbly, umbly, umbly,” repeated Jinx. Then he grinned, and the two pigs grinned, and even Alice and Emma tittered a little.
Uncle Wesley was no fool and he saw that the joke was on him. He was pretty grumpy about it at first, but when Freddy had assured him that they wouldn’t play jokes on him if they didn’t like him, and when Jinx had slapped him on the back and called him “Wes, old pal,” he stopped sulking.
Even those who wish to do the animals harm are shown some sympathy. When Jinx describes how Mr. Eha was tricked into gluing his pistol to his hand and how “it took him ten minutes and practically his entire vocabulary to get it off again,” Freddy responds: “What an awful night! I feel sorry for the poor man.”
We meet Jeeves’ counterpart in Freddy and Mr. Camphor. We really do not know if Bannister, Mr. Camphor’s butler, is as intelligent as Jeeves, because Mr. Camphor does not rely on Bannister to solve his problems. (This burden falls, of course, on Freddy and his friends.) But, Bannister realizes that Freddy was unjustly accused by the Winches before Mr. Camphor does. In keeping with the theme of an intellectual valet, Camphor and Bannister compare proverbs. When we first meet Bannister, he accidentally steps on Jinx’s tail. A few minutes later, Jimson Camphor turns to Bannister: That brings up another proverb: curiosity killed the cat. What do you say to that, Bannister?
“I don’t believe it, sir. This cat, if I may say so, is almost too much alive.”
“I’m sorry I clawed you,” said Jinx. “But when you stepped on my tail—”
“Pray don’t mention it, sir,” said Bannister. “I should no doubt have clawed you if you’d done the same thing to me.”
Incidentally, Jeeves is not a butler, he is a valet. Strictly speaking, a butler has a managerial position while a valet specializes in taking care of one gentleman. It seems unlikely that Bannister has a butler’s managerial responsibilities, he did not seem to have any authority over the other staff. Of course, most boys living in mid-twentieth century United States would not care about this distinction. And, Bannister did have an important role in the household, which is to add dignity. As Freddy explained to Mrs. Wiggins: “A good butler has to be dignified and formal for everybody in the house. That’s what he’s hired for—to keep everything very high class and ceremonious. That’s the advantage of having a lot of money like Mr. Camphor: if you don’t want to bother about being dignified, you can hire somebody to be dignified for you.”
Already in Freddy and Mr. Camphor, we get some indications that aunts will eventually be making their appearance. When we first meet Bannister and he realizes that Freddy and his friends are animals: “He gave a sharp bark of surprise. ‘Oh my aunt– pigs!’” Later, in the same book, Breckenridge the Eagle mentions his auntin a line that if it weren’t from Walter I’d think was an imitation of Wodehouse: “She is indeed completely her old self again. Quite capable, as she says in her quaint way, of tearing a rabbit with the best of them.”
In the Aunts And A Butler Genre, the aunts attempt to dominate their rich nephew. Whenever we meet Aunt Dahlia, she is involving Bertie in one of her schemes. This might be an act of charity, such as supporting a local school. But often these are plots to make her husband, Tom Travers, more willing to fund the the costs of the money-losing magazine she owns. These schemes often backfire. In one memorable case, she explained to Bertie: I ought to have known that a clergyman was bound to have scruples, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. Aunt Dahlia, who refers to herself as Travers, will scold Bertie when he does not go along with her schemes. “Where’s your pride? Have you forgotten your illustrious ancestors? There was a Wooster at the time of the Crusades who would have won the Battle of Joppa single-handed, if he hadn’t fallen off his horse.” When Bertie tried to get a friend to take his place as speaker at a charity event, she fired off this telegram: Am taking legal advice to ascertain whether strangling an idiot nephew counts as murder. Consider you treacherous worm. I hope you get run over by an omnibus. Love. Travers.
Dahlia is the aunt that likes Bertie. His Aunt Agatha is even more unnerving. Bertie describes her as: tall and thin… rather like a vulture in the Gobi desert. Another description is: Aunt Agatha is like an elephant—not so much to look at, for in appearance she resembles more a well-bred vulture, but because she never forgets. Even Jeeves remarks about Aunt Agatha, saying this about the headmistress of a girls’ school: “In some ways she reminded me of Mr Wooster’s Aunt Agatha, with the same cool stare and the same obvious unwillingness to put up with any nonsense.” Jeeves once remarked to Bertie: “I am inclined to doubt whether the gentleman exists who could be master in a home that contained her ladyship, sir.” In Joy in the Morning, written while Wodehouse was detained by the Nazis, there is a portrait of Aunt Agatha which make Bertie and his rich uncle uncomfortable.
In keeping with the Aunts And A Butler Genre, Jimson Camphor’s aunts are unpleasant. When Freddy meets Jimson Camphor’s aunt in Camping, she says to her nephew: Sorry, sorry? What good does that do? That’s what you always say. Why don’t you think a little beforehand? Later, Jimson Camphor apologies to the animals:
I know I ought to have stood up for you better. After all it is my house.
Freddy grinned. “Not anymore, it isn’t.”
While Bertie tries to appease his aunts, the animals encourage Jimson Camphor to handle his aunts constructively. First, they encourage Jimson to stand up to Aunt Minerva. When she realizes that she is eating lunch with a pig and a cow, she exclaims: Jimson! What are these creatures doing here? Now clear them out! I spoke to you once about them! I’ve never eaten with pigs, and I’m not going to now.
“Better late then never, eh, Bannister?” Said Mr. Camphor and giggle faintly into his soup spoon.
“As you say, sir,” the butler replied. “There’s no time like the present.”
Miss Minerva turned and stamped out of the room.
The animals teach Jimson that sometimes complements can help people to improve their behavior. After Freddy remarks on Aunt Minerva‘s soup, she responds: The first word of praise for my cooking that I’ve ever heard in this house and it had to come from a pig! As Mrs Wiggins tells Jimson: Well, good land, it wouldn’t hurt you to pay her a compliment now and then. If you praised her cooking she might improve it. Later, even Mr. Bean gets into the act with a wink. By the end of Camping, he is cooking with Aunt Minerva.
While Jimson Camphor and Bertie Wooster each have two formidable aunts, Walter diverges from Wodehouse with the aunts’ personalities. Aunt Bertie’s aunts are variations on the same theme, but Aunt Elmira is an entirely different type of unpleasant personality; she wants everyone to be unhappy with her. As Jimson puts it:“Depressed! Ha!—just plain squashed. All day long she sits in that chair. You think of something nice to do, and then you look out the window and see her. It’s as if a black cloud came over the sun. It’s as if you had a stomach ache that you’d forgotten about, and then it starts up again. Nothing seems like fun, and the more you look at her, the more you wonder why you don’t just go up and lock yourself in your room and set fire to the house.”
At the end of both Camping and Gentlemen, distance is put between the unpleasant aunts and the rich nephews. Bertie Wooster leaves England to avoid his aunts, and Aunt Elmira moves to the Great Dismal Swamp. Bertie Wooster and his aunts do not grow. In contrast, Walter’s characters grow by learning to handle difficult people. In Camping, Jimson Camphor’s aunts’ bad behavior is managed. Once Aunt Minerva’s behavior improves, Walter begins to refer to her as Miss Minerva. To signify the characters’ growth, Aunt Minerva transforms into Miss Minerva. Even the relocation is subtly different. Bertie Wooster is escaping while Aunt Elmira is gaining independence. Further, in Camping, the animals also accept others as they are. Even when Jinx pokes fun at Uncle Wesley, we see that they accept Wesley as he is.
Contrasting with my original thought that Wodehouse influenced Brooks, I note that while Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen was written after Freddy Goes Camping, there are very similar concluding passages. In Camping, it is Minerva that notices that the world has improved: Miss Minerva looked out across the lake, and then up at the sky. “Dear me,” she said, “I do believe the sun is going to come out.”
“It does seem brighter,” said Mr. Camphor, “but the clouds are just as heavy.”
“What’s brighter is that Miss Elmira’s gone,” Freddy said.
In Bertie’s last speech in his last appearance in a Wodehouse novel he says: …We are tranquil. And I’ll tell you why. There are no aunts here. And in particular we are three thousand miles from Mrs Dahlia Travers.
Inns river: some folklorists believe that the traditional Eastern European start to children’s tales indicate that the magical place is so far away that it is beyond the Inns river. The most famous place associated with this river is Innsbruck.
Gruntled: Code of the Woosters
Purple socks: The Inimitable Jeeves
Some great moment in a Greek tragedy: Code of the Woosters
Ask Jeeves: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ask.com
Like Lady MacBeth: Joy in the Morning
Dog – policeman: Code of the Woosters
Stuffed by a good taxidermist: Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen
Nature had intended: Code of the Woosters
Umbly, umbly: Freddy and Mr. Camphor
Ten minutes and practically his entire vocabulary: Freddy Goes Camping
Proverbs, Oh my aunt, tearing a rabbit: Freddy and Mr. Camphor
Scruples, Illustrious ancestors: Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen
Legal advice: Right Ho, Jeeves
Vulture in the Gobi desert: Much Obliged, Jeeves
Well-bred vulture, master in a home that contained her ladyship: Joy in the Morning
Jimson Camphor’s aunts: Freddy Goes Camping
Peter Tamas has a background in Economics and Finance which led to working with financial trading systems, a career with its share of angst, gnashing of teeth and humorous absurdity. It is unclear if he genuinely believes there is an “aunts and a butler genre”. He would like to leave the last word of this article to Bannister: “There is no friend like a good book.”