Steampunk and Wodehouse = What Ho, Automaton!

I don’t want to try defining steampunk. I suspect it’s one of those things that people point to and say “That’s steampunk,” when it’s something they like that has cool gears, steam-power, zeppelins, and an alternate history fin-de-siècle feel.

Steampunk and Wodehouse? Hey, who does better alternate London than Wodehouse?
I wasted some time trying to track down a quotation I remember reading, in which Henry James made a prediction that by the end of the 20th Century, Hugh Walpole would be a famous name, whereas P.G. Wodehouse would be forgotten.

James was an insightful critic, and his essays about the modern novel, though written around 1900, have some value now, but one thing I’ve never seen him praised for is his humor. He also had a thing for Walpole, whose early novels showed some promise, but he never seems to have understood Wodehouse. James could do horror, as in “The Turn of the Screw,” which terrified me as a twelve year old kid. Wodehouse admired James—and apparently he was doing a typically Wodehousian homage in one of his most famous and funniest short stories, “Honeysuckle Cottage.” I don’t know what James thought of it. If he even read it.

Wodehouse, like several writers who became popular in the pre-WW II era, or just after, such as Antonia Forest, chose to unmoor later work from time, as the culture they’d known before or between the wars changed forever. Though it could be argued that the London of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves’ earliest stories, which seem to center around the Drones Club, was unmoored from time at their inception. There is no sign of the horrors of WW I in those stories; the rise of fascism is glimpsed in strictly comedic form, such as in the figure of Sir Roderick Spode, who secretly designed ladies’ underwear when he wasn’t spouting Brown Shirt footle.

There’s a timelessness to Wodehouse’s stories and novels, as well as a good-humored almost sweetness; you can believe that the well-dressed young gentleman wears spats. Wodehouse has been beloved by many famous writers who have tried to pin down exactly how his comedy works. Lacking that fine critical eye, I can only say that Wodehouse is one of the best examples of how a great narrative voice can make anything work. Data dump? They are as entertaining as the dialogue. Action? Vivid. Pacing? So deftly handled the reader is unaware of drifting along an extremely carefully planned plot that will spring in just the right place, at the right time.

Pastiche of writers with distinctive voices is tough to pull off. As far as I can tell, Wodehouse is right up there with Shakespeare in quotations that are not only pulled out because of their wit and verve, but they are instantly identifiable as his. Wodehouse could take the most trite expression and give it a deft twist–“I smoked a moody cigarette”–and he applied the same twist to literary allusions, often leaving out crucial bits, in a way that vanquished cliché. He could also build set up a host of characters, and a mood, in one line or phrase, like “On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps . . .” Wodehouse had a thing about tough aunts.

Chris Dolley begins with Aunt Bertha, who feels that Reggie Worcester should be married. Reggie totters off to the Drones Club, where he meets his pal Stiffy, who tells him what he needs is a Reeves—an automaton, hitherto dressed as a fortuneteller, stuffed into the Drones’ closet. When another member tries to interfere, a quick word from Stiffy that Reggie has aunt trouble, and everyone understands.

The second thing about Wodehouse’s humor is the seeming non sequitur that turns out to actually makes sense—if by no one else’s reasoning but Bertie’s. Stiffy instructs Reggie to tell Reeves everything. When I read, “I recounted my sorry tale, omitting not a single Pomeranian,” I thought, this is it. Chris Dolley has got it.

In this alternate 1903, many servants are automata, fed on steam (which leads to some humorous moments). There are also the Prometheans, of whom Dr. Frankenstein was probably a founding father. Reggie drives a Stanley Steamer, and there are airships as well. The first tale is a country house story, a blending of Bertie and Blandings; with the second tale, Dolley really finds his feet. It’s longer, stronger, and Dolley begins to develop his own voice, though expertly staying within Wodehouse’s airy limits. I enjoyed these tales tremendously, and hope Chris Dolley will be writing about Reggie and Reeves’s further adventures.


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