Sense and Nonsense: The Yuletide Spirit

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During Christmas of 1964, I was assigned to a parish in Stanford-le-Hope, a town along the Thames east of London. What I remember most about this stay was retiring to bed on my first night. My quarters were in the convent chaplain’s room across a snowy garden from the church. Not knowing where any light switches were, I finally managed to stumble into the dark room. I was freezing. I quickly jumped into bed and stretched out under the blankets. Suddenly, at the base of the bed, I felt something like a huge cat. I was paralyzed. The something, on examination, turned out to be a hot-water bottle that the nuns had placed there for my Christmas comfort.

I am reminded of this incident on reading the chapter in P.G. Wodehouse’s Very Good, Jeeves! titled “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit,” which had to do with not one but two hot-water bottles, not to mention the inconstancy of the women Bertie, the protagonist, fancies and the tricks of fate—”Dash it all, a splash of disappointment here and there does a fellow good. Makes him realize that life is stern and life is earnest.”

Bertie Wooster is invited to spend the Christmas holidays at Skeldings, the palatial residence of his Aunt Agatha’s friend, Lady Wickham. This invitation “dashes” Wooster and his consort Jeeves’s plan to go “immediately after Christmas to Monte Carlo” to do some much-needed gaming. Jeeves, it seems, has a “keen sporting streak.”

Also invited to Skeldings is Sir Roderick Glossop, father of Honoria Glossop, to whom Wooster was once engaged. Aunt Agatha had hopes of a renewed courtship. Honoria is described as “a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rock-bound coast.” Sir Roderick, however, thinks Wooster to be mostly “insane.” Honoria’s cousin and Wooster’s nemesis, “Tuppy” Glossop, is also invited.

 

Likewise in attendance is the daughter of the house, Roberta Wickham, to whom Bertie immediately takes a fancy. Jeeves, however, thinks that Roberta is not at all “a suitable mate” for a gentleman of Wooster’s “description.” She is “too volatile and frivolous,” though quite attractive. Miss Wickham’s future husband would need “to possess a commanding personality and considerable strength of character”—which, by implication, Jeeves thinks Bertie lacks.

Bertie tries to prove to Jeeves that Roberta is a “serious” young lady when she devises a dastardly plot to enable Bertie to get even with Tuppy Glossop. Tuppy had deliberately managed to have Wooster fall into the pool at the Drones Club while he was fully clad. To get even, Roberta suggests something that the girls back in her school did. “Girls are much subtler than boys in these matters, Jeeves,” Bertie says in admiration. Roberta suggests that the way to get even with Tuppy is to rig up a darning needle on a stick and puncture his hot-water bottle after he has retired to bed on Christmas Eve.

This Bertie does, only to discover that Sir Roderick and Tuppy have somehow changed beds so that the bottle he punctures is Sir Roderick’s. Sir Roderick catches Bertie in the act. The old gentleman then forces Bertie to sleep in the soaked bed, while he takes over Bertie’s. Unfortunately, Roberta has also alerted Tuppy to the same trick. Tuppy, attempting a pre-emptive strike against Bertie, proceeds to puncture Sir Roderick’s second hot-water bottle.

Bertie obviously has to make a quick escape. The only thing to do is to scoot over to Monte Carlo, just as Jeeves had always wanted. Indeed, Jeeves seems to have engineered the whole thing to achieve this very end. The positive side of this story, however, is that Sir Roderick’s anger has closed any plot of Aunt Agatha’s to get Bertie espoused to Honoria, while Roberta’s double-crossing has proved that she was not “serious,” after all—not worthy of “a gentleman of Wooster’s description.”

Is this an English Christmas tale? Indeed it is. In explaining to Jeeves why they initially cannot go to Monte Carlo, Bertie clarifies why he accepted Lady Wickham’s Christmas invitation. In fact, he had been “angling” for it to get even with Tuppy for dunking him at the Club. “In the first place,” Bertie asks Jeeves, “does one get the Yule-Spirit in a spot like Monte Carlo?” To which Jeeves enigmatically responds, “Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit?” Bertie persists, “Certainly one does. I’m all for it.” The Wodehousean addendum to the holiday season is “Both the Yule-tide and Monte Carlo!” Does one desire such amusing spirit at Yuletide? Certainly one does!

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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