[Note: In observance of the holidays, we’re publishing an essay by Pat that appears this month in the Christmas issue of the Literary Review, London.]
The Ghost of Christmas Presents Past
P. G. Wodehouse & the Art of Regifting
By Patricia T. O’Conner
Remember that P. G. Wodehouse story where Jeeves shimmers into the presence on Christmas morning in a Santa suit, waking Bertie with a steaming cup and a sonorous “What ho-ho-ho, sir! God bless us, everyone”?
Neither do I. Never happened. As seasons go, Yuletide did not recommend itself to Wodehouse. His favorite carol, he once said, was “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” He tended not to write about Christmas, but around it.
Maybe that’s one reason I find myself binge-reading him as Christmas hoves into view. The whole seasonal ballyhoo, the gift racket in particular, taxes the equilibrium, and Wodehouse has a calming effect, soothes the fevered brow, knits up the ravell’d nerve.
But while the holiday season does not loom large in the Wodehouse oeuvre, one can’t escape it entirely. He couldn’t write ninety-something books and more than two hundred short stories and get off scot-free. In one tale, “Jeeves and the Greasy Bird,” Christmas figures as a plot device, or rather a subplot device (the greasy bird of the title is not a Christmas goose but a crook who’s fond of hair oil).
As the story opens, Bertie sets the festive mood, observing, “we would soon be having Christmas at our throats.” Towards the end, the principal action having been disposed of, the subplot takes centre stage. On a visit to his Aunt Dahlia’s country house, Bertie is blackmailed into playing Santa at her annual party for neighbouring children. The prospect—man goggling in padded suit before gang of young thugs armed with ripe fruit—curdles the Wooster blood and has him quivering like an aspen. Enter the resourceful Jeeves, who not only extracts Bertie from the cast list but lands his arch nemesis, Sir Roderick Glossop, with the role. The Santa gimmick, however, merely affords Wodehouse a satisfactory ending. That story first appeared in a Christmas issue of Playboy, and one suspects that the Yule angle was bunged in as a sop to the editors.
But even in his story “Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit,” which at least has some Y-t S in the title, Christmas is merely an excuse for some frostiness between Bertie and Jeeves. Bertie decides to holiday at home in England, the better to woo his latest love interest, though he’d promised Jeeves they’d go to Monte Carlo. Jeeves’s silence speaks volumes. Bertie argues, “Does one get the Yule-tide spirit at a spot like Monte Carlo?” To which Jeeves responds: “Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit, sir?”
Clearly, we don’t look to Wodehouse for Christmas reading that warms the cockles. But as it happens, we find something better: solid practical advice on gift-giving.
In “Christmas Presents,” an essay written in 1915, Wodehouse makes his case succinctly: “Presents must be bought, and the only thing to do is to try to get off as lightly as possible.” So how is this dodge to be managed? “The first rule in buying Christmas presents,” he writes, “is to select something shiny.” This advice seems puzzling but makes more sense in light of rule number two, which follows: “Select something which shall be capable of being passed on to somebody else.” Aha! Here we have the keystone of the Wodehouse system. Ungenerous? Not in the least! As he says, gift-giving is all about “humaneness and consideration for others.” And what could be more humane, more considerate, than enabling a friend or relative to present a future gift without that expenditure which “it is always so pleasant to avoid”?
While Wodehouse doesn’t explain the “shiny” rule, I get it. A shiny gift is easier to pass on. After a year in the cupboard, it can be buffed to look new. It won’t go bad, like fancy edibles. And one size fits all. If it’s successfully regifted often enough, it may even come back to you, like the “Smoker’s Ideal Companion,” a contraption complete with brass cigar cutter that Wodehouse says he received for Christmas in 1903, gave away in 1904, got back in 1908, regifted in 1909, received for Christmas in 1914 and then forwarded to a pal in Australia, “whither, I feel sure, it has never yet penetrated.”
What a shining (literally) example of the system at work! A loathsome exhibit in itself, the gift moves Wodehouse to “a not unmanly wave of sentiment” each time it reappears on his doorstep, reminding him as it does of the humaneness and consideration of that long chain of givers who’ve neither shelled out for it themselves nor required others to shell out in turn. “Much misery has been caused in an infinite number of homes by the practice of giving presents which cannot be treated in this way,” Wodehouse warns. He does not exaggerate.
A case in point: at the first Christmas following our marriage, my husband and I received a gift that failed to meet the Wodehouse criteria. While it was more loathsome than even the “Smoker’s Ideal Companion,” it was neither shiny nor regiftable. It was sent by distant friends who’d been traveling in Asia and missed the nuptials, so this was both wedding and Christmas gift. It arrived in a big box, surrounded by foam peanuts and layered in tissue paper. As we began peeling away the layers, we were met with an odd smell, musty and a bit smoky. Dust rose from the tissuey depths. Coughing slightly, I opened a window. What eventually emerged was a roundish, globular lump of something that looked like dried mud, about a foot in diameter, flattish on the bottom, with a hole on top.
“What is it?” said Stewart.
“There must be a note,” I said. There was: a small printed card explained that this was a vase of rare black clay, handcrafted by contemporary artisans using 10,000-year-old pottery techniques and fired, unglazed, in an earthen pit. “Bumps and irregularities are part of its natural beauty. Do not wash. Dust with dry cloth.”
I picked it up. Then I put it down. My hands were covered in rare black clay dust. The thing was shedding. A small pool of grit had settled around its base.
“What do we do with it?” said Stewart, fanning the air. “Do we have to keep it? What are the chances they’ll come to visit?”
“Stay calm. We’ll think of something.” Our eyes began to water.
“You know them better than I do,” he said. “Could it be a joke?”
“No, they’re artsy-craftsy types. They probably think it’s gorgeous,” I replied. “Maybe we can just tuck it away somewhere indefinitely. But in the meantime I don’t care what the instructions say, I’m washing it.” I went into the kitchen for apron and gloves.
“How slippery is it?” Stewart asked.
“Not at all, why?”
“Well, when you’re washing it, with your hands soapy and all, you might happen to … um … accidentally drop it.”
We looked at each other for a while.
“That could happen,” I said.
∗ ∗ ∗
[Note. On Dec. 26, 2021, a reader of the blog commented: “I was charmed to listen to Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves and the Y-t S’ and read your Jeevish derivative, but I was horrified to read that ‘Christmas hoves into view.’ As a sailor, I am familiar with the maneuver in which a ship heaves to, and the subject of your regifting story certainly deserved the old heave-ho, but grammatical misbehavior is a bit Woosterish, don’t you think?”
Pat’s reply: This expression in various forms (“hove/hoves/hoving into view”) is a frequent P. G. Wodehouse usage, comically ungrammatical, as in “the moment we hove in view” (Carry On, Jeeves), “she gave me rather a jaundiced look as I hove in sight” (Right Ho, Jeeves), and “Ginger suddenly hoves into view” (The Adventures of Sally).
The OED says that in modern English, “heaved is now the general form [of the past tense], though hove remains in certain uses.” And according to Oxford Reference, the present-tense use of “hove(s)” is a “common journalistic variant” of the proper “heave(s).” I can’t say that it’s common, but it certainly is identified with Wodehouse and familiar to his fans. I used it humorously for that reason.]