New Wodehouse readers sometimes ask which of the Jeeves stories they should read first. Opinion on the matter seems to be divided into two camps; many people recommend ‘Carry On, Jeeves’, whereas I usually suggest ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923). Both are excellent. The difficulty is a matter of chronology.
Today’s writers and publishers make it easy for readers to progress from ‘book one’ of a series in a logical and predictable manner, through its various instalments, to the series conclusion. Many modern series are well planned in advance. Others feature recurring characters in separate stories (crime fiction leaps to mind) which can be read in any order, although the chronologically-inclined reader can read them in order of publication to avoid ‘spoilers’. And modern readers are so accustomed to ‘the novel’ that it’s the only form of fiction most of us ever read.
Many readers are surprised to discover Carry On, Jeeves and The Inimitable Jeeves are collected short stories (although some of the later Jeeves books are novels). Wodehouse was writing in the halcyon days of the short story, and he was a master of that format. With a terrific number of magazines publishing fiction, writers like the young Wodehouse could earn sufficient income from writing to pay the bills, while developing his craft and audience. Authors like Wodehouse (Conan-Doyle is another example) would later revise their stories for publication in book form.
Most of the early Jeeves stories were collected under the title ‘My Man Jeeves’ (1919) – some featuring a chap called Reggie Pepper. By 1923, when ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ was published, Bertie Wooster is firmly established as narrator. In the 1925 collection, ‘Carry On, Jeeves’, Wodehouse reworked some of the earlier stories into the new and improved Wooster narrative. He also included new stories that follow on from events in The Inimitable Jeeves.
Beginning with ‘Carry On, Jeeves’
This seems the logical starting point for many people. It opens with the ‘first’ Jeeves story (‘Jeeves Takes Charge’), in which Jeeves enters Bertie’s employment, cures his hangover, and disentangles him from an engagement with the unsuitable Florence Craye.
…he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start. Meadowes had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in.
This is followed by the revised early stories from ‘My Man Jeeves’, set mainly in America. Then Wodehouse gives us two wonderful new stories: ‘The rummy affair of old Biffy’ and ‘Without the Option’. Both feature Bertie’s ex-fiancé Honoria Glossop and her father Sir Roderick, the eminent ‘nerve specialist’.
One of the things that get this old crumb so generally disliked among the better element of the community is the fact that he has a head like the dome of St. Paul’s and eyebrows that want bobbing or shingling to reduce them to anything like reasonable size. It is a nasty experience to see this bald and bushy bloke advancing on you when you haven’t prepared the strategic railways in your rear.
These Glossops are notorious among Wodehouse readers, but unless you’ve read ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ you won’t have met them. Although Wodehouse can generally be enjoyed out of order, these particular stories are better if you’re familiar with the characters – and ‘The rummy affair of old Biffy’ gives away the plot of the earlier story.
There are similar issues with ‘Clustering around young Bingo’. This is a very successful reworking of the Reggie Pepper story, ‘Rallying round old George’. Old George has been replaced with young Bingo Little, whose love life featured heavily in ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’. If you happen to read ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ first, you’ll know all about the woman Bingo eventually marries. This may not spoil your enjoyment of ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’, but it will spoil the surprise.
Beginning with ”The Inimitable Jeeves’
Chronologically, the events of ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ take place sometime between the first and the sixth chapters of ‘Carry On, Jeeves.‘ But it would be pedantic and unnecessary to read the stories in that order.
‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ makes the best introduction to the saga, in my view, because no prior knowledge is required to enjoy and fully understand the stories. Importantly, there are no plot spoilers or references to past events. Indeed, this book introduces many of the saga’s recurring characters. Reading ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ first does nothing to diminish the enjoyment of ‘Carry On, Jeeves’, and some stories in that collection are arguably more enjoyable for being read second.
For the modern reader, less accustomed to short stories, ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ is a more seamless collection than ‘Carry On Jeeves’. The stories, mostly published during 1922 in Cosmopolitan (US) and The Strand (UK) magazines, are more closely interconnected than the collection in ‘Carry On, Jeeves’.
Other possible beginnings
If you have a particular mania for chronological correctness, you could begin with the aforementioned My Man Jeeves (1919). Getting your hands on a copy may not be so easy, and as Wodehouse revised most of it for ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ there really isn’t much point. This is a volume best left for the Wodehouse fanatics (the ranks of whom, you may soon be joining).
At the risk of complicating things further, a purist might scoff at the sort of slacker who begins with My Man Jeeves, when the first Jeeves story, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, was published much earlier, in 1915 (not to be confused with the other ‘first’ Jeeves story, ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’, which was not the first written, but recounts Bertie and Jeeves’ first meeting). ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ appeared in the 1917 collection ‘The Man with Two Left Feet‘. By all means read it, if you find a copy, but it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.
Perhaps the most common approach to reading Wodehouse is to start with whichever book you happen to chance across and be perfectly content to devour the rest of them in whatever order you seize upon them. Many people have read Wodehouse this way, especially those of us who collected our books second-hand in the days before internet booksellers and modern reprintings of his work.
So to the modern reader seeking advice, I recommend ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’, but it’s advice you should feel free to ignore.
References and further reading
Madam Eulalie (annotations)
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)
(c) Copyright. My original writing at Plumtopia is subject to copyright. You are welcome to quote from my writing with permission, acknowledging me as the author.