The Inimitable Jeeves 1st edition (1923) image courtesy of wikipedia
I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
The Inimitable Jeeves was one of the first Wodehouse books I ever read, and one I often recommend to new readers. It has been included in several serious lists of ‘classic books you must read’, but don’t let that put you off – it’s terrific! The Inimitable Jeeves is a great introduction to Wodehouse’s best known characters, Bertie Wooster and his valet (or gentleman’s gentleman) Jeeves. Although it’s not the first Jeeves story – that honour goes to ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, a short story contained in The Man with Two Left Feet – The Inimitable Jeeves is one of the earliest and best collections of the saga. And it is where we first meet key personnel including Bingo Little, Honoria Glossop, her father Sir Roderick Glossop, and the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks.
A collection of connected episodes, rather than a conventional novel, The Inimitable Jeeves is a book many Wodehouse fans return to, dipping in to favourite chapters as and when the troubled soul requires soothing. The thirteenth chapter, The Great Sermon Handicap, is particularly revered by Wodehouse readers, and a compulsory inclusion in any ‘Best of Wodehouse’ collection.
In The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie goes through a series of personal ordeals, as well as acting as confidant in the affairs of his pal, Bingo Little.
‘Is Mr Little in trouble, sir?’
‘Well, you might call it that. He’s in love. For about the fifty-third time. I ask you, Jeeves, as man to man, did you ever see such a chap?’
‘Mr Little is certainly warm-hearted, sir.’
‘Warm-hearted! I should think he has to wear asbestos vests….’
Indeed an alternative title for The Inimitable Jeeves might have been ‘The Romances of Bingo Little’ . Although Bingo does not feature in all of the episodes, his quest for a soul mate is a recurring theme throughout the book. Wodehouse opens the proceedings with Bingo’s ill-fated romance with a waitress named Mabel and, after further disappointments, we close with his union to the celebrated novelist Rosie M. Banks.
Bertie has matrimonial problems of his own in The Inimitable Jeeves, thanks to the interference his Aunt Agatha, who feels her nephew might be improved by marriage to a suitable female. Aunt Agatha appeared previously in ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ , and remains a force throughout the saga as one of Wodehouses’s most serious-minded characters.
‘It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in idle selfishness a life which might have been made useful, helpful and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.’
‘But, dash it all . . .’
‘Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .’
‘No, really, I say, please!’ I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.
First she selects Aline Hemmingway, a curate’s sister she meets while on holiday in France. Bertie is saved when Jeeves unmasks the curate Sidney Hemmingway as the notorious confidence trickster ‘Soapy Sid’. Aunt Agatha’s next candidate for the future Mrs Wooster proves more difficult to shake off; she is the formidable Honoria Glossop, and her views on Bertie are very much in keeping with his Aunt Agatha’s.
…She looked at me in a proprietary sort of way. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie. It is true yours has been a wasted life up to the present, but you are still young , and there is a lot of good in you.’
‘No, really there isn’t.’
‘Oh, yes, there is. It simply wants bringing out…’
During their brief engagement, Bertie is force fed a diet of serious arts and literature ’till my eyes bubbled’. It is Jeeves once more who contrives an end to the affair, this time by convincing Honoria’s father, Sir Roderick Glossop the noted ‘nerve specialist’ , that Bertie is mentally unhinged. This particular story was one of the best adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster television series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Admittedly the adaptation created additional scenes, new characters (we do not meet Lady Glossop in the book, for example), and dialogue (sometimes erroneously attributed to Wodehouse by fans), but the new material is generally in keeping with the original, and expertly handled by Fry and Laurie.
I point this out because not all Wodehouse adaptations have been so well made, causing some to feel Wodehouse simply cannot be adapted for stage or screen. I don’t agree with this view myself, but I appreciate the difficulty of adapting a humourist whose masterly prose style is such an integral part of his comedy. Take, for example, this much quoted passage from The Inimitable Jeeves:
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me.
How do you get the joys of reading this across on the screen? In the case of the Jeeves and Wooster adaptations, they had the advantage that Bertie’s narrative could be turned into authentic sounding dialogue. We shouldn’t expect Wodehouse adaptations to match the pleasure of reading the original passage on the page, but it is possible to adapt Wodehouse well. It requires a delicate touch though, and nothing brings greater despair to the optimistic Wodehouse lover than a misguided adaptation (see Introducing Wodehouse to a modern audience for my rant on that subject).
The same problems are faced by those of us who quote Wodehouse. A well-written passage or witty one-liner shoved out into the online universe never quite captures the joy of reading the words in situ. I often struggle to select quotations to include in this blog, because a passage I love on the page often seems to lose a little of its sparkle in isolation. It seems a shame to quote a mere three sentences when the preceding seven paragraphs are also full of ripping stuff. Where does one draw the line? It’s rather like hacking off a piece of Michelangelo‘s David and plopping it on the table for inspection – without the rest of him.
But quote and adapt we do, because of the joy Wodehouse brings us. My favourite rendition of The Inimitable Jeeves is the audio book read by Simon Callow, which I’ve heard so many times that Callow’s musical voice sounds in my head whenever I read it now. Wodehouse fans have their favourite audio book narrators of course, but on the whole I think we’re incredibly lucky to have had so many excellent readers to choose from – I love them all.
I’ve digressed rather a lot, as usual. There’s much more to The Inimitable Jeeves that I haven’t mentioned: Bertie’s period of exile in America for example, or Comrade Bingo’s brief membership of the Heralds of the Red Dawn:
‘Hospitality?’ snorted the man Butt, going off in my ear like a depth-charge. He was scowling in a morose sort of manner at young Bingo and the girl, who were giggling together by the window. ‘I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!’
‘Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!’
‘I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,’ said old Rowbotham. ‘And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.’
Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.
And then there’s the incomparable ‘Purity of the Turf’, but… I’m not going to do all the heavy spade work for you. If you haven’t read about them, you’ll just have to buzz off and read The Inimitable Jeeves for yourself. And if you have already done so, I can do no better than leave you to reflect on happy memories.
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