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Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge

New Wodehouse readers sometimes ask which of the Jeeves stories they should read first. Opinion on the matter is divided; some people recommend ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ (1925) whereas I suggest ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923). Both are excellent. The question is a matter of chronology.  This piece explores these starting points in more detail.

Readers looking for a more complete reading list, with suggestions for getting started, may find this reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories helpful.

Beginning with ‘Carry On, Jeeves’

Carry On Jeeves (1925) is a collection of short stories, beginning with ‘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 several stories which had appeared in an earlier collection called ‘My Man Jeeves’ (1919). Set mainly in America, the original stories featured a chap called Reggie Pepper. In Carry On Jeeves, Wodehouse revised the stories to include Bertie Wooster, who had made his debut in ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923) and firmly established himself as a narrator.

However Carry On Jeeves also includes new stories that follow on from events in The Inimitable Jeeves, ‘The rummy affair of old Biffy’ and ‘Without the Option’. Both feature 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 already, 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’. George has been replaced with young Bingo Little, whose love life featured heavily in ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’. If you read ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ first, you’ll find out who 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 an excellent introduction to the saga because no prior knowledge is required to enjoy and fully understand the stories. There are no plot spoilers or references to past events. Reading ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ first won’t diminish your enjoyment of ‘Carry On, Jeeves’. The Inimitable Jeeves’ also introduces many of the saga’s recurring characters.

For modern readers who are unaccustomed to reading short stories, ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ is also 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‘ and there is some question as to whether the Bertie who appeared here was a Wooster or a Mannering-Phipps. Do read it, if you can 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.

HP

References and further reading
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)
Madam Eulalie (annotations)
My reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories

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28 Comments

  1. swongs1126 says:

    I started the an omnibus called “The World of Jeeves”, but it also starts with the first story “Jeeves take charge”. To me it is joyful read no matter where I start, because Wodehouse is a thoughtful author to readers that every time when that certain character comes on stage he would introduces some silly anecdotes all over again so that we could get familiar with him/her at first hand! 🙂

  2. Ken clevenger says:

    As ever, a sterling summation of things Wodehousian but I would add just two cents worth of change: Both the Everyman reprints series (UK) and, for sure, the Outlook Press reprint series (US) have almost every past hardbound Wodehouse book now back in publication, I believe. So a copy of My Man Jeeves is available for a reasonable, new book price on both sides of the pond. The way Plum “worked” his words to maximize the income from each mot juste is almost as amazing s the words he so carefully selected to use in the first instance and to see the self-editing as things were reused in different formats is an author’s education.

    • honoria plum says:

      Hi Ken. that is good to know. I quickly searched for My Man Jeeves and didn’t see it, but I am really pleased that the new editions are covering his full printed works. If only they’d started ten years earlier… They are marvellous – it will be a great help for new readers who want to discover Wodehouse, which is really terrific. Thanks for the kind words, too.

  3. Ken clevenger says:

    A check just now to confirm my assertions tells me that I should have said The Overlook Press and Everyman’s Library, these computers, in addition to being pushingly “helpful” as they try to spell words for you are annoying particular when you leave off a few bits of the sought for word.

  4. Paul (the P is silent) says:

    I began with “Right ho, Jeeves” and usually recommend that to newbies. If people like that, then I put them onto “The Inimitable Jeeves,” telling them to go in for a bit of deferred gratification by keeping “Code of the Woosters” in the wings.

  5. Paul (the P is silent) says:

    Speaking of Code of the Woosters (although when is one not speaking of Code of the Woosters?), have you yet delighted in this dramatization? It’s abridged, and slightly adapted, but to my mind it’s pitch perfect. Martin Jarvis does the perfect Jeeves (I prefer his Jeeves here to his audiobook Jeeves).

    http://www.audible.com/pd/Drama-Poetry/The-Code-of-the-Woosters-Dramatized-Audiobook/B002V5CHTY

  6. ashokbhatia says:

    In the vast ocean of mirth left behind by him, one may dive in from any side; the bliss realized is of the same kind! Thanks again for such a lovely post.
    May I take the liberty of reblogging?!

  7. ashokbhatia says:

    Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    Here is yet another enlightening post from the Plumtopia stable. Enjoy!

  8. […] Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge […]

  9. […] Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge […]

  10. chris m says:

    Following the advice given, I started with “The Inimitable Jeeves,” and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it a little more than “Carry On, Jeeves,” and overall the books develop better that way, especially for excellent minor characters like Sir Roderick Glossop. I am especially grateful for the advice because I’d never been able to get into J&W before. I just needed to start at the beginning!

    • honoria plum says:

      Chris, this is wonderful to hear. My favourite in the series is The Mating Season. It needs to be read a little later, after The Code of the Woosters preferably. I’ve read it many times and still laugh out loud. However, Wodehouse wrote so much beyond this series to enjoy so if you find it’s not quite your cup of tea, something else might well be. Thanks so much for letting me know how you got on with The Inimitable Jeeves. I really appreciate it.

  11. […] and told she’ll be accompanied by Jarvis, whom she calls “Jeeves.” Did you know Jeeves was a well-known character from books for decades by this point, setting the standard for later […]

  12. honoria plum says:

    Reblogged this on Plumtopia and commented:

    For the last few years, I have given ‘the gift of Wodehouse’ to introduce work colleagues to Wodehouse at Christmas. Although I always try to make selections with the Psychology of the Individual in mind, I do feel The Inimitable Jeeves is a great place to start.

  13. I remember buying by first PG Wodehouse (Carry on Jeeves as it happens) at a tender age – probably about 10 or 11 as I had heard it was hilarious. Well I tried and I tried but I just could not get the humour. So I left it languishing on a shelf until well into my thirties when I stuffed it into a suitcase for some holiday reading. How pleased am I that I did. One of the best holidays I ever remember. And then experiencing the additional thrill that I had a further 96 PGWs to work my way through.

    So I (eventually) found Carry on Jeeves to be a happy introduction – short stories suited me very well

  14. Thanks for the reminder – I have the inimitable Jeeves on my bookshelf, and now it’s by my side. Reading more Wodehouse is on my new years resolution list.

  15. […] Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge considers where new readers should begin reading the series.  It is a terrific piece and includes admirable advice about ignoring its own advice if you so wish. […]

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