Meet Jeeves, the world’s most famous valet and P.G. Wodehouse’s best known character. The name Jeeves has come to symbolise the epitome of efficient service to millions who’ve never even read Wodehouse. Among fans, he is spoken of with a reverence usually reserved for deities. And how many of us have wished for a Jeeves in our lives? But is this rosy view of Jeeves’ as Bertie Wooster’s domestic saviour justified, when so often it is Jeeves who contrives the situations from which Bertie must be rescued? Nor is his support lacking in self-interest. In Wodehouse’s idyllic world, is Jeeves more serpent than servant?
The story of Jeeves’ introduction to the Wooster home is told in ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’ (Carry On Jeeves). Jeeves enters Bertie’s employment after Bertie’s previous man, Meadowes, is caught pinching his socks.
I was reluctantly compelled to hand the misguided blighter the mitten and go to London to ask the registry office to dig up another specimen for my approval. They sent me Jeeves.
Jeeves enters in style, his almost supernatural powers evident from the first.
…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.
Jeeves’ first act is to mix Bertie a hangover remedy that instantly transforms his new employer from a weakened state, winning his approval. A mere page after his arrival however, Bertie notices ‘…a kind of rummy something about his manner’ when Bertie announces he is engaged to Lady Florence Craye. The page after that, Jeeves conveys his disapproval of Bertie’s check suit.
Again there was that kind of rummy something in his manner. It was the way he said it, don’t you know. He didn’t like the suit. I pulled myself together to assert myself. Something seemed to tell me that, unless I was jolly careful and nipped this lad in the bud, he would be starting to boss me. He had the aspect of a distinctly resolute blighter.
Bertie tells us Florence Craye is ‘…a dear girl, and, seen sideways, most awfully good-looking; but if she had a fault it was a tendency to be a bit imperious with the domestic staff.’ Florence orders Bertie to destroy his Uncle Willoughby’s memoirs, which contain some rather fruity stories about her father, before they reach his publisher. Bertie pinches the manuscript and asks Jeeves to dispose of the remains, but Jeeves posts it to the publisher. When Florence cancels their engagement, Bertie is appalled to discover Jeeves’ presumptuous interference in his affairs and sacks him.
Jeeves slips off the mask of deference and explains his motives:
“As I am no longer in your employment, sir, I can speak freely without appearing to take a liberty. In my opinion you and Lady Florence were quite unsuitably matched.”
He speaks at length of Florence’s bad temper, her reputation in the servants’ hall, and her plans for Bertie’s education — having started him on Types of Ethical Theory, she was preparing to introduce him to Nietzsche.
“…You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”
On reflection, Bertie sees that he is well out of the engagement, and we feel relieved for him. But he reinstates Jeeves without pausing to question Jeeves’ methods or motives. It is certainly in Jeeves’ interests to remove Lady Florence as a dominating force in Bertie’s life (as he does with Bertie’s later love-interests). Even if we feel Jeeves’ motives are sound, his underhanded methods are not. To interfere in the love-life of a friend is a moral grey-area, but as a new employee it definitely crosses the line.
Poor Bertie is too preoccupied with his lucky escape from Florence Craye, and hailing Jeeves as his saviour, to appreciate that he may have succumbed to an equally dominant force in Jeeves.
“Oh, Jeeves,” I said; “about that check suit.”
“Is it really a frost?”
“A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.”
“But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.”
“Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.”
“He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.”
“I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”
I hesitated a bit. I had a feeling that I was passing into this chappie’s clutches and that if I gave in now I should become just like poor old Aubrey Fothergill, unable to call my soul my own. On the other hand, this was obviously a cove of rare intelligence, and it would be a comfort in lots of ways to have him doing the thinking for me. I made up my mind.
“All right, Jeeves,” I said. “You know! Give the bally thing away to somebody!”
He looked at me like a father gazing tenderly at the wayward child.
“Thank you, sir. I gave it to the under-gardener last night. A little more tea, sir?”
And so, like the young Dorian Grey, our hero Wooster makes his pact. If this was the first installment in a sci-fi serial, we would have sufficient clues to mistrust Jeeves’ and gnash our teeth between episodes in fear for Bertie’s safety. But somehow we do not. We too are under Jeeves’ spell. Snake or saviour? It’s too soon to tell.