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This piece is the second in a series of guides for readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of Wodehouse ‘hidden gems’. The previous post provided reading suggestions for new Wodehouse readers.
Today’s piece offers a suggested reading order for the Jeeves and Wooster stories, followed by some general notes and guidance for readers.
If you particularly dislike short stories and want to skip straight to the novels, I suggest starting your reading from Right Ho, Jeeves.
Jeeves and Wooster Reading List
- The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)*
- Carry On, Jeeves (1925)*
- Very Good Jeeves (1930)*
- Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor)
- The Code of the Woosters (1938)
- Joy in the Morning (1946)
- The Mating Season (1949)
- Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1955; US title Bertie Wooster Sees it Through)
- Jeeves in the Offing (1960; US title How Right You Are, Jeeves)
- Thank You, Jeeves (1934)
- Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963)
- Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971; US title Jeeves and the Ties that Bind)
- Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974; US title The Cat-Nappers)
*The World of Jeeves, currently available in print for around £8, covers the Inimitable Jeeves, Carry On, Jeeves, and Very Good Jeeves. It also makes a great gift for introducing new readers to the series.
The Short Stories
The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say `When’.
Very Good, Jeeves
Bertie Wooster and his resourceful manservant Jeeves appeared in over thirty short stories between 1915 and the publication of their first novel, Thank You, Jeeves, in 1934. Wodehouse was a master of the short story format, and the stories include some of Bertie’s most memorable adventures. They offer the best possible introduction to the series and its characters. Reading them first will avoid plot spoilers, and ensure you appreciate all the ‘in jokes’ throughout the series.
The short stories first appeared in magazine format before they were published in three volumes as The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), Carry On, Jeeves (1925) and Very Good Jeeves (1930). Their order of appearance in these volumes differs from their original magazine publication order, and some titles were changed. Additional stories were also included, as Wodehouse reworked some earlier stories featuring a character called Reggie Pepper.
These three volumes were later collated in a 1967 Omnibus, The World of Jeeves (introduction by P.G. Wodehouse) and appear in an order that better resembles their original publication order. Some of the stories are listed under their original titles.
The World of Jeeves also includes two later Jeeves short stories, ‘Jeeves Makes an Omelette’ and ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’, included in the short story collections A Few Quick Ones (1959) and Plum Pie (1966). The stories refer to characters and events from the later novels, so if you can exercise an iron will and leave off reading them until later, you’ll avoid spoilers and understand the references better. But no great harm will befall you by reading them first.
The first Jeeves and Bertie story, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ (1915) is not included in any of these volumes. Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, it appeared in the 1917 short story collection The Man with Two Left Feet. It’s currently out of print, but second-hand and e-book editions are readily available. There is some debate about whether the Bertie in this story should be rightfully considered Bertie Wooster, or some other Bertie of the Mannering-Phipps variety. These are the sorts of debates you may find yourself entering if you become hooked on the series.
The early collection My Man Jeeves (1919) was rewritten and incorporated into the later stories. This will be of interest to enthusiasts and collectors only.
He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
The Code of the Woosters.
The novels introduce memorable new characters to the Jeeves and Wooster cast, including Augustus Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode, the Stoker girls (Pauline and Emerald), ‘Catsmeat’ Potter-Pirbright, and his sister Cora.
Many people start their Wodehouse reading with The Code of the Woosters. As a highly-regarded classic, it’s a volume most booksellers tend to stock. The Code of the Woosters is also a favourite with many fans, who recommend it to new readers with enthusiasm. No great harm will befall you by reading this, or any other book, out of order. But to avoid spoilers the novels are best read after the short stories, in order of publication. This will also ensure you appreciate occasional ‘in-jokes’ that reference previous instalments.
The suggested reading order above makes one exception; based on advice from reader Doug S, I’ve included Thank You, Jeeves later in the list. It’s a terrific story, but Wodehouse’s use of black and white minstrels and ‘blackface’ makeup as a comic device may be discomforting for modern readers. It should be noted that Wodehouse was reflecting a popular entertainment, using language in common use at the time; there is no indication in Wodehouse’s writing, personal letters or biographies to suppose that his use of black-faced minstrels in Thank You, Jeeves was intentionally demeaning, or that he held racist views.
Thank You, Jeeves features peppy Pauline Stoker, her ghastly brother Dwight, and even ghastlier father, the millionaire J. Washburn Stoker. Unless you plan to skip Thank You, Jeeves entirely (I wouldn’t advise it) it should ideally be read before the next Stoker, Pauline’s sister Emerald, pops up in Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.
Finally, if this reading list leaves you wanting more, there’s also the 1953 novel Ring for Jeeves featuring Jeeves without Bertie Wooster.
Hot on the heels of the Blandings centenary in June comes the 100th anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Reginald Jeeves. The characters first appeared together in the story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, published in September 1915 in the Saturday Evening Post.
The centenary has been commemorated with a flurry of articles (try What ho! Celebrating 100 years of Bertie, Jeeves and Blandings by Aparna Narrain). But in spite of praise for Wodehouse and his beloved duo, who made their final appearance in 1974’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ continues to hide it’s light under a bushel. If indeed that’s what lights do.
In his introduction to the 1967 omnibus The World of Jeeves, Wodehouse laments giving Jeeves just two lines, and no important role in the story:
It was only some time later, when I was going into the strange affair which is related under the title of ‘The Artistic Career of Corky’, that the man’s qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.
‘Extricating Young Gussie’ was the only story omitted from The World of Jeeves omnibus, but readers wanting to assess its merit for themselves can find it in the 1917 short story collection The Man with Two Left Feet. The story begins:
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can’t have been half past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news:
‘Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.’
Jeeves makes one more personal appearance:
Jeeves came in with the tea.
‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘we start for America on Saturday.’
‘Very good, sir,’ he said; ‘which suit will you wear?’
And he is referred to in another passage, when Bertie arrives in New York:
I left Jeeves to get my baggage safely past an aggregation of suspicious-minded pirates who were digging for buried treasures among my new shirts, and drove to Gussie’s hotel, where I requested the squad of gentlemanly clerks behind the desk to produce him.
Many readers, and evidently Wodehouse himself, look back on ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ as a poor beginning for this reason. It doesn’t fit the Jeeves and Wooster formula we’ve come to know and love. Some of the centenary commentators (presumably those who’ve not read it) also find fault with it as a story. In my previous piece ‘Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge’ I too was dismissive, claiming that ‘… it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.’
Dutifully re-reading ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ for the 100th Anniversary in the belief that this was not Wodehouse’s best, I was thrilled to find the story better than I had (mis)remembered. It’s well-crafted, enjoyable and complete without Jeeves playing a major role. If we are disappointed with it (and I wasn’t) it is only because we’ve developed high expectations of Jeeves through the later stories. But there is much to like without him, and Bertie’s narrative voice and character (developed via an earlier prototype called Reggie Pepper) are firmly established:
If I ever breakfasted at half past eight I should walk on the Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
And Bertie is in excellent form on the subject of Aunt Agatha.
My experience is that when Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
The story takes Bertie from London to New York at Aunt Agatha’s insistence, to break the engagement of his cousin Gussie to a vaudeville performer.
…according to Gussie she does something which he describes as a single on the big time. What this degraded performance may be I have not the least notion.
Bertie treats us to a personal tour of New York hotels, bars and theatre. On arrival, he tells us:
New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America, so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You can’t lose your way. You go out of a barn and down some stairs, and there you are, right in among it.
In fact, the whole bally story is so packed with good stuff that when the conscientious blogger (that’s me) starts quoting, it becomes dashed difficult to stop. Rather than continue to cherry-pick the best bits for another twenty seven pages, I urge you to read them in situ, especially if it’s been some years since you encountered it. The older Wodehouse might have found fault with it, but we don’t have to agree with him.
It was rotten. The poor nut had got stage fright so badly that it practically eliminated his voice. He sounded like some far-off echo of the past ‘yodelling’ through a woollen blanket.
Happy Jeeves & Wooster centenary, everyone!
After my recent piece in defence of Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen (aka The Cat Nappers) I was compelled to read it again – and found it ripe with good stuff.
… his idea of a good time was to go off with a pair of binoculars and watch birds, a thing that never appealed to me. I can’t see any percentage in it. If I meet a bird, I wave a friendly hand at it, to let it know that I wish it well, but I don’t want to crouch behind a bush observing its habits.
Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen
This little bit on Birdwatching struck an instant chord with me, as someone whose childhood was spent being lugged about by a conscientious parent from one bit of dismal scrub to another, watching birds. Birthdays were marked with the excitement (not mine) of new binoculars, sturdy walking boots, and the latest compendium of Australian Birds. If Muriel Singer’s work The Children’s Book of American Birds existed outside the realms of Wodehouse (‘The Artistic Career of Corky’) it would undoubtedly have been presented to me. When I was older, I progressed to the joys of learning the Latin names for local species.
Sadly, like Bertie Wooster‘s chum Corky, I never had any enthusiasm for the subject: “ …birds, except when broiled and in the society of a cold bottle, bored him stiff.”
Nor was there any respite at home, where my happiness was thwarted by the presence of a Budgerigar. I cannot abide Budgerigars! Ours flapped about the house with carefree insolence, landing on whatever took its fancy – including me. When I took refuge under a bed, the blighter followed. Subsequent encounters with chickens, pigeons, seagulls and magpies have turned my distaste for the fowl species into a phobia.
My phobia has presented me with a few difficulties as a cat owner, because I am incapable of removing feathers and carcass from the premises. But preventing domestic cats from catching birds is not difficult, and I have no sympathy with bird lovers who advocate the destruction of cats (as if birds hold some kind of moral high ground when everyone knows Cats are the superior beings). And I believe Wodehouse would agree with me. As discussed in Cats will be Cats, Wodehouse was ruthless with any character he caught flinging cats – or worse.
Despite my phobia I am content, like Bertie Wooster, to wish birds well from a respectful distance. It is only when the plumed party-of-the-second-part attempts a closer relationship that I object. Pigeons are completely lacking in this courtesy and the use of Hawks to manage the feral pigeon population in London was a stroke of genius. I have great respect for birds of prey and I like to see them encouraged. Perhaps I shall become an anti-Pigeon campaigner – it’s a stance which I fear would not meet with Wodehouse’s approval. But these are desperate times.
Emsworth, that worthy critic with an equally worthy name, suggests “P.G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers“ – The Cat-Nappers being an alias for the work known to British readers as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. Emsworth provides some good evidence that this 1974 work of a nonagenarian is not Wodehouse at his finest. For those unacquainted with Emsworth’s excellent piece, I suggest reading it for yourself. When my considered response (however unqualified I am to make it) ran to half a page, I decided to post it here instead.
Wodehouse was a careful and proficient editor in the habit of re-working his stories thoroughly until he was satisfied with them. I wonder whether this book received a less scrupulous reworking than Wodehouse was accustomed to. Perhaps Wodehouse felt he was running out of time…
Emsworth’s comments on Wodehouse’s repeated use of abbreviations (telegram-speak being a forerunner of SMS) illustrates my point. Wodehouse used this sparingly to great comic effect in other novels, but the criticism of overuse here could be indicative of writer’s shorthand – perfectly acceptable in a draft manuscript. Similarly, the issues with repetition.
I have often wondered whether publishers their treat star authors differently when it comes to editing. J.K Rowling’s work might make an interesting study in this regard. The first Harry Potter novel is fine, tight writing, but the same cannot be said of the later instalments — there are all sorts of issues with them, which I feel would have benefited from a firm editorial hand.
Emsworth notes instances of rambling and dithering, which could also be attributed to editing. Most writers ramble and dither, and need to cut material from their first drafts, age notwithstanding. But Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen certainly isn’t a rambling final novel, in the way that Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate is.
Emsworth also believes that in Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen Wodehouse reveals his true political colours, citing the following example:
Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.
Bertie Wooster is hardly a mouthpiece for expressing the political views of his author. Bertie’s position on Communism, made clear in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), is one of genial self-preservation. While Wodehouse made Comrade Bingo’s Heralds of the Red Dawn appear ridiculous, he was an egalitarian writer who created the equally ludicrous fascists (Roderick Spode), crooked Conservatives (Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe), loathsome Lords, and grotesque Captains of Industry.
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?The Code of the Woosters (1938)
Wodehouse’s consistent treatment of political activists – if it tells us anything at all – suggests that he found them all equally ridiculous, and ripe for picking as excellent sources of ‘material’
If I were find fault with Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen I would tend to agree with FretfulPorpentine’s response to Emsworth:
I wonder whether one of the problems with Aunts Aren’t Gentleman / The Catnappers is that its setting was more or less contemporary to when it was written, with its Sixties student demos and jokes about Billy Graham. Better, perhaps, had it been set in the classic (and, if it’s not a contradiction to say so) Wodehousian interwar era. The sixties bits really jar with me.
It’s not that the setting doesn’t work – it’s just different from what we’ve become accustomed to. We want more of the old stuff we know and love. But it shows us that Wodehouse was still striving to write something new. A younger Wodehouse might have popped this manuscript in his bottom drawer and reworked it again later, but at 93, one can be forgiven for not putting things off.
As is stands, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen still offers much of the usual Wodehouse to enjoy and I am reluctant to damn it as the work of a man who had lost his touch. I would gladly ‘suffer’ another 20 books of this quality.
I would gladly have continued our conversation, but I knew he must be wanting to get back to his Spinoza. No doubt I had interrupted him just as Spinoza was on the point of solving the mystery of the headless body on the library floor.
Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen is currently available in paperback for around £7.54.