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“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.”
The Inimitable Jeeves
Once again, Plumtopia is celebrating the romances of P.G. Wodehouse to commemorate the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day 1975.
This year’s topic is the romances of Bertie Wooster. It’s a potentially controversial subject because Bertie is best known — celebrated even– as one of literature’s bachelors. Despite numerous engagements and entanglements, he always manages to slip the wedding knot.
Bertie’s romances, if we can call them that, are mostly unwanted entanglements brought about by Aunt Agatha’s efforts to marry him off, and his own chivalric code.
In Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie makes it clear that “…the thought of being engaged to a girl who talked openly about fairies being born because stars blew their noses, or whatever it was, frankly appalled me.” But when Madeline Bassett offers to marry him, Bertie is helpless to refuse her.
“ … I can never forget Augustus, but my love for him is dead. I will be your wife.”
Well, one has to be civil.
“Right ho,” I said. “Thanks awfully.”
Right Ho, Jeeves
Wodehouse was playing with a well-established romantic tradition, just as the great romantic satirist Jane Austen had done a century earlier.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)
Like Bertie Wooster, Jane Austen’s leading men had their difficulties with unwanted entanglements. In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars’ sense of chivalric obligation prevents him from breaking his engagement to the conniving Lucy Steele, and it takes an accident to save Captain Wentworth from an entanglement with Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion.
Austen also served up a smorgasbord of revolting relations. Mr Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is every bit as scaly and intimidating as Bertie’s Aunt Agatha.
“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet: I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”
Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)
Jane Austen’s heroes have more to lose from an unsuitable marriage than Bertie because they have true love loitering in the wings. Wodehouse also used reluctant love-triangle plots of this kind in his Blandings stories and novels. But Wodehouse could never have allowed Bertie Wooster to marry. The introduction of a Mrs Wooster to the home would have broken up the winning Jeeves and Wooster double act. So Bertie remained a bachelor, with an inexhaustible supply of chums to play romantic lead.
Without the inducement of ‘true love’ to motivate Bertie, Wodehouse set about making his prospective spouses as ghastly as possible. They had to be — the reader (unless a misogynist) could hardly sympathise with Bertie’s predicament otherwise. Wodehouse thrived in the creation of ghastly characters and Bertie suffered more than his fair share of narrow escapes.
Bertie’s prospective wives were not always repulsive. He willingly proposed to Pauline Stoker (in Thank You, Jeeves) and was as mad as a wet hen when Pop Stoker cancelled their engagement under advisement from Sir Roderick Glossop. After Pauline’s affections transferred to Bertie’s pal “Chuffy” Chuffnell, the pair remained on terms of sufficient chumminess as to give Chuffy and Pop Stoker the distinct impression that the old love-light lingered.
“I am assuming that you wish to marry my daughter?”
Well, of course … I mean, dash it … I mean, there isn’t much you can say to an observation like that. I just weighed in with a mild “Oh, ah’.
Thank You, Jeeves
We know Bertie was not opposed to marriage, or the opposite sex. He willingly proposed to Florence Craye (albeit inadvisably) and intended to propose to Roberta Wickham — before the infamous episode of the water bottle and the poker changed his mind. But he never seemed to find the right girl.
When I asked fellow Wodehouse readers on Facebook and Twitter, which of the women in Bertie’s life would have made the best marriage partner, Pauline Stoker and Roberta Wickham ranked clear favourites. But a substantial portion objected to the idea of Bertie marrying at all. It seems his creator’s determination to continue writing about Bertie’s bachelor days have led many fans to consider Bertie a confirmed bachelor for life – with the inimitable Jeeves by his side.
We wish them well.
‘Oh, Great Scott!’ I said. ‘Don’t tell me you’re in love again.’
He seemed aggrieved.
‘What do you mean– again?’
‘Well, to my certain knowledge you’ve been in love with at least half a dozen girls since the spring, and it’s only July now. There was that waitress and Honoria Glossop and–‘
‘Oh, tush! Not to say pish! Those girls? Mere passing fancies. This is the real thing.’
‘Where did you meet her?’
‘On top of a bus. Her name is Charlotte Corday Rowbotham. ‘
‘It’s not her fault, poor child. Her father had her christened that because he’s all for the Revolution, and it seems that the original Charlotte Corday used to go about stabbing oppressors in their baths, which entitles her to consideration and respect. You must meet old Rowbotham, Bertie. A delightful chap. Wants to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane, and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy. Well, nothing could be fairer than that, what?’
from ‘Comrade Bingo’ (The Inimitable Jeeves)
Bingo Little’s third documented love affair is one of the most interesting chapters in his romantic adventures. The warm-hearted Bingo, as we’ve established in previous instalments (see: Honoria Glossop and a waitress named Mabel), has the capacity to love all womankind without prejudice, making him one of Wodehouse’s most endearing characters. The story is also an example of Wodehouse at the top of his form, making it a ‘must read’ for fans.
But that’s enough from me. Now it’s over to Ken Clevenger for more …
The romance of Bingo Little and Charlotte Corday Rowbotham
An appreciation by Ken Clevenger
While I remain convinced that Lord Emsworth and Gladys are the ultimate, or at least penultimate to Bertie and Jeeves, great lovers in Wodehouse, I think these highly charged political times call for some reconsideration.
Hence this appreciation of a new set of contenders: that ever-in-the-ring lover, Bingo Little (at least before he married the celebrated female novelist, Rosie M. Banks) and Mlle. Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, in ‘Comrade Bingo’.
I suppose, given the vagaries of modern education, a bit of background on this femme fatale, Charlotte, is due for some readers. She murdered a man in his bath as a means to advance a more moderate agenda in the course of the French Revolution in 1793. Not Bingo’s girlfriend, I mean her historical name-sake. Our Charlotte took rather a different view of life and revolution. She was, indeed, a Herald of the Red Dawn.
Bingo’s perhaps requited passion leads him to speak feelingly for the Masses at Hyde Park Corner in a false beard and to utter a public denunciation of his uncle, Lord Bittlesham. Readers of Wodehouse may know him better as “old Mortimer Little” of “Little’s Liniment (It Limbers Up the Legs).” He was a plutocrat before Pluto was down-sized. And the fellow who married Miss Watson, his cook, who was formerly engaged to Jeeves. This released Jeeves to pursue Mabel, a waitress in a “tea-and-bun shop” near the Ritz in the Metrop. Yes, the very same Mabel whom Bingo had loved to distraction, before Jeeves intervened in the Springtime, albeit without first revealing his inherent conflict of interest.
So, all straight so far? A) Bingo, who loves B) Charlotte, who would massacre C) Mortimer, uncle of A, who married D) Miss Watson. Naturally in a Wodehouse love story there are also wheels within wheels and here Comrade Butt, who “looks like a haddock with lung-trouble”, plays the primary cog.
Bingo’s love for Charlotte (“Billowy curves. Well-nourished perhaps expresses it best.” Plus “a heart of gold” and “a tooth of gold” withal) is as boundless as, well, Charlotte. His need, however, is for the wherewithal with which to finally engage her affections, and its acquisition stumps Bingo (“Work? said young Bingo, surprised. What, me?”).
However, if love fails to conquer all, it unfailingly assays the attempt. But radical political rhetoric, as is so often the case, especially when mixed with personal vituperation and discrediting revelations of a personal nature, produces public violence and the inevitable reactionary police response.
But here, in Wodehouse, in this romance, the kibosh was triggered by the hand of Jeeves, who knew (“Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don’t know?”) that Bingo and Charlotte were not meant to be. Scion of the upper-crust, nephew to a Lord, educated with Bertie in English public schools (they would have learned of Charlotte Corday), Bingo was set apart by Fate from Charlotte’s love and her vision of blood running in the gutters of Park Lane.
But nonetheless it was a grand passion, and held forth for a season, and only expired with the Ocean Breeze, which blew Charlotte out of Bingo’s life. What memories linger? (For the answer to that, please read ‘The Metropolitan Touch’).
People often come to Plumtopia looking for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular. It’s a good question.
The short answer, is that there is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse –and if you ask the question in one of the many online Wodehouse forums, you’ll get at least a dozen answers. Picking up the first book you come across is often as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.
But the short answer isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for practical advice. This post, and the short series to follow, offers a guide to readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.
A suggested reading list for getting started is provided below, followed by some general guidance for new readers.
Reading suggestions for getting started
Jeeves and Wooster: Start your adventure with Wodehouse’s best known characters in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). It’s not a novel, but a fine collection of short stories –many of them classics– from the very start of the saga. If you prefer to start with a novel, try Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor). See my second piece in this series for a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list.
Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea.
The Inimitable Jeeves
Blandings: Blandings Castle is arguably literature’s finest Utopia. Or as Evelyn Waugh put it: ‘the gardens of Blandings Castle are the original gardens of Eden from which we are all exiled.’ Dip your toe into Paradise with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New), or the classic short story collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935).
“Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”
‘The Custody of the Pumpkin’ in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere
Psmith: Rupert or Ronald Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp) is a favourite among Wodehouse lovers. Start with his first appearance in the brilliant school stories, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you prefer an adult novel, his final outing in Leave it to Psmith (1923) is wonderful (and won’t spoil your enjoyment of the earlier stories).
Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”
Mike and Psmith
Ukridge: He’s the character Wodehouse readers love to hate — a blighter and a scoundrel to be sure, but his adventures are comedy gold. Start with the short story collection Ukridge (1924) or the novel Love Among the Chickens (revised in 1921).
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge
Uncle Fred: Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred is a dapper old gent with a twinkle in his eye, and a penchant for adventure — a man who can adopt an alias at the drop of a hat, and frequently does. Start with his first appearance in the short story, Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), in the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save this treat for later if you can.
I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means, but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.
‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ in Young Men in Spats
Short Stories: Wodehouse was a master of the short story format, and would be classed alongside greats like Chekhov if he hadn’t been a humourist. The Mulliner stories are outstanding. Start anywhere you like, but Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927) is the first. The Oldest Member golf stories are also terrific –try The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required to enjoy them.
Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.
The Clicking of Cuthbert
The novels: Plot spoilers are less of a problem with Wodehouse’s ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some are connected by recurring characters. There are plenty of novels to choose from, but if you’re chronologically inclined, some good examples from his early period include Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) and The Small Bachelor (1927).
The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you.
Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse (or know where to start, unless you’re lucky), but they should be able to order books for you. If your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.
Links to books currently in print and available for purchase online have been included in the text. Out of print books are frequently available second-hand at reasonable prices. Don’t be alarmed by the price of expensive first and collectable editions. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks and don’t mind which editions you buy. Most titles are also available as Ebooks, including those which are out of print.
Understanding the chronological challenge
Many of Wodehouse’s stories first appeared in magazines such as The Strand (UK) and The Saturday Evening Post (US), but weren’t always published in book form in the same order – or under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of publication you will encounter ‘spoilers’, particularly in the Blandings series. Wodehouse also rewrote some of his early stories, so the beginning isn’t always the best place to start. It’s also helpful to know that Wodehouse’s books were often published under different titles in the UK and US.
In putting this series together, I’ve referred to many excellent online resources that exist for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefitted from the invaluable advice of Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.
The next piece in the series provides a reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories.
Noel Bushnell contemplates what might have been, if Wodehouse had gone to see Lancs v. Worcs instead of Warwickshire play at Cheltenham.
I was basking in the autumn sunshine, mellowing fruitlessly, when an unbidden thought drifted into my cerebellum: what if Jeeves had not been called Jeeves? What if another cricketer’s name had caught P.G. Wodehouse’s ear and the gentleman’s personal gentleman who made his entrance on 18 September 1915 had been called something else? Would Jeeves now be a metaphor for members of the butlerine genus everywhere, or for sources of infallible information on any topic, but most especially in matters of correct dress for all occasions? I mean to say, what?
These be deep waters and, before I stick my toe in, perhaps I should recap the story so far.
It all started when the By The Way newsletter of The P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK) marked the centenary of Jeeves’ premiere with the lengthy and detailed opinion of Wodehouse authority Tony Ring that the un-surnamed Bertie in the first “Jeeves…
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Reginald Jeeves holds a firm place in the hearts of P.G. Wodehouse readers. Arguably Wodehouse’s best known character, Jeeves appeared in 11 novels and 35 short stories as Bertie Wooster’s ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’, and Bill Rowcester’s gentleman in Ring for Jeeves. More than a century after he first appeared in print, the name Jeeves is known by millions of people around the world, many of whom have never read a Jeeves story — such has his fame permeated the crust of human consciousness.
It is therefore fitting that the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree this week in remembrance of the man who inspired the name — cricketer Percy Jeeves.
Wodehouse had seen Percy Jeeves playing for Warwickshire in a match at Cheltenham in 1913, and had admired his bowling. When Wodehouse was contemplating a name for his new character, Jeeves popped obligingly into his head.
For those with an understanding of cricket, it is easy to visualise the Jeeves we know as one of those dignified bowlers whose graceful delivery of the ball hides the full mental powers of the expert strategist.
For those without an expert knowledge of cricket, I offer this description by cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta (also a Wodehouse enthusiast) of my favourite bowler, Malcolm Marshall:
But, his craft, built on raw pace, did not end there. It was enhanced by weaponry of the sharpest kind. He could swing it both ways, with his hand rather than movement of the body. This made his swing as difficult to read as the leg-breaks and googlies of the canniest leg-spinner… When his whims willed, he could change his pace, varying between express, lightning and just fast, or even slowing down to medium.
To a mere observer of the game, it comes almost as a surprise to hear Marshall described as a fast bowler. As Sengupta says of Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz : “From far away, sitting outside the fence, he often looked a gentle medium pacer.” Similarly, Malcolm Marshall’s approach always seemed to me (admittedly a child at the time) so effortless and calm that it was almost leisurely.
He just sort of shimmered in.
Wodehouse may have consciously only claimed the Jeeves name, but the character he created exhibits all the characteristics of a fine bowler. Wodehouse was sound on cricket, and I think we can safely assume that Percy Jeeves was something special.
This week, the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree in Percy Jeeves’ honour as part of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, commemorating the centenary of his death at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. He never knew of the character Wodehouse named after him.
The full tragedy of the Somme is beyond our comprehension, particularly for those of us who have been fortunate to live through relatively peaceful times. The story of Percy Jeeves, whose promising life was cut senselessly short, is one of millions. Men were sent to their deaths en masse, buried en masse, and are now remembered en masse by subsequent generations. It is easy to lose sight of them as living, breathing, feeling people — and important to commemorate their lives individually where we can.
Well done to the PG Wodehouse Society, Percy Jeeves’ family, Cheltenham Cricket Festival and Cheltenham College for making this commemoration possible.
My pals in the society, knowing that I was chained to a desk in neighbouring Somerset and no doubt wanting to cheer me up, kindly sent me photos to share via Twitter during the day time. Some of their photos are used here, with kind permission.
More on cricket
For more on Percy Jeeves’ cricketing career, I recommend John Pennington’s recent piece in Cricketworld .
For anyone wishing to continue their cricket education, or simply relive memories of a golden age, I offer the following footage of Malcolm Marshall’s 10 wicket haul at Lords in 1988. In the spirit of the Jeeves, I feel obliged to observe that this match took place before the adoption of garish trousers, besmirched by branding, became widespread.
‘Do cricket trousers matter?’ you may ask.
I think we know Jeeves’ answer to that one.
The Code of the Woosters was one of Stefan Nilsson’s suggestions for including a book by P.G. Wodehouse in your 2016 Reading Challenge – as a 20th Century Classic. A classic it most certainly is, not just in the eyes of Wodehouse readers. The Code of the Woosters frequently pops up in literary lists of ‘books you must read’.
Its plot and characters are arguably Wodehouse’s best known. The story opens with Bertie sipping one of Jeeves’ famous hangover cures, the morning after a binge honouring Gussie Fink-Nottle. Bertie’s respite is curtailed by a visit to his Aunt Dahlia.
Little knowing, as I crossed that threshold, that in about two shakes of a duck’s tail I was to become involved in an imbroglio that would test the Wooster soul as it had seldom been tested before. I allude to the sinister affair of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow creamer, and the small brown leather-covered notebook.
Bertie is propelled to Totleigh Towers, lair of Sir Watkyn Bassett and his soupy daughter Madeline, where he must wade knee-deep in a stew of Aunts, amateur dictators, policemen’s helmets and silver cow-creamers –to say nothing of the dog Bartholomew.
Among Wodehouse enthusiasts, devotion to The Code of the Woosters borders on the cultish. Perfectly sensible people who previously had no earthly use for cow creamers, find themselves squealing with delight when they meet one. In serious cases, fans have been known to collect them, to display proudly on the mantelpiece abaft their statue of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. Once the enthusiast reaches this stage, it is advisable to join one of the excellent P.G. Wodehouse societies where similarly afflicted subjects gather in gangs and kid ourselves that such behaviour is normal. One devotee, Mr Ashok Bhatia, has gone a step further in trying to de-codify the Code of the Woosters .
The Code of the Woosters has been adapted multiple times for television and radio. Since 2013, it has been going about on the stage under a false name – as Perfect Nonsense – with great success. The continued popularity of this story almost 80 years after its original publication, and its inclusion by literary list-makers as exemplifying Wodehouse at his best, assures this novel’s place as a 20th Century Classic.
The Code of the Woosters is also where you’ll find some of Wodehouse’s most quoted lines:
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.
Quoting Wodehouse is all very well in moderation, but nothing compares to reading his words in situ. If you are looking for a book by P.G. Wodehouse to include in your 2016 Reading Challenge, it’s a great place to start.
How to enter my 2016 Mini Reading Challenge
Just read a book by P.G. Wodehouse in 2016 and post a comment to the original challenge page (link below), telling us:
• which P.G. Wodehouse book you read in 2016; and
• which reading challenge and category you included it under.
You don’t have to be actively participating in any other reading challenge to enter.
For details and to enter, visit:
The 2016 Mini Reading Challenge: include a book by P.G. Wodehouse.
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!
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.
In December, I had the delightful privilege of seeing Perfect Nonsense on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For anyone not already aware, Perfect Nonsense is a stage adaptation (by David and Robert Goodale) of The Code of the Woosters. It’s been well received by West End audiences since opening in 2013, and is now touring the UK until mid-2015 (see the official site for details). If you’re planning to see the show and don’t want to read my review, look away now.
The Goodale brothers’ clever adaptation sticks closely to Wodehouse’s original story and delicious dialogue, ensuring a production that is pure Wodehouse. But Perfect Nonsense is not a mere staging of the book. The Goodales have added their own comic twist by having all the characters played by just three actors.
The play opens with Bertie Wooster reclining in a favourite armchair. He begins to tell us the sorry tale of his recent entanglement with Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, old pop Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode and an eighteenth-century cow-creamer. Wodehouse fans in the audience will know where this is going. To assist in the retelling, Bertie enlists the help of Jeeves, and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) to ‘play’ the other characters in his narrative.
This ingenious strategy adds something new for Wodehouse fans, without detracting from Wodehouse’s original work — it is also great fun. Jeeves and Seppings undergo an exhausting repertoire of inventive costume changes, in which lampshades become hats and curtains become dresses. The hard-working Seppings is, at one point, dressed as Aunt Dahlia inside a giant Spode suit. John Gordon Sinclair and Robert Goodale were utterly entertaining and memorable as Jeeves and Seppings (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield in the original cast).
Bertie’s role is physically less demanding, with no elaborate costume or character changes to contend with, but requires a delicate balance of jovial stupidity. It’s not an exact science, but Wodehouse fans can be unforgiving when actors get it wrong. Stephen Mangan was well received in the original cast, and I thought Joel Sams did a sound job (as cover for James Lance) in Bath.
Inventive sets were a highlight of this production, with two revolving interiors that cunningly transformed from Bertie’s London flat into an antique shop in the Brompton Road, various locations around Totleigh Towers, and even accommodated a thrilling drive in Bertie’s two-seater. Set changes were comically incorporated into the theatrics: Jeeves twiddles a handle on the wall to change the painting over the fireplace, while Bertie jiggles paper flames at the end of two sticks. The dog Bartholomew also makes notable appearances. These small details added to the joy of the performance, without detracting from the complicated storyline or Wodehouse’s original dialogue.
No doubt a Wodehouse purist, for such creatures I regret to say exist, would find something in this adaptation to pick on. It is often argued that Wodehouse ought not be adapted at all – that it somehow sullies the perfection of his art. But while comic prose was certainly his forte, Wodehouse’s versatility as a writer included a long association with the theatre, predominantly as a lyricist, but also as a writer and critic. As an added bonus, a reminder of Wodehouse’s theatrical career is provided by Tony Ring in the Perfect Nonsense programme.
During his lifetime, P.G. Wodehouse demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different forms and genres, and to collaborate with others. Intelligent adaptations like Perfect Nonsense remind us of this wider legacy, and remain welcome by fans who simply cannot get enough of his stuff.
* * *
Thanks to regular readers who contacted me during my recent absence from Plumtopia. Awfully decent of you! Results of the Wodehouse Survey are currently being collated into a paper for the 2015 convention and will be shared here in due course.
When I was a young girl, I would watch my dad laughing out loud as he read P.G. Wodehouse. Wanting to be in on the joke, I would flip through the pages of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, laughing out loud in imitation even though I didn’t understand what was going on. As I got older and both my love of literature and sense of humor developed, my enjoyment of the books became authentic. Wodehouse’s writing style is light and his character descriptions are hilarious, and because of that, Jeeves and Wooster have long been my favorite literary duo.
Hollandaise perfectly describes the relationship between Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. This sauce has so much potential to go wrong – too much heat and it can split, and too little heat and it won’t get cooking. It takes the sharp attention of the chef’s eye to keep it together. In each…
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