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‘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’).
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.
A dash of Wodehouse is always a great gift idea. This timely piece offers a few ideas to help you choose something special for the Wodehouse lover in your life — or for those poor souls of your acquaintance who have yet to discover his healing prose.
Wodehouse for first timers
I often give Wodehouse books to new readers, with mixed results. The trick is to tailor your choice to what Jeeves calls ‘the psychology of the individual’. If you want to start your intended reader on the Jeeves stories, my recommendation (discussed in a previous post ) is The Inimitable Jeeves.
But with the Everyman (Overlook) Library editions making Wodehouse’s lesser known works widely available, you needn’t start with Jeeves. If your intended recipient is a fan of detective stories, Wodehouse’s world is full of shady activities, from impersonation through to pig-napping. Why not start them off with Sam the Sudden, or Piccadilly Jim? Or the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh — it’s a particular favourite of mine, now available in a special 100th Anniversary edition. For romance with a female central character, try The Adventures of Sally or French Leave. For sports enthusiasts, try Wodehouse on golf in The Clicking of Cuthbert, or cricket in Wodehouse at the Wicket (compiled by Murray Hedgcock).
Wodehouse for enthusiasts
The task of collecting and reading your way through the published works of Wodehouse has never been easier, thanks to the aforementioned Everyman’s Library. If money is no object you can complete the set very quickly, but it’s a bit like eating a box of chocolates in one sitting. Acquiring Wodehouse in smaller bites over a longer period allows readers to savour the pleasures of anticipating and enjoying each book on its own merits. It also allows friends and family to contribute with gifts they know will be appreciated. To avoid duplication, keep a list of the titles you already have. Try this list of the Everyman editions as a starting point.
For serious enthusiasts, including those who have collected all the Wodehouse they can get their hands on, there are other ways to bring sweetness and light into their lives. Here are a few suggestions.
Recent releases on the subject of Wodehouse
John Dawson and the Globe Reclamation Project team have spent two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper. John spoke passionately at the Seattle convention about his quest to uncover more of Wodehouse’s work, and the result is this wealth of ‘new’ Wodehouse material, made available to us all in: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking with a discount available to Wodehouse Society members.
2015 also saw the release of N.T.P. Murphy’s The P.G. Wodehouse Miscellany . It’s available in Kindle and Hardcover from Amazon or Kobo ebook (more details below). I’ve found this nifty little volume to be a valuable reference in the few short months since its release, and expect it will quickly establish itself as a ‘must have’ for Wodehouse enthusiasts.
Volume 1 of Murphy’s highly regarded A Wodehouse Handbook has been revised and rereleased as an ebook, available from Kobo Books . You or your gift recipient will need the Kobo’s e-reader software, which is free to download from their website.
Wodehouse Society Membership.
Why not give the gift of membership? For a modest annual fee, members can attend society gatherings and receive a quarterly journal to keep them up to date on all things Wodehouse. Find out more from:
- The Wodehouse Society (US) Membership costs $25. Have a look at their Regional Chapters page to find your nearest group.
- The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) Membership costs £22 for a full year (£11 for 6 months if you join between December-February). The society holds meetings and social evenings in London, as well as occasional outings in the other locations.
- A list of other Wodehouse Societies is available from the UK Society website.
For younger readers who may not be ready for their first Wodehouse, I recommend The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (recommended age 10+) or Guards! Guards! for adult readers. Terry Pratchett was a fitting winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and I’d recommend his books generally to Wodehouse fans.
My daughter enjoys the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens (Puffin Books recommend for ages 7-12). Set in a 1930s English girls’ boarding school, each book involves the girls in solving a murder. They’re written in an engaging style that doesn’t underestimate young readers’ intelligence, and they provide a good introduction to the period. This should help when your youngster is ready for Wodehouse. The fourth book in the series, Jolly Foul Play, is due out in March 2016.
Film, Television and Audiobook adaptations
Not all Wodehouse lovers enjoy seeing his work adapted. For those of us who do, some adaptations are difficult to find (the BBC telemovie Heavy Weather is not available on DVD) and others are best avoided. I don’t think you can go wrong with the Wodehouse Playhouse series. P.G. Wodehouse introduces several episodes himself. Another popular adaptation is the Jeeves and Wooster television series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. This series introduced many people to the joys of Wodehouse, making it a good choice for Wodehouse fans and new readers alike.
I’d also highly recommend adding Wodehouse audiobooks to your collection, or giving them as a gift. There have been various narrators – all of them good in my view. A Wodehouse audiobook would make a wonderful gift for someone who may be incapacitated, ‘getting on’ in years or for people with reading difficulties.
Miscellaneous gift ideas
I had many more ideas to share, but Christmas will have come and gone before a full list could be completed (if you’ve already done your shopping, you’ll at least be in time for the January sales). Here are a few more suggestions for the Wodehouse lover in your life:
- A silver cow creamer
- Spats and a Homburg hat, or a well-fitted Topper
- A tightly rolled umbrella
- Dahlias or Chrysanthemums
- A Berkshire sow
- Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire
- A statue of the Infant Samuel at Prayer
In the spirit of Plumtopia, I end with another Wodehouse wishlist, from Mr Ashok Bhatia -– A Plum Wish List for Santa this Christmas! — as a reminder of the joy Wodehouse brings to readers all year round.
In the case of Wodehouse, that cliché about gifts that keep on giving, really does apply.
Happy Christmas everyone!
‘The only one of the family I really know is the girl.’ I had hardly spoken these words when the most extraordinary change came over young Bingo’s face. His eyes bulged, his cheeks flushed, and his Adam’s apple hopped about like one of those india-rubber balls on the top of the fountain in a shooting gallery.
‘Oh, Bertie!’ he said, in a strangled sort of voice.
I looked at the poor fish anxiously. I knew that he was always falling in love with someone, but it didn’t seem possible that even he could have fallen in love with Honoria Glossop.
This is our introduction to Honoria Glossop, in Chapter Five of The Inimitable Jeeves, and our second encounter with young Bingo, who in Chapter Two was in love with a waitress named Mabel.
Bertie Wooster is astonished that Bingo could love Honoria (daughter of noted ‘nerve specialist’ Sir Roderick Glossop), whom he describes as:
One of those dashed large, brainy, strenuous, dynamic girls you see so many of these days. She had been at Girton, where, in addition to enlarging her brain to the most frightful extent, she had gone in for every kind of sport and developed the physique of a middle-weight catch-as-can wrestler. I’m not sure she didn’t box for the ‘Varsity while she was up. The effect she had on me whenever she appeared was to make me want to slide into a cellar and lie low till they blew the All-Clear.
Honoria Glossop is no model of delicate femininity. She excels in sports and has a serious, educated sort of mind that she’s not afraid to use. Poor Bertie quivers in her presence, no doubt scarred from his former engagement to Lady Florence Cray, who made him read Types of Ethical Theory and was about to start him on Nietzsche.
Whatever his faults, Bingo Little does not share Bertie’s prejudices. He has the endearing capacity to appreciate the merits in any woman. Bertie shrinks from Honoria’s Amazonian qualities, Bingo admires them.
‘Have you told her?’
‘No. I haven’t the nerve. But we walk together in the garden most evenings, and it sometimes seems to me that there is a look in her eyes.’
‘I know that look. Like a sergeant-major.’
‘Nothing of the kind! Like a tender goddess.’
‘Half a second, old thing,’ I said. ‘Are you sure we’re talking about the same girl? The one I mean is Honoria. Perhaps there is a younger sister or something I’ve not heard of?’
‘Her name is Honoria,’ bawled Bingo reverently.
‘And she strikes you as a tender goddess?
‘God bless you!’ I said.
‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies; and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes. Another bit of bread and cheese,’ he said to the lad behind the bar.
I include Bingo’s poetic testimony here because Bertie’s assessment of Honoria is so often accepted as the only plausible one. Considered objectively, Honoria has her good points; she is bright, capable and jolly. Her characteristic laugh — ‘like a train going into a tunnel’ or ‘the Scotch express going under a bridge’ — may delight her pals and admirers. Fond as I am of Bertie, we should remember that he is an unreliable narrator whose view is prejudiced by his own character and tastes, just as Bingo’s assessment is blinded, if briefly, by love.
And I mean briefly — Bingo’s love for Honoria lasts exactly ten pages in my old Penguin edition. The spell is broken not by any action on her part, but by the appearance of another eligible female on the premises:
Walking across the lawn I saw the most radiant, the most beautiful girl in the world. There is none like her, none. Bertie, do you believe in love at first sight? You do believe in love at first sight, don’t you Bertie, old man? Directly I saw her, she seemed to draw me like a magnet. I seemed to forget everything. We two were alone in a world of music and sunshine. I joined her. I got into conversation. She is a Miss Braythwayt, Bertie—Daphne Braythwayt. Directly our eyes met, I realized that what I had imagined to be my love for Honoria Glossop had been a mere passing whim. Bertie, you do believe in love at first sight, don’t you? She is so wonderful, so sympathetic. Like a tender goddess——”
If Bingo’s endearing capacity to fall in love with any woman has a down-side, it’s his lack of constancy. We hear nothing further of Miss Braythwayt, and when we meet ‘Comrade Bingo’ again in Chapter 11 he in love with someone new (I look forward to discussing that particular romance another day).
Meanwhile, Bingo thinks nothing of leaving Bertie with the unpleasant task of disengaging himself from Honoria Glossop, a feat he has to perform again in ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’ (Plum Pie). Bertie also saves old pal ‘Biffy’ Biffen from marrying Honoria in ‘The Rummy Affair Of Old Biffy’ (in Carry On, Jeeves):
Of course, there are probably fellows in the world — tough, hardy blokes with strong chins and glittering eyes — who could get engaged to this Glossop menace and like it; but I knew perfectly well that Biffy was not one of them.
Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge. A beastly thing to have to face over the breakfast table. Brainy, moreover. The sort of girl who reduces you to pulp with sixteen sets of tennis and a few rounds of golf, and then comes down to dinner as fresh as a daisy, expecting you to take an intelligent interest in Freud.
After some rough treatment from these flitting and sipping Drones, Honoria Glossop’s friends and well-wishers will be pleased to hear that she seems set to marry the ‘angry young novelist’ Blair Eggleston at the conclusion of ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’. The news was certainly a great relief to Bertie Wooster.
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.
References and further reading
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)
Madam Eulalie (annotations)
My reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories
I confess I have a soft spot for the romantic Bingo Little. When we first meet him in The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie warns us about his habit of falling in love.
Ever since I have known him – and we were at school together – he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time; and at Oxford his romantic nature was a byword.
The first of Bingo’s romances to be chronicled by Bertram Wooster involves a Mabel, a waitress in a tea-and-bun shop. Described by Bertie as ‘rather a pretty girl’, Mabel attracts the attention of both Bingo and Jeeves. At the end of the proceedings, she and Jeeves have ‘an understanding’.
We know very little about Mabel, except that she has dubious taste in gents neck wear, having given Bingo a crimson satin tie covered in horseshoes. This may explain why we hear no more about her as the potential Mrs Jeeves. But Mabel must have been more than a pretty face to have attracted Jeeves to the point of ‘an understanding’. What is her story, I wonder?
If you’ll permit me to speculate, I imagine Mabel as a country girl in former service at a large house, who has come to London in search of something better – work, romance, adventure? The dashing young Bingo appears to have impressed her, but Jeeves orchestrates an end to his rival’s hopes. How did her affair with Jeeves end? Did Jeeves later revise his opinion of Mabel as an suitable partner (as he seems to have done with her predecessor)? It is difficult to imagine him wedded to a woman with dubious taste in menswear. Jeeves could certainly have contrived circumstances so that Mabel would cancel the fixture, but it would hardly be to his credit to do so twice. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it is Mabel who ends the affair.
Why does Mabel cast Jeeves aside, then? Perhaps she is keen to travel – to establish herself on the New York stage, or ingratiate herself with a rich Australian Uncle? Or does the pretty waitress become embroiled in a new love triangle, in which Jeeves loses out to someone more dashing, less stuffy, or socially well-connected? It’s all very well for Bingo’s uncle and Rosie M. Banks, who are both rolling in the stuff, to cast aside outdated class snobbery in favour of marrying for love – but neither of them have had to support themselves in London on a waitress’s salary.
I’d like to think of Mabel as having intellectual qualities we didn’t see in her brief appearance in The Inimitable Jeeves, but there is little evidence to suggest this from our brief encounter with her:
‘Hallo, Mabel!’ he said, with a sort of gulp.
‘Hallo!’ said the girl.
‘Mabel,’ said Bingo, ‘this is Bertie Wooster, a pal of mine.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said. ‘Nice morning.’
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘You see I’m wearing the tie,’ said Bingo.
‘It suits you beautiful,’ said the girl.
And this is it. Our brief encounter with Mabel, the waitress, is at an end.
We wish her well.
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 encountered, and one I recommend to new readers as a great place to start. It has been included in several 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. It’s not the first Jeeves and Wooster instalment – that honour goes to the short story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ but The Inimitable Jeeves is one of the earliest and best collections in the saga. It is also where we meet key personnel including Bingo Little, Honoria Glossop, her father Sir Roderick Glossop, and the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks.
A collection of connected stories rather than a conventional novel, The Inimitable Jeeves is a book Wodehouse fans return to, dipping into favourite chapters when our troubled souls require soothing. The thirteenth chapter, The Great Sermon Handicap, is particularly revered by readers, and 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….’
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 proceedings with Bingo’s ill-fated romance with a waitress named Mabel and, after further disappointments, closes with his eventual happy union.
Bertie has matrimonial problems of his own in The Inimitable Jeeves, thanks to the interference of Aunt Agatha, who feels her nephew requires improvement. Aunt Agatha had appeared previously in ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ and she 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.
Aunt Agatha first selects Aline Hemmingway, a curate’s sister she meets while on holiday in France. Her next candidate for the future Mrs Wooster is the formidable Honoria Glossop, who proves more difficult to shake off. During their brief engagement, Bertie is fed on a diet of serious art and literature until his eyes bubble.
…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…’
Jeeves finds a way to disentangle Bertie from these affairs. In the case of Honoria Glossop, he convinces 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. Although the series created additional scenes, characters (there is no Lady Glossop in the book) and dialogue (often erroneously attributed to Wodehouse), their adaptation was in keeping with the original, and expertly handled by Fry and Laurie.
Not all Wodehouse adaptations have been so well made, causing some people to feel that Wodehouse simply cannot be adapted. I disagree, although I appreciate the difficulty of adapting a humourist whose prose style is so integral to 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 translate the joy of reading this passage on the screen? In the case of Jeeves and Wooster, they had a distinct advantage in that Bertie’s narrative could be turned into authentic dialogue. Adapting Wodehouse’s other works, predominantly written in the third-person, is more challenging and a delicate touch is required. Certainly nothing brings greater despair to the optimistic Wodehouse lover than a misguided adaptation, but we can’t expect Wodehouse adaptations to match the pleasure of reading the original. Nonetheless, it is possible to adapt Wodehouse’s marvellous plots and dialogue very successfully.
Similar problems are faced when quoting Wodehouse. A joyful passage or witty one-liner shoved out into the online universe falls pitifully short of 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 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.
I’ve digressed rather a lot, as usual. There’s much more to The Inimitable Jeeves that I haven’t mentioned, like Bertie’s period of exile in America, and 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.
When Bertie Wooster is brimming with joy on a fine spring morning in The Inimitable Jeeves, he says:
‘In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.’
It is one of many Wodehouse references to the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (from the poem Locksley Hall). In Right Ho, Jeeves, Aunt Dahlia finds a bound volume of Tennyson just the thing for flinging at nephews, and although Bertie claims not to read Tennyson by choice, he is familiar enough with Tennyson’s stuff to quote him often. The following lines from Tennyson’s In memoriam, for example, will be familiar to all who have followed Bertie’s adventures:
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
Being of a non-poetic sort of disposition, I’m not qualified to speak at length on the merits of Tennyson or make comparisons between the writers. I must leave the heavy spade work to others, such as Inge Leimberg, who has written a detailed comparison of Plum’s A Damsel in Distress and Tennyson’s Maud in an excellent piece entitled: Across the pale parabola of Joy: Wodehouse Parodist.
My own favourite Wodehouse ‘tribute’ to Tennyson is ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’ (in Young Men In Spats), in which Freddie Widgeon attempts to impress the beautiful April Carroway by brushing up on his Tennyson. The story is littered with Tennyson references, which have been helpfully documented in the ever-brilliant Madam Eulalie annotations. The story was delightfully adapted for television as part of the Wodehouse Playhouse series (further evidence that Wodehouse can be successfully adapted for screen) with John Alderton giving a memorable performance of Freddie Widgeon quoting Tennyson: ‘de-da de-da, de-da de-da, the Lady of Shallott’ .
Returning to our original quotation, a closer look at Tennyson’s Locksley Hall rings a few more bells for Wodehouse readers. The poem opens as follows:
Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet ‘t is early morn:
Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn.
The first line is reminiscent of both Psmith (who addresses everyone ‘comrade’) and Aunt Charlotte’s rousing ‘A-hunting-we-will-go’ in The Mating Season.
But tempted though I am to wade deeper into Tennyson’s work in search of Wodehouse, I find my eyes glaze over and my pulse grows weak. Upon discovering a ‘jaundiced eye’, in about the two-hundred and thirty eighth stanza of Locksley Hall, I am a mere shadow of my former self, incapable of even a whispered ‘Ho!’ Now, more than ever, I feel the pathos of Freddie Widgeon’s ordeal in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, traversing that fine line between comedy and tragedy.
A lovely review of The Inimitable Jeeves.
As it happens, right now my wife and I are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our second child. In fact, the little chap / lady was due on Tuesday, so is already three days late as I write this. Anyway, the reason I mention this personal detail is that after finishing Pride and Prejudice and considering what to read next, I decided that a short, light-hearted yarn was in order; something to help me relax and take my mind off the seemingly endless waiting. (My wife, having similar thoughts, is currently enjoying the latest Bridget Jones instalment.)
And what could be better under such circumstances, I asked myself, than a P. G. Wodehouse novel?
In the past, I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry television series of Jeeves and Wooster, but I had not, before now, ever read one of the books.
I cannot quite remember…
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“I am no stranger to butterfly belly. A man who has had to pass himself off as Gussie Fink-Nottle to four aunts in a chilly Hampshire dining room with only orange juice in the carburettor knows the meaning of fear.”
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
Sebastian Faulks presumably knows the feeling pretty well too. As the author of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Faulks has risked the ire of Wodehouse fans (already disgrunted after the BBC Blandings fiasco) and potentially his own reputation as a writer. For one of the problems with imitating Wodehouse in the 21st Century is that his style runs somewhat contrary to prevailing ideas about ‘good writing’. For an idea of the depths to which modern writing has sunk, consider these Ten rules for writing fiction:
If Wodehouse were starting out today, he could expect to have a fair portion of his work flung back at him on these grounds alone. The busy modern publisher would read no further than: “The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town” (Something Fresh). Or “Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London” (Heavy Weather). I can hear the clicking tongues already. Today, entire novels are rejected due to opening lines like these. We have to be instantly gripped.
2 “Avoid prologue.”
Specifically, writers are advised to avoid beginning with too much backstory. This must be lobbed in later, and in small doses. The rationale for this is unclear, but it is widely accepted to be good writing. We writers must strive to keep our readers in the dark, only revealing snippets of information as required. Apparently this keeps them interested. We must show, not tell. And we would never dream of writing, as Wodehouse does on page one of The Mating Season:
“But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. you whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.
Let me get into reverse and put you abreast.”
According to the rules of modern writing, telling a backstory ‘takes the story backwards’. It is apparently a ‘blunder’ typical of new writers and one that must be corrected. A 21st Century Wodehouse would almost certainly have his manuscript returned for rework. He would be advised to get rid of the backstory and start with some action as a ‘hook’ to get the reader interested. Any explanation of what’s actually going on is, at this point, considered undesirable. I don’t know what Wodehouse would make of this advice, but I am reminded of Psmith’s comments in Psmith Journalist:
“Your narratives, Comrade Maloney, always seem to me to suffer from a certain lack of construction. You start at the end, and then you go back to any portion of the story which happens to appeal to you at the moment, eventually winding up at the beginning.”
3 “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”
Wodehouse fares very well on this score. Indeed, his dialogue is so snappy that he writes long passages without so much as a ‘said’ in sight, perhaps a legacy of his time in the theatre.
” ‘I say, Bertie,’ he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.
‘Do you like the name Mabel?’
‘You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?’
He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.
‘Of course, you wouldn’t. You always were a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?’ ”
The Inimitable Jeeves
Wodehouse does break the rule of never using alternatives to said: “‘Croquet!’ He gulped” in The Clicking of Cuthbert; “ ‘Am I a serf?’ demanded Evangeline” in Mulliner Nights; ” ‘Go away, boy!’ he boomed” (the Duke of Dunstable) in Service with a Smile. But such transgressions are rare.
4 “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.”
According to the rules for writing fiction: ‘”To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Again, Wodehouse breaks the rule of never using an adverb in his dialogue, but examples are hard to come by:”‘I suppose you know who did it, hey?’ he said satirically” (Service with a Smile). This is the Duke of Dunstable again. What was it about Dunstable, arguably Wodehouse’s foulest creation, that caused such reckless use of verbs and adverbs?
5 “Keep your exclamation points under control.”
The incorrect use of exclamation marks is a modern misdemeanour that we would not expect Wodehouse to commit. Nor does he. Mostly we find them in his dialogue: an occasional ‘Darling!’ here, a justified ‘What ho!’ there. Every so often, he throws caution to the wind and has a character exclaim: ‘Am I mortified! I’m as mad as a wet hen.’ Or: ‘Lord-love-a-duck!’ (both from Money in the Bank).
Regarding the use of exclamation marks, the rule is: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Wodehouse certainly exceeds this quota. It’s only natural that, when his plots reach their feverish high points, his characters feel the urge to exclaim things. But Wodehouse never misuses or overuses exclamations, and they fit seamlessly into the text. How sad that this perfectly useful punctuation mark has come to be considered a hallmark of poor writing.
6 “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.”
Of course Wodehouse breaks this rule. As a writer of over ninety published works, I would be exceedingly surprised if he had never employed this useful word on occasion. Consider this example, from one of the finest short stories ever written in the English language:
“As Cuthbert, for it was he who had so nearly reduced the muster-roll of rising novelists by one, hopped down from the table after his stroke, he was suddenly aware that a beautiful girl was looking at him intently. As a matter of fact, everyone in the room was looking at him intently, none more so than Raymond Parsloe Devine, but none of the others were beautiful girls. Long as the members of Wood Hills Literary Society were on brain, they were short on looks, and, to Cuthbert’s excited eye, Adeline Smethurst stood out like a jewel in a pile of coke.”
The Clicking of Cuthbert
Does the word suddenly leap out at you in that passage? Does it make the editor in you itch for your red pen? Is it poor writing? I’ve no doubt the many commas and sub-clauses will make our more sluggish-minded readers’ eyes water. It’s just lack of practice. Too much Hemingway in your diet. Not enough Wodehouse.
7 “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”
Wodehouse breaks this rule often, from the slang of the Drones Club to his gangs of New York. Some of these attempts are more successful than others.
“Why, den dis kid’s in bad for fair, ‘cos der ain’t nobody to pungle de bones.”
“Pungle de what, Comrade Maloney?”
“De bones. De stuff. Dat’s right. De dollars. He’s all alone, dis kid, so when de rent-guy blows in, who’s to slip him over de simoleons?”
Wodehouse’s technique develops from this early effort, in 1909, and by the time he writes Piccadilly Jim (1917), the patois is a little more refined:
“Chicago Ed’s my monaker.”
“I don’t remember any Chicago Ed.”
“Well, you will after dis!” said Mr. Crocker, happily inspired.
Ogden was eyeing him with sudden suspicion.
“Take that mask off and let’s have a look at you.”
Wodehouse continues to use this particular dialect throughout his writing career, and many of the examples defy ‘the rules’.
8 “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
This is a rule inspired by Hemingway, who apparently felt it only necessary to mention whether or not his character wore a hat. Why Hemingway’s preference should be considered a rule for all writers is unclear. Wodehouse frequently devotes a sentence or two in drawing up the external specifications of his characters, especially when there is comedic value in it. In The Mating Season, for example, he describes the Rev. Sidney Pirbright as:
“A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…”
His central characters usually get a few more inches of description. In The Mating Season, he devotes a paragraph to the beautiful ‘Corky’ Pirbright: “The general effect is of an angel who eats lots of yeast.” Her love interest, Esmond Haddock, gets a full two paragraphs:
“He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean – broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe , though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic. He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.”
None of these are detailed descriptions – Wodehouse drew his characters lightly – but it’s fair to say that he goes beyond the cursory mention of head-wear, so admired by the Hemingway school.
9 “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
Avoid description. Avoid adverbs. Is this advice for novel-writers or twitter users? According to ‘the rules’: “You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.” It’s all about action. I pity the reader who turns to modern literature as an escape from the stress and anxiety of modern life, when we writers seem intent on keeping them in this state of tension.
Wodehouse doesn’t avoid description. Nor does he encumber us with dull pages of the stuff. His descriptive passages are, as we’d expect from a humourous writer, entertaining. The opening paragraph from Piccadilly Jim is a good example:
“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. Architects, confronted by it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.”
A fine beginning, an enjoyable description – no mention of the weather. It isn’t clear from ‘the rules’ how much description is too much, but Wodehouse judges this for himself and gets it just right for his audience and purpose.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Which reader would that be? ‘The rules’ say: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”
In my case, I would begin by skipping the complete works of Hemingway.
But where does this leave our assessment of Wodehouse, according to the modern rules? The answer is, of course, that it hardly matters. Wodehouse is an acknowledged master of his craft and has nothing to prove, in spite of changing fashions about what constitutes ‘good writing’.
On reflection, my argument has is less to do with Wodehouse than ‘the rules’ themselves. If Wodehouse, one of our great writers who remains well-loved more than a century after he began writing, doesn’t fit the modern rule book, are editors, publishers and critics closing their minds to other potentially great writers who don’t fit them either?
I’m not talking about myself, but… as it happens I am working on a novel at present and it does happen to begin with the weather, followed by quite a lot of backstory. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me. At the very least I shall have to scrap that first sentence:
“My parents died in a thunderstorm!” she cried suddenly.