The butler is back as Jeeves and Wooster return in P G Wodehouse homage
He appeared, as if from nowhere, in September 1915, at Bertie’s door with “Mrs Gregson to see you, sir,” and then “Very good, sir, which suit will you wear?” Jeeves, the ultimate gentleman’s personal gentleman, was born; and so began the most enduring and congenial double act in the canon. This was from Extricating Young Gussie – the first of 35 short stories and 11 novels – to chart the adventures of the upper-class innocent-cum-Edwardian boulevardier Bertie Wooster and his consummate inscrutable valet, Jeeves. Its author, Pelham Grenville (P G or Plum) Wodehouse, confessed decades later something like shame, “now that I have written so much about him, to recall how softly and undramatically Jeeves first entered my little world”.
The other odd aspect was that this first introduction to Jeeves and Bertie was set in New York. As the critic George Watson observed: “So the most famous manservant of modern literature started life as an expatriate – the creation, what is more, of an expatriate mind. Appropriately for a writer who spent much of his time evoking an England which dwelt only in his imagination, he spent most of his life outside the jurisdiction, in New York, Hollywood, Le Touquet, Cannes and ultimately Long Island.”
Almost a century later, and four decades after their last appearance, the distinguished novelist Sebastian Faulks has been entrusted by the Wodehouse estate to bring this oddest couple back to life. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is, in short, a triumph. Faulks appears to have read – and remembered – all that there is to know about this disparate duo. And all the winning ingredients are there: a stately home in peril, a peppery baronet, his icy consort, a glacial grande dame, a breakfast, lunch and dinner party bore, a few chums from past novels (Esmond Haddock and “Stinker” Pinker) and the requisite luckless, love-struck young couple. Add a cricket match, a break-in, a concert and Jeeves and Bertie in disguise and the flawless formula is plumb in place, allowing the Byzantine plot to unfold.
But what makes this new novel sing is Faulks’s near pitch-perfect restoration of the Master’s musical prose. “If Hoad could best be described as inert, Beeching P was about as ert as they come.” This is vintage Bertie and, apart from the lines of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream remembered from school, he never utters a biblical or literary quote that he can get right. Leaving it to Jeeves to correct him, but never quite finish it. Jeeves’s tone is sepulchral, as of old. “Sir? There’s been a development.”
The arcane marks of a gentleman are taken as read. “Never trust a man who keeps billiard chalk in his waistcoat pocket.” And in cricket: “A gentleman should not score more than half his team’s total.” But what marks Faulks’s attempt is his knack in capturing the Wodehousian wit. At the village hall concert, 10-year-old Susan Chandler, with plaits and thick glasses, recites By Last Duchess by Robert Browning. “It was not only the child’s adenoids that made the next seven or eight minutes hard to endure …” Later, the Puddletown Barbershop Quartet appear onstage with a man short, “and a barbershop quartet with only three barbers is bound to lack a certain something”. And finally, the ancient Lord Etringham stands, donkey-headed, before an audience (that smelt “of warm yeomanry, pipe smoke and alcohol”). “King Lear, perhaps, after long exposure on the blasted heath; but Bottom, no.”
Some Wodehousian zealots have decried Faulks for at least four incursions into the real world. In Wooster’s world, they say, death, dates, politics and sex are alien. The heroine Georgiana’s parents went down with the Lusitania; yet the result is a Plum one, as there is one less set of parents. The Master always preferred aunts and uncles, and while Georgiana’s uncle and aunt are ever-present, Bertie’s fearsome Aunt Agatha circles but never surfaces.
Politics – the General Strike is mentioned by Faulks. Georgiana drives a bus, which would place the novel in 1926; and yet the timeless Edwardian glow of Wooster’s world remains untarnished. Stalin gets a mention, too, but it should be remembered that one of the best of Plum’s oeuvre, The Code of the Woosters (1938), featured Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts; this was uncharacteristically up-to-date for the Master certainly, but still a classic Wodehouse villain. And there was the celebrated appearance of “Sippy” Sipperley in the dock as Leon Trotsky. Even in Plum’s last novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974), there are references to protest marches and civil disobedience, so Georgiana’s plea for female emancipation does not seem so out of order.
The final grievance of the fanatics is not that Faulks has introduced sex but, something worse; he has allowed Bertie to fall in love. True, Bertie was not as susceptible as his chum, Bingo Little, but fall he did – with Lady Cynthia Wickhammersley, Angelica Briscoe, Pauline Stoker – and he does here too, with the chocolate-eyed bluestocking Georgiana Meadowes. ”My heart, already skipping the odd one from the prolonged eye contact, now began to beat the sort of rhythm you hear in the Congo before the missionary gets lobbed into the bouillon.” As his Aunt Dahlia quipped, if the girls that Bertie has been engaged to were placed end to end, they would reach from Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner.
The tiny sartorial details are also woven in. Bertie’s famous heliotrope pyjamas make an appearance. As Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited Plum’s letters) observed: “Bertie’s pyjamas, carefully buttoned up to disguise true feeling.” Wodehouse once remarked to a friend: “There are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.”
As the writer Roger Kimball noted: “Most great artists plumb the depths; Wodehouse remained fixed, gloriously, on the surface.”
In skimming the surface, Faulks has included a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with all the ingenuity and high spirits of the best Wodehousian set pieces, recalling the claim of that other supreme prose stylist Evelyn Waugh that Wodehouse inhabited a world as timeless as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland. Wodehouse himself said that it was as if he was forever in his last year at school. It was, Waugh said, “as if the Fall of Man had never happened.”
That innocence has been captured in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. While Faulks has been anxious to avoid a pastiche (something that he did quite brilliantly for the Fleming estate in Devil May Care, his Bond novel to mark that author’s centenary), he has marshalled much of the Master’s genius. It’s impossible to match the brilliance of the short stories of the 1920s or the magic of the first novels in the 30s, like Thank You, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves (both 1934) – and both enduring masterpieces – but he has come remarkably close. Jeeves could rightly say, without a hint of hesitation and without clearing his throat: “Very good, sir.”
In a letter to some admirers, Wodehouse wrote: “The world I write about, always a small one – one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie … would say – is now not even small, it is non-existent. It has gone with the wind … In a word, it has had it. But I have not altogether lost hope of a revival.” That revival never came and Plum died (appropriately, on Valentine’s Day, 1975) at the age of 93, two months after he was belatedly knighted. Yet Faulks’s homage is the best possible revival of Wodehouse’s exquisite universe and should send new readers sprinting to immerse themselves in the inimitable originals.
Mark McGinness is a regular contributor to The National.
Updated: November 28, 2013 04:00 AM