Jeeves Takes Charge
Jeeves Takes Charge
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse 1919
P. G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves Takes Charge” was first published in 1919 in England in a collection of stories entitled My Man Jeeves. Wodehouse wrote dozens of stories and several novels detailing the comical misadventures of Bertie Wooster, a befuddled young Englishman, and his resourceful butler, Jeeves. “Jeeves Takes Charge” is one of the earliest stories in the series. Bertie recounts how he came to hire Jeeves in the story. In “Jeeves Takes Charge,” as in all the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories, Bertie foolishly gets himself into a difficult predicament and it is up to Jeeves to save him. Wodehouse’s stories were very popular when they were published, and they are still widely read today. His particular brand of humor continues to amuse many people as the numerous fan clubs that are found on the Internet demonstrates.
P. G. Wodehouse was born on October 15, 1881, in Hong Kong, where his father was stationed as a member of the British civil service. He was sent to England along with his older brothers for his schooling in 1884. He attended Elizabeth College and Malvern House, a naval preparatory school. At the age of 12, he began his most important educational experience at Dulwich College. His six years at Dulwich were a major influence on his life and work. His first payment for writing came during his last year there when one of his essays was published in the Public School Magazine.
Wodehouse knew early that he wanted to be a writer, but his father did not believe that writing was a sensible occupation. He was forced to become a bank clerk at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. However, he wrote during the evening and sold 80 stories and articles while he worked at the bank. Ultimately, he quit working there and became ajournalist for The Globe in 1903, first writing and then editing the “By the Way” column. In 1904, he made the first of frequent visits to the United States and immediately fell in love with American culture. On one of his visits, he met the widow who would become his wife, Ethel Newton Rowley. They were married on September 30, 1914.
Wodehouse began writing lyrics for the musical stage in 1904. In 1906, his first collaboration with Jerome Kern, The Beauty of Bath, was produced for the Aldwych Theatre. Kern introduced Wodehouse to Guy Bolton in 1906. The three men worked together to revolutionize the musical comedy. Wodehouse was a gifted lyricist with a breezy wit and he teamed with Bolton and Kern to write several hit plays, including Have a Heart (1917) and Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918). One of their plays, Leave it to Jane (1917) had a successful revival Off-Broadway in the early 1970s. Wodehouse also worked periodically in Hollywood during the 1930s, making what he believed was an outrageous amount of $2,000 per week as a script doctor for Samuel Goldwyn. However, he experienced greater success with his plays and his fiction. The theater had a tremendous influence on his fiction; he once commented that his books were musical comedies without the music.
Wodehouse’s fiction was popular because of the absurd yet complex plots and zany characters. His stories were formulaic, but his formula allowed for a wide variety of situations and characters. His tales of Mr. Mulliner, Blandings Castle, and Jeeves and Wooster shared many of the same plot elements: silly young men seeking or avoiding marriage, mistaken identities, the purloining of some object by successive characters, etc. Many of the characters cross over from one story or novel to another, and the characters make frequent references to events that take place in other stories or novels. Another reason Wodehouse’s formula was successful was his masterful command of the English language. He used metaphors, puns, slang, and literary references in his fiction to great effect.
In 1940, Wodehouse was captured by the Germans while living in France and spent much of the war interned in Berlin. He unwisely made a series of radiobroadcasts sponsored by the Germans from Berlin to America in 1941. Although the broadcasts subtly ridiculed the Germans, many right-wing publications in England branded him a traitor. Writers such as George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, however, defended Wodehouse by pointing out that he was politically naive. Wodehouse did not realize that the broadcasts were valuable propaganda for the Germans. Wodehouse, who dearly loved England, was deeply wounded by the charges and ended up emigrating to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1955. The scandal ultimately blew over, and Wodehouse, to his great satisfaction, was knighted shortly before his death in 1975.
The story takes place in England sometime between 1910 and 1920. Narrator Bertie Wooster, an idle and rich young man, opens “Jeeves Takes Charge” by admitting that he is much too dependent on his butler Jeeves. However, he is unashamed; after all, in Bertie’s opinion, Jeeves is a genius. “From the collar upward he stands alone,” says Bertie, and he proceeds to detail how he came to trust the butler with all of his affairs.
During a visit to Easeby, his Uncle Willoughby’s estate, Bertie catches his original butler, Meadowes, stealing silk socks. He is forced to return to London to hire a new valet. Bertie is attempting to read a dull book given to him by his fiancee, Florence Craye, when Jeeves first arrives. Bertie, who is nursing a hangover, is immediately impressed when Jeeves concocts a remedy for him. During their conversation, Bertie learns that Jeeves was formerly employed by Florence’s father, Lord Worplesdon. Jeeves resigned because he disapproved of Lord Worplesdon’s fashion sense. Bertie senses that Jeeves does not approve of his engagement to Florence. Bertie receives a telegram from Florence urgently requesting that he return to Easeby, where she is staying as a guest. He orders Jeeves to pack, and discovers that Jeeves dislikes the suit he is wearing. Bertie disregards the butler’s disapproval.
Upon arriving at Easeby, Bertie determines the nature of the emergency. His Uncle Willoughby has been writing his memoirs, “Recollections of a Long Life.” It seems that the old man has read some of the manuscript to Florence, and she is appalled. The book details Sir Willoughby’s wild adventures with his friends during their youth. Her father is one of many respectable gentlemen who, she feels, will be scandalized if the book is published. She proposes that Bertie pilfer the manuscript before it can be published. Bertie, who is financially dependent on his Uncle Willoughby, is extremely reluctant. He suggests that maybe Florence’s younger brother Edwin, who is also a guest at Easeby, might be better suited for the task. After all, Edwin is a Boy Scout who is always looking for “acts of kindness” to perform. Florence threatens to break off their engagement if Bertie does not steal the book. Bertie, flustered, agrees to the wacky scheme. As he leaves the room, he runs into Jeeves, who informs him that someone has used black polish on his brown shoes.
Bertie lurks near his uncle’s library waiting for an opportunity to filch the book. Sir Willoughby leaves the manuscript on a hall table for his butler, Oakshott, to take to the post office the next morning. Bertie snatches the book up and returns to his room. He arrives to find Edwin snooping about his things under the pretense of “tidying up.” Bertie attempts to hide the book behind his back. Edwin informs him that one of his recent “acts of kindness” was to polish Bertie’s shoes. Bertie sends the boy off to trim some cigars and immediately locks the manuscript in a drawer.
Bertie is fearful of trying to destroy the manuscript while he is still at Easeby. He determines that leaving it the drawer for the time being is the best solution. Sir Willoughby is concerned because the publishers have not yet received his book. Bertie attempts to pin the blame on his former butler, but his uncle points out that Meadowes was not present when he finished the manuscript. Bertie becomes nervous and walks around the estate chain-smoking. While passing the library window, he overhears a conversation between Edwin and his uncle. Edwin knows that Bertie has the book and he convinces Sir Willoughby to search Bertie’s room. Bertie dashes back to the room only to meet his Uncle Willoughby and Edwin. Sir Willoughby uses the story Edwin has contrived as an excuse to search Bertie’s room. The drawer where the book is hidden remains locked and Bertie, to his relief, cannot find the key. Suddenly, Jeeves, to Bertie’s horror, appears with the key. The drawer is opened, but Bertie is surprised
to see that the manuscript is no longer there. After Edwin and Sir Willoughby leave the room, Bertie questions Jeeves and learns that the butler had overheard his conversation with Florence regarding the book. Jeeves determined that it would be more prudent if he took possession of the parcel. Bertie is pleased with his butler’s performance and is satisfied that he has done his duty for Florence.
Florence returns from a dance and Bertie tells her that, although he hasn’t exactly destroyed the manuscript, he has fulfilled his obligation. At that moment, his happy uncle appears to tell them that the manuscript has arrived at the publisher. Florence, infuriated, breaks off their engagement. Bertie angrily confronts Jeeves. Jeeves tells Bertie that he thinks they overestimated the effect the book would have on the people in it. Bertie fires Jeeves, and Jeeves takes the opportunity to tell him that he believes that Florence and Bertie are a mismatch. Bertie orders him to leave the room. After a nights sleep, Bertie begins to think about what Jeeves has said. He attempts to read the book Florence gave him and realizes that Jeeves was right. He rehires the butler and, in an effort to win his approval, he tells Jeeves to get rid of his checked suit. Jeeves informs Bertie that he has already given the suit to the under-gardener.
Although Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha never actually appears in “Jeeves Takes Charge,” the details Bertie reveals about her as he narrates the story suggest that she disapproves of him. Bertie mentions in the beginning that his Aunt Agatha thinks that he is too dependent on Jeeves, going so far as to call the butler Bertie’s “keeper.” After Florence discovers that Bertie was unsuccessful in preventing his Uncle Willoughby’s book from being mailed to the publisher, she breaks off their engagement and informs him that his Aunt Agatha discouraged her from marrying him.
Mr. Berkeley is an unseen character who leaves Sir Willoughby’s estate before Bertie arrives. Edwin convinces Sir Willoughby to pretend that Mr. Berkeley has left a cigarette case in Bertie’s room as an excuse to search for the stolen book.
Edwin is Florence’s devious 14-year-old brother. He is a mischievous tattletale who feigns innocence as he torments Bertie throughout the story. Bertie describes him as a “ferret-faced kid, whom I had disliked since birth.” Nine years earlier, young Edwin led Lord Worplesdon to the spot where Bertie was sneaking a cigar, which caused “unpleasantness.” Bertie suggests to Florence that Edwin is a perfect candidate for the role of thief in her scheme, but she won’t allow it. Edwin, ever the diligent Boy Scout, uses black polish on Bertie’s brown shoes. He catches Bertie trying to hide the stolen book. Bertie nearly loses his inheritance when Edwin tries to convince Sir Willoughby that the book is in Bertie’s room.
Florence Craye is Bertie’s pushy, snobby fiancee. Bertie has grown up around her family. She forces Bertie to read boring volumes of philosophy in an effort to “mold” him properly. She is staying as a guest of Bertie’s uncle, Sir Willoughby, while Bertie isin London hiring Jeeves as his new butler. She is shocked when Sir Willoughby reads her his memoirs, mainly because the book details the boisterous, drunken follies of her father, Lord Worplesdon, in his youth. She fears embarrassment for her family and bullies Bertie into stealing his uncle’s manuscript before it can be mailed to the publisher. Ultimately, Jeeves sabotages her scheme as well as her engagement plans.
Lord Emsworth is one of several people Florence thinks will be scandalized by being mentioned in Sir Willoughby’s memoirs.
See Florence Craye
Aubrey is Bertie’s unseen friend in the story. At the beginning of the story, Bertie proclaims that, unlike his friend Aubrey, he will not let his valet run his life. The irony is that he does indeed end up like Aubrey when he lets Jeeves take charge.
Sir Stanley Gervase-Gervase
Sir Stanley is another person Sir Willoughby gossips about in his book.
Jeeves is the sly and droll butler of the title. Jeeves is hired by Bertie Wooster after Bertie catches his old butler, Meadowes, stealing socks. As Bertie is narrating the story after the fact, he has already learned his new butler’s value. He claims that Jeeves is a genius—“From the collar upward he stands alone.” It seems that Jeeves instinctually knows what Bertie needs; he immediately proves his worth after he first arrives when he fetches Bertie a hangover remedy without being asked. However, Jeeves is unafraid to show when he disapproves of Bertie—if not vocally, then in his tone and manner. Bertie is at first suspicious and defiant, but Jeeves twice saves him in the story. First, he removes Sir Willougby’s manuscript from Bertie’s drawer to cover up the theft and saves Bertie’s inheritance. However, he promptly mails the manuscript despite Lady Florence’s wishes. Bertie fires Jeeves when she cancels the engagement. Although Bertie doesn’t immediately realize it, Jeeves has saved him again, this time from a miserable marriage. Bertie rehires Jeeves after some consideration. He finally gives in to the same impulse that guides his friend Aubrey, allowing the butler to take charge and graciously disowning the suit that Jeeves has already given away.
Meadowes is the thieving butler replaced by Jeeves. He is fired when Bertie catches him stealing socks. Bertie tries to blame him for his uncle’s missing book, but Sir Willoughby points out that he was already gone when the book disappeared.
Oakshott is Sir Willoughby’s butler.
See Uncle Willoughby
Bertie Wooster is financially dependent on his uncle, Sir Willoughby. The old man is insistent on publishing his memoirs, “Recollections of a Long Life.” He and his friends, now respectable gentlemen, were apparently quite rowdy in their youth. The stories scandalize Lady Florence and she devises a scheme in which Bertie reluctantly steals his uncle’s manuscript. Florence’s bratty brother Edwin spies Bertie with the book and informs Sir Willoughby. Bertie’s uncle is at first skeptical, but Edwin convinces him to search Bertie’s room. Jeeves removes the book before Sir Willoughby can find it and sends it to the publisher.
Bertie Wooster is the likable but hapless narrator of “Jeeves Takes Charge.” Bertie is a young man of the leisure class who is financially dependent upon his Uncle Willoughby. The story is an introduction to his remarkable butler, Jeeves. Bertie admits at the very beginning that he has become hopelessly dependent on his valet. Jeeves displays his ingenuity soon after he arrives and saves Bertie from his fiancee Florence and her ridiculous schemes. Bertie is seemingly oblivious to what Jeeves recognizes immediately: Florence is a shrew. She is a snob who forces him to read dry philosophy that makes no sense to him, and she puts him in a difficult predicament when she insists that he steal his uncle’s manuscript. Bertie foolishly agrees to her plot, even though he knows that it could lead to financial ruin if he is caught. Bertie is not only helpless against Florence; he is bedeviled by her sneaky younger brother, Edwin. The boy leads Sir Willoughby to the scene of the crime, but Jeeves removes the evidence before they can find it. Bertie’s
- Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie played Jeeves and Wooster in Granada’s production of several Wodehouse stories on British television from 1990 to 1993. Many episodes were broadcast in the United States on PBS as part of the Mobil Masterpiece Theatre series. All of the episodes are available on videotape.
- There have been more than 50 audio-tape versions of P. G. Wodehouse’s stories recorded, including a tape featuring eight stories from Carry On, Jeeves read by Martin Jarvis.
admiration quickly goes sour when Florence breaks off their engagement after the manuscript is published despite his efforts. Jeeves has of course determined that it was in Bertie’s best interests if the manuscript was published. Bertie fires Jeeves, but after some thought, he realizes that Jeeves was right. Bertie, although somewhat dim, is modest enough to admit his dependence upon Jeeves.
Lord Worplesdon is the eccentric father of Florence and Edwin Craye. Sir Willoughby writes of his youthful friendship with Lord Worplesdon in his “Recollections of a Long Life.” Florence is scandalized by the revelation that her father, after consuming a quart and a half of champagne, and Sir Willoughby were booted from a music-hall in 1887. This leads to the theft of Sir Willougby’s manuscript. Bertie notes that a few years after the events of the story, Lord Worplesdon leaves his family for France after one too many servings of eggs.
Engagement and Marriage
One of the sub-plots of “Jeeves Takes Charge” is Bertie’s engagement to Florence Craye. Readers,
Topics for Further Study
- Study and discuss the titles and rankings of English nobility. By what process does one become a “Sir” or “Lord?”
- Compare other well-known satirical writers, such as Mark Twain or Kurt Vonegut, to P. G. Wodehouse. Discuss the similarities and differences in their styles and subjects.
- Research the history of England during the early 1900s. Discuss the economy and society of the period. Describe the fads and fashions of Edwardian England.
- Study the role of the butler or valet in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries and write an essay comparing the reality of the position with the way that it has been portrayed in popular media such as film and television.
- Read several of the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories. Once you are familiar with the various characters and plots, attempt to write a scene (or story) of your own using the characters of Wodehouse. You could also attempt to create contemporary versions of the characters; use your imagination.
like Jeeves, immediately recognize that Florence would make Bertie miserable if they were to marry. Bertie, even though he somewhat dimly realizes that she is a shrew, is too charmed by her “wonderful profile” to fight her attempts to “improve” him by forcing him to read dull works of philosophy. She bullies him into stealing his uncle’s manuscript by threatening to break their engagement. Perhaps her greatest offense is that she is in league with his horrid Aunt Agatha. In many of the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories, Bertie finds himself engaged to the wrong girl; some are sickeningly sentimental ninnies, others snare him in wild schemes. Jeeves, of course, always saves Bertie from the clutches of the wrong girl.
An important and amusing theme running through all of the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories is the reversal of roles in the master/servant relationship between Bertie and his butler. Although Jeeves is the quintessential gentleman’s gentleman, ready to serve Bertie at a moment’s notice, Bertie is just bright enough to realize that his butler possesses a superior intellect. “Jeeves Takes Charge” establishes a formula that is familiar throughout the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories. When Bertie hires Jeeves, the butler wastes no time in showing subtle disapproval for Bertie’s choice in women and suits. Bertie is initially defiant, but in the end, after Jeeves has extricated him from his predicament, the young fop gives in to the butler’s quiet demands when he tells Jeeves to get rid of the distasteful suit. Jeeves has of course already disposed of the suit by giving it to the under-gardener. Later stories find Bertie changing his behavior or appearance (even once shaving off a mustache) in order to gratify Jeeves in the same manner. Thus, Jeeves actually has the upper hand in their relationship despite his lower social status as Bertie’s servant.
Social Class and Wealth
Bertie Wooster is a young man who has never worked a day in his life. In “Jeeves Takes Charge” and other stories in the series, it is revealed that Bertie lives on allowances and inheritances from his rich aunts and uncles. This type of lifestyle, while it may seem unusual now, was common for young men in the upper class in England during the Edwardian era. Bertie is 24 years old, yet he has his own valet to serve him. Because of his class, he is able to live frivolously on the wealth of others. He spends much of his time drinking with his friends; in the opening of this story, as in many others, he is recovering from a hangover. His life is a pursuit of pleasure. This is one reason why Bertie is threatened by Florence’s scheme to steal his uncle’s manuscript: if he is caught, Sir Willoughby would probably disinherit him. This would definitely disrupt an ideal situation for Bertie.
P. G. Wodehouse is recognized as one of England’s great light satirists of the twentieth century. The “Jeeves and Wooster” stories delicately tweaked the wealthy lords and ladies of Great Britain and their society. The plot of “Jeeves Takes Charge” revolves around the memoirs of Sir Willoughby, Bertie Wooster’s rich uncle. The various vignettes in the manuscript (“Recollections of a Long Life’’) detail embarrassing moments in the youths of several prominent Englishmen. Here, although it is obvious in most of his fiction that he looks favorably upon the wealthy, Wodehouse gently mocks the idea that the upper class is without flaw. One does not have to actually read Sir Willoughby’s autobiography to realize this; the events and characters in “Jeeves Takes Charge” are evidence enough. For example, Lord Worplesdon (although he never physically appears) is an eccentric blowhard. His daughter, Florence Craye, is a pushy, conceited snob. Edwin Craye, supposedly a model young boy, is a sneaky and mischievous troublemaker. Meadowes, Bertie’s original butler, is a kleptomaniac. However, it is the relationship between Bertie and Jeeves that serves as Wodehouse’s main ironic punch. Bertie, in a position of power because he is rich (although it is through no effort of his own), is forced to recognize that Jeeves, his butler and therefore of a lower class, possesses a superior intellect.
Bertie Wooster is the narrator of “Jeeves Takes Charge.” Although Bertie often seems clueless, much of the flavor of this story, as in all the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories, is derived from his narration. Wodehouse uses a variety of devices to make Bertie an amusing narrator: slang, exaggeration and understatement, mixed metaphor, and literary refererence. Bertie is a fool, but through his narration Wodehouse demonstrates that he is an endearing and likable fool because of his innate modesty and eagerness to please.
Wodehouse is famous for the complex plotting of his stories. In Jeeves Takes Charge, the action revolves around Sir Willoughby’s memoirs. Each of the characters are struggling for control of the manuscript and their efforts result in pandemonium. Florence wants it destroyed because she is embarrassed by it. Bertie is bullied into stealing it so Florence won’t break their engagement. Edwin wants Sir Willoughby to find it so that Bertie will be branded as a kleptomaniac. Poor Sir Willoughby simply wants it published. Finally, it is the clever Jeeves who finally wins possession of the book, thereby saving Bertie from both disinheritance and a disastrous marriage.
The story is set in England sometime soon after the Edwardian period. The action takes place at Easeby, the estate of Sir Willoughby. Many of Wodehouse’s stories and novels take place at large estates or in castles. These settings lend themselves to the type of farce that he writes. Many rooms exist where characters can hide, and many windows where characters can spy or eavesdrop on each other. For example, while standing outside the library window, Bertie overhears Edwin tell Sir Willoughby about the stolen manuscript. One of the reasons Wodehouse’s stories are so popular is that he so brilliantly describes the lavish settings where the stories of his privileged fools take place.
In his essay “P. G. Wodehouse: The Lesson of the Young Master,” published in the 1958 annual edition of New World Writing, John Aldridge notes that Wodehouse “belongs exclusively to Edwardian times. ...” Aldridge is referring to the era of England’s King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901, until his death in 1910. This decade marked a remarkably quiet transition from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century. At the time, England was one of the most powerful, advanced countries on
Compare & Contrast
- 1910: King Edward VII dies at Buckingham Palace on May 6 after a reign of nine years.
1999: Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, is the monarch leading England into the 21st century. Her 51-year-old son, Prince Charles, is Heir apparent. Prince Charles has two sons, Prince William and Prince Henry, which virtually guarantees that the next person to take the throne will be the first male monarch in 50 years.
- 1917: The House of Commons grants suffrage to most women 30 years of age and older.
1990: After 11 successful years, Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister (PM) in English history, is succeeded by John Major. Thatcher, as well as being the first woman to become a PM, is also the first to win three consecutive general elections.
- 1914: World War I begins when a member of the Austrian royal family, Archduke Ferdinand, is assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in the Balkans.
1999: Civil strife in the Balkans threatens to engulf Europe in war. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervenes in a conflict between a sovereign nation (Yugoslavia) and its citizens for the first time since the treaty’s inception. NATO’s air-strikes, beginning March 24, lead to a tentative peace agreement between Serbs and ethnic Albanians on June 9.
earth. England was an industrial giant, and the British Empire stretched into Africa and Asia. Certainly, England had problems, including terrible poverty in the wretched slums of the larger cities. But the first decade of the Twentieth Century in England was an idyllic time, especially for the rich, in comparison to the tumult of the following decades. Wodehouse idealized the period; his characters spent evenings at “the club” and weekends at sprawling country estates. Although his later stories sometimes made references to contemporary culture, his fiction always remained firmly rooted in the values of Edwardian England.
Women in Early 20th Century England
Wodehouse, consciously or not, may have recognized the changing role of women in British society when he created the assertive (though unlikable) Florence Craye. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, women in England had been fighting for political power and social reform. The Kensington Society, eleven women who were seeking careers in medicine or education, brought a petition asking for women’s suffrage to Members of Parliament John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett in 1865. John Stuart Mill favored universal suffrage and added an amendment that would grant women the right to vote to the Reform Act that was before Paliament. It was soundly defeated. The women went on to form the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. In the 1890s, over a dozen suffrage societies from across England consolidated as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) to bring pressure on Parliament to grant women the vote. A radical spin-off of the NUWSS, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903. The battle for suffrage intensified over the next decade; many women were imprisoned, and hunger strikes were common. By the time Wodehouse was writing his first Jeeves and Wooster stories, Parliament was under an enormous amount of pressure to enact reform. In June, 1917, the House of Commons voted 385-55 to grant women over the age of 30 the right to vote. The archaic nineteenth-century notion of a “women’s sphere” was beginning to crumble.
Wodehouse began writing the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories during World War I. The lack of any reference to the war is almost astonishing; again, his characters are forever part of Edwardian England. However, Wodehouse wisely knew that his strength was in writing light comedy. Many people were no doubt thankful for the slight relief that Wodehouse’s absurd little stories gave them during one of the most horrible conflicts in mankind’s history. “The Great War” began when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and a chain of alliances were activated. Germany and Turkey joined Austria-Hungary to become the Central Powers. France and Russia began to build up their armies, and Germany declared war on both countries. Great Britain joined France and Russia against the Central Powers on August 4, 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium. Later in the war, Italy, the United States, and Japan would join the Allies against the Central Powers. World War I marked the first time many modern weapons were used and the results were devastating. Germany, France, Russia, and Great Britain lost almost an entire generation; 8.5 million were killed during the war. The entry of the U.S. into the war (April 4, 1917) served as a turning point. Ultimately, the Central Powers were overwhelmed and they were forced to sign the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
By the time Carry On, Jeeves, the collection of stories containing “Jeeves Takes Charge,” was published in 1925, Wodehouse had already firmly established himself as one of England’s leading humorists. His books were usually well-received, and Carry On, Jeeves was no exception. An unidentified reviewer in the December 3, 1927 edition of the Saturday Review of Literature wrote:
We frankly admit our fondness for all the Wodehouse comics, and our especial delight in Bertie and the peerless Jeeves. The broad, rich, hilarious humor of the book places it, in our opinion, among the author’s best.
Most reviews of the book were similar. However, the New York Times was somewhat more reserved in its praise:
Mr. Wodehouse’s humor, diverting though it is at first, seems to be drawn too much to formula after one has read beyond a certain point. Many of the stories taken singly are nothing short of delightful. But one cannot avoid the feeling that an entire book of Wodehouse stories is an overabundance.
This was a fault that several critics found in Wodehouse’s fiction. No doubt a recognizable and somewhat repetitious formula earmarks the Jeeves and Wooster stories. For example, in “Jeeves Takes Charge,” Jeeves disapproves of a particular suit Bertie favors. Bertie is initially hesitant to part with the suit, but eventually he gives in to Jeeves. This situation is repeated, with slight variances, in almost all the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Another frequent plot device is the presence of pesky aunts and uncles. Thus, some critics found his writing tedious. Familiarity did not, however, breed contempt with the general public. Wodehouse’s books enjoyed tremendous popular success.
Early in his career, Wodehouse was not granted the same sort of critical attention reserved for more serious writers of fiction. In the 1958 edition of New World Writing, John W. Aldridge writes that he knows of “no critical discussion of [Wodehouse’s] work which attempts at all seriously to investigate the peculiar quality of his comic gifts or to account for the phenomenally high favor in which they have been held for all these years by the reading public.” Aldridge argues that Wodehouse is one of the finest comic writers of the twentieth century. Since Aldridge’s essay was published, there have been many scholarly articles and books written on Wodehouse’s work. An essay published in the autumn 1959 Arizona Quarterly by Lionel Stevenson traces Wodehouse’s antecedents in English literature from Ben Jonson to Oscar Wilde. In an introductory essay written for P. G. Wodehouse: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Checklist (1990), Anthony Quinton continues in the same vein. Quinton compares to relationship between Bertie and Jeeves to several other master/servant relationships in literature, such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, and Phineas Fogg and Passepartout. Several biographies of Wodehouse have been published in the last three decades as well. Although Wodehouse wrote light comedy, a great deal of respect is held for his brilliant use of language and his well-crafted stories.
Akers is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared in college journals and educational publications. In the following essay, Akers discusses the influence of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves and Wooster” stories on the film and television of the late twentieth century.
In 1917, P. G. Wodehouse first introduced the characters of Bertie Wooster, the young, rich, and endearing English nitwit, and Jeeves, his cool and ingenious butler. More than 70 years later, the critical and popular success of the early 1990s British television series, Jeeves and Wooster, clearly demonstrates the enduring influence of Wodehouse’s fiction on popular culture. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves and Wooster” stories have been adapted many times for the stage and screen through the years, perhaps most regrettably for a pair of “Jeeves” movies starring Arthur Treacher in the 1930s. (These films had no trace of Wodehouse’s actual stories; Jeeves is portrayed as an idiot and, unbelievably, there is no Bertie Wooster character!) However, the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster television series benefited from faithfulness to the original stories, sharp writing, and brilliant characterizations by Stephen Fry (Jeeves) and Hugh Laurie (Wooster). A frequent criticism of Wodehouse is that his fiction has always been oblivious to contemporary culture; although he wrote “Jeeves and Wooster” stories for over 50 years, the characters seem to be in a time-warp, circa Edwardian England. In another wise favorable essay published in the 1958 annual edition of New World Writing, John Aldridge writes:
One does have to suspend one’s sense of the contemporary world, either through physical isolation or an act of the imagination, while reading Wodehouse, for he belongs exclusively to Edwardian times and has apparently chosen to remain unaware of just about every important development which has occurred in the world since those times. All efforts, including his own, to up-date his work must end in failure: his characters, even when they strike out with brave allusions to Clark Gable and Gatsby, betray in their every gesture, action, and assumption their helpless allegiance to the past.
Grumpier critics, such as the solemn Edmund Morris, found this type of fiction superficial and tedious. But as Aldridge explains in his essay, Wodehouse was simply a product of his era. Wodehouse’s fiction was no doubt formulaic; but what an ingenious and effective formula! The familiarity of the characters and settings somehow facilitates a variety of situations in Wodehouse’s stories. Thus, the Jeeves and Wooster television series is an almost perfect situation comedy. Here it is seen just how much Wodehouse’s admittedly light, yet influential, fiction has permeated even today’s culture. Perhaps the person who coined the television word “sit-com” never read Wodehouse’s stories, but there is a Wodehousian element to the term nonetheless.
Wodehouse had great early success writing lyrics for the musical theater. His collaborations with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton revolutionized American musical comedy. Today, the plots of these plays resemble those of television situation comedy. He later commented that his fiction was musical comedy without the music. He created two vibrant characters in Jeeves and Wooster and placed them in absurd situations in dozens of stories and novels. The writers of television’s comedy series do the same thing every week (and Wodehouse was
What Do I Read Next?
- Carry On Jeeves (1925) is the short collection of “Jeeves and Wooster” stories containing “Jeeves Takes Charge.” It is a good introduction to the dozens of misadventures of the young dolt and his butler.
- Wodehouse also wrote several novels about Jeeves and Wooster. One of the best is Code of the Woosters. Like “Jeeves Takes Charge,” the characters all chase after a ridiculous object, in this case a cow creamer.
- The works of the great British author Charles Dickens were a huge influence on Wodehouse. Dickens wrote several masterful novels concerning life in England during the 19th century. One of the best is Oliver Twist (first serialized 1837-39). It is the story of an orphan taken in by a gang of pickpockets on the streets of London.
- A completely different take on England’s upper class can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel of moral disillusionment, Brideshead Revisited (1945). The novel is the story of Charles Ryder, a middle-class man obsessed with a wealthy, dysfunctional family in the years leading to World War II.
- A Butler’s Life: Scenes From the Other Side of the Silver Salver (1996), written by Christopher Allen and Kimberly K. Allen, is based on Christopher Allen’s expererience as a butler in Europe and the United States. The book is filled with anecdotes of a butler’s life, as well as instructions for those who wish to become the perfect gentleman’s gentleman.
almost as prolific). The 1990s television adaptation of his stories, Jeeves and Wooster, is only the most obvious evidence of the influence of his fiction on the popular media of the late twentieth century. There are several other examples.
One example of Wodehouse’s influence, as suggested above, is the very form of the television situation comedy series, which has existed since the 1950s. The ten stories in the 1957 Penguin edition of Carry On, Jeeves average 21.3 pages. Even the slowest of readers should be able to finish one of these stories within 30 minutes (including a break for the privy, of course). Perhaps Wodehouse was unable to leave the comfort of Edwardian England himself, but his formula was perfect for the half-hour television comedies of the last half-century. Television’s most successful comedy series, regardless of their relative quality (compare Three’s Company to Taxi), derive their success from placing characters familiar to the audience in absurd situations that are quickly resolved, either accidentally or through a particular character’s cleverness. (The characters themselves, of course, may be as absurd as the situations.) The “Jeeves and Wooster” stories operate in the same manner. One can watch an episode of almost any contemporary situation comedy on television and find a “Jeeves and Wooster” plot to match it. Mistaken or deliberately falsified identities, mis-placed or stolen objects, practical jokes gone awry, abject and utter humiliation; all of these are prime plot ingredients for both Wodehouse and the writers of today’s television situation comedies. This is not to say that these plot elements originated with Wodehouse; he claimed to read the entire works of Shakespeare every year, and Dickens was a great influence on him. It was his style that was original and, despite the anachronisms in some of his work, somewhat ahead of its time.
The character of Jeeves is another example of Wodehouse’s influence on pop culture. While it might be argued that the similarities between Wodehouse’s fiction and situation comedy are coincidental, there can be no debate that Jeeves, Wodehouse’s most brilliantly conceived character, has become an archetype. The resourceful, loyal, yet acerbic, butler has become a familiar character
“The 1981 film Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, featured Dudley Moore as the title character, a ridiculously rich, drunken playboy. . . , Although the perfectly cast Moore was hilarious in the role, John Gielgud, who played Arthur’s butler Hobson, steals many scenes, . , . any reader of Wodehouse can see the similarities between the characters of Jeeves and Hobson. Both butlers serve their ’masters’ diligently; however, they are quick to show their disapproval through sarcasm.”
to stage, film, and television audiences of the late twentieth century. There are many examples, but two stand out especially over the last 20 years.
The 1981 film Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, featured Dudley Moore as the title character, a ridiculously rich, drunken playboy. Moore was nominated for an Oscar for best actor in 1982. Although the perfectly cast Moore was hilarious in the role, John Gielgud, who played Arthur’s butler Hobson, steals many scenes. In fact, Gielgud won the Academy Award that year for best supporting actor in the film. The story itself is a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s. The plot concerns Arthur’s decision to marry a lower-class woman against his mother’s wishes, but audiences warmed to the close relationship Arthur has with Hobson. This writer doesn’t know if Gordon actually read Wodehouse (Gordon died tragically just one year after the film); however, any reader of Wodehouse can see the similarities between the characters of Jeeves and Hobson. Both butlers serve their “masters” diligently; however, they are quick to show their disapproval through sarcasm. For example, in “Jeeves Takes Charge,” Bertie persists in wearing a suit that Jeeves finds distasteful. At the end of the story, Bertie is reluctant to give up the suit, even though he knows he must because Jeeves has saved him from disaster. This leads to the following exchange:
[Wooster] Oh, Jeeves, ’I said; about that check suit.’
[Jeeves] Yes, sir?’
‘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.’
In Arthur, Hobson is equally sarcastic when speaking to his “master’’:
[Arthur] “Do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take a bath.”
[Hobson] “I’ll alert the media, sir.”
Jeeves and Hobson may cut their respective employers to the bone with wit, but they are protective. They often show disgust with their employers, but still they act as caring, parental figures. Jeeves fixes Bertie a special drink for his hangover; Hobson bathes Arthur. Hobson would probably not exist without Jeeves.
Neither would the character of Benson. Robert Guillame won a supporting actor Emmy playing the role of the caustic butler on the situation comedy series, Soap. (He later won a best actor playing the same role in the spin-off series, Benson.) Soap premiered on ABC in 1977. It was a controversial (at the time) satire of soap operas. The program, in the early years, had excellent satirical writing, and some of the best performers, on television. Several performers on the show, including Guillame and Billy Crystal, went on to even greater success. Guillame’s Benson shares several traits with Jeeves. Benson, like Jeeves, is sarcastic; however, he is not quite as subtle. Benson’s classic line: the doorbell rings, everybody looks at him ... pause ... “You want me to get that?” The role-reversal in the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories and Soap takes on even more importance in the case of Benson in obvious ways (considering our country’s history) because he is an African American. Benson, despite his acid tongue, is extremely protective of several (almost) innocent characters on the show, much in the same way that Jeeves is protective of Bertie. Both butlers are supposedly members of the “lower-class” because they are servants, but both men are more intelligent than their employers. Yet they still do everything in their power to protect them.
Critics have complained that Wodehouse’s fiction reeks of antiquity. There is some truth to this; however, it is ironic that his fiction has had such an impact on contemporary culture as demonstrated by Wosehouse’s influence on on the characters and form of television and film comedy of the last 50 years. Regardless of the era, Wodehouse was a master of the English language, and his sparkling wit has aged well.
Source: Don Akers, for Short Stories forStudents, Gale, 2000.
William F. Love
In this essay Love compares the similarities of the characters of P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ian Fleming, and argues that there exists literary continuity from Wodehouse to Sayers to Fleming.
In writing this essay (which started out to be a study of Lord Peter Wimsey), I was struck by the parallels between the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers and those of two other—hugely popular—British writers: P. G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. The more deeply I looked into it, the more interested I became. As a result, I will try to show that Sayers is a centerpiece joining the other two.
Wodehouse, Sayers, and Fleming were three of the more popular novelists to come out of Britain in the twentieth century. Wodehouse (pronounced “Woodhouse”) had an almost unbelievable longevity as a published author. His first novel, The Pot Hunters, was published in 1902; his last (and ninety-sixth), Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (U.S. title: The Cat-Nappers), in 1974. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries covered the 1920s and 1930s. And Ian Fleming’s James Bond series ranged from 1953 to 1964, ultimately topping the bestseller charts. All three continue to be read widely throughout the English-speaking world. In addition, the BBC productions of the Lord Peter stories have been seen by millions; and every year or so Hollywood brings out another James Bond movie. I believe these writers have more in common than simply their popularity and nationality. I think literary dependency can be traced: from Wodehouse to
“Is some of Lord Wimsey in James Bond? I think so...”
Sayers; and from Sayers to Fleming. Jeeves to Wimsey to Bond, if you will.
First, Jeeves to Lord Peter. It’s a simple matter to prove that Sayers read Wodehouse. No less a Sayers authority than James Sandoe takes it for granted. But we needn’t rely on Sandoe: in the early pages of Murder Must Advertise Sayers mentions Wodehouse twice.
First, Pym’s Publicity’s new copy-boy (Lord Peter Wimsey) is compared to Bertie Wooster, one of Wodehouse’s major characters: “I think I’ve seen him,” says Miss Meteyard. “Tow-coloured, supercilious-looking blighter. . . . Cross between Ralph Lynn and Bertie Wooster.” (A good indication of Wodehouse’s popularity this: Sayers felt no need to explain to her readers who Bertie Wooster was.) A page later we read about “a bulky, dark youth in spectacles, immersed in a novel by P. G. Wodehouse and filching biscuits from a large tin.” Obviously, Sayers was conversant with Wodehouse.
But Wodehouse achieved more than mere mention. He clearly left his mark on Sayers. (I suspect he leaves his mark on everyone who reads him. In researching this essay I discovered, to my surprise, clear evidence of dependency on Wodehouse in my own books—despite a thirty-year gap between the last time I read him and the beginning of my writing career.)
As evidence of Wodehouse’s influence on Sayers, consider Wimsey’s self-description in The Nine Tailors: “I’m a nice wealthy bachelor. Fairly nice, anyway. And it’s fun to be rich. I find it so.” Such a self-description would be just as appropriate on the lips of Bertie Wooster.
Or take the way Wimsey occasionally strikes others: “I met [Lord Peter] once at a dog show. He was giving a perfect imitation of the silly-ass-about-town.” Later in the same book, another character says, “If anyone asked, ’What is ... the Oxford manner?’ we used to show ’em Wimsey of Balliol.... One never failed to find Wimsey of Balliol planted in the centre of the quad and laying down the law with exquisite insolence to somebody. . .. Afterwards, the Americans mostly said, ’My, but isn’t he just the perfect English aristocrat?’” Each of these descriptions would fit Bertie Wooster at least as accurately as it fits Wimsey.
Wooster and Wimsey are both bachelors. (Lord Peter’s life on the printed page would end shortly after his marriage to Harriet Vane.) Both are hard-drinking, fast-talking party animals with a penchant for finding and losing pretty women. Both have faithful, ingenious butlers. Both, finally, are upper-class, with an unquestioned, albeit unspoken, loyalty to the class system.
But Wimsey moves far beyond Wooster, as the leading character in a series of crime novels should, as opposed to the centerpiece in a set of humorous entertainments. Lord Peter is venturesome, daring, and self-reliant: qualities totally alien to Bertie.
But if Bertie knows nothing of these qualities, that doesn’t mean they are absent from Wodehouse’s stories. This brings us to the character who is more truly Wimsey’s—and therefore Bond’s—literary antecedent than Wooster: Wodehouse’s supreme creation, Jeeves. Bertie’s butler may not be venturesome or daring, but he is supremely self-reliant.
‘’I’m sitting on the roof.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Don’tsay ’Very good.’ It’s nothing of the kind. The place is alive with swans.”
“I will attend to the matter immediately, sir.”
“All is well,” I said. “Jeeves is coming.”
“What can he do?”
I frowned a trifle. The man’s tone had been peevish and I didn’t like it. “That,” I replied with a touch of stiffness, “we cannot say until we see him in action. He may pursue one course, or he may pursue another. But on one thing you can rely with the utmost confidence—Jeeves will find a way ...”
Jeeves is an expert on fashion, on cuisine, on horse racing, on literature, on politics, and, of course, on le grand jeu: he knows precisely the way to a woman’s heart.
There are, of course, striking differences as well. Jeeves is primarily concerned with saving his master’s onions; Lord Peter is concerned with solving murders. Lord Peter is a master (of Bunter, his butler) and Jeeves a servant. Nonetheless, I maintain, the difference between the characters is far less than the difference between the genres of their stories.
Wodehouse’s stories rely on an inverted master-slave relationship as old as Plautus: the servant, for all his social inferiority, is the brains of the pair. Sayers’s stories, though they contain an element of irony and self-deprecation (the Egotists’ Club, for instance) depend finally on the cleverness of Lord Peter, who, after all, has Jeeves’s trick of showing up at exactly the right time and place. (Though Bunter is a faithful servant and a delightful companion, his contributions to Wimsey’s crime-fighting tend to be minimal.) Like Jeeves, Lord Peter is omniscient, omnipotent, and always right.
Now to the second point: if Jeeves, the superior servant, is literary antecedent to Lord Peter, the wealthy aristocrat, Lord Peter, with even more justice, can be said to have been the same for Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
Not that Bond is either aristocratic or rich. He, first of all, is far from rich— Moonraker lists his salary as 1,500 pounds a year taxable, plus 1,000 pounds a year in tax-free income. But (like Jeeves) Bond enjoys elaborate perks, including travel to exotic locales and stopovers at luxury hotels. Furthermore, he never seems to lack for money with which to gamble, occasionally at very high stakes.
As to Bond’s place within the British hierarchy of class, he is definitely a commoner. Or is he? Observe him on an outing at M.’s prestigious club, the Blades. We find another inverted master-servant relationship in the two men’s dining habits: M., the aristocrat, dines on such items as deviled kidney, bacon, peas, and new potatoes—decidedly proletarian fare—while Bond orders smoked salmon, lamb cutlets, asparagus with Hollandaise. Bond, the commoner, has the upper-class tastes his boss lacks. And though he technically takes his orders from M., he is also shown to be the brains as well as the class of the partnership.
Is some of Lord Wimsey in James Bond? I think so, despite the complete lack of reference to Sayers in any of Fleming’s biographies.
First of all, take the following description of Wimsey in Gaudy Night: “height of the skull; glitter of close-cropped hair ... minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple.... Faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and droop of lid at its outer end.... Gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. Wide spring of the nostril ... an oddly amusing set of features.” Compare this passage, in its wealth of minute detail, to the way Ian Fleming frequently describes James Bond. Ironically, the best of these descriptions is in The Man with the Golden Gun, in a passage that describes not Bond but the assassin Scaramanga—who looks enough like Bond to be able to impersonate him successfully:
Age about 35. Height 6 ft. 3 in. Slim and fit. Eyes, light brown. Hair reddish in a crew cut. Long sideburns. Gaunt, sombre face with thick pencil moustache, brownish. Ears very flat to the head. Ambidextrous. Hands very large and powerful and immaculately manicured.
(Note both writers’ use of elaborate detail. Wodehouse, by contrast, is extremely sparing in his descriptions. Virtually all we are ever really told of Jeeves’s appearance is that he is a “darkish, respectful sort of Johnny.”)
Another connection between Lord Peter and James Bond may be seen in the two men’s use of cardsharping to foil villains. Lord Peter’s behavior in Sayera’s short story “The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker” provides a basis for considering similar activities of James Bond.
In the Sayers story, a parasite named Paul Melville has stolen a diamond necklace from Mrs. Ruyslaender. She is unable to bring charges because along with the diamonds he also stole a small portrait with a highly compromising inscription.
Melville likes to play poker. Lord Peter, knowing of Mrs. Ruyslaender’s predicament and wishing to help her, engages the thief in a game. During Melville’s deal Lord Peter catches him by the arm, and a card falls from Melville’s sleeve. Melville protests his innocence—correctly if vainly—because by adroit sleight of hand Lord Peter had planted the incriminating card on him. Having forced the thief into a corner, Wimsey offers him a way out: if he will return the necklace to its rightful owner he will be allowed to slink away.
This idea of cheating a cheater was used by Ian Fleming more than once, first in Moonraker. The initial premise of this book (published in 1955) is that a guided missile capable of reaching any capital in Europe has been developed. The missile is being financed privately by the fabulously wealthy Sir Hugo Drax. The British government is worried that Sir Hugo’s propensity to cheat at cards might constitute a risk to national security. For his own good as well as for the defense of the realm, Sir Hugo must be stopped. James Bond, of course, is just the man to catch Sir Hugo out.
Bond is a trained cardsharp: he has learned to handle such tricks as how to drop cards from his sleeve—shades of Lord Peter! M., Bond’s superior, invites Bond to the Blades Club, where he engages Sir Hugo in a bridge game and relieves him of fifteen thousand pounds.
But this was not Bond’s last dustup with a cardsharp. In Goldfinger, the book that constitutes the strongest proof for my contention that Ian Fleming drew inspiration from the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, Bond encounters Auric Goldfinger, money launderer for the evil SMERSH organization. At their first meeting, Goldfinger is cheating at a canasta game at a Caribbean resort: he has positioned a woman in a hotel room behind his opponent to observe his hand through binoculars. She then transmits her findings through a radio disguised as Goldfinger’s hearing aid. Bond funds the woman, calls Goldfinger’s bluff through the radio, and forces him to make restitution to his victim.
But this byplay between Bond and Goldfinger— so reminiscent of that between Wimsey and Melville—is only the beginning. As the book proceeds, Fleming borrows a murder device employed by Sayers in her short story “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers.”
The narrator of that story, Varden, relates an incident that occurred in the home of the fabulously rich sculptor Eric P. Loder, who lived there with his favorite model, Maria Morano. Loder’s specialty as a sculptor was silver castings and “chryselephantine” (gold-and-ivory) overlays. Following a period during which Loder and his model were secluded (ostensibly for artistic work), Loder showed Varden a cast-silver Roman couch in the shape of a nude woman.
Shortly thereafter, while Loder was away, Lord Peter came on the scene and pointed out to Varden that the nude was the silvered body of the model. Loder had silver-plated her as punishment for an affair he imagined her to have carried on with Varden, for whom Loder had planned a similar fate. Thanks to Wimsey’s intervention, Varden escaped, and Loder tumbled into a vat of his own cyanide solution.
Goldfinger imitates Loder. Goldfinger has a kinky taste for making love to women coated in gold paint. He leaves unpainted only a strip along their spines, to allow their skins to breathe. When Jill Masterson, Goldfinger’s partner with the binoculars, betrays him with Bond, Goldfinger has her painted—entirely—so that Jill dies coated in gold, just as Maria Morales died coated in silver.
Conclusion: Wodehouse influenced Sayers; Say-ers influenced Fleming. Jeeves to Wimsey to Bond.
What drove these three popular authors to write? Similarities can be found. According to Paul Gallico, Ian Fleming originally wrote Casino Royale as an escape from the “terrifying” prospect of matrimony. As to Wodehouse, reading between the lines of his biographies, we see the lonely child, Plum, passed from boarding school to distant relative, happy only in an imaginary world of comfort and security. These two authors created their own worlds: Wodehouse, a world of comfort and security; Fleming, one of danger and intrigue.
When we ponder Dorothy L. Sayers’s career as a scholar and her less than ideal marriage, we may see a certain similarity to Fleming’s escape into a world of danger and excitement. Her project, indeed, seems to be encoded in the very name of her hero. Lord Peter is, indeed, an expression of Sayers’s whimsy.
We are fortunate to have Sayers’s own words to guide us, for the following quotation has the ring of a deeply personal sentiment, for all the irony in the second sentence: “Mysteries... comfort [a person] by subtly persuading that life is a mystery which death will solve, and whose horrors will pass away as a tale that is told. Or is it pure perversity?” This snippet suggests that Sayers found life a horror; a horror her mystery writing may have mitigated.
A number of critics believe that Sayers, whether knowingly or not, created Lord Peter Wimsey as her beau ideal: the ideal man she could never find in real life. In this connection a line in Have His Carcase is revealing: Harriet [Vane] felt she had never fully appreciated the superb nonchalance of her literary offspring.” For “Harriet” might we not read “Dorothy”?
Finally, how does Sayers rank as a writer against these other two giants of English literature? I concede she cannot be put in their class when it comes to name recognition of their major characters. “Jeeves” and “James Bond” have become synonymous, among English-speaking people everywhere, for “the proper English butler” and “the quintessential British spy.” “Lord Peter Wimsey,” resonate though it will for mystery-lovers, is not as recognizable to the public at large.
But popularity is not synonymous with quality; and it is with the quality of the writing I am here concerned. Comparing Sayers with Wodehouse is extremely difficult, since their genres are so different. Wodehouse, it must be said, was a master stylist. Making allowance for the firm and constant placement of his tongue within his cheek, his dialogue and descriptive passages rank high among the masters of the language. If readers are unfamiliar with him, I respectfully suggest they reread the brief passage of dialogue quoted earlier in this paper. The reader whose funny bone is not tickled by that passage is not the Wodehouse type.
In my opinion, Sayers is the finer writer of the two, but I can respect those of the opposite persuasion. What I will not countenance is the opinion that Fleming was Sayers’s equal as a writer.
In his preface to the anthology Gilt-Edged Bonds, writer Paul Gallico expressed the view that Fleming was a “master of detail.” Gallico could not have been more wrong. Fleming’s genius lay in expressing certain broad tendencies in the politics and public rhetoric of his day, not in careful craftsmanship. He was a boxer, not a chess player. He didn’t write “so that he who reads might run”; rather, he wrote while he ran! Evidence of Fleming’s haste can be found throughout his books in numerous errors and inconsistencies.
First, compare James Bond’s pharmacology (an important area of his expertise) to Sayers’s careful research. His is frequently faulty. In Moonraker, in which Bond stirs a dose of Benzedrine into his champagne: ‘“It doesn’t taste,’ said Bond, ’and the champagne is excellent.”’ “In fact, Benzedrine has an appalling taste, rather like quinine mixed with insecticide. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it “very bitter and numbing.” But Bond doesn’t find it so. Nor does the Benzedrine set him off the dinner he is in the process of eating— lamb cutlets with all the trimmings—despite the fact that one of Benzedrine’s principal uses is as an appetite suppressant.
Bond’s understanding of marijuana is even weaker. Later in the same book, he learns of a new Japanese narcotic, addiction to which, “as in the case of marijuana ... begins with one ’shot.’” [!] And as Goldfinger opens, Bond reminisces about a Mexican assassin with pupils tightly constricted from the deadly marijuana. [!!] Unfortunately for Fleming, he was writing just prior to a veritable explosion of marijuana information. Had his career been delayed a few years he might have been spared howlers like these.
Bond’s French (unlike Sayers’s) is little better than his pharmacology: “It was eight o’clock. The Enzian, firewater distilled from gentian that is responsible for Switzerland’s chronic alcoholism, was beginning to warm Bond’s stomach and melt his tensions. He ordered another double and with it a choucroute and a carafe of Fondant.” Leaving aside the imputation that the Swiss are a nation of chronic alcoholics (I more often hear them referred to as workaholics!), Bond has made a rather odd selection from the menu: a choucroute is an order of sauerkraut. I presume Bond meant to order a cassecroute, or snack (usually some variation on a grilled ham–and–cheese sandwich).
Arithmetic is another chink in the Fleming armor. Consider the incident wherein Leiter complains of receiving short measure from a bartender in his martini. He complains of the large olive, the false bottom in the glass, then notes, “’One bottle of Gordon’s gin contains sixteen true measures—double measures, that is, the only ones I drink. Cut the gin with three ounces of water and that makes it up to twenty–two....’”
Three ounces equal six double measures? Mr. Leiter had shorted himself long before any bartenders had the opportunity to do so.
Not that Ian Fleming can’t write. Passages like “a bustle of waiters round their table” or “leashed in by the velvet claw of the front disks, the engine muttered its protest with a mild back–popple from the twin exhausts” show an expertise in the use of vivid metaphors.
I believe Fleming’s weakness (and his popularity?) stems from that fact that he eschewed detail work in favor of painting in broad strokes, mytholo–gizing the 1950s and early 1960s, when the headlines were filled with stories of international intrigue.
Double agents Fuchs, Burgess, Philby, Blunt, and Maclean had compromised MI5 (Military Intelligence 5) and even the palace (Anthony Blunt was art historian to the queen). Worse yet, George Blake, imprisoned for fingering forty–two British agents assassinated by the KGB, managed a daring escape from Wormwood Scrubs and was in Moscow almost before his guards knew he was gone. Then in 1963 the John Profumo/Christine Keeler scandal brought down the government.
The British public, frustrated and angered by such blunders and incompetence, needed a distraction. Enter the superhero: ever–competent, never–blundering James Bond.
The Christine Keeler affair is a case in point. It had all the elements of a James Bond story— beautiful women, fantastic wealth, global power, international intrigue: all that’s missing is James Bond himself. But compare the Christine Keeler story to a James Bond novel and one begins to see most clearly Ian Fleming’s process of mythologization. His purpose was not to analyze or criticize events but to make them larger than life.
Keeler, only nineteen at the time of the Profumo affair, went to prison for two years on rather dubious charges, and lives today in public housing. For James Bond also, beautiful women are expendable, but their ruin is accomplished spectacularly: they are gilded, zapped, shot, stabbed, or exploded; not railroaded—and always in the vital interests of the realm, never for such tawdry, real–life motives as selling newspapers or winning an election.
Fleming’s lack of irony is, in fact, characteristic of all his writing. SMERSH, “Smiert Spionam” (= “death to spies”), is described as “the Soviet organization of vengeance and death.” Bond himself has a “license to kill.” M. (and Bond) react with an outrage completely out of proportion (compared to the matter at hand—the construction of the Moonraker rocket) when they learn of Drax’s ungentlemanly cardsharping. And although Bond himself doesn’t indulge in racial stereotyping, he accepts such stereotyping without question, as when he is told that Koreans “are the cruellest, most ruthless people in the world,” or that Jamaican “Chigroes” (of mixed African and Chinese ancestry) “have inherited some of the Chinese intelligence and most of the Negroes’ vices.” Fleming’s lack of irony, like his carelessness with details, is characteristic of his emphasis on myth.
Sayers’s books are much more interesting. Her background is realistic, her characters are three–dimensional, her sense of evil realistic and true to life, her research far more exhaustive than Fleming’s.
No better example could be given than the extensive and careful study that went into the descriptions of the ancient art of change ringing in The Nine Tailors. This novel has received much praise— some of it from experts in the field—for the accuracy and thoroughness of those descriptions.
Next, I would also call attention to the meticulously plotted and, within the context of the plot, important time sequences in The Five Red Herrings. One cannot read that book without being struck by the care with which Ms. Sayers handles those sequences.
As to her overall abilities as a prose stylist, we should start with a concession. She was capable of self–indulgence. Witness the extreme length of Have His Carcase, which Sayers can fairly be accused of padding. I personally find none of the Wimsey books tedious, but Have His Carcase is not the first, or even the second, book I’d recommend to a budding Sayers enthusiast.
Nonetheless, if Sayers wasn’t perfect, she was still a very fine writer, and capable of some bravura turns. The following monologue (from The Nine Tailors) is evidence of an ear finely attuned to the nuances of local dialect. The speaker is the gravedigger Harry Gotobed telling how he and his son came upon a corpse in a grave where it had no business being.
“Dick drives his spade down a good spit, and he says to me, ’Dad,’ he says, ’there’s something in here.’ And I says to him, ’What’s that?’ I says, ’what do you mean? Something in here?’ and then I strikes my spade hard down and I feels something sort of between hard and soft, like, and I says, ’Dick,’ I says, ’that’s a funny thing, there is something here.’ So I says, ’Go careful, my boy,’ I says, ’because it feels funny–like to me,’ I says, ’that’s aboot, that is.’... So we clears away very careful, and at last we sees him plain. And I says, ’Dick, I don’t know who he is nor yet how he got here, but he didn’t ought to be here.’”
Another delightful passage, of a totally different type, is the description of Wimsey’s heroics in the cricket match in Murder Must Advertise.
Mr. Simmonds’ third delivery rose wickedly from a patch of bare earth and smote [Wimsey] violently upon the elbow.
Nothing makes a man see red like a sharp rap over the funny bone, and it was at this moment that [Wimsey] suddenly and regrettably forgot himself. . .. The next ball was another of Simmonds’ murderous short–pitched bumpers, and Lord Peter Wimsey, opening up wrathful shoulders, strode out of his crease like the spirit of vengeance and whacked it to the wide. . ..
Mr. Simmonds ... was replaced by a gentleman who was known as “Spinner.” Wimsey received him with enthusiasm . .. till Brotherhood’s captain moved up his fieldsmen and concentrated them about the offside of the wicket. Wimsey looked at this grouping with an indulgent smile, and placed the next six balls consistently and successfully to leg. When, in despair, they drew a close net of fielders all round him, he drove everything that was drivable straight down the pitch.
If Sayers was the better writer, how then account for Fleming’s greater popularity? The sensationalism of his stories could be part of the reason, as well as the public’s known proclivity for softcore porn. But I think the primary reason is the power of myth and Fleming’s ability to tap into it. Sayers’s type of book is aimed at a smaller, more select audience. Jeeves, Lord Peter, James Bond: no one would ever confuse them, but I hope I’ve shown that they (and their authors) have more in common than meets the eye.
Source: William F. Love, “Butler, Dabbler, Spy: Jeeves to Wimsey to Bond” in Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration, edited by Alzina Stone Dale, Walker, 1993, pp. 31–43.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the superman—a self–created hero and a natural leader— influenced a number of British writers during the early twentieth century, most notably D. H. Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw. In the following essay, Spath argues that Jeeves represents one of the best examples of the superman in popular literature.
There can hardly be any doubt that the most intriguing character created by P. G. Wodehouse is that of butler Jeeves, even though, as the clever servant who, episode after episode, proves superior to his master, he is anything but original. From the viewpoint of literary history he is indeed of as ancient a family as that hopelessly inefficient rich young man whom he serves. The extraordinary fascination Jeeves has held for a vast number of readers invites some investigation of how his author made use of one of the stock figures of comedy.
But, as we hope to demonstrate, Jeeves is not only the traditional sly servant; he is also one of the supermen of popular literature, who may be considered in relation to, for instance, the hero of the detective novel— a genre which gained the peak of its popularity at about the same time as Wodehouse. Furthermore, there is the well–known fact that in the early twentieth century interest in the superman was expressed by several English writers of recognized literary importance, notably by Shaw and Lawrence. The corresponding developments of political history hardly need mentioning here. It seems worthwhile then to analyse the function of Jeeves in this context.
George Orwell, always a sensitive critic of popular writers, noted in 1936:
[...] it was a great day for Mr. Wodehouse when he created Jeeves, and thus escaped from the realm of comedy, which in England always stinks of virtue, into the realm of pure farce. The great charm of Jeeves is that (although he did pronounce Nietzsche to be ’fundamentally unsound’) he is beyond good and evil.
At first this may seem a little surprising since, superficially, Jeeves appears to be as genuinely Victorian as any average middle–class reader might have wished, especially when we compare him to the traditional servant of comedy whose morals are notoriously low. Jeeves knows neither financial greed nor sexual desires; it is, in fact, impossible to think of him as having erotic inclinations. He does like to collect any pecuniary rewards that may come his way, but what he enjoys in such cases is the success of his stratagems rather than the material gains. He would never do anything improper; his language is as immaculate as his manners or his appearance.
What strikes us about Jeeves is that he is not essentially interested in either doing good or doing well. The only guideline for his actions is contained in the phrase he frequently uses: “I endeavour to give satisfaction, Sir,” It might be said that as a moral being Jeeves will be nothing but a butler. However, this sole ethical rule of loyalty to his master is interpreted by him as he thinks fit, not as the latter might wish. Jeeves’s methods include a little blackmail now and again, or the occasional use of knock–out drops, but never anything as undignified as actual violence. The point about him is that he does not need it. He does not labour for success; it comes to him as the result of artistic endeavour.
Characteristically, he is a virtual dictator in questions of taste, whereas his ethics do not permit him to criticize morally any of Bertram’s enterprises. However obstinately the young gentleman may behave at first, Jeeves inevitably gets his way when there are dissenting opinions about ties and suits. From time to time Bertram feels he ought to express an employer’s righteous indignation about this, but his mood softens quickly, when he recalls some of his man’s superhuman feats:
More than once, as I have shown, it has been my painful task to squelch in him a tendency to get uppish and treat the young master as a serf or peon.
These are grave defects.
But one thing I have never failed to hand the man. He is magnetic. There is about him something that seems to soothe and hypnotize. To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid–stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.
“What strikes us about Jeeves is that he is not essentially interested in either doing good or doing well. The only guideline for his actions is contained in the phrase he frequently uses: ’I endeavour to give satisfaction, Sir,’ It might be said that as a moral being Jeeves will be nothing but a butler.”
At any rate he calmed down Aunt Dahlia [...]
In most cases there is a perfectly rational explanation for Jeeves’s charismatic powers: he has wide experience, common sense, and psychological insight. But some of his achievements are so impressive that not only the feeble–minded Bertram is inclined to credit him with superhuman abilities. Jeeves, for instance, is able to mix a “magic” drink which instantly cures his master’s hangovers. He moves noiselessly, and Bertram even believes that he can walk through walls. Often Jeeves is referred to as “the higher powers,” and on several occasions his actions are described in the words of Cowper’s hymn: “[he] moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”
It appears to be appropriate, then, to call him a superman, and also a true genius, who, as genius ought to be, is bounded only by his own laws: the laws of butlering. This means that he uses his giant brain to no other effect than to steer a not too bright young man gently past the pitfalls, which threaten a life devoted to innocent pleasure. It also explains that he has high standards of taste, which he autocratically imposes on his employer.
Turning our attention to Bertram Wooster we recognize some features of the dandy in him, but they are less prominent than he himself would have liked. The general impression is one of an overgrown schoolboy with plenty of pocket money. He likes drinking in his club, where he and his pals have a great time throwing bread at each other. He is very happy playing with a toy duck in his bath. Unfortunately, he is repeatedly torn from such joys and called upon to undergo testing adventures. One of his friends observes aptly:
We are as little children, frightened of the dark, and Jeeves is the wise nurse who takes us by the hand.
Happily, Jeeves is not only a wise nurse, but a male one, or else his proteges would be very unwilling to put so much trust in him. Women often strike fear in the hearts of Wooster and his friends:
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—girls are rummy. Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.
Bertram is particularly terrified of aunts, as he sees in them a highly repressive type of authority. Wodehouse who, by the way, was brought up mostly in boarding schools and by relatives, very rarely shows us parent–child relationships, and if he does, they are of a rather detached nature. The role of mothers in his books is an especially small one, while aunts are in abundance, and where there are aunts, there is trouble. Invariably they tyrannize their nephews, husbands or brothers. They begrudge them their favourite pleasures and seek to diminish their liberty; they want them to put on proper clothes and to be a social success; they make it their constant concern to prevent unsuitable matches and to bring about desirable ones; they are snobbish and parsimonious. Aunts have morals, of course, but these are such as to suit entirely their own inclinations while interfering grossly with the wishes of others. There is very little a Wooster–aunt would not do in pursuit of what she considers her right or duty. The title of a late Wodehouse novel, Aunts Aren ’t Gentlemen (1974) sums up Bertram’s lifelong experience with that kind of relative. The fact that Dahlia, to whom this verdict refers, is the aunt he dislikes least, fits in with her being rather masculine in appearance and habits: she hunts, swears, gambles, and spends more money than is good for her husband’s digestion.
Young women make no less trouble for Bertram than aunts. According to the different dangers they represent, they can be divided into two types, both of which we find in The Code of the Woosters. There is Madeline, a dreamy, sentimental girl, who reveals to Bertram on more than one occasion that he is in love with her and that she will accept him. This poses a paralyzing problem for the young hero, as his code of honour forbids him to tell a lady that he would do anything rather than marry her. On the other hand, there is Stiffy Byng, who capriciously exploits the cavalier code by demanding of her lover, a young curate, that he steal the local policeman’s helmet. One is reminded of Salome, when, later on, the helmet is brought in by a butler “on a silver salver.”
There are male persons, too, of whom Wooster is afraid, older men of high professional or official authority, like the psychiatrist Sir Roderick Glossop, and Sir Watkyn Bassett, a judge, who fined him once and would love the opportunity of sending him to prison. In the absurd Wodehouse world it is not at all surprising that both gentlemen are also potential fathers–in–law for Bertram, since their daughters are determined to marry him. In the presence of persons like Sir Watkyn he is reminded of childhood fears, such as he experienced before punishment by his headmaster:
I was feeling more as I had felt in the old days of school when going to keep a tryst with the headmaster in his study. You will recall my telling you of the time I sneaked down by night to the Rev. Aubrey Upjohn’s lair in quest of biscuits and found myself unexpectedly cheek by jowl with the old bird, I in striped nonshrinkable pyjamas, he in tweeds and a dirty look. On that occasion, before parting, we had made a date for half–past four next day at the same spot.
The aged judge, though not exactly a senex amorosus, and possibly for some quite practical purpose, wishes to marry into the family of Roderick Spode, founder and leader of a fascist organization, called “Saviours of Britain” or “Black Short.” Roderick is the other type of man of whom Bertram is terrified, the male bully. He is of giant size, wears an impressive moustache, and, for the sake of his mission, which requires him to remain single, refrains from marrying the judge’s daughter.
We are now able to take stock of the problems, fears and enemies besetting our young gentleman. At one level he is the child afraid of grown–ups, of their power and authority; he is the weak boy afraid of those who are stronger. At a second level he is an adolescent male afraid of the other sex. Girls frighten him because they do not behave according to the rules that he himself accepts; so they appear to be unpredictable, unscrupulous, and dangerous:
I stared at the young pill, appalled at her moral code, if you could call it that. You know, the more I see of women, the more I think there ought to be a law. Something has got to be done about this sex, or the whole fabric of Society will collapse, and then what silly asses we shall all look.
Furthermore, Bertram has learnt that girls imply the threat of married life. Presumably he was once told that women wait for men to ask the relevant question, but he has found that ladies who decide to make him their husband take immediate steps to that effect, caring little whether and how he has made up his mind. And worse, the girls who go for him, are intelligent, strong–willed persons; they want to “mould” him according to their wishes. The culmination of all threats is an aunt, since she combines semi–parental authority with female unscrupulousness.
All in all, the enemy side stands—capricious girls excepted—for an orderly middle–class way of life which includes marriage, money, and a career. Judged by this standard, Bertram is bound to receive a very poor rating, as he does, for instance, from Aunt Agatha:
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 antisocial animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.
Marriage, it appears, is the first social obligation of man, and the sole road to a tolerably virtuous life. In the eyes of his aunt, Bertram’s neglect of this duty is not only morally reprehensible and even sinful, but downright unpatriotic. The naughty nephew, on the other hand, tenaciously clings to his freedom to live a playful life of leisure. This liberty is vaguely associated with the upper classes, to which he belongs in some unspecified way. He does feel responsible for his pals, who seem to have an unlimited claim to his assistance, and for any lady who can make a credible pretence of being in distress.
Bertram might be called a strictly innocent playboy. Life, for him, is a game, interspersed with occasional test matches, which, with his blend of boy–scout and knight–errant mentality he would not have the slightest chance of winning—were it not for Jeeves.
In The Code of the Woosters the invincible butler is involved in a fight against Roderick Spode, who as a pseudo–superman, could be regarded as his direct antitype. Even Bertram recognizes the dictator in him at first sight:
I don’t know if you have ever seen these pictures in the papers of Dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes, inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of the opening of a new skittle alley, but that was what he reminded me of.
It is remarkable that a judge, Sir Watkyn, is Roderick’s friend and ally. In combination, the fascist’s physical strength and the force of the law are hard to beat. In order to help Wooster, Jeeves makes use of information received through the intelligence network of his butlers’ club. There, in the headquarters of the good spirits, Spode’s dark secret is known: he earns his living as a designer of ladies underwear—an occupation clearly unfavourable to the ambitions of an aspiring dictator. Jeeves tells the name of Spode’s business to Bertram, who is to mention it in times of danger. The latter, equipped with what to him is a completely mysterious weapon, confidently confronts the enemy, only to find that he has forgotten the magic word. However, just in time he remembers, and the bully is reduced to a cringing coward, while Bertram is able to cast himself in the role of a stern teacher:
‘I have not been at all satisfied with your behaviour since I came to this house. The way you were looking at me at dinner. You may think people don’t notice these things, but they do.’
‘Of course, of course.’
‘And calling me a miserable worm.’
‘I’m sorry I called you a miserable worm, Wooster. I spoke without thinking.’
‘Always think, Spode. Well, that is all. You may withdraw.’
Since The Code of the Woosters was published in 1939, the political allusion implied by the character of Spode is obvious enough. It would be wrong, however, to emphasize the importance of such direct references to contemporary political affairs in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse. Basically Spode is just one type of evil person in Wooster–land. By making him a potential dictator Wodehouse adds topicality to an essentially timeless character, and thus connects his fairytale–world with the reader’s experience. Fiction and reality, despite their apparent disparity, are shown to be related to each other, as indeed they always are, even though in popular literature such relatedness is normally of a less obvious kind. The character of Spode, when contrasted to Jeeves, points to the fact that the latter may be seen in connection with the question of leadership, which at that time was widely discussed in politics and literature.
Collaboration between Wooster and his butler began in 1917, from which time until 1941, the year of his ill–advised Berlin broadcast, the popularity of Wodehouse grew continuously. There is no need to decribe at any length the social and political problems that marked Britain in those decades. Certainly the threat of another war, the struggles for power, and the hunt for jobs and money led to an acute consciousness of change—of change for the worse. In David Thomson’s England in the Twentieth Century the chapter on the years after the First World War is given the heading “Into the Waste Land”. Thomson writes:
It seems likely that public life at all levels suffered a deterioration of standards, and a decline of taste. [...] and there was a propensity [...] to see pre–war conditions in a rosier hue than they had ever merited.
In this context the author also describes the changing role of women in society:
The emancipation of women took a multitude of forms: from lighter clothing and shorter hair and skirts to more open indulgence in drink, tobacco, and cosmetics, from insistence on smaller families to easier facilities for divorce.
If we set against this the essentially Victorian views on women of Bertram Wooster, we can perhaps understand that he was frightened, that he feared the collapse of society and called for anti–feminine legislation, whereas, in real life, women were about to be granted equal suffrage.
In the United States depression and unemployment signalled the end of the American Dream. There, at least, the usefulness of the inherited constitution was never seriously questioned, while in Europe, not excluding Britain, the capacity of democracy for dealing with the problems that had arisen was doubted by a considerable number of people, some of whom expressed the wish for a kind of political superman.
D. H. Lawrence, for instance, believed that since hereditary aristocracy had spent its strength, and since democracy was based on a false assumption of equality, people would eventually seek their “natural” leaders:
At last the masses will come to such men and say: “You are greater than we. Be our lords. Take our life and our death in your hands, and dispose of us according to your will. Because we see a light in your face, and burning on your mouth.”
Earlier, in 1903, a writer whom Lawrence disliked, George Bernhard Shaw, had argued similarly that the “overthrow of the aristocrat has created the necessity for the Superman.” He expected nothing but the worst from what he called “Proletarian Democracy,” as such a government would inevitably share the low mental and moral standards of its voters: “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” is Shaw’s caustic verdict. Therefore progress must remain an illusion, until it is given a biological basis:
The only fundamental and possible Socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man: in other terms, of human evolution. We must eliminate the Yahoo, or his vote will wreck the commonwealth.
Man, according to Shaw, must consciously develop himself into superman. The ultimate purpose of this process is not a new type of individual leader, but the breeding of nations of supermen, of “King Demos.”
The Irish dramatist nearly always gave the public a chance not to take his provocative ideas seriously, and usually they were not taken seriously. Lawrence, on the other hand, left no such loop–hole to his readers, and, consequently, was received with considerable hostility. And if we look for a superman in what was popular fiction at the time, in the detective novel for instance, we do not find heroes whom we might give such a title without unduly stretching the meaning of the word. The fictional detectives are gentlemen rather than supermen; they certainly cannot be said to be “beyond good and evil.”
Bertram Wooster, too, adheres strictly, if somewhat naively, to a gentleman’s code, but it is this attitude that often brings him close to disaster. In both the works by Shaw and Lawrence from which the above quotations were taken there is also a typical gentleman who fails to achieve his main object, because he is a gentleman. Octavius, in Man and Superman, is a sincere, chivalrous and kind man, deeply in love with Ann, who drops him for the radical revolutionist Tanner. In “The Ladybird,” Basil, a good–looking, courageous officer, adores his wife Daphne, but she is drawn irresistibly to the “natural aristocrat,” the Bohemian count Psanek.
Shaw and Lawrence, though for different reasons, attack both the ideal of a gentleman and the Victorian idea of a lady. Ann is described as a person, who will “commit every crime a respectable woman can”—an attitude that with equal justice might be attributed to the typical aunt in a Wodehouse novel. And like some of the young women there, Ann is, where men are concerned, the hunter, not the prey.
So, while there is in early twentieth–century English literature a tendency to be critical of traditional standards of behaviour as regards the two sexes, as well as of the liberal belief in progress and democracy, the detective novel, on the other hand, affirms the validity of pre–War concepts of social order, justice, morals, and manners; it presents as hero a perfect gentleman in a milieu essentially unaffected by historical change.
At a superficial glance, the fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse, who was said by Orwell to have remained “mentally in the Edwardian age,” seems to belong to the past in a similar way. However, strange as it may seem, his novels, quite unlike other popular fiction of the period between the Wars, reflect current issues in a remarkable degree. In this, and also in the psychology on which their characterization is based, they are closer to what is generally regarded as the mainstream of English fiction of that time. There, for instance, the influence of childhood traumata on later life is frequently pointed out and analysed. Bertram Wooster, too, is shown to suffer from the imprint left on him by adult authority when he was a boy:
To people who don’t know my Aunt Agatha I find it extraordinarily difficult to explain why it is that she has always put the wind up me to such a frightful extent. I mean, I’m not dependent on her financially or anything like that. [. . .] You see, all through my childhood and when I was a kid at school she was always able to turn me inside out with a single glance and I haven’t come out from under the influence yet.
Such inhibitions are closely connected with his imagining women to be both mentally and physically stronger than he is. So he suspects that Honoria Glossop, while she was educated at Girton, was a selection for the college boxing team. One of his verdicts on modern women in general is that they are “thugs, all lipstick and cool, hard, sardonic eyes.”
An error often to be found in critical opinion on Wodehouse is that he ignores the economic and social troubles of his age. In fact, the quest for money and the anguish caused by the lack of it, are recurrent motifs in his works. Wooster, it is true, lives on a secure financial basis, but several of his friends are hampered by an acute shortage of cash needed either to open a small business and get married, or, just as likely, for some utterly absurd project. Even members of wealthy aristocratic families, like the relatives of the Earl of Emsworth are sometimes forced to resort to the meanest schemes to balance their budgets.
These problems, admittedly, always affect individuals, not society as a whole. However, the stately homes of these novels seem to be pervaded by a veiled threat of change, and, at times, people have to be reminded not to forget their station, be they footmen, or secretaries, or upstart millionaires. One of the earlier Wodehouse heroes, the impecunious R. P. Smith, goes as far as to join the Socialists, but apart from his calling everyone “comrade,” he does not exhibit any sign of left–wing inclinations. When Bertram’s pal Bingo Little joins the Communists, he does so from purely personal motives, as the object of his devotions at the time happens to be a member of that party. The one extremist politician of any importance in a Wodehouse novel is the Fascist Spode, who, much like his counterparts of the opposite persuasion, is a violent and basically insincere person, without either taste or manners. It is because of their crudeness, mainly, that these enemies of democracy are felt to be even more disagreeable than the bourgeois aunts.
Obviously, some of the topics which aroused general interest between the Wars found their way into this fictional world, which otherwise reminds us so much of Edwardian England. Bertram’s life seems to consist of repeated efforts to reconcile the troubled present with that mythical past, when gentlemen were still free and unencumbered, bound only by their honour, and when ladies still were ladies. Left to himself, he would be doomed to fail, not only through lack of strength and intelligence, but because, in order to succeed, he would have to be untrue to his code. Clearly, he needs someone able to combine in an aesthetically satisfactory way the demands of modern life with the ideals of the past. What is needed, this appears to be the message of P. G. Wodehouse, is a butler, not a Hitler.
Butlers seem to have been a specifically English upper class institution, highly esteemed as distinguished members of the household staff. They were assigned to the master of the house rather than to the lady and were, for instance, in charge of the wine cellar and responsible for the plate. They would be able to advise their masters on questions of etiquette or clothes, but would never attempt to be on familiar or intimate terms with them. They would have to be tactful, discreet, and, above all, loyal. A butler, therefore, was a person of considerable authority, and Wodehouse tells us that, as a youth, he used to be in awe of these “supermen,” who “passed away with Edward the Seventh.” In a country in which language and manners are regarded as distinctive of class their being able to speak like gentlemen would put them in a unique position between the separate worlds of upstairs and downstairs. This, at a time when Europe was seething with social turmoil, must have made the butler a figure of some literary potential. Was not there a type of character whom one could well imagine turning into a working class hero and strip the idle rich of their wealth and power?
Indeed, if we watch Jeeves continually solving Bertram’s problems—outwitting bullies, extracting money for his friends from their tight–fisted relatives, saving him from conjugal slavery—we may wonder how the relationship between master and butler is to remain stable. Is it credible that this superman should not attempt to become ruler of him who has enlisted his help, since it is in the nature of a superman to dictate? Is it not inevitable that he should dictate in order to help? In 1902 a stage butler, created by James Matthew Barrie, actually deposed his aristocratic employers. In The Admirable Crichton, the hero turns out to be a “natural aristocrat,” who, as the only capable person, assumes the role of leader when their ship is wrecked on a desert island. After their return to civilization the previous hierarchy is restored. Thus, this Shavian comedy of ideas demonstrates that artificial traditions are of greater weight than natural abilities in determining a person’s place in English society.
Bertram, as we have seen in an earlier quotation, does feel that he has to assert himself against Jeeves and he cannot help asking himself occasionally,
[. . .] why a man with his genius is satisfied to hang around pressing my clothes and what not. If I had half Jeeves’s brain I should have a stab at being Prime Minister or something.
Thus, in an unobtrusive way, the question of the potential political ambition of a superman is raised. However, Jeeves is too complete a butler to wish to be anything else. Loyalty is essential to his character, rebellion outside the scope of his existence. Furthermore, his mental superiority makes it unnecessary for him to seek a position of dominance. His ultimate perfection consists in the fact that he does not have to become a dictator.
The relationship between Jeeves and Bertram, therefore, is beautifully balanced, neither of them wishing to alter it. One might even consider it to be an exemplary case of co–operation for their mutual benefit between capital and brains, rendering superfluous every social dispute. The butler leads without dominating, while the master is led and, yet, retains his status. The reader can safely turn his mind to Bertram’s agonies and rejoice with him over his victories, knowing that he has put his trust in a reliable, unambitious superman.
So, when the novels of P. G. Wodehouse mix with the timeless material of comedy some current problems, the solution offered is of current interest too; it is also absurd and specifically English: Wodehouse advances the paradoxical idea of a ’constitutional superman,’ i.e. a superman who by virtue of his inherent constitution will be ever loyal and benevolent. Psychologically, this was probably a more satisfactory way of dealing with this question in literature than the provocative attempts of Shaw and Lawrence or the conservative approach of the detective novel. Jeeves, indeed, gave satisfaction! It seems appropriate that, when in 1939 Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of D. Litt., Wodehouse was hailed in The Times as “Ruler unquestioned of the Land of Laughter.”
Source: Eberhard Spath, “P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves: The Butler as Superman” in Functions in Literature: Essays Presented to Erwin Wolff on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Ulrich Broich, Theo Stemmler, and Gerd Stratmann, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1984, pp. 269–281.
Richard J. Voorhees
In the following essay, Voorhees recounts the long and successful career of Wodehouse and his most popular creations, the characters of Jeeves and Bertie.
The cynical and witty W. Somerset Maugham once remarked that to be a grand old man of letters it was necessary to do two things: write a great many books and live a very long life. By Maugham’s law, P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) was a grand old man of English letters, for he published about a hundred books and lived to be nearly ninety–four. The fact is that Wodehouse was obviously one of the masters of English comedy when he was still in his thirties.
Beside Wodehouse, many British and American comic writers who flourished between World War I and World War II now look like figures in a museum or an old scrap book. The “brittle” sophistication of Noel Coward has cracks through which sentimentality is embarrassingly visible, and some charter members of the Algonquin Round Table look less like great wits than high–school wiseacres. They did what Oscar Wilde only said he did: they put their talents into their writing and their genius, such as it was, into their lives. Coward did most of his acting on the stage, but they did most of theirs off it. Wodehouse was not an unclubbable man, but his idea of a writer was a man who sat at his desk and wrote. Of all the Algonquins, Robert Benchley holds up best, in part perhaps because his comedy, like Wodehouse’s, is without malice and without posturing.
Wodehouse did not begin as a comic novelist. He wrote boys’ books with a public–school background, he wrote light romantic novels, he wrote (when he was still a struggling young author) anythings that he thought popular magazines would publish. All of the earlier work, however, was in one way or another a preparation for the pure comedy which is his contribution to English literature. This includes not only the great Blandings Castle and the Bertie and Jeeves cycles but also several other series and cycles. One features Pongo Twistleton’s aged but unsinkable uncle, another the raffish Ukridge, another the innumerable nephews of Mr. Mulliner, still another a cast of mad golfers. (By the chart bound into his book The Comic Style of P. G. Wodehouse, Robert A. Hall, Jr. demonstrates the full extent and complexity of Wodehouse’s creation.) It is remarkable that Wodehouse, having reached a rare height of comedy so soon, kept the height for such a long while. Something Fresh (American title, Something New), his first comic country–house novel, was published in 1915. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (American title, Bertie Wooster Sees It Through) appeared in 1954, and Wodehouse professed to write its dedication from Colney Hatch (he was always willing to make jokes about himself), but it is one of his very best books. Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen came as late as 1974, and it can hardly be regarded as a great falling off.
Wodehouse created a fictional world as authentic in its way as that of Trollope or Balzac or Faulkner. To read his novels and short stories is to encounter again and again old acquaintances and familiar places: Bingo Little and the Drones Club, Aunt Dahlia and Market Snodsbury, Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle, Bertie Wooster and Berkeley Mansions. Unlike the worlds of the other three writers, however, Wodehouse’s is perfectly innocent; there is not a Slope in it or a Rastignac or a single Snopes. Life is pastoral even in the centre of London: there are no whores in Piccadilly Circus, no rakes in the clubs of the West End, no adulterers in Mayfair. The great English country house is a haven for the naive: the storm of life blows through it in the shape of whirlwind farce, and beyond its grounds there lie those involvements which are hazardous only by the conventions of Wodehouse’s comedy: school prize–givings, village concerts, and bonny baby contests. Even the tough old explorer Plank steers clear of the last of these, knowing that
“Wodehouse makes little attempt to keep up with the world. On the contrary, one of his distinctions is to have made anachronism a fine art.”
mothers the world over become thirsty for judges’ blood when their infants do not win.
Wodehouse makes little attempt to keep up with the world. On the contrary, one of his distinctions is to have made anachronism a fine art. He was born early enough to have spent his first twenty years in the Victorian Age, and he had published a dozen books before the death of Edward VII. Not only the prevailing atmosphere but also various details of all the novels and short stories that followed are those of Victorian and Edwardian times. The books also abound in anachronisms from less remote periods. In a novel published in the fifties, a nightclub entertainer sings through a megaphone, like the young Rudy Valee, and in one published in the sixties, a girl drives a “roadster.” The anachronism of the novels is part of the charm and part of the comedy. (A great joke, not in the novels but begotten by them, is that in World War II the Germans, taking Wodehouse literally, parachuted into the Fen Country an agent who was instantly apprehended because he was wearing spats.)
For Wodehouse’s characters, time has been arrested. They are placed once and for all at some point of youth or age, like figures in a comic strip (or gods on Olympus), and forever tied to special pursuits. Bertie Wooster toddles off to the Drones Club or tools down to the country to be caught up in some comic imbroglio. The impossible Ukridge incessantly contrives schemes for getting rich quickly, every one of which falls flat. Golfers go round and round golf courses without end.
Of all the works of Wodehouse, those about Bertie and his extraordinary valet Jeeves are the best. To begin with, they have the best characters. Bertie and Jeeves were as happy an invention for Wodehouse as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson were for Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wodehouse did what Doyle could not or did not trouble to do: he surrounded his main characters with platoons of well developed subordinate ones. The young men constitute a marvelous muster roll of eccentrics and nitwits. Bingo Little, after a fatheaded bachelorhood, marries the sentimental novelist Rosie M. Banks. Gussie Fink–Nottle retires to the country and devotes himself to raising newts, though he visits other country houses occasionally and once, in pirate’s costume, goes to a fancy–dress ball in London. (“There is enough sadness in the world,” Bertie says, “without fellows like Gussie going about in sea boots.”)
Tuppy Glossop loses Bertie’s friendship for a time by betting Bertie that he cannot swing across the Drones Club swimming pool by the rings and then looping back the last ring, so that Bertie is immersed in full evening dress. Roderick Spode is no friend of Bertie’s but an evil genius resembling “those pictures... of dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes, inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of the opening of a new skittle alley.” All the girls whom Bertie knows are beautiful, like those in a musical comedy, but dangerous. Roberta Wickham is discontented if she is not forcing Bertie into some lunatic enterprise. Florence Craye is determined to make him stop smoking and drinking and start reading serious books. Madeline Bassett believes that the morning mists on the meadows are the bridal veils of the elves. Worse, she believes that Bertie loves her. One of his recurrent fears is that, labouring under this delusion, she will insist on marrying him.
Most older characters are figures of authority, and aunts (as they are in Wodehouse’s other books) are of special significance. Aunt Agatha, the one who, Bertie says, eats broken glass and turns into a werewolf at the full moon, is an older Florence Craye. Aunt Dahlia is his “good and deserving aunt,” yet she blackmails him into dreadful adventures, not, as Roberta often does, just for the hell of it, but for ends to which she is quite willing to sacrifice him. Madeline’s father, a magistrate in whose court Bertie has been fined, is authority in the legal sense. Sir Roderick Glossop, a “nerve specialist” convinced through most of the cycle that Bertie is certifiably insane, is authority in the medical sense.
The world of Bertie and Jeeves is also populated by a number of characters who would be, without Wodehouse’s variety and vivacity, mere stereotypes. One is Wodehouse’s variation on the American woman grown rich by a succession of marriages. Mrs. Spottsworth says to Captain Biggar, who offers to look for her lost necklace:’ I wish you would. It’s not valuable—I don’t suppose it cost more than ten thousand dollars—but it has a sentimental interest. One of my husbands gave it to me, I never can remember which.” Captain Biggar is a variation on the virile outdoor man, a good–natured joke on Kipling, Haggard, and their imitators. He is a great white hunter who lives by a strict code, loves the Empire, fears nothing, masters numerous African dialects. (Having become engaged to Mrs. Spottsworth, he hums a Swahili wedding march.) The explorer Plank is a variation on the same type, not a modest fellow like Biggar, but a blusterer.
Wodehouse can be as frugal as he is prodigal, and a few characters are so many interchangeable parts. Madeline Bassett appears in The Mating Season (1949) and Phyllis Mills in Jeeves in the Offing (1960), but it would scarcely matter if they changed places. Stephanie Byng is not much more than an alias for Roberta Wickham, and Harold Pinker is Reginald Herring again with one difference: on the football field, Pinker is a marvel of dexterity, but he cannot cross a room without overturning furniture. D’Arcy Cheesewright and Orlo Porter are clones of Roderick Spode.
There is nobody like Bertie. At the start of the cycle he is, as Wodehouse himself remarked, a fairly standard model of the “knut,” the dandy and silly ass of the Victorian and Edwardian music hall. Wodehouse developed him in some of the early stories and then deliberately fixed his character when he discovered that he was on to a good thing. Though fixed, Bertie has contradictions that make him more than a “humour” character and a decency and sweetness that make him always likeable. The narrator of all but one of his adventures, he quotes right and left from the great literature of the Western World, but he frequently remarks that he “was made to read” at school a writer whom he quotes. He now concentrates on thrillers, racing papers, and detective stories, on which he considers himself an expert. He dislikes people who write serious books. Lady Melvern is “a pal of my Aunt Agatha .... A very vicious speciment. She wrote a book on social conditions in India when she came back from the Durbar.” (Wodehouse probably has in mind Mother India, the best seller by Katherine Mayo, which purports to be an expose of the ignorance and squalor of India. Evelyn Waugh made jokes about it in two of his novels, and Norman Douglas wrote an indignant reply to it called How About Europe?)
Though he is the narrator of more volumes than there are in The Music of Time, Bertie is “a spent force” after writing a short article on the well–dressed man for Aunt Dahlia’s magazine. Indeed, he is, whenever he is allowed to be, as languid as any fop who ever wore a wig in a Restoration comedy. In The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) he sits “in the old flat one night trying to muster up enough energy to go to bed.” His summum bonum is a quiet life with plenty of sleep and plenty of good food, drink, and tobacco. He suffers “agony” when, visiting Aunt Agatha, he must go without cocktails and lie on the floor in his bedroom to exhale cigarette smoke up the fireplace chimney. Without Jeeves, he could not get through the routine of an ordinary day, much less get out of the predicaments into which he is repeatedly thrust. Each time Jeeves extricates him, Bertie must pay, usually by surrendering a piece of wearing apparel of which Jeeves disapproves: an unorthodox dinner jacket, a cummerbund, a blue Alpine hat with a pink feather.
But Bertie’s indolence, self–indulgence, and incompetence are allied with innocence, with vulnerability, with nostalgia for times more decorous than his own. In one of his favourite cliches, he calls women “the delicately nurtured,” but he is more sensitive than most of the women he knows. The food crank Laura Pike shocks him by talking clinically about the organs of digestion, and he dislikes The Palace of Beauty at the British Empire Exposition at Wembley, where girls portray famous women through the ages. A beautiful woman “loses a lot of her charm if you have to stare at her in a tank. Moreover, it gave me a rum feeling of having wandered into the wrong bedroom of a country house.”
Bertie has contradictory visions of himself. In one he is the total loss that Aunt Agatha thinks him, but in the other he is the hero of high adventure. He has the “keen intelligence” of a Sherlock Holmes, “broods” much, sometimes “tensely,” and “muses,” like Tennyson’s Lancelot. There is something ofSabatini’s Captain Blood in him: though my voice was suave, a close observer in a position to watch my eyes would have noticed a steely glint.” Bertie is like a boy who knows pretty well what he is but likes to live a fantasy life derived from his reading. He cannot be blind to the disparity between his style and his matter: “Those who know Bertram Wooster best are aware that he is a man of sudden, strong enthusiasms and that, when in the grip of one of these, he becomes a remorseless machine—tense, absorbed, single–minded. It was so in the matter of this banjolele–playing of mine.” Jeeves objects to the banjolele, and Bertie has to give it up.
The vast differences between Bertie and Jeeves do not include one of age. There is merely a vague impression to the contrary, fortified by a few book jackets. Some picture Jeeves as a haughty major–domo, others as a kindly elder statesman. On the jacket of Jeeves and the Tie that Binds (1971) Osbert Lancaster draws him florid, portly, virtually bald, which is to say that he draws him as Wodehouse’s classic butler. Bertie says that Jeeves is tall and slender and dark, and there is no more reason for Jeeves to be much older than Bertie than for Crichton to be much older than Lord Loam. Still it is easy to understand why, for many readers, Jeeves should appear to be at least twice the age of Bertie. In the first place, he knows more and thinks better. Whereas Bertie is addicted to detective stories, Jeeves is devoted to Spinoza (somewhere Bertie says that Jeeves has probably got to the point in Spinoza where one discovers that the butler did it). He has a wide acquaintance with other philosophers and with literature and is equipped with a jeweller’s knowledge of precious stones. He knows the technical term for the Roman gladiator who fought with net and trident (retiarius) and the exact distance between London and Harrogate (two hundred and six miles).
Jeeves’ manner and speech are the reverse of Bertie’s. Bertie says, “Right ho,” and Jeeves says, “Very good, sir.” Quoting Henley’s “Invictus,” Jeeves begs Bertie’s pardon just before coming to the word “bloody.” Yet Jeeves is not all propriety. He has a strong strain of the gamester in him and bets as readily on the sack race at a village sports as he does on the horses at Ascot or the roulette wheels at Monte Carlo. Furthermore, he is capable of great physical violence, at least twice knocking people out, once with a putter and once with a cosh. He recovers the confidential records of his club by slipping a Mickey Finn into the thief’s drink and tells Bertie that he never travels without one or two.
The long association of Bertie and Jeeves is only half plausible, since Bertie needs Jeeves but Jeeves does not need Bertie. Why, then, does Jeeves not leave? Indeed, how does it happen in the first place that a superman like Jeeves (not Nietzsche’s kind: Jeeves once tells Bertie that Nietzsche is “fundamentally unsound”) is unengaged just when Bertie has been obliged to dismiss his valet? Such questions are hardly to the purpose, for the relationship of Bertie and Jeeves depends not upon plausibility but on convention. Wodehouse’s comedy descends from the “artificial comedy” of the seventeenth– and eighteenth–century stage, and the figures of the clever servant and the stupid master descend from more distant sources in classical comedy. Wodehouse adapted them, but luckily he did more than that; he invented his own version of an archetype and created a new myth.
Some works of Wodehouse are an ingenious mixture of modes, but the Bertie and Jeeves books are pure comedy. Their plots are better than those of most of the other books, and Wodehouse was one of the great plot–makers of literature. He composed rapidly (Guy Bolton said that to save time Wodehouse fed a continuous roll of paper into his typewriter, later cutting it into eleven–inch pages), but he plotted slowly. (At a manuscript sale at Sotheby’s, Richard Usborne saw seventy pages of pencilled notes for Jeeves in the Offing.) He once remarked that his brain almost “came unstuck” as he created complication upon complication.
Wodehouse finds plenty of scope for farce in a big house in Wimbledon, and he contrives excellent foolery in a small cottage with a potting shed, but he discovers the ideal theatre in the stately home of England. With its numerous rooms and extensive grounds, it becomes under his direction a labyrinth, an obstacle course, and a huge booby trap. With its large staff of servants and its many guests, it is also a great playhouse for the disguise, impersonation, and mistaken identity which are staples of farce. On Wodehouse’s stage, beards and moustaches are properties as common as umbrellas and muffins. Sir Roderick Glossop (of all people) impersonates a butler, and Jeeves impersonates Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard. In a single novel Bertie impersonates Gussie Fink–Nottle, and Gussie impersonates Bertie. In another novel Bertie thinks that Plank is an old labourer on his own estate, and Plank thinks that Bertie is, first, a reporter come to interview him about his Brazilian expedition and, second, a cook named Alpine Joe.
Into the fabric of farce Wodehouse weaves threads from types of literature vastly different from farce, conspicuously the sentimental fiction which he called “bilge.” Madeline Bassett tells Bertie the plot of Mervyn Keene, Clubman, a novel by Rosie M. Banks, which sounds as if it were inspired by Ouida. Keene is a handsome officer in the Coldstream Guards. He loves the beautiful Cynthia Grey but cannot declare himself, since she is engaged to another. He takes the blame for a crime committed by her brother and, released from prison, becomes a beachcomber in the South Seas. He breaks into Government House to get a rose which Cynthia has worn in her hair, and she tells him that her brother made a deathbed confession. Her husband, thinking Keene a burglar, shoots him. When the Governor rushes in to ask whether anything is missing, “Only a rose,” says Cynthia, in a nearly inaudible voice.
Wodehouse finds it profitable to be in debt to Rosie M. Banks. Before Bingo Little marries Rosie, he has, as it were, enacted a score of her novels in goofy versions of his own. Other Wodehouse clowns slog through bilge, and Catsmeat Potter–Pirbright, more cynic than clown, recommends the most abominable brand of it. He proposes to write letters to Madeline Bassett for Gussie Fink–Nottle and say that Gussie has dictated them because of a broken wrist: “He gave it a nasty wrench while stopping a runaway horse and ... saving a little child from a hideous death. A golden–haired child if you will allow yourself to be guided by me, with blue eyes, pink cheeks, and a lisp.”
For purposes of burlesque and parody, Wodehouse also borrows from crook stories and racetrack melodramas. Village sports include footraces for boys “whose voices have not broken before the second Sunday in Epiphany,” girls entered in egg and spoon races are bribed and disqualified, mysterious voices are heard in the shrubberies, and there are fears that the favourite in one event will be drugged.
Such happenings as these, like all others in Wodehouse, are related in a prose that Hilaire Belloc called the best of his time. The basis of it is Wodehouse’s public–school education at Dulwich, where the Bible, Shakespeare, and nineteenth–century writers were emphasized, together with the usual Latin and Greek. Belloc must have admired the grace and lucidity of it, and perhaps he admired the complexity that makes it inimitable. Wodehouse lays tribute upon great writers, but (just as he exploits cliches of character and plot from subliteratures) he also exploits vocabularies and idioms from a great range of written and spoken English: not only bilge and thrillers but also popular science, newspaper editorials, the argot of trades and professions, slang, sermons, the talk of schoolmasters and schoolboys. The style is not altogether unlike the talk of a bright schoolboy newly aware of language, fascinated by great poetry and archaic expressions and fascinated as well by slang and technical terms. But it is, of course, a Platonic form of that talk: sophisticated, widely informed, skillfully controlled in all its incongruities.
The style suits Wodehouse as narrator. Properly adapted, it suits most of his comic characters. And it suits Bertie best of all, for Bertie is a hero educated but not intellectual, of wide reading but erratic memory, enthusiastic but puerile. Bertie, however, has Wodehouse’s excellent ear, and at his very vaguest his speech may have the rhythm of a good nursery rhyme or riddle. With misty recollections of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” he asks, “Jeeves, who was the fellow who looking at something felt like someone looking at something?” In grammar and diction he is a purist, though fallible, and argues points of usage with Aunt Dahlia even at farcical crises.
Bertie’s style incorporates some devices of Restoration comedy and later forms of the comedy of manners. For example, with an adverbial construction like “quite an indecently large stock of money,” he transforms an objective statement into a subjective one, adding an emotional dimension and a fop’s flourish. One thing that he does not use is obscenity. As Orwell said, he is remarkable for the purity of his language, since a comic writer sacrifices a great source of comedy when he refrains from obscenity. In the later novels, however, there are occasional hells and damns and a rare bastard or bitch. Now and then Bertie gets halfway across the frontier of vulgarity: “I shouldn’t be at all surprised if Jeeves’ three aunts shut him up when he starts talking, remembering that at the age of six the child Jeeves didn’t know the difference between the poet Burns [whom Jeeves has just quoted] and a hole in the ground.”
Wodehouse’s figures of speech are like those of no other writer in English. One character stands “scrutinizing a safe and heaving gently like a Welsh rarebit about to come to the height of its fever,” and another looks like “a halibut which has just been asked by another halibut to lend it a quid until next Wednesday.” Wodehouse is endlessly inventive, and for the speech of Bertie he invents a particularly exuberant and lunatic kind of poetry. Bertie’s mind is less literal than metaphorical, but his metaphors are often marvelously mixed. The commotion that Roberta Wickham is always starting, he says, is very amusing to her but not to the unfortunate toads beneath the harrow whom she ruthlessly plunges into the soup.
Bertie employs such learned devices as the transferred epithet, repeatedly taking grave sips of coffee and smoking meditative cigarettes, and his hyperboles and understatements are probably the best in Wodehouse. Sometimes he appears to forget that there is a singular in English, and if two constables enter a room, he says that the place is filling up with rozzers. At the other extreme, drawing upon the Biblical knowledge for which he won a prize at school, he refers to “that time when there was all that unpleasantness with the cities of the plain” and speaks of the French Revolution as “the time when there was all that unpleasantness over in France.”
In the Wodehouse novels there are more quotations and allusions than in those of Aldous Huxley and Anthony Powell combined. They may involve Sir Isaac Newton (Newton’s sad words to his dog Diamond, who had eaten a manuscript), a movie actress, or an obscure fact (for example, that William Gladstone was a disciple of the quack Fletcher and chewed each mouthful of food thirty–two times). Bertie often relies on a basic stock which Wodehouse got at Dulwich. There is a good deal from the Bible and still more from Shakespeare. Bertie has met a schoolmistress named Miss Mapleton: ‘“Twas on a summer evening in my tent, the day I overcame the Nervii.” He declares, like other characters in Wodehouse, that he will meet someone at Philippi. (Evelyn Waugh admired Wodehouse greatly. Is it a coincidence or a tribute and inside joke that in Men at Arms Guy Crouchback says to Frank De Souza, “Well, we shall meet again,” and De Souza says, like the ghost of Caesar to Brutus, “At Philippi?”) Bertie draws upon Tennyson and Browning but also on minor poets of the nineteenth century like Thomas Moore and even Felicia Hemans. He remembers the peri “who stood disconsolate at the gate of paradise” and notes that the laugh of Honoria Glossop sounds “like waves breaking on a stern and rock–bound coast.” (He also says, in other places, that it sounds like a train going through a tunnel or a troop of cavalry crossing a tin bridge.)
The rightness of the formulas on which Wodehouse constructed the world of Bertie and Jeeves is proved by his comparative failures when he departs from the formulas. He makes Jeeves, not Bertie, the narrator of “Bertie Changes his Mind,” and by doing so he changes the whole nature of the world. It is one thing for Bertie to tell how Jeeves extricated him from a scrape and another for Jeeves to tell how he deliberately got Bertie into a scrape. It is one thing for Bertie to admit cheerfully that he is a chump and another for Jeeves to confide cooly that Bertie has no intellect. To prevent Bertie from inviting his sister and her children to live with him, Jeeves traps him into making a speech at a girls’ school. The speech is a disaster, and Bertie drops the notion of an enlarged household. Jeeves rescues Bertie from the school but takes some pleasure from Bertie’s distress. The story is, in effect, advice to beginning valets about keeping the upper hand, and it introduces into the stories what Bertie never introduces, the practical politics and cruelty of the real world. Moreover, the speech of Jeeves, amusing when contrasted with Bertie’s, is not so amusing in itself. One may call it Times Augustan, as Richard Usborne does, or bogus Augustan, as Evelyn Waugh called the prose of Winston Churchill. Instead of the Wooster music, the wild Wooster poetry, it has order, dignity, irony; instead of amiability, it has a somewhat stuffy reserve.
In Ring for Jeeves (1953) the departures and failures are greater; the hard facts of social change have invaded Wodehouse’s idyllic country–house world. Though he is Chief Constable of the county, Colonel Wyvern cannot get the kind of servants who once graced the stately homes of England. His butler is not well–stricken in years, corpulent, and nicely soaked in port from the pantry but a whipper–snapper of sixteen, and his cook is an impudent fifteen. The ninth earl of Rowcester, the hero of the novel, is obliged to sell Rowcester Abbey because he cannot pay the taxes on it. To Captain Biggar, long out of the mother country, Jeeves explains: “Socialistic legislation has sadly depleted the resources of England’s hereditary artistocracy. We are living now in what is known as the Welfare State, which means — broadly — that everybody is completely destitute.” Wodehouse loved the England of his earlier years and, though he did not live in England after 1940, he evidently could not in his later years refrain from a kind of commentary which he had never made before.
Worse for Ring for Jeeves, Bertie is absent from the novel. Jeeves has not left him but serves Bill Rowcester as butler, not valet, while Bertie attends a school designed to teach the aristocracy to fend for itself, m’lord. Mr. Wooster, though his finances are still quite sound, feels that it is prudent to build for the future, in case the social revolution should set in with even greater severity.” The absence of Bertie leaves a vacuum which cannot be filled, since his character, style, and point of view are vital to the Bertie and Jeeves books. Wodehouse relates Ring for Jeeves in the style of his other comic novels, and that style is one of his great accomplishments, but the style of Bertie is a greater one. Without Bertie, Jeeves is diminished, for his character needs the dialogue between him and Bertie more than Bertie’s does and, having no one to trade quotations with, he quotes too much.
With the loss of Bertie goes the loss of other important characters in the cycle like Bertie’s aunts, Sir Roderick Glossop, Gussie Fink–Nottel, etc., and Wodehouse replaces them with characters modeled on those of his earlier comic romances. Jill (a favourite name in the earlier books) Wyvern moves “with a springy step” and once was “a flashy outside right in the hockey field,” but she is inclined to great good news with squeals of delight. Wodehouse brings her up to date by making her a licensed veterinarian, the first professional woman in the novels. The impoverished Bill (another favourite name) Rowcester becomes a bookie with insufficient capital and a disguise of eye patch, false moustache, and loud checked coat. Bill’s brother–in–law, an aristocrat compelled to go to work at a big London department store, talks of the place as if it were a military organization and is intended as a comic character, but he is only a mischievous fool. Mrs. Spottsworth and Captain Biggar save the novel, but it barely survives a major calamity. Jeeves becomes assistant to Bill on the racecourse and wears a dreadful checked suit and false moustache. The authentic Jeeves might have wished these on Bertie, but he would never have worn them for Bertie, much less for Bill Rowcester.
In virtually all the other Bertie and Jeeves novels, Wodehouse obeys the bylaws that he enacted for his world, with happy results for the commonwealth of literature. Given the word valet in an association test, thousands of readers would think of Jeeves. (Given the word butler, they would be less likely to think of James Barrie’s Crichton than to think of Beach or another of Wodehouse’s butlers.) Bertie is a character of almost Dickensian vividness and a narrator whose voice is unmistakable.
Wodehouse’s farce has the ingenuity and speed of Feydeau’s, but none of the sex. Visiting country houses, Bertie goes into a girl’s bedroom only by accident, and bedroom farce is a business of practical jokes, of puncturing hotwater bottles and making apple–pie beds. Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Bertie and Jeeves books evoke a nostalgia for the Victorian–Edwardian world. But the Holmes stories are, after all, crime stories and, as Gavin Lambert has shown, there is a sense of evil in them that grows greater as Doyle grows older. In the entire world of Bertie and Jeeves, however, Holmes himself could not discover the slightest trace of wickedness. Anyone who dismisses that world as a bauble because it is buoyant makes a great eror. For it is in fact the creation of an artist whose adroitness is one of the distinctions of English comedy.
Source: Richard J. Voorhees, “Wodehouse at the Top of His Form” in The University of Windsor Review, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Fall–Winter 1981, pp. 13–25.
Aldridge, John W., “P. G. Wodehouse: The Lesson of the Young Master” in New World Writing,1958 annual, p. 186.
Quinton, Anthony, “P. G. Wodehouse and the Comic Tradition,” introduction to P. G. Wodehouse: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Checklist, ed. Eileen Mcllvaine, Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990, p. xiv.
____, Review of Carry On, Jeeves, in New York Times, October 23, 1927, p. 28.
____, Review, Carry On, Jeeves, in Saturday Review of Literature, December 3, 1927.
Hall, Robert A., The Comic Style of P. G. Wodehouse, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1974.
A study of the comedic form, plots and characters in the fiction of Wodehouse.
Olson, Kirby, “Bertie and Jeeves at the End of History: P. G. Wodehouse as Political Scientist,” in Humor: The International Journal of Humor Research, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1996, pp. 73–88.
An ironic reading of politics in Wodehouse’s “Jeeves andWooster” stories.
Voorhees, Richard J., P. G. Wodehouse, New York: Twayne, 1966.
A literary biography by an eminent Wodehouse scholar.
____, “Wodehouse at the Top of His Form,” in University of Windsor Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1981, pp. 13–25.
An analysis of Wodehouse’s best writing.
Wodehouse, P. G., America, I Like You, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.
Wodehouse’s autobiographical account of his life in the United States.
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Jeeves Takes Charge
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Jeeves Takes Charge