Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: Audio book borrowed from the library. See note below.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is one of my favorite authors of comedy,  and I have resolved to read one of his works each year. Alas, at that rate, I will likely be unable to finish all of his books within my lifetime, but it is worth a shot.

I previously discussed Wodehouse (WOOD-house, for the uninitiated) as part of last year’s Reading to Know Book Club, when I read Uncle Fred in the Springtime. I have also reviewed The Adventures of Sally.

Thank You, Jeeves is the first full-length novel about the unforgettable Bertie Wooster and his ingenious valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse introduced the characters early in his career, in a short story that appeared in 1915. With minor exceptions, the 35 short stories were written first, followed by a series of longer works written throughout the author’s long career.

For those unfamiliar with the characters, Bertie is a young, foppish, rather silly aristocrat. Jeeves is his valet. Many have mistakenly referred to him as a butler, but that is inaccurate, as a butler serves an entire household, while a valet serves only the man. Jeeves’ clear policy, as we learn in this book, is to never serve a married man.

This book, like most of the Bertie and Jeeves stories, is narrated by Bertie. Despite his reputation as an intellectual lightweight, Bertie has a delightfully large and varied vocabulary combined with a knack for telling a good tale. Thus, one may note Bertie’s silly behavior while admitting that he is better read and better spoken than most - including the reader, perhaps. I find Bertie’s narration to be thoroughly enjoyable.

Like all Wodehouse novels, this one involves an ever sillier series of entanglements, which must be resolved in the end by some combination of strategy, daring, and luck. In the case of books about Jeeves, the ingenuity comes from the valet himself. Indeed, while Bertie’s machinations generally cause further difficulty, Jeeves’ bold plans succeed despite their often unusual nature.

There are two central elements to this book. The first is an object. Bertie decides to take up the banjolele, a now rare instrument with the body of a banjo and the neck and tuning of a ukulele. At the time this book was written, banjo-related instruments were a fad, and the family included the banjolin (four strings tuned like a mandolin), and the mandolin-banjo (eight strings like a mandolin), as well as the original banjo.

Presumably Bertie couldn't play this well...

Jeeves (and pretty much everyone else) cannot stand this instrument or Bertie’s attempts to play it. As a result, Jeeves resigns as Bertie’s valet. Bertie himself moves to the country, to escape the threats of eviction from his landlord.

Conveniently, Bertie happens to be able to rent a cottage from his old classmate, who is now the 5th Baron of Chuffnell, known to Bertie as “Chuffy.” There, Bertie runs into Sir Roderick Glossop, a recurring nemesis in this series. (He also appears in Uncle Fred in the Springtime.) Also present are J. Washburn Stoker, and American millionaire, his daughter Pauline, to whom Bertie entered an ill-advised and short-lived engagement during a trip to New York, and an overzealous local constable.

Sir Roderick is a psychiatrist, or as Bertie puts it:

I have had occasion to make somewhat frequent mention of this old pot of poison. A bald-domed, bushy-browed blighter, ostensibly a nerve specialist, but in reality, as everyone knows, nothing more nor less than a high-priced loony doctor.

This is the second theme in the book: that of benign insanity. Stoker depends on Glossop’s expert testimony for his inheritance, the constable believes Bertie is crazy, and Jeeves’ replacement, Brinkley, quite possibly is crazy, and a bolshevik to boot.

In order to make everyone happy, Mr. Stoker must buy Chuffnell Hall from Chuffy, to relieve his financial difficulties. Glossop will then use the place as a mental hospital, and marry Chuffy’s aunt. Chuffy must then marry Pauline. Naturally, everything possible goes wrong.

I won’t spoil the fun - and fun it certainly is - but I should mention one facet of this book that is a bit uncomfortable. My wife and I listened to this with the kids, which makes it more awkward. Part of the plot involves a troop of African-American minstrels, who perform a concert on board Stoker’s yacht. In order to escape from Stoker, who intends to force him to marry Pauline, Bertie (on with Jeeves’ assistance) blacks his face with shoe polish to pass as one of the band. While the book thankfully avoids offensive stereotypes - the musicians themselves are merely mentioned in a favorable manner - the use of “blackface” itself is a little odd to explain. Worse was the use of the N word by Bertie in describing the performers. While N----- was already considered mildly offensive in the United States by the 1930s, it was standard, non-offensive usage in Britain when this book was written. (I looked it up.) In fact, the word was used to refer to all dark skinned persons, including those from India and South Asia. Interestingly, the epithet is used only by Bertie (who means no harm), not by Jeeves, who uses the scientific term of the day, “Negroid.” One may assume that Jeeves as a general rule is more politically correct (or whatever the 1930s equivalent was) than Bertie, who is generous in his use of slang. Fortunately, we already discussed this issue when we read Tom Saywer. The kids did find the slapstick rather hilarious, or course, so they will likely enjoy Wodehouse in the years to come.

One of the things I love about Wodehouse is his ability to do the exact opposite of what a thrill writer would do. This passage occurs after a night in which Bertie has been accused of being the devil by the drunk Brinkley, and has had to spend a very uncomfortable night.

I don’t know if you’ve ever spent a night in a summer-house. If not, avoid making the experiment. It’s not a thing I would advise any friend of mine to do. On the subject of sleeping in summer-houses, I will speak out fearlessly. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, such a binge doesn’t present a single attractive feature. Apart from the inevitable discomfort in the fleshy parts, there is the cold. And apart from the cold, there is the mental anguish. All the ghost stories you ever read go flitting through the mind, particularly any you know where fellows are found next morning absolutely dead, without a mark on them, but with such a look of horror and fear in their eyes that the search party draw in their breath a bit and gaze at each other as much as to say, “What ho?”

That “what ho?” at the end just cracks me up every time.

Finally, after Jeeves comes up with a thoroughly ludicrous, but brilliant plan to extricate everyone at the end, Bertie, who gets to suffer the indignity necessary - and without any breakfast for that matter - in order to bring everything right in the end, protests:

'Oh?' I said, and you couldn't have described my voice as anything but caustic. 'So I am to go down in the history of Chuffnell Regis as one of our leading dipsomaniacs?'
'He may just think him potty,' suggested Pauline.

And so, like all Wodehouse, which exists in a realm where ordinary rules cannot possibly apply, and where being a bit “potty” is an advantage, everything comes out right in the end. Except Bertie’s reputation, which is a bit tarnished to start with.

This book is a great introduction to Wodehouse, and also to the Bertie and Jeeves books.

Note on the audio book:

I don’t often listen to books, which is silly because I spend enough time driving that it would be a useful diversion. Perhaps I will remedy this in the future.

This particular book was narrated by Alexander Spencer. (Published by Borders.) I was surprised to note that he makes Bertie, Jeeves, and Chuffy sound very similar to their characters in the delightful BBC miniseries starring Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry. Since this recording was made in 1984, while the series didn’t come out until nearly a decade later, I wonder if Fry and Laurie took some inspiration from Spencer. In any case, the reading is very well done, with a good pacing, clear diction, and a truly magnificent realization of the characters. If you can find it, I highly recommend this particular version. 

In the Fry and Laurie version, the banjolele is replaced by the trombone. Here is the beginning of the episode based on Thank You, Jeeves. Bonus points for the jaunty violin melody in the theme. By all means, watch the series, which is great fun in its own right, even if the screen is never quite as good as the page.


  1. P.G. Wodehouse IS as good as it gets. There is no past tense here: Wodehouse is a living and breathing entity whose words speak as brightly now as they did 100 years ago. Indeed, it is not too much to say that he who has no Wodehouse in him, as the Shakespeare lad might say, " fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils." Tim, as ever, has biffed out a deservedly glowing review of this volume as should send legions of book lovers scrambling off to the bookstore of their choice. Well done!

  2. You're right. Wodehouse does the exact opposite of what a thrill writer would do. And he is so amusing.

    We own so many Wodehouse books I haven't read yet. Sometimes I despair of ever getting to them. I like the idea of reading one a year. That would at least help work through the pile and help me feel productive. :)