There are few things in this life which inspire a sense of giddy happiness as readily as an encounter with Jeeves and Wooster. P.G Wodehouse is a nonpareil storyteller; Bertie Wooster is utterly charming, warm-hearted and mad as a brush, and Jeeves is the unflappable deus ex machine, guiding his dotty master through the perils of 1920s high society with a deft and perfectly discreet touch. Wodehouse’s language is delicious, and offers us a glimpse of a version of England which we can only hope truly existed; even if we, his readers, cannot drift from country-house to country-house with our man-servants in tow, quaffing zonkers and extricating ourselves from an endless series of ill-advised engagements, it is strangely comforting to think that there was a time when a portion of the English did exactly that.
In “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells,” Sebastian Faulks has produced a hugely entertaining, and very brave, homage to Wodehouse’s beloved characters. The story begins with Bertie and Jeeves enjoying a spell on the French Riviera, where Bertie encounters a beautiful editor called Georgiana, with “eyes as deep as the Bermuda Triangle,” and a shocking inability to drive which causes the French to eye her “with a measure of respect: they recognised one of their own.” The pair hit it off and spend a happy fortnight bolting around the countryside eating langoustines, but, inevitably, chaos ensues once they arrive back in England. Georgiana is engaged to another man; the engagement between Woody Beeching (one of Bertie’s oldest chums) and Georgiana’s surrogate sister appears to be on the rocks; and Aunt Agatha has threatened to descend upon Bertie’s flat in London for an extended visit. As you would expect this precipitates an anarchic comedy of errors, which finds Jeeves temporarily elevated to the status of “Lord Etringham” and Bertie posing as his man-servant as they stay with Georgiana’s uncle in the country, determined to heal the rift between Woody and Amelia and to procure the obligatory happy ending.
Faulks gives Bertie plenty of room to stretch his legs and make an adorable ass of himself: there are cricket-matches; trysts on the tennis-court; bungled burglaries and even a village-hall production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Jeeves of course orchestrates the whole with his uncanny prescience, and is even rewarded by Faulks with a romantic interlude of his own. It is perhaps impossible to imitate Wodehouse’s voice to perfection, but Faulks does a very fine job; the madcap similes and juicy slang are in excellent form, and both Jeeves and Wooster shine in this final outing. Faulks is even brave enough to add some of his own DNA to the tale – when Bertie asks Jeeves about a relation of his who once played cricket for Worcestershire, Jeeves responds:
“Warwickshire, sir. A distant relation. I believe he took four wickets for the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s in 1914. Alas, it was to be his swansong.”
“What a shame. Retire, did he?”
“No, sir, he volunteered.”
“I see. And….That was it, was it?”
“The Battle of the Somme, sir. He was in C Company of the 15th Royal Warwicks. The assault on High Wood.”
“Bad show,” said Woody.
It was quiet for a moment; you could hear the rooks chattering in the elms and cedars.
What a delicate touch of pathos. I has halfway through reading “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” when I picked up my boyfriend’s December issue of “The Nightwatchman”, a glorious quarterly cricket magazine created by Wisden. In the midst of a host of typically idiosyncratic articles was one entitled “Jeeves and the Impending Doom”: according to the article’s author, Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” was in fact named after a talented young English cricketer who sported “immaculate conduct and attire,” and showed great promise during his sadly brief career. Wodehouse, an ardent cricket fan, saw Percy Jeeves play in Cheltenham in 1913, and was enchanted; subsequently when he was creating Bertie’s man-servant three years later, Percy’s name and his cricketing action sprung to mind. Tragically, and just as Jeeves explains, Percy was killed at High Wood in 1916. It is a haunting touch from the author of “Birdsong,” then, to build this echo into the story. Purists may not like the detour from Wodehouse’s unfailingly joyful voice, but it is so lightly done, and actually so appropriate, that I found it to be a wholly welcome nod to Wodehouse and his inspiration.
Whether you are already a Wodehouse devotee and are hoping to spend some time with the characters you love, or whether this is your first introduction to the glorious world of Jeeves and Wooster, I would highly recommend Sebastian Faulks’ addition to the collection – the world is a far brighter place for having Jeeves and Wooster in it, and I would advocate spending as much time with them as possible. Toodle-pip!