Have you ever wondered why a common name for butlers in fiction is “Jeeves”? The answer is this week’s selection for Down the Stacks: Sir P.G. Wodehouse’s classic comedy series Jeeves and Wooster. The particular volume I’ve selected is Right ho, Jeeves.
A Jeeves and Wooster book is a bit like an Oscar Wilde play in book form: all about the follies of the idle rich and containing one intelligent and snarky character. The books are about the comic misadventures of one Bertam Wooster as he deals with disapproving aunts, other young idle-rich men like himself, and romantic entanglements of all sorts. Jeeves is Bertie’s intelligent, loyal, and pragmatic valet who often has to step in and untangle his employer’s latest mess.
In Right ho, Jeeves, Bertie has just arrived home from a rather eventful vacation to France bearing a white mess jacket that he’s rather proud of, but which Jeeves soundly disapproves of. The argument that ensues rather sours Bertie’s opinion toward Jeeves to the point of disregarding the man’s reputation for problem solving just as the main problems of the week arise. First out of the gate is Gussie Fink-Nottle, a socially awkward chum of Bertie’s who has left a long period of relative isolation in the country studying newts in order to obtain assistance in pursuing a girl he’s fallen in love with (and which, by narrative coincidence, Bertie became acquainted with during the trip to France). Next up is a lover’s quarrel between Bertie’s cousin Angela and her betrothed, Tuppy, who happens to be another of Bertie’s close friends. Lastly is Angela’s mother - and Bertie’s aunt - Dahlia, who tries to rope Bertie into handing out prizes at a boy’s school. Bertie dodges the last by foisting it off on Gussie, but runs out to Aunt Dahlia’s country estate anyway to try and lend a hand in the Angela-Tuppy dispute. What results is a grand, ever-escalating comedy of errors that, despite gallant efforts, Bertie never can quite get proper control over.
The Jeeves and Wooster books are narrated by Bertie Wooster himself, and he does so with the full force of Upper-class Brit vernacular coupled with an addiction to abbreviations and an imperfect memory of quotes from classical literature. Bertie’s sometimes meandering way of speaking turns an already amusing anecdote of silly rich people being tied up in romantic shenanigans and First-World Problems into a true delight. It can take some effort to figure out what he means by things like “the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.” but his frequent asides to summarize events prior to the book and willingness to take extended metaphors to their logical end - such as when he ends a description of racing after Aunt Dahlia through the house by listing who arrived first, second and third as if it were a horse race - more than make up for any confusing initials.
Jeeves is a consummate professional who never betrays his emotions overtly, but manages to say quite a lot in only a one or two words followed inevitably by “sir.” Bertie’s experience being around Jeeves allows him to read the valet like a book, which in turn lets the reader pick up the differences between, say “Yes, sir” and “Indeed, sir?”, and even permits the pair to hold an entire conversation with only raised eyebrows at one point. If Jeeves has any flaws, they would be that he has strong opinions about what constitutes proper men’s fashion - opinions which don’t always match Bertie’s - and despite his loyalty he’s quite willing to let Bertie to keep digging himself into deeper holes rather than interject an unsolicited opinion. He’ll even throw his employer under the bus for the sake of fixing everyone else’s problems. There’s a reason Jeeves has become an archetype for personal servant characters.
The supporting characters of the book are all treats as well, particularly since at least half of them openly criticize Bertie to his face -and justifiably so - and get away with it because of his determination not to let pride get in the way of helping. Bertie’s relationship with Aunt Dahlia is particularly amusing because the woman can slide between expressing gratitude for her nephew’s good intentions and threatening to drown him in a pond and back again in three paragraphs or less, and Bertie points out that she’s the one aunt he has that he actually likes to be around.
The Jeeves and Wooster books are trope-defining classics, but also fun and easy to read. If you want a light read and a lot of laughs, look up P.G. Wodehouse at your local library. I wouldn’t worry too much about reading the whole series in order; Right ho, Jeeves is the second J&W book, but I never felt like I had missed anything important by not hunting down the first installment.