Do you know who Jeeves is? What about Bertie Wooster? Have you read any of the P. G. Wodehouse novels featuring those two characters? Did you see any of the BBC television series, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie? Do the names Gussie Fink-Nottle or Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright or Roderick Spode resonate with you? Have you visited the country estates of either of the Aunts, Agatha (shudder) or Dahlia (cheers)?
Either you know what I’m talking about, or you have no idea. To elucidate: Jeeves and Wooster are the main characters in a series of comic novels and short stories by P. G. Wodehouse, set in the world of a rather doltish British upper class in the ’20s and ’30s. Bertie Wooster is a wealthy young man-about-town, a boulevardier and bon vivant, and a young man of negligible intelligence but endless good cheer and loyalty. Jeeves is his gentleman’s personal gentleman; his valet. The joke is that Jeeves is much more intelligent, better read and resourceful than Bertie, and the plots of all the novels involve Jeeves extricating his master from some scrape, difficulty, or unwanted romantic entanglement.
But it’s the writing style that makes the novels so delightful. They’re all written from Bertie’s p.o.v., first person, and he’s a most agreeable narrator. He writes in a combination of British upper-crust private school slang, with the odd (mangled) famous quotation from classic literature. He makes for an agreeable literary companion. I know I’m not alone when I say I love these books passionately. I have read them all repeatedly, and seen every episode of the BBC series. I’m a Jeeves fan.
And that’s why I am delighted to say, with words of trembling excitement, that a new Jeeves novel has appeared. And it’s wonderful.
P. G. Wodehouse died in 1975. And, no, there hasn’t been a lost manuscript discovered or anything like that. But an author named Sebastian Faulks has written a novel in the Wodehouse style, which I just finished reading. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. 2013, St. Martin’s Press. And I was prepared to be a severe and censorious critic. I don’t know this Faulks person, and have no reason to trust him (though he’s a fine novelist, with a dozen published books). But on the book jacket, I read high praise for it from Jeeves himself; that is to say, Stephen Fry. And equally high praise from Bertie Wooster–Hugh Laurie, in other words. And so opened the book, and I read.
I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of stone stairs. After a moment of floundering in the darkness, I put my hand on the source of the infernal noise; the twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock. There followed a brief no-holds-barred wrestling match before I was able to shove the wretched thing underneath the mattress.
It was a panting and lightly perspiring B. Wooster who then consulted his wristwatch to find that it was, in fact, six o’clock–the appointed hour at which I was to throw off the bonds of slumber and rise to tackle my new duties.
This was a dashed sight harder than it sounds. Whoever had designed the pallaise on which I had lain these last seven hours had clearly been of the opinion that nature’s sweet restorer, as I have heard Jeeves call it, can get the job done in five-minute bursts.
And I was hooked. He got, this Faulks cove, he captured the voice. This opening isn’t the best stretch of prose in the novel, but it’ll do, and what follows is borderline inspired. Nothing in the book rings false. It’s a Jeeves and Wooster novel, the same characters, the same hi-jinks, the same difficulties encountered and overcome.
And yet, also not. Because the central plot of the Wodehouse novels pretty much always involved Bertie becoming inadvertently (and misguidedly) engaged to be married. Often, he becomes involved with women of forceful personality and strong opinions, who insist that something can be made of Bertie, if only he’d apply himself. Honoria Glossop comes to mind; an attractive and intelligent woman who, frankly, rather terrifies poor Bertie, who really doesn’t want to be improved at all. Or, he becomes betrothed to women who seem likely get Bertie in all kinds of trouble–party girls with a knack for getting their menfolk to take the fall for mischief they’ve concocted; Bobbie Wickham, for example. Or, finally, he falls for the whimsical and poetic charms of a Madeline Bassett, who thinks the stars are God’s personal daisy chain; a ghastly thought, for Bertie. Bertie frequently becomes engaged, but never quite gets married, because Jeeves pulls him back from the brink every time.
But what if there were a girl who was right for Bertie, a girl who he genuinely could be happy with? What would Jeeves do? Would Jeeves use his intellect and imagination to push it along, to find ways to get Bertie and the Right Girl together? And so, in this novel, we see Bertie the suitor, Bertie really genuinely in love. And the girl, in this case, is perfect for him.
She’s perfect for him because she notices something about Bertie that’s absolutely central to the book, but that other women have failed, in the previous novels, to notice; Bertie’s kindness. It permeates the Wodehouse novels, but quietly, unremarked upon. Bertie is, to be sure, a dim bulb in many respects. He’s a man of simple pleasures, and intellectual stimulation is not among those pleasures. But he’s loyal to a fault, and the best friend in the world. He’s genuinely, remarkably, consistently kind.
Jeeves knows it. Jeeves loves Bertie too. And Jeeves has a love interest as well in this novel.
I laughed a lot when reading this novel. But at the end, I also cried. It’s a wonderful read, and the ending is splendid, just right. Sebastian Faulks has done something I would not have believed possible. He has written a delightful novel, one that fits perfectly into the Jeeves/Wooster corpus. But it’s also a valedictory novel, a lovely coda to the series. Bertie Wooster deserves, finally, to be happy. In this novel, he gets to be. Buy it. Read it. it’s great.