Jeeves and the King of Clubs:
A Novel in Homage to P.G. Wodehouse
by ben schott
little, brown, 320 pages, $27
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells:
An Homage to P.G. Wodehouse
by sebastian faulks
st. martin’s, 256 pages, $25.99
Aunts, Comrades, Gentlemen . . . According to Hilaire Belloc, in the first serious critical appreciation to which Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was subjected, one of the most “intensely national” things about this profoundly yet idiosyncratically English novelist was that he had created “one more figure in that long gallery of living figures” who people English fiction. Belloc meant, specifically, Jeeves, the costar of Wodehouse’s longest fictional saga. But, of course, Jeeves, the “gentleman’s personal gentleman” or valet (emphatically not a butler), and Bertie Wooster, his employer, who imagines he is also his master, are a kind of binary star system, endlessly spinning around each other. In such a system, by the way, the brighter partner is officially defined as primary, and the dimmer as secondary, which confirms that “Jeeves and Wooster” gets things the right way round. Yet they are truly inseparable. Ring for Jeeves (1953), the only time Jeeves appeared without Wooster, is generally recognized as the least successful installment in the series.
Belloc’s claim has been vindicated by the fact that in recent years Jeeves has joined the growing list of characters who, by popular demand, have been revived after their author’s demise. The resuscitation of fictional characters is much in vogue now. Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Lord Peter Wimsey have all received the treatment, as have Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy. So, it was perhaps inevitable that P. G. Wodehouse’s literary legacy would be revisited in the same way. Two notable revivals of Jeeves and Wooster have recently been penned, one by Sebastian Faulks and another by Ben Schott. It would be easy to lock and load the lorgnettes at this, dismissing it as at best nerdy nostalgia or at worst crass commercialism. But many of our finest authors have borrowed other people’s characters, and even other people’s stories, for our entertainment (one thinks, for example, of G. Chaucer and W. Shakespeare, whose endeavors in this vein are far from negligible).
Ben Schott’s Jeeves and the King of Clubs, written if not by commission then at least by permission of the Estate of P. G. Wodehouse, is set amid the gathering storm of World War II. Following the example of the Master himself, Schott assembles a familiar cast—not only Florence Craye, but also Madeline Bassett, along with Aunt Dahlia, an ample chorus of occasional Drones and, wonderfully, Roderick Spode, the leader of the Black Shorts, England’s answer to the Fascists and the Nazis. Though by now ensconced in the House of Lords, where he goes under the pseudonym of the Earl of Sidcup, Spode still harbors vaulting ambitions as Duce of his still sublimely hapless, but now also mildly sinister, political movement. The Black Shorts, we learn, have provoked anxiety in high places on account of the suspiciously ample funding they enjoy for their floundering political activities. As the clouds of war pile up on the horizon like spent bread rolls in the corner of a dining room, Bertie is recruited by the intelligence services (of which Jeeves and his colleagues at the Junior Ganymede Club, it transpires, are officers and agents) to play a key role in an operation designed to crack Spode’s code and uncover his mysterious backers.
The plot (of which I shall otherwise strive to reveal as little as possible) is unfailingly gripping and in the best sense ridiculous. As he aged, Plum (as Wodehouse’s friends called him) frequently lamented the increasing difficulty he found in contriving strong new plots. With the low cunning of the successful author, he often got around this by recycling old ones. Occasionally, as with Much Obliged, Jeeves, which triumphantly marked his ninetieth birthday in 1971, he came up with something fresh. He would probably have traded a Peke for what we get in King of Clubs: Schott’s plot hits the spot, time after time. Wodehouse could never have resisted the chain of circumstances that places Bertie at the counter of Spode’s former lingerie emporium, Eulalie Soeurs, covering for the new proprietress (Spode’s far more sympathetic niece) while she pops out on an errand. The ensuing dialogue between Bertie and an embarrassed husband in search of a present for his wife is a hilarious masterpiece of English understatement—though maybe “understatement” unduly exaggerates the directness and precision of this sequence of hesitant and unfinished sentences.
C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le Vodeouse. Schott is pretty damn good, but he still falls short of the target here and there. It was Hilaire Belloc, again, who first noted that Wodehouse’s genius found particular expression “in the use of passing slang.” With Schott’s Bertie the slang is a little too labored, a little too redolent of the midnight oil. It fails one of Belloc’s tests of excellence in prose, in that the “search for effect appears on the surface.” (In this connection, check out Schott’s endnotes, the testimony to his labors. In Over Seventy, the Master himself testily denounced the wave of footnotes sweeping across Literature and settling on so many books of the period.) Belloc likewise noted back in 1939 that in terms of storytelling, Wodehouse’s art was closer to that of the playwright than to anything else. In personal letters, as later in his autobiographical writings, Wodehouse confirms that his experience working on Broadway and in Hollywood was crucial to his development as an author. He envisaged his characters not merely as dramatis personae, but as actors. He would never bring a star on stage in a bit part, and he always sought economy in the company. It is not for nothing that his storytelling has been likened to the commedia dell’arte, with its fixed and narrow cast. Compared with the real thing, Schott’s Wodehouse has a few too many characters for them all to have enough to do. And while the brilliant plot comes to a satisfactory denouement, there is nevertheless a spray of loose ends dangling out as we turn the last page. Wodehouse himself, the ultimate craftsman, worked and reworked his story lines until all the ends were neatly tied off.
It is a few years now since Sebastian Faulks was commissioned to be the first Deutero-Wodehouse to add to the canon of Jeeves and Wooster. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (2013) was a triumph—its highlight perhaps the moment when Jeeves offers Bertie the fruits of his intelligence-gathering on the Gentlemen of Dorset, a team against whom Bertie has been pressganged to play in a country-house cricket match. “I have done some research into the players who comprise the team, sir,” he reports, disdainfully, “It seems that few of them are from Dorset and none of them are gentlemen.” Inevitably, however, a novelist as serious as Faulks could not write Bertie without giving him a depth and a vulnerability that are missing in Wodehouse’s original. Reversing the obvious influence of Bertie on Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Faulks places Bertie (like Lord Peter) firmly in the trenches during “the recent unpleasantness in France.” And there, of course, a real Bertie would most certainly have been, along with so many “public school men” of that ill-fated generation. But as Waugh pointed out, he first appeared in print in 1917. Bertie’s ancestors, we know, had “come over with the Conqueror” and had thereafter done their bit at Agincourt and on sundry other occasions. The preux chevalier himself would never have shirked his duty (though one can only speculate as to how Bertie could possibly have survived the abattoir of the Western Front without Jeeves to watch his back). Faulks is definitely onto something. The harmless high jinks of Bertie and his cronies at the Drones in the 1920s certainly resonate with the frenetic hedonism of the survivors of the bloodbath. Yet this breath of the cold air of history threatens to deflate the literary soufflé which is the crowning achievement of the Wodehousian kitchen.
Faulks likewise flirts with culinary disaster in leaving Bertie, at the close of the novel, on the very brink of the holy estate, virtually on the altar steps waiting for the organ to strike up “The voice that breathed o’er Eden.” But surely Bertie, forever young, must remain forever celibate even despite himself, forever ready to fall in love at the drop of another hat, entirely at ease with women (except, of course, for the various species of aunt), yet doomed or destined never to deliver on any romantic engagement. His celibacy, one might almost say his purity, is the condition and guarantee of the world he inhabits. There is an almost Augustinian sense in which, if Bertie were ever to know the nakedness of a woman, his primal innocence would be lost and his paradise with it. He would be drawn from eternity into history.
It was Evelyn Waugh, in a radio broadcast of 1961, who put his finger on this central moral truth in the perennially delightful literary world created by P. G. Wodehouse through seven decades of unremitting authorial labor. It was, Waugh observed, an “idyllic world,” an innocent realm untouched by sex or death, and immune (unlike its creator) from the imperative to work—to all intents and purposes, a world without original or mortal sin. There is nothing to be gained by recapitulating Waugh’s penetrating analysis of a world in which all is fair in love, and there is no war; in which misdemeanors and felonies (assault, blackmail, burglary, fraud, identity theft, kidnapping, and unlawful detention) find their guilt washed away by the absolution and indulgence of the author.
But there is something further to be said about one of the implications of this idyllic innocence, namely, the impenetrable veil that somehow separates this world from history. History, like crime, finds its way into Wodehouse’s fiction, but only ever as a plot device or for pure literary effect. Too close a connection with reality bursts the bubble in which his stories are all set. Thus, in a late short story called “Bingo Bans the Bomb,” the susceptible Drone Bingo Little becomes entangled with a pretty girl he encounters at a CND march. But real politics of this kind has no place in that happy world, and the brush with relevance rings false. Wodehouse’s best-known approach to political relevance (other than in asides about income tax and customs duties) is in the creation of Spode, the aforementioned leader of the Black Shorts. But here, history is transmuted through the prism of Wodehousian fantasy. Spode is no Mosley, still less a Mussolini. His followers sport their eponymous shorts because, by the time his movement comes to market, the smart-colored shirts have sold out.
Wodehouse was almost as completely isolated as his own fiction from a century that the impartial observer must agree had rather more history than was good for it. And Fate mostly helped keep him that way. Characteristically, he was abroad both times that war broke out. August 1914 found him in New York; September 1939 found him at Le Touquet, a seaside resort in northeastern France. He did present himself in 1917 at the recruiting office that Britain had opened in New York, but he was deemed unfit for military service by virtue of his defective eyesight. Even at this supreme crisis in its affairs—Lord Kitchener’s assurances to the contrary notwithstanding—his country did not need him. We should be grateful for that noble act of self-denial. This short-sighted and generously built man would not have made much difference on the Western Front, and would surely not have lasted long. His good fortune reminds us of how much genius—some of it known, but most of it doubtless not—was cut short in that sterile sea of mud stretching from Flanders to Lorraine.
For Wodehouse, the principal legacy of the Great War was the intensification of the government’s enthusiasm for dipping into the wallets of His Britannic Majesty’s subjects by way of income tax:
“It all comes down to this,” said the Biscuit, summing up. “If England wants a happy, well-fed aristocracy, she mustn’t have wars. She can’t have it both ways.”
Wodehouse had a lifelong aversion to income tax, and his transatlantic career and success rendered him prey not only to the Inland Revenue but also to the Internal Revenue Service. This was before the era of double taxation agreements. In the 1930s he therefore became entangled in tax imbroglios worthy of his own convoluted plots. The upshot was that he had to spend a certain period of each year outside the U.K. in order to maintain what we would now call his “non-dom” status. This was why he found himself in France when the Germans decided to have another go. A more responsible head of household might have decamped back to England following the declaration of war. But Wodehouse, in his seaside study, typed away at one of his most brilliant novels, Joy in the Morning (eventually published in 1946), while the Nazis set about conquering most of mainland Europe. A misplaced faith in the Maginot Line and the confusion sown by the unprecedented speed of the German advance to the Channel led to Wodehouse’s arrest and internment. As he himself later put it:
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me “How can I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there until the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
History had, for once, overtaken Wodehouse, though in characteristic fashion he did his best to ignore it, which didn’t help. After about a year in a prison camp (during which, of course, he wrote most of another novel while losing much of the weight he had put on between the wars), he was released. He was approaching the age of sixty, a point at which the Nazi regime routinely released captive foreign noncombatants into a sort of house arrest on the grounds that they no longer posed any serious threat. Wodehouse’s slightly early release was part of another plot, to persuade him to broadcast on German radio. In the hope that he could, by this means, reassure his many readers, especially those in the United States, about his health and welfare, he was foolish enough to agree to give a series of talks offering a typically funny and self-deprecating account of his time in captivity. He conceived these talks as exercises of the stiff upper lip—displays of humor in the face of adversity. Had they been broadcast over the BBC World Service, this is exactly how they would have been taken. It was not what he said or the way that he said it that gave offense, but where and when: on German radio, in the summer of 1941, long before America entered the war and around the time that the German invasion of Russia was reaping its extraordinary early successes. As the Wehrmacht raced toward Moscow, Wodehouse’s fellow-countrymen could not be sure that their enemy would not win the war. Wodehouse was widely denounced in Britain as a coward and a collaborator. This was not so, but, as he soon came to realize, he had only himself to blame.
An MI5 investigation subsequently cleared Wodehouse of any crime, but these findings were, deliberately, never formally communicated to him, and were only made public some time after his death. This purposeful obfuscation was meant to discourage him from ever darkening England’s doors again, and he took the hint. A quintessentially English man, this child of Victorian and imperial Britain was self-condemned by a combination of penitence and prudence to permanent exile from his home, taking American citizenship and exchanging cricket for baseball, never again to cheer on Dulwich in the Bedford match. As exile goes, it was one of history’s least painful, but it was condign punishment for an offense he always rued, one which, while born of folly rather than malice, was nonetheless, as he himself appreciated, criminally stupid. Only in the very evening of his life did the British establishment finally extend the olive branch with the award of a knighthood in the New Year Honours List of 1975, just weeks before his death.
In the forty years or more since Wodehouse’s death, his characters have gone from strength to strength. The inspired television adaptation Jeeves and Wooster, scripted by Clive Exton and starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, introduced them to a whole new generation. (The less said about the somewhat uninspired TV adaptation of the Blandings stories, the better.) And the magnificent Everyman Wodehouse (in the U.S., The Collector’s Wodehouse) offers a complete edition of the Master’s works in beautiful and readable modern format. The fashion for reviving the great figures of English fiction may strike some critics as tainted by commercialism, but Wodehouse himself, surely the most professional of all writers, would have appreciated the commercial imperative as fully as the homage. And such imitations, by reminding us of our old friends, whet our appetites for rereading the originals. So, Thank You, Faulks. Very Good, Schott.
 Over Seventy , preface, p. 1. See especially footnote 6.
 I’m a professor—I’m paid to use footnotes.
Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge.