P.G. Wodehouse reserved his wit for the page, lecturing Evelyn Waugh about the scourge of taxes at their first meeting and declining to join the Algonquin Round Table’s long and liquid lunches. There was work to do, he said, giving readers now and future cause to hail such dedication
They appeared in September 1915 in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post: a hungover Bertie woken by a tap at the door, “Mrs Gregson to see you, sir,” and then, “Very good, sir, which suit will you wear?” Jeeves, the ultimate gentleman’s personal gentleman, was born; and so began the most enduring and congenial double act in literature. This was from “Extricating Young Gussie”, the first of thirty-five short stories and eleven novels to chart the adventures of the upper-class innocent cum Edwardian boulevardier, Bertie Wooster, and his consummate, inscrutable valet, Jeeves.
It was not until 1971 in Much Obliged, Jeeves that we—and Bertie—learn that Jeeves had a first name, Reginald. But even Bertie took some time to take orf. At first he was Mannering-Phipps and for the next four short stories featuring Jeeves, he was Reggie Pepper. Then at last, and forever twenty-four years old, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. By 1919, in “The Artistic Career of Corky”, the fantastic formula was set. As the author put it years later, “Why not groom this bit player for stardom … make him a bird with a terrific brain who comes to Bertie’s rescue whenever the latter gets into a jam?” He confessed something like shame, “Now that I have written so much about him, to recall how softly and undramatically Jeeves first entered my little world.”
The other odd aspect was that this first introduction to Jeeves and Bertie was set in New York. As the critic George Watson observed:
So the most famous manservant of modern literature started life as an expatriate—the creation, what is more, of an expatriate mind. Appropriately for a writer who spent much of his time evoking an England which dwelt only in his imagination, he spent most of his life outside the jurisdiction, in New York, Hollywood, Le Touquet, Cannes and ultimately Long Island.
But what of the man behind the enigmatic duo? Pelham Grenville (P.G./Plum) Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881, the son of a Hong Kong magistrate. The scion of one of Britain’s oldest baronetcies and the Earldom of Kimberley (he was also a great-nephew of the great John Henry, Cardinal Newman), Plum was taken off to Hong Kong but soon returned to England with relatives, clergymen uncles and “a surging sea of aunts”, accompanying them on visits to country houses where he often ended up in the servants’ hall. Then, having pleaded to go, he spent “six years of unbroken bliss” as a border at Dulwich College—popular, clever and good at games. He would remain at heart forever the schoolboy.
This essay was first published in Quadrant‘s December edition. Were you a subscriber, it could have been read and enjoyed then.
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Family finances denied him a place at Oxford so his father found him a job in the London office of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He was, in his words, “the most inefficient clerk whose trouser-seat ever polished the surface of a high stool”. Writing—journalism and school stories—became an escape and, in 1904, allowed him to go to New York, which was “like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying”. He stayed there throughout the First World War, refused enlistment due to poor eyesight.
In 1914, he fell instantly in love—just like Bingo Little and Freddy Widgeon—and wed a fellow expat, the twice-widowed former chorus girl, Ethel Rowley, who had an eleven-year-old daughter, Leonora, whom Plum adopted and adored. Ethel was described by Malcolm Muggeridge as “a mixture of Mistress Quickly and Florence Nightingale with a touch of Lady Macbeth thrown in”. In reviewing Robert McCrum’s consummate biography for the Spectator, Michael Vestey added, “She was everything Wodehouse wasn’t: highly sexed, sociable, extravagant with money, and yet it was an extremely successful partnership that lasted sixty years.”
Wodehouse’s own domestic contentment, supported by an endless succession of pets, mainly Pekinese, allowed him to write, and was as enduring as that of Bertie and Jeeves’s six decades together.
He reserved his wit and conversation for the page. When an uncharacteristically starry-eyed Evelyn Waugh met Wodehouse for the first time, he was disappointed to find their exchanges did not get beyond the inequities of income tax. And when Plum was invited to join the Round Table gang at the Algonquin, he complained, “All those three-hour lunches. When did these slackers ever get any work done?”
Although they came to life in 1915, Bertie and Jeeves were—and remained—men of an earlier age. Another Wodehouse devotee, Hugh Massingberd, put it:
I like to believe that Wodehouse’s Edwardian never-never land was not so far removed from what England might have been like in the 1920s if the apocalyptic Great War had never taken place.
It is often said that searching for models and muses for fictional figures is frivolous and self-indulgent and somehow robs the novelist of his genius. Yet Wodehouse would occasionally feed morsels to curious apostles. In Herbert Warren Wind’s fascinating New Yorker profile in 1971, Plum insisted that when he was “living in London at the turn of the century a good many of the young men dressed in morning coats, toppers, and spats” and by the time he started writing his stories, “Bertie was a recognisable type. All the rich young men had valets.” He mentioned the amateur jockey Lord Mildmay (1909–50) as a model for Bertie, but in 1915 His Lordship was even younger than those monstrous younger brothers, Oswald Glossop and Edwin Craye. What this does indicate is that Bertie was not yet (was he ever?) fully-formed. It is also significant that the first full-length novel did not appear until Thank You, Jeeves in 1934, so he had time to evolve. Another inspiration (identified by Colonel Norman Murphy in his decades of exhaustive study of the truth behind Wodehouse’s fiction) was surely Plum’s chum, George Grossmith Junior, who as an actor embodied the Edwardian dude in musicals and comedies on the London stage in the early years of last century.
As for Jeeves, we know the name came from the Warwickshire fast bowler Percy Jeeves, whom Wodehouse saw play against Gloucestershire in 1913. But the character himself? J.M. Barrie had an extraordinary butler called Thurston who apparently read Latin and Greek as he polished the silver and would correct Barrie’s literary guests when they got their quotations wrong. Cynthia Asquith’s Portrait of Barrie refers to “Thurston, uncommunicative, inscrutable, puma-footed … No one ever heard him enter or leave a room.” Uncannily like the shimmering Jeeves. But again the timing is not right. Thurston joined Barrie in 1922 and Lady Cynthia’s memoir was published in 1954 so perhaps Barrie’s butler had unconsciously assumed the mien of the by-then legendary Jeeves. A closer source might well have been two other fictional figures—Harry Leon Wilson’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1915), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Austin, Professor Challenger’s servant in The Poison Belt (1913):
“I’m expecting the end of the world today, Austin.”
“Yes, sir. What time, sir?”
“I can’t say. Before evening.”
“Very good, sir.”
Yet all-in-all, Jeeves had no forebear; nor did he have an equal. As if he did not have enough on his plate, it was invariably Jeeves’s lot to drive the plot—with all those winning ingredients—a country house, its peppery owner, an icy consort, a glacial Grande Dame, the odd aunt and an odder uncle or two, perhaps a clergyman, and of course a butler; a series of breakfasts, lunches, teas and dinners, a few chums, a fiancée and, of course, the requisite luckless, love-struck young couple. Add a cricket match, a game of golf, or a horse race, a break-in, a concert or fete. And, with Jeeves and Bertie perhaps in disguise, the flawless formula is plumb in place.
But what makes the novels sing is the Master’s musical prose. The love interest with a laugh “like a squadron of cavalry galloping over a tin bridge”; the oft-quoted “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”; and “It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a complete food well in advance of medical thought.” Vintage Bertie; the same Bertie who never utters a biblical or literary quote that he can get right, leaving it, of course, to Jeeves to correct him but never quite finish it. And yet, though “mentally negligible”, Bertie is an unselfconsciously brilliant narrator. Wodehouse wrote in Bertie’s voice more than any other and, although he would say that the absent-minded, hen-pecked, all-for-a-quiet-life Lord Emsworth (of Blandings fame) was his nearest alter ego, one must agree with the Wodehousian scholar Richard Usborne that there is much of Plum in Bertie.
Plum’s only brush with scandal was certainly the result of a Bertie moment. In 1940 he was taken prisoner at Le Touquet by the invading Germans. Ethel recalled his arrest. He had ten minutes to pack. “I was nearly insane; couldn’t find the keys to the room for the suitcase, and Plum went off with a copy of Shakespeare, a pair of pyjamas and a mutton chop.” He was interned for nearly a year, finally in Upper Silesia. (“If this is Upper Silesia,” he wrote, “what must lower be like?”) After his release, he made, at the request of the Nazis, six amusing, apolitical radio broadcasts from Berlin to the United States, which had not yet entered the war. To the British under siege across the Channel this was either treason or collaboration. Inquiries by the British and later the French found no evidence to prosecute Plum; while scholarly examination since has established nothing more than foolish naivety. As Robert McCrum put it, “Jeevesian in his professional life, it was his fate to be Woosterish in Berlin.” Wodehouse would never again set foot on English soil.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, politics almost never raises its ugly head to tarnish the timeless Edwardian glow of Wooster’s world. The Code of the Woosters (1938), one of the best in the canon, does feature Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the Blackshorts; an uncharacteristically up-to-date shot at Oswald Mosley but still a classic Wodehouse villain. And there is the celebrated appearance of Sippy Sipperley in the dock as Leon Trotzky in “Without the Option” (1925). Even in Plum’s last novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974), there are references to protest marches and civil disobedience.
But incursions into the real world are rare. Like politics and parents, death, dates and sex are alien. Beds are for nothing but sleeping, convalescing, or short-sheeting. Bertie is stirred, of course, but by nothing more carnal than Madeline Bassett’s “blonde hair with all the trimmings” and Florence Craye’s “wonderful profile”. Love is a different thing. His fellow members of the Drones Club were stricken all the time—in The Mating Season (1949) the Master juggled no less than four infatuated couples. True, Bertie was not as susceptible as his chum Bingo Little, but he fell in love—with Lady Cynthia Wickhammersley, Angelica Briscoe, Pauline Stoker. Although, in Bertie’s case, the state of betrothal does not always (or even usually) equal devotion and he never makes it to the altar. His Aunt Dahlia quipped that if the girls Bertie had been engaged to were placed end to end, they would reach from Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner.
The arcane marks of a gentleman are taken as read. “Never trust a man who keeps billiard chalk in his waistcoat pocket.” And in cricket, “a gentleman should not score more than half his team’s total”. (Try telling that to our batsmen.) There are of course weightier tropes. In The Code of the Woosters, Wodehouse lays down the two commandments upon which most of his Bertie plots hinge: Thou shalt not let down a pal; and Thou shalt not scorn a woman’s love.
Appearances are all in this exquisite universe and Bertie’s occasional sartorial lapses are one of the few causes of friction between him and Jeeves. Bertie’s choice of a garish cummerbund, a white dinner jacket, an over-checked suit are almost capital offences:
“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’”
“The mood will pass, sir.”
As Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited Plum’s letters) observed, “Bertie’s [heliotrope] pyjamas [are] carefully buttoned up to disguise true feeling.” Wodehouse once remarked, “there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.” Roger Kimball noted, “Most great artists plumb the depths; Wodehouse remained fixed, gloriously, on the surface.” As Evelyn Waugh saw it, Wodehouse inhabited a world as timeless as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland. Wodehouse himself said it was as if he was forever in his last year at school. It was, Waugh said, “as if the Fall of Man had never happened”.
For such an inimitably English writer, it is impossible to imagine him translated. Yet more than thirty Wodehouse titles have been published in a dozen languages—from Bulgarian and Hungarian to Finnish and French. A few titles are available in another sixteen languages. In his Penguin Wodehouse Companion (1988) Richard Usborne has fun with the French version: “I have just one thing to say to you, Wooster. Get out!” appears as, “Je n’ai qu’un mot à te dire, Wooster, f …… le camp.” A particular favourite is the French rendering of “Loony to the eyebrows”: “complètement dingo”. In an heroic hommage to the Master, Jimmy Heineman commissioned translations of “The Great Sermon Handicap” into fifty-nine languages, including Catalan and Afrikaans, Old Norse and Pidgin English, Sanskrit and Somali. Even Latin: “Bingo, ‘Jaevio enim’ inquit, ‘animus aleandi non inest’.”
In a letter to some admirers, Wodehouse wrote:
The world I write about, always a small one—one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie … would say—is now not even small, it is non-existent. It has gone with the wind … In a word, it has had it. But I have not altogether lost hope of a revival.
Of course that revival never came and Plum died aged ninety-three, just six weeks after he was (rather like Prince Philip) so belatedly knighted.
The Master met his Maker on Valentine’s Day 1975. The timing was as perfect as his prose—it was invariably love that underpinned his fiction. As Bertie reflected (a rare phenomenon):
I wonder if you have observed a rather rummy thing about it—viz. that it is everywhere. You can’t get away from it. Love, I mean. Wherever you go, there it is, buzzing along in every class of life.
Mark McGinness is working in Dubai. He wrote on the Queen in the September issue.