Literature

A Splendid Schott at Plum

When the Wodehouse estate invited Sebastian Faulks to take up the Master’s mantle with the first authorised Bertie and Jeeves novel since his death, Plum’s biographer, Robert McCrum, saw the assignment as a bit like asking a devout Christian to come up with a Fifth Gospel. Faulks’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (2013) was hailed as gloriously witty, a pitch-perfect masterpiece, entirely delightful, packed with puns, a polished, sparkling genuine fake. And so, five years on, Sir Pelham’s step-grandson, Sir Edward Cazalet, commissioned a second—this time from a novice novelist, Ben Schott, author of Schott’s Original Miscellany. Jeeves and the King of Clubs is the result.

How Schott came to be appointed is interesting. In 2016, a former butler of Donald Trump suggested that President Obama should be killed. Schott’s reaction was, “Well, what would Jeeves say?” So he wrote a short story about Donald Trump meeting Jeeves and Wooster at Brinkley Court. As Schott put it, “People didn’t absolutely hate it, which is what I was expecting, and the reaction was positive and quite encouraging. So I carried on writing …”

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Jeeves first appeared in September 1915, as if from nowhere, at Bertie’s door with, “Mrs Gregson to see you, sir,” and then, “Very good, sir, which suit will you wear?” It was Jeeves, the ultimate gentleman’s personal gentleman; and so began the most enduring and congenial double act in the canon. 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 he had a first name, Reginald.) 

And now, four and a half decades after Sir Pelham put down his pen, Ben Schott has brought literature’s oddest couple back to life. Jeeves and the King of Clubs is, in short, a triumph. Schott appears to have read—and remembered—all there is to know about this disparate duo. The characters and setting owe much to two of Plum’s best, Code of the Woosters (1938) and Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971). Set in Mayfair, London clubland and Worcestershire—Berkeley Mansions, the Drones, the Junior Ganymede and Brinkley Court—all the winning ingredients are there: Friday to Monday in the country, an angry knight (Sir Watkyn Bassett), an awesome aunt (Dahlia Travers), and a few chums from past novels (Percy Gorringe and Chuffy Chuffnell), his fellow Drones (Tuppy, Pongo and Catsmeat), two former fiancées (Madeline Bassett and Florence Craye) and, of course, the requisite luckless, lovestruck young couple. Add fixing a good first-night notice for Lady Florence at the Gaiety Theatre, trying to help Aunt Dahlia improve on the formula for Lea & Perrins, exposing a spook, Bertie impersonating a French and an Italian chef; and the flawless formula is plumb in place allowing the Byzantine plot to unfold.

But what makes this new novel sing is Schott’s near pitch-perfect restoration of the Master’s musical prose. In an interview with the American National Public Radio, Schott revealed how he achieved it:

I tell you what I did. I read everything out loud. Every sentence, I read out loud maybe twenty to thirty times as I wrote and as I rewrote and as I edited. Because it’s an oral experience. Even though you read it, it has to sound perfect, and you can only get that by reading it and reading and reading and I could [polish it and] shave off all the sharp edges. So every word glides and elides into the next …

Every few pages bear a Masterly metaphor. “Monty is to reading as Mozart is to golf”; arriving on the scene “bearing two glasses of Madeira and, so it seemed, the weight of the world”; “a Savile Row suit can be handed down the generations—like gout”; “she has a profile that, if not a thousand ships, certainly propelled a punt or two down the Cherwell”; and “Aunt Dahlia rose from the table with the cumbersome majesty of an unmoored Zeppelin.”

Of course there is always a row over Bertie’s sartorial sense. He generally toed the line—that a gentleman’s attire should not be noticed—but in almost every novel Bertie breaks loose, just once, with a covert unbecoming purchase—a garish tie, initialled handkerchiefs, or a cropped white dress jacket. This time Bertie forks out for some wild Wallace dress tartan slippers, of which Jeeves “with that tone” immediately disapproves.

There are jokes too, worthy of the original. The blindingly tartaned Lord MacAuslan, one of Jeeves’s former employers (he looks like “an elongated exclamation mark”), explained the difficulty faced by the Associated Civil Service Club in ridding itself of an unpopular member. So the committee forfeited the clubhouse lease, dissolved the club and reopened round the corner with a different name, but an identical membership, save one. When asked, “Does it not seem a remarkably expensive and convoluted undertaking to eject a single member?” His Lordship says, “Perhaps; but let us not forget, they were civil servants.”

Some Wodehousean zealots have decried Schott for at least three incursions into the real world. In Wooster’s world, they say, dates, politics and sex are alien. Though timeless, it seems we may be in the summer of 1939—not that one would know a cataclysmic war was imminent.

As for politics, the Wodehouse canon was never entirely free of it. There was the celebrated appearance of Sippy Sipperley in the dock as Leon Trotsky in “Without the Option” (1925). Even in Plum’s last novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentleman (1974), there are references to protest marches and civil disobedience. (One fan felt that was like letting daylight in upon the magic.) But the most memorable was the villainous Roderick Spode, clearly inspired by Sir Oswald Mosley, who first appeared in one of the best of Plum’s oeuvre, The Code of the Woosters. Schott has revived him here. The Leader of the Saviours of Britain, and “The Black Shorts” (Why? Because all the coloured shirts were taken) comes to stay at Brinkley Court, the Worcestershire home of Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom Travers. By now the 7th Earl of Sidcup, Spode has given up Eulalie Soeurs, his Mayfair lingerie shop, “when it became impossible to reconcile his dreams of popular tyranny with designing ladies’ underwear”. Bertie’s way of standing up to the fascists is to make them look ridiculous. For Bertie, Spode was an “enemy of good taste, good manners, and good tailoring”. Bertie doubts that such a buffoon could really be an enemy of the King, but he is “Eager to help His Maj in any way I can; so long as it does not impinge too momentously on the social calendar”. In any case, with the help of a herd of swine and the Worcestershire full regimental marching band, Spode is reduced to absurdity and the timeless Edwardian glow of Wooster’s World remains untarnished.

Schott could also have resurrected, from Much Obliged, Ginger Winship, the Tory MP for Market Snodsbury and a Black Short sympathiser. But instead he introduces the gormless Graydon Hogg—Schott’s slight at Quintin Hogg (later Lord Chancellor Hailsham) who, in 1940, wrongly accused Wodehouse of treason. (Devotees don’t easily forget or forgive.) It could be Brexit as Hogg says, “Britannia rules the waves! Rules them! And what colour are the waves? Blue! Blue waves. Britannia rules the blue waves, with blue passports.”

One of the Master’s greatest fans, Evelyn Waugh, maintained that much of the charm the world of Wodehouse is that it “can never stale” because, in fact, it never existed. While accepting this, literary sleuths like Lt. Col. Norman Murphy spent decades unearthing the places and people that inspired his idol. (He even found the original of Lord Emsworth’s beloved Empress.) His In Search of Blandings (1981) and two-volume Wodehouse Handbook (2006) are astonishing in their detail and detection.

It is amusing to learn that in 1993, when Edward Heath was apparently considering an elevation to the House of Lords, the title “Lord Sidcup” was suggested. Perhaps when the Spode connection was made, he settled on the Garter instead. Another great Wodehousean admirer, Christopher Hitchens, was delighted to find, in Frederick Taylor’s history of the bombing of Dresden, reference to one Martin Mutschmann, the party gauleiter for Saxony, who, it appeared, had left school at fourteen and taken “various management positions in lace and underwear companies”.

The final grievance of the fanatics is that Schott has introduced sex. The admiring Orwell noted that “nowhere in his books is there anything in the nature of a sex joke”. Robert McCrum called him “the laureate of repression”. But here, when Bertie’s old friend Buffy (“four parts pinstripe, three parts whiskers, and two parts gin”) has been replaced by Sir Gilbert Skinner as the new manager of his old bank, Trollope & Sons, Bertie stalks out, “with the firm intention of forsaking Trollope’s for the more accommodating embrace of a Hoare”. This is hardly carnal; perhaps more risqué than the Master would have allowed. But—do admit—it is clever.

Love is, of course, a different matter. Bertie’s fellow Drones and contemporaries were stricken all the time—in The Mating Season the Master juggled no less than four infatuated couples. True, Bertie was not as susceptible as his chum, Bingo Little. In Bertie’s case the state of betrothal does not always (or even usually) equal devotion. His Aunt Dahlia once quipped that if all the girls Bertie had been engaged to were placed end to end, they would reach from Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner. But fall he did—with Lady Cynthia Wickhammersley, Angelica Briscoe, Pauline Stoker—and he does so here, with the lovely Iona, niece of Lord MacAuslan—not flighty like Madeline Bassett, but a photographer and pilot with a sense of humour and a taste for adventure like Bertie’s; and, as it happens, a need for her own gentlewoman’s gentleman.

This gives Bertie the opportunity to share the results of his study of the different sorts of gentleman’s gentleman. They “come in four varieties—Drinkers, Cufflinkers, Thinkers and Stinkers”. The first (“they tear through a wine cellar with no regard for vintage”) and last (“like a slug in the soufflé”) are self-explanatory. Cufflinkers are “a mixed bag”: they shine, match, iron, fold, sponge, press and “arrange your wardrobe according to season and colour” but “they are forever raising pettifogging objections to tartan slippers and Alpine hats”. Thinkers “are invaluable when extricating the young master, or mistress, from the social shipwreck. But, then again, they can’t help leaving volumes of Spinoza in a perpetual quest to educate and improve. So, with Thinkers its swings and roundabouts.” Jeeves is, of course, a “Thinker-cum-Cufflinker”.

Bertie’s perpetual dimness and sparkle never disappoint. When the kingdom’s top spy says to Bertie, “You’ll have heard of the Official Secrets Act?” Bertie shakes his head, then adds brightly, “Just goes to prove how effective it is, what?”

Wodehouse once remarked to a friend, “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.” As New Criterion’s Roger Kimball has noted, “Most great artists plumb the depths; Wodehouse remained fixed, gloriously, on the surface.” Schott skims the surface throughout.

One of his set pieces is as hilarious and high-spirited as the original. Aunt Dahlia had invited Mr Harold Redmane, Lea & Perrins’ chief taster, to Brinkley Court for dinner to select one of six concoctions, which would be the new “Brinkley Sauce” and make her fortune. He was joined at the table by his hosts, Bertie, Iona and her uncle, Hogg and his wife, Tibby Spode, the vicar, and Bertie’s despised banker, Sir Gilbert. Everything was “smothered in a different but equally vindictive sauce”. Uncle Tom wondered if it were Lent. Tibby described the meal as “rather like eating electricity with a rusty knife”. But Mr Redmane described each and every dish as “toothsome” and even asked for seconds. Of course he turned out not to be the taster but Lea & Perrins’ nightwatchman, Mr Remayne.

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”.

The New Yorker’s Brad Leithauser sees a parallel with Peter and Wendy. Jeeves, he writes, is a surrogate Wendy, brought in to supervise someone who would otherwise be a Lost Boy. Although there’s nothing waiflike about Bertie. A gastronome and bon vivant—pre-lunch and post-lunch cocktails, eye-openers, nightcaps—he swallows them all. As Leithauser puts it:

His existence is a reminder that one can leave Neverland and embrace all the trappings of adulthood while still avoiding its fatal trap. You can don a tux and attend fancy dress balls; you can sip Martinis and pluck your cigarettes from a jewelled case; you can even get engaged with some frequency—and still remain a child.

That innocence has been captured in Jeeves and the King of Clubs. Schott’s approach is more homage than pastiche and as good as Faulks. It is discomforting to imagine that two contemporary writers can mimic the Master with such dazzle. Still, it is impossible to match the brilliance of the short stories of the 1920s or the magic of the first novels in the 1930s, like Thank You, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)—both enduring masterpieces—but Schott has come remarkably close. Jeeves could rightly say, without a hint of hesitation and without clearing his throat, “Very good, sir.”

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 (appropriately on Valentine’s Day, 1975) aged ninety-three, two months after he was so belatedly knighted. Yet Schott’s homage is the best possible revival of Wodehouse’s exquisite universe and should send new readers dashing to immerse themselves in the inimitable originals.

Mark McGinness is living in the United Arab Emirates.

 

2 comments
  • johanna

    Thanks for this – I’ll look out for the book.

    One point of minor disagreement, though, regarding politics. Wodehouse’s distrust of socialism is scattered throughout his books, notably in one featuring a very unattractive family of working class socialists whose daughter a chum of Bertie’s becomes enangled with. Lord Emsworth’s dislike of confiscatory taxation is matched only by Bertie’s Uncle Tom Travers. There are no positive characters who are socialists.

    There is in fact a fair bit of politics mentioned, but always in a derogatory way. For example, Lord Emsworth privately believes that Guy Fawkes had the right idea, and a character who is an MP in one of the Bertie books is described as being almost stupid enough to become a Cabinet Minister.

    Naturally, most of the politicians encountered in the books are nominally conservative, but irrespective of their public stance they are uniformly held in low regard. Similarly, do-gooders (including Bertie himself) reap perverse and adverse consequences from their attempts to meddle in people’s private lives.

    Jeeves is the exception, but he does not set out to meddle; rather, he is duty bound to haul Bertie out of the soup or responds selectively to specific requests for help.

    Overall, it is safe to say that Wodehouse was no fan of government or private interference in people’s lives. Bertie’s aunts were more than enough of the latter for anyone to bear!

  • Doubting Thomas

    One has to wonder what Wodehouse would have made of today’s almost universal plague of political “cookie-cutter” non-entities.

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