Jeeves and Wooster

The cycle of influences never ends

There is a tendency when writing about books to try to come off as all-knowing, or at least more knowing than the people you are writing for. But the older I get the more convinced I am of the truth that to be a writer -- in any sense -- is to be an apprentice in a craft that nobody ever fully understands. So, what all of these essays/episodes are about is not only about my trying to understand writing and stories, but also, my trying to understand what I've gotten myself into as a writer.

I could just as easily have called this series “Lost in Writing” and many days I feel like I should.

Because when set out to write something and you think it's original, you quickly find out it isn't And just like stepping unexpectedly into a water-filled pothole, you've unwittingly stepped deep into an existing genre or other author's work, and to avoid future mishaps, you'd better figure out what's going on.

When I started writing How to Succeed in Evil, I wasn't quite aware of the depth of this particular pothole I was stepping into. I was just writing, I thought, I like Douglas Adams, imagining that he was sui generis but of course, he wasn't and neither am I. He owes a slew of influences, and P.G. Wodehouse is one of them.

Jeeves and Wooster are the beloved characters of P.G. Wodehouse, most recently popularized on the small screen by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. They did such a wonderful job that I don't think anyone else will be attempting it any time soon. But as great as they are -- and it seems like all of the episodes are available on YouTube for free -- I prefer reading the stories. Now, this may be because I am very strange, or it may be because PG Wodehouse's prose style is so unbelievably good.

The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature opined that Wodehouse had "a gift for the highly original aptness of phrase that almost suggests a poet struggling for release among the wild extravagances of farce"

And as much as that may sound like a historian struggling for release from the dry confines of literary criticism, it's true.

So the literary lineage goes something like this:

  1. Jerome K. Jerome

  2. PG Wodehouse

  3. Douglas Adams

  4. Terry Prachett

But I think if you want to trace the true antecedents of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, you have to start with the Roman satirists, Lucillus, Apuleius, Horace, Juvenal. I've read The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, what is also known as the Golden Ass, which is said to be the only surviving Roman novel. And, I suppose smattering of some of the others. But if I'm honest with you this reveals the orienteering nature of my education. I haven't been to all the places I maybe should have visited, but I know where to find things when I need them.

And the other source is Don Quixote. The lively conversation between man and master. The literature-crazed gentleman and his loyal servant Sancho Panza. I've also heard Don Quixote referred to as the first novel. This presents a problem for those who say the Golden Ass is the only surviving Roman novel. I don't have a dog in that fight, but I will observe that what Don Quixote seems to be the first at is the kind of joyful, back and forth dialog. That powers Jeeves and Wooster and so much else in literature.

Bertie Wooster, of course, is on no kind of quest. He is utterly dissipated and worthless. But that's his charm. He's privileged elite though he may be, he is utterly likable. Primarily because he's not very smart. And he's there to be skewered.

These stories are all set in an interesting time period that you are familiar with. This is England (and New York) between WWI and WWII. The roaring 20's. And even though they were written 100 years after Pride and Prejudice, I find it to be the same setting. A floating world of elites, and where the troubles of the real world do not obtain purchase. There are problems, of course, but they are not real problems. No one will be murdered, no one will lose status or fortune, not really. And the main thing is avoiding (in Bertie Wooster's case, or finding (in the case of Pride and Prejudice) the correct romantic entanglement.

But the Jeeves and Wooster stories have the added benefit of being biting satire. Making fun of the manner in which Bertie Wooster gets through life. A comedy of manners, defined as:

A genre of realistic, satirical that questions and comments upon the manners and social conventions of a greatly sophisticated, artificial society.

Which is dead on what I try do with the How to Succeed in Evil. I take the social conventions of the Superhero Genre and butt them up against realistic concerns to create satire. And when I started, I thought I was doing something original. Pfft. So dumb.

Structure of Jeeves and Wooster Story

  1. Bertie Wooster faces a situation. Perhaps, he's to be married, he's going to lose his trust fund or he has a friend in trouble.

  2. Jeeves doesn't approve of a seemingly immaterial choice that Bertie has made -- a choice of suit perhaps.

  3. Bertie tries to resolve the situation, making it worse, to the point of disastrous impossibility

  4. Jeeves brings everything out all right in the end.

  5. Bertie caves on the seemingly immaterial choice, signifying Jeeves wisdom and total victory.

Here's an example of Jeeves’ consummate skill

“Which suit will you wear for the journey?”

“This one.” I had on a rather sprightly young check that morning, to which I was a good deal attached; I fancied it, in fact, more than a little. It was perhaps rather sudden, till you got used to it, but, nevertheless, an extremely sound effort, which many lads at the club and elsewhere had admired unrestrainedly.

“Very good, sir.”

Again there was that kind of rummy something in his manner. It was the way he said it, don’t you know. He didn’t like the suit. I pulled myself together to assert myself. Something seemed to tell me that, unless I was jolly careful and nipped this lad in the bud, he would be starting to boss me. He had the aspect of a distinctly resolute blighter. Well, I wasn’t going to have any of that sort of thing, by Jove! I’d seen so many cases of chappies who had become perfect slaves to their valets. I remember poor old Aubrey Fothergill telling me—with absolute tears in his eyes, poor chap!—one night at the club, that he had been compelled to give up a favourite pair of brown shoes simply because Meekyn, his man, disapproved of them. You have to keep these fellows in their place, don’t you know. You have to work the good old iron-hand-in-the-velvet-glove wheeze. If you give them a what’s-its-name, they take a thingummy.

“Don’t you like this suit, Jeeves?” I said, coldly.

“Oh, yes, sir!” “Well, what don’t you like about it?”

“It is a very nice suit, sir.”

“Well, what’s wrong with it? Out with it, dash it!”

“If I might make the suggestion, sir, a simple brown or blue, with a hint of some quiet twill—”

“What absolute rot!”

“Very good, sir.”

“Perfectly blithering, my dear man!”

“As you say, sir.”

I felt as if I had stepped on the place where the last stair ought to have been, but wasn’t. I felt defiant, if you know what I mean, and there didn’t seem anything to defy. “All right, then,” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

Yet, by the end of the story.

“Oh, Jeeves,' I said; 'about that check suit.'

Yes, sir?'

Is it really a frost?'

A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.'

But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.'

Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.'

He's supposed to be one of the best men in London.'

I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”

And it's fascinating to me how this mini-story, usually only two beats, conveys an air of legendary and immense power to the character of Jeeves when he doesn't have any direct power in the fictional world in which he is a servant.

And one choice that makes it work here, is having Bertie Wooster narrate the story. He's an unreliable narrator, if only for the reason that he's not very bright or capable. I doubt that this was a conscious choice as much as it was, Bertie was just more fun to write as a POV character.

It's kind of an inverted Sherlock Holmes story. Holmes has all of the agency, and Dr. Watson is there merely to report. In a Jeeves and Wooster story, Wooster has all of the agency. Jeeves never directly contradicts him. Yet Wooster is such an idiot, he doesn't know what to do with his agency. But Jeeves, with true genius, grace, and aplomb, always saves the day.

Here's another sample of Bertie Wooster:

I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare—or if not, it’s some equally brainy lad—who says that it’s always just when a chappie is feeling particularly top-hole, and more than usually braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping. There’s no doubt the man’s right. It’s absolutely that way with me. Take, for instance, the fairly rummy matter of Lady Malvern and her son Wilmot. A moment before they turned up, I was just thinking how thoroughly all right everything was.

And what drives these stories are that we all kind of want to be Bertie Wooster. I don't mean Bertie specifically. But who doesn't, at one time or another, want to lead a life of idle, consequenceless dissipation? And this turns out to be a very edifying kind of fiction. It's escapism. You can enter this world, forget about your cares -- and return to your life, not only refreshed and re-energized but even grateful that you have real responsibilities and difficulties to face. Because while your life is difficult, it's also meaningful. Way more meaningful than Bertie Woosters. And if you think deeply about being him for a moment, you will be more grateful for your life and specifically its struggles.

We also want to see How Jeeves is going to get him out of it. It's like a Sherlock Holmes story -- Wodehouse was a great admirer of Arthur Conan Doyle -- or a Columbo story. You know the murderer is going to be caught. In Columbo, you even know who the murderer is and how they did it, the fun part is seeing how this brilliant character is going to pull it off.

And then, we cannot overlook the fact that Wodehouse is immensely rewarding at the sentence level. Not only funny, but one of the best prose writers to turn a phrase.

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"

"The mood will pass, sir.”

“Won’t you have an egg or something? Or a sausage or something? Or something?”

“No, thank you.” She spoke as if she belonged to an anti-sausage society or a league for the suppression of eggs. There was a bit of a silence.

> “She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say "when". ”

“The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G.K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.”

“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.”

> “An apple a day, if well aimed, keeps the doctor away.”

Pamela March described this as the "ability to decliché a cliché." But whatever you call it, I love this madcap yet highly skilled style of writing.

So that's P.G. Wodehouse -- Jeeves and Wooster. I highly recommend inhaling a bunch of those short stories. Watching them is fine -- but reading them -- sublime.

You could do worse than to start here.