Very Good, Jeeves
“Back in Nagasaki
Where the fellers chew tobaccy
And the women wicky-wacky
That bit of doggerel is the chorus of a hit song from 1928 penned by Harry Warren and Mort Dixon. It’s good to know that despite Dylan, not to mention Gershwin, Hart and Mercer, there’s been almost no progress made in the lyrical sophistication required of a hit.
That’s a long-winded way to get to today’s subject, a collection of tales featuring the only man in literature to embrace such a tune. (Although it really is a great song if you like the 32-bar form. I recommend the Quintette of the Hot Club of France version with the great Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grapelli on violin, but I digress. )
That man is Bertram ‘Bertie’ Wooster who is, there’s no way around it, a blithering idiot. I don’t usually spend my time with such types but Bertie is, despite his intellectual limits, supremely likable. He hasn’t a malevolent bone in his body being, essentially, an overgrown child in the way that only one of great privilege can be.
The Woosters are, we’re told, a long-established clan, part of the landed class that dominated British society well past their sell-by date. Actually, Bertie tells us that. He’s constantly referring to ‘we Woosters’ and their exploits in the Crusades. His extended family includes an assortment of dangerous old aunts and their inept husbands.
Bertie is terrified of those aunts because the women wear the pants, so to speak, in the Wooster mishpucheh. They are under no illusions about their nephew and regularly great him with terms of endearment such as “you fathead.” It’s that fatheadedness that often lands Bertie right in the midst of a sea of trouble.
And that’s where his better half comes in. Jeeves (like Cher or Beyoncé he has no need for any other name) is Bertie’s personal gentleman’s gentleman. He’s also the guy who is forever saving Bertie from circumstance and his own dimwittedness. Their’s is a bromance for the ages even though these two dwell in the emotionally barren land of the gentry.
The whole thing, of course, is a riotous send-up of the privileged classes. It’s Jeeves who gets them all out of their individual pickles. It’s Jeeves who quotes the Bard, correctly. It’s Jeeves who muses on psychology and science. It’s Jeeves who understands, I think, the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Maybe the English irony I love starts here.
And what of those pickles? There’s no way to do them justice because reducing them to a synopsis leaves out what makes them worth one’s time. Almost all the Jeeves books are collections of short tales and plotwise they’re a bit thin. Here’s one: Bertie is invited to the country house of one of his aunt’s and told to keep his young cousin, a horrible brat, from tormenting a Cabinet-member guest. The cousin strands the distinguished guest on an island in the rain. Bertie is sent to the rescue and gets stranded with the guest. Jeeves saves all including Bertie from a job as the Cabinet minister’s secretary.
As I said, thin. With Wodehouse the tale is in the telling. I once stumbled across an article that said Wodehouse strived for a joke a page. That seems about right if you stretch joke to include any sort of silliness. Like the names. Bertie’s schoolboy chums are a wonder: Gussie Finknottle. Tuppy Glossop. Bingo Little. His aunts are more conventionally named –Dahlia and Agatha figure heavily in this volume
Bertie himself, as both narrator and speaker, prattles along in a sort of Jazz Age Oxbridge frat boy vernacular. His signature greeting ‘What, ho’ can be rendered with either an exclamation point or a question mark which drives his older relatives mad with its imbecility. He has a particularly interesting approach to verbs. For instance, in this volume more than once Bertie beetles off.
You really need a full sentence to get an idea of how this all works. Here’s Bertie telling us all we need to know about his lifestyle and his Uncle George: “The old pestilence blew in on me one morning at about the hour of the after-breakfast cigarette.” Better still, a glimpse of the dynamic between Bertie and Jeeves from the same tale:
“Still, there it is of course. The point to be considered now is, what will Aunt Agatha do about this ? You know her, Jeeves. She is not like me. I am broad-minded. If Uncle George wants to marry a waitress, let him, say I. I hold that the rank is but the penny stamp-”
“Guinea stamp, sir”
“All right, guinea stamp. Though I don’t believe there is such a thing. I shouldn’t have thought they came higher than five bob. Well, as I was saying, I maintain that the rank is but the guinea stamp and a girl’s a girl for all that.”
” For a’ that, sir. The poet Burns wrote in the North British dialect.”
“Well, a’ that, then, if you prefer it.”
“I have no preference in the matter, sir. It is simply that the poet Burns-”
“Never mind about the poet Burns.”
“Forget the poet Burns.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Expunge the poet Burns from your mind.”
“I will do so immediately, sir.”
I’ll leave the debate about Wodehouse’s legacy and whether or not his work is literary to more informed minds. What I will say is that Jeeves and Wooster make fine companions for a commute, or free drizzly afternoon, of any length.
Before there was House, there was Jeeves and Wooster. The show fetaured Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the respective roles and had, perhaps, the best opening credits ever. The music is by Anne Dudley, who was in Art of Noise back in the day. You can buy the album. And you should because this is music that makes you smile and dance
First, the credits, which might be the best TV credits ever:
And, the lads’ encounter with ‘Nagasaki:’