Monday, June 25, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #9: Thank You, Jeeves

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Those who know Bully the L.S.B. have often been heard to comment "That Bully is such a polite little bull...always with the pleases and thank yous." For one as civil as I, is it any wonder that this week's Wodehouse is the very politely-titled Thank You, Jeeves (1934)? No, it's no wonder at all.

And really, isn't it time for another Jeeves book? We're nine weeks into the grand Wodehouse a Week project of which week #1 was The Inimitable Jeeves, so let's dig deeper into the canon of the world's cleverest gentleman's gentleman. Thank You, Jeeves is the first Jeeves novel (the previous four books, including The Inimitable Jeeves, were collections of short stories), and if you're carrying any worry that Wodehouse will have a problem stretching his most famous characters from 24 to 240 pages, dismiss it from your mind post-haste: brilliant as Wodehouse's short stories are, his favored playground is the full-length novel, and this is a delicious large helping.

I have only one edition of Thank You, Jeeves...up until recently it has been completely out of print. (Why? My best guess, a little later.) It's the Harper Perennial edition back when HarperCollins used to be called Harper & Row (and wouldn't you be mad if you were Mister Row and got your name shoved off the colophon in favor of that upstart Collins?), and has a delightful "new" introduction from Wodehouse for the 1975 reprinting, in which he discusses his difficulty in trying to move away from the typewriter for this book:
...It is the only book of mine which I tried to produce without sitting down at a typewriter and getting a crick in the back.

Not that I ever thought of dictating it to a stenographer. How anybody can compose a story by word of mouth, face to face with a bored-looking secretary with a notebook is more than I can imagine. Yet many authors think nothing of saying 'Ready, Miss Spelvin? Take dictation. Quote No comma Lord jasper Murgatroyd comma close quote said no better make it hissed Evangeline comma quote I would not marry you if you were the last man on earth close quote period Quote Well comma, I'm not the last man on earth comma so the point does not arise comma close quote replied Lord Jasper command twirling his moustache cynically period And so the long day wore on.'

If I started to do that sort of thing I should be feeling all the time that the girl was saying to herself as she took it down, 'Well comma this beats me period How comma with homes for the feeble-minded touting for customers on every side comma has a fathead like this Wodehouse succeeded in remaining at larger all these years mark of interrogation.'
Yes, it's a mark of genius that Wodehouse can have you laughing even before you get out of the Preface.

Peer closely at that photo above, of little stuffed me engrossed in Thank You, Jeeves (you can click it to get a larger view) and you'll spy Steven Guarnaccia's wonderful cover illustration—wonderful use of patterns, don't you think? And tho' I'm not certain I saw Bertie in my head as a ginger, that's a wonderful spot-on portrayal of how Bertie and Jeeves look in my head. Note that Bertie is playing the banjo (or, as it's called throughout the book, the banjolele) while Jeeves winces in pain and is carrying his suitcase. [EDIT on 6/26/07: Commenters more musically inclined than I have correctly pointed out that the banjolele is not identical to a banjo but is a different instrument. Erich notes that this is what music hall comedian George Formby is famed for playing, (here's a list from a Formby estate sale that includes dozens of ukeleles and banjoleles) and Philip even directs me to a wonderful discussion of the banjolele in this book, complete with photos!] Could this be the end of the Jeeves and Wooster partnership?

Well, yes, frightfully so! (Don't be afraid, it's only temporary.) The first chapter is entitled "Jeeves Gives Notice" and that is not a cheap tease: as he does in so many of the books, Jeeves takes issue most strongly to a new possession or garment or trait of Bertie's, and much of the action of the book cycles around Bertie trying to deal with a problem without the immeasurable help of Jeeves until he is forced to part with the offending object. In this case it's Bertie's banjolele-playing (curiously left-handed on the cover; I never thought of Bertie Wooster as literally sinister). He's forced out of their London home until he stops this musical practice, and Jeeves will not accompany him to his new home, a honeysuckled cottage in the Dorset for much of the novel, Jeeves is actually in the employ either of Bertie's old school chum Lord "Chuffy" Chuffnell or J. Washburn Stoker, American millionaire (with his own convenient yacht). Of course, there's the usual tangled love story to unfold, and unlike Wodehouse's other romances but as with all the Jeeves books, Bertie the protagonist is not the man who will get married at the end. Toss in Sir Roderick Glossop, psychologist, who has in the previous stories seen enough evidence (most of it masterminded by Jeeves to extricate his master from sticky engagements or situations) to consider Bertie a complete feeble-minded idiot. Will good triumph? Will Jeeves return to Bertie's employ? Will there be a happy ending? Silly reader, of course there will: it's a Wodehouse novel.

As one of his earlier novels and the first one featuring Jeeves and Bertie, it's fairly straightforward without a lot of the twisting tangles of coincidence and the cast of dozens that populate some later Wodehouse novels, but this clean and simple treatment allows Bertie to deliver some of the trademark offhand narration we love these books for, as in this segment where we find what type of woman really makes Bertie's eyes fly open: one that's a little less outdoorsy and a little more Hollywood:
Analysing this, if analysing is the word I want, I came to the conclusion that this changed outlook was due to the fact that she was so dashed dynamic. Unquestionably an eyeful, Pauline Stoker had the grave defect of being one of those girls who want you to come and swim a mile before breakfast and rout you out when you are trying to snatch a wink of sleep after lunch for a merry five sets of tennis. And now that the scales had fallen from my eyes, I could see that what I required for the role of Mrs Bertram Wooster was something rather more on the lines of Janet Gaynor.
Pauline Stoker, is, of course, a chummy ex-fianceé of Bertie's, which means plenty of opportunity for Chuffy, her new boyfriend, to be greedily jealous of Bertie. The wedding has got to take place, too...not merely for true love, but in order to seal the deal where Chuffy will unload his crumbling ruin of a Devon mansion on Pauline's millionaire dad in order to make it into a health sanatorium for Roderick Glossop. Or, as Bertie puts it (wonderfully):
'And unless old Stoker buys the Hall, Chuffy will continue to be Kid Lazarus, the man without a bean. One spots the drama of the situation. And yet, why, Jeeves? Why all this fuss about money? After all, plenty of bust blokes have married oofy girls before now.'
This wedding thing: Sounds simple enough, right? Not when Bertie finds this in his cottage, in one of the truly finest and most melodic single sentences in the entire English language:
Reading from left to right, the contents of the bed consisted of Pauline Stoker in my heliotrope pyjamas with the old gold stripe.
Definition time: Heliotrope: a vivid shade of purple. Sure, Wodehouse could have gone for "purple" or "mauve" or "violet' here, but isn't heliotrope the most magnificent word you could find in a book? It scans wonderfully when you read that sentence, doesn't it?:

My heliotrope pyjamas with the old gold stripe

That's almost a Cole Porter song, inn't it? I declare that heliotrope is one of the finest and most criminally underused words in the English language and hereby vow to use it more frequently in my day-to-day life.

In a novel that has such a lovely and mellifluous word as heliotrope, it's therefore startling to turn the page a few chapters later and come across an altogether more startling word when Bertie begins to describe a troupe of black minstrel entertainers: yes, Wodehouse uses the n-word here, several times, in a friendly and unloaded manner, but yes, that's very definitely the n-word. And that may very well be why the book has been out of print for a while. You may remember that I commented on a very small but historically unfortunate couple lines of minstrel-show type dialogue in The Inimitable Jeeves featuring a Stepin Fetchit-type character (an elevator operator to whom Jeeves gave Bertie's garish socks). While no black characters actually speak or appear on stage in Thank You, Jeeves, they're a vital part of the plot: Bertie uses their appearance at a birthday party to (oh, dear) blacken his face with burnt cork and mingle with them to escape Pop Stoker's yacht, and he (and Roderick Glossop) spend most of the second half of the book in blackface, startling the other characters and being referred to as (oh, double dear) "black devils." The phrase "n-word minstrels" is casually batted around, and because of it, Thank You, Jeeves becomes something of a problem book to express full admiration for. Like Will Eisner's dialect for Ebony, you can take a couple paths to dealing with this sort of approach: you can dismiss the book and work as unworthy of praise or study, or you can argue that it's very much a usage of the time and that neither Wodehouse nor Eisner intended racism or offense. I agree with this point of view, but I am a very politically correct little stuffed bull and I realize the loaded gun this language and usage is, especially today. I don't fault anyone for disliking or avoiding the book because of it. Neither Wodehouse nor Bertie (indeed, nobody in the book) is a racist. But it does make it a problematic book for our modern times and the best defense I can offer is...look, it was common entertainment parlance at the time. That does not excuse the word, but we can't judge Wodehouse's usage of it by our modern standards. Be your own judge and decide if it affects your enjoyment of the book. I do believe Wodehouse would have been aghast if he understood how offensive the word is by modern standards and would have changed it.

Thank You Jeeves movie For what it's worth, there's also a 1936 movie entitled Thank You, Jeeves starring David Niven as Bertie and Arthur Treacher (well before the fish and chip days; what inspired casting!) as Jeeves. It bears little or no resemblance to the Wodehouse books, most of all this one, although Treacher's a delight to watch and listen to. But again, as a product of its time, there's some characterization that is politically incorrect by today's standards: Willie Best, one of the standout talented song and dance men of the era, a black man often relegated to Stepin Fetchit-type roles and dialogue, plays a horribly caricatured black horn player in this movie. It's hard to watch this film these days without cringing a bit—harder even to defend this movie as a whole—when Best shrieks in horror and hides at a supposed ghost. Wodehouse wasn't well served by film or television until the John Alderton/Pauline Collins Wodehouse Playhouse TV series; it would take a couple decades after that for the Jeeves and Bertie stories to be turned into excellent BBC TV programmes starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I'd watch the 1936 Thank You, Jeeves for nothing more than a curiosity of how sometimes the film industry just "doesn't get it." (It pops up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, along with its 1937 sequel Step Lively, Jeeves.)

In any case, the book's now back in print for you to read and make up your own mind. There's the usual very fine Overlook Collector's Wodehouse hardcover edition (click on the link to the right to order it through Hmm, Bertie's a right-hander on this one! Of course, search around and you'll find Thank You, Jeeves in other out-of-print used paperback editions. Some of them may even have heliotrope covers.


Matthew E said...

Plus I've noticed that English writers seem much less fastidious about the use of that particular word than North American writers. I'm thinking of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ian Fleming, T.H. White, George Macdonald Fraser... based on their writing (and the context in which they used the word) I wouldn't call any of them racist, or Wodehouse either, but they have no qualms about dropping the old n-bomb whenever they think it's appropriate. Just doesn't seem to be as big of a thing on that side of the pond.

SallyP said...

Now this is one that I haven't read, but I did see it with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Frye and it is an utter hoot. They also managed rather neatly to get around the whole minstrel/black face problem as well.

And yes, heliotrope is a lovely word.

Erich said...

By coincidence, I had just been looking over my bookshelves this weekend, spotted a copy of "Thank You, Jeeves" that I hadn't read in years, and started reading it again. I'd completely forgotten almost everything about it, so it's as if I'm reading it for the first time.

So as not to spoil anything, I've only taken the briefest glimpse of the start of your review, but I just wanted to clear up one thing. As I understand it, the banjolele is actually a different instrument than a banjo; it's sort of a cross between a banjo and a ukulele, hence the name. The banjolele was the trademark instrument of the popular British entertainer George Formby.

Phillip said...

Banjolele info! Also, who knew there was a ""?

Anonymous said...

Less wholesome UK usage from the same period: In "Snobbery With Violence", Colin Watson quotes Hornung's Raffles as quipping "These masks alone will down a n___, if we meet one..."

I think the larger problem is that the fascination for Americanisms among British writers of the era far outstripped their actual sophistication (still might, come to that; check out any of Dick Francis' novels in which the hero travels Stateside). With the best will in the world they thought they sounded realistically tough and 'street'.

Eric said...

Wodehouse is amazing. If I had to choose between comic books and Wooster and Jeeves, I would be sorely tempted to choose the latter.

Anonymous said...

Just got a link to this in an e-mail from John Lustig and I thought you'd be amused. :-)