When you are all excited and eager for a big holiday to arrive, it's quite understandable if you're jumping about nervously, watching the clock and looking out the window, waiting for the big guy to get here. (And I don't mean Arthur Carlson). That's why I heartily suggest if you're anxiously awaiting Christmas morning and it's still only Christmas Eve, there's a great way to relax yourself and take your mind off presents and candy and turkey and stockings for a wee bit: read a P. G. Wodehouse book. I heartily recommend it, even if I did keep on getting up in the middle of reading it because I thought I heard sleigh bells.
Today's book for Week 35 and Christmas Eve is the Bertie and Jeeves short story collection Very Good, Jeeves! (1930), which consists of stories originally published in the Strand magazine. Did you know The Strand still exists, or more accurately, has been revived as a mystery and short story magazine? Even though there are unlikely to be any new Wodehouse short stories in it, I hope I get a subscription to it for Christmas. (pops up out of my armchair, peeks out the window, certain I heard sleigh bells; turns out to be the ice cream van taunting us in these cold winter months. I shake my hoof at the ice cream man.)
I honestly don't remember the order in which I got my early Wodehouse books, but I'm pretty sure that Very Good, Jeeves! was of the first: I do remember getting it new when I was but a tiny stuffed calf, and now it's very sun-faded on the spine and yellowing on the page edges. I also think I may have gotten it for a Christmas present! Like that woman in the poem, however, her beauty withers not, her age decreases her in not the least, tumpty-tumpty,tumpty-tum, is the way I think it goes. This is one of my very favorite of the Jeeves short story collections, smack-dab in the prime of the canon, and is one of the more unusual books in that it features both of Bertie's aunts: the frightening Aunt Agatha and the bombastic Aunt Dahlia, and thus might be seen as a center-point between the earlier and later Bertie and Jeeves stories. This is prime stuff, and I can't sum it up better than The Observer on the back cover: "There are eleven tales in this volume and each is the best."
If you had to give someone a first Wodehouse to read, Very Good, Jeeves! would be a prime candidate. The prose is sparkling, the characters delightful, the plots clever, and Jeeves is at his sharpest. Each of the stories involves (naturally) Bertie getting entangled in a mess and Jeeves untangling the skein of complications at the end, rather like the U.S. Cavalry or the Lone Ranger coming in at just the right moment. Not that Bertie is always liable to take Jeeves's excellent advice:
'...many doctors, I understand, advocate such abstinence as the secret of health. The say it promotes a freer circulation of the blood and insures the arteries against premature hardening.'You know those articles in Esquire magazine (I only read it for the photos of Keira Knightley, honest) that attempt to explain what the Modern Man Must Know? Well, long before magazine mascot Esky and other dapper celebrities began dishing advice on how to live the life of a gentleman, Jeeves was the epitome of gentle breeding and good taste. Although I often took issue with his internet search engine, you can't fault the man for his sartorial advice:
'Oh, do they? Well, you can tell them next time you see them that they are silly asses.'
'Very good, sir.'
'You don't think young Thomas would bean Mr Filmer with a cutlass?'The titles themselves are things of joy. If you're a Arthur Conan Doyle fan, you remember the thrill of opening The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for the very first time and seeing thrilling short story titles so evocative and picturesque "A Scandal in Bohemia"..."The Man with the Twisted Lip"..."The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"...and my personal favorite, "The Red-Headed League"that you could not help but flip the page as fast as possible and dive into the thrilling prose that awaited you. Very Good, Jeeves! is much like that: colorful and intriguing titles that, like a good comic book cover, make you declare aloud "I gotta read that!": "Jeeves and the Impending Doom"..."Episode of the Dog McIntosh"..."The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy"..."Jeeves and the Song of Songs." Dear reader, I challenge you not to bury your nose in the book after skimming the contents page. Here we have the Kid Clementina, and the Spot of Art, and the Love That Purifies, and each and every one of them is a corker with jewels-a-sparklin' on every page:
'We can but wait and see, sir. The tie, if I might suggest it sir, a shade more tightly knotted. One aims at the perfect butterfly effect. If you will permit me'
'What do ties matter, Jeeves, at a time like this? Do you realize that Mr Little's domestic happiness is hanging in the scale?'
'There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter.'
And yet, if I had only know, what I had been listening to that a.m. was the faint rumble of the coming storm. Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing-glove.And...
'...My sister will be arriving to-morrow. She will be greatly upset. I am her favourite brother.'Many of the stories feature the tried-and-true yet never weary subplot of Jeeves disapproving of a purchase or habit of Bertie's and steelily withholding help until the end because of his dislike. As always, the reward for Jeeves's Sherlockian genius is for Bertie to grudgingly give up the object, in this case a pair of luridly-colored plus-four trousers:
'How many of you are there?'
'And you're her favourite?'
It seemed to me that the other five must be fairly sub-human, but I didn't say so. We Woosters can curb the tongue.
I hesitated.What's bubbling below the surface of this conversation is that Bertie has also given up Bobbie Wickham, a fiancée Jeeves did not approve of. Unlike the other Wodehouse romances, Bertie Wooster never finishes the story married or in love. Why should he? He's got everything he needs in Jeeves. (Not that I mean what you're giggling at. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.))
'You may give them to the poor.'
'Thank you very much, sir.'
'It is my heart's blood, Jeeves.'
'I appreciate the sacrifice, sir. But, one the first pang of separation is over, you will feel much easier without them.'
'You think so?'
I am convinced of it, sir.'
'So be it, then, Jeeves,' I said. 'so be it.'
I've got three editions of Very Good, Jeeves! on the ol' Wodehouse bookshelf, that old spine-faded Penguin paperback, a hardcover Everyman Library edition, both of which feature cover illustrations of the Right Hon. A. B. Filmer treedor, more accurately, summer-housedby a vicious swan (from the first story in the collection, "Jeeves and the Impending Doom"), and one slightly ratty A. L. Burt US reprint hardcover (perhaps chewed on by the Dog McIntosh?). You can ask Santa for your very own copy, but this late, you might just wanna order yourself up a copy of this collection of entertaining eleven stories by clickin' on the usual Amazon link:
And don't forget that many of these stories were adapted by Clive Exton and brought to life by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry (and brilliantly, I might add) in the ITV-TV series Jeeves and Wooster. The stories in this volume are spread out among the four series of the show (and include many other stories from other Jeeves collections), but if you must try only one, go for the luminous and delightful Series One. Like the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, there are few finer visual adaptations of the genius of Wodehouse than these shows. Me? I'm off to make some hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows, pop one of my Jeeves and Wooster DVDs into the player, and snuggle back in my chair, waiting out Father Christmas.
Hmmm? What's that you ask? "Do Bertie and Jeeves ever celebrate Christmas?" Funny you should ask! Why, let me tell you about...
(sounds of sleigh bells jingling from outside)
(runs to window and presses be-ringéd nose to the cold frosty pane)
I have to go to bed now folks or I won't get any presents! I'll tell you about Bertie and Jeeves's Christmas real soon, okay?
Maybe sooner that you think...stay tuned!
A Wodehouse a Week Index.