Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #38: Carry On, Jeeves

A Wodehouse a Week header

A Month of Firsts continues this week with Carry On, Jeeves (1927). It's not the first appearance of Jeeves...that's in The Man With Two Left Feet from 1917, in a story that debuts Jeeves and a proto-Bertie who may or may not be Wooster, depending on which Wodehouse scholar you pay attention to. It's not the first collection of short stories mostly about Jeeves...that would be My Man Jeeves (1919), a collection of eight short stories, four about Bertie and Jeeves (and most of them re-written for Carry On, Jeeves). It isn't even the first full collection of Jeeves stories: that's The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). So why oh why, you cry, would Bully include Carry On, Jeeves in the mildly frantic Month of Firsts? Don't despair, true bull-liever, there's a very good reason: Carry On, Jeeves contains the short story "Jeeves Takes Charge," which explains how that inimitable valet first came into the life of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. To make a comic book analogy, although this isn't issue #1, it's the special origin issue, or, as you might prefer to call it: "Jeeves and Bertie: Who They Are and How They Came To Be!":
I crawled off the sofa and opened the door. A kind of darkish sort of respectable Johnnie stood without.

'I was sent by the agency, sir,' he said. 'I was given to understand that you required a valet.'
Much like the words 'You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,' this humble sentence heralds the arrival and partnership of two of the greatest characters in English literature, and from the moment that door opens we're in for delight. Carry On, Jeeves is one of my favorite Bertie Wooster collections, and an ideal first book to press on a Plum-curious pal, not merely because it contains the origin of the Jeeves/Wooster team-up, but also because it's mouth-droolingly funny and beautifully written. I normally read my weekly Wodehouse with a small handful of plastic Post-It™ tags in my hoof, ready to mark a delightful or quotable passage I want to write about later, and Carry On, Jeeves is flagged with so many small Post-Its™ that it's starting to look like a textbook at four AM the morning of a final exam. In short, it's a cornucopia of fun, and that's what I'm all about:
'If half of what he has written is true,' said Florence, 'your uncle's youth must have been perfectly appalling. The moment we began to read we plunged straight into a most scandalous story of how he and my father were thrown out of a music-hall in 1887!'


'I decline to tell you why.'

It must have been something pretty bad. It took a lot to make them chuck people out of music-halls in 1887.
If you're critical of Wodehouse's formula, however, p'raps Carry On, Jeeves is not for you. Virtually all of the stories follow the same general plotline: Bertie adopts a habit, mannerism, affectation, or (most usually) an article of clothing that Jeeves objects to:
'Pardon me, sir, but not that tie.'


'Not that tie with the heather-mixture lounge, sir.'

It was a shock to me. I thought I had quelled the fellow. It was rather a solemn moment. What I mean is, if I weakened now, all my good work the night before would be thrown away. I braced myself.

'What's wrong with this tie? I've seen you give it a nasty look before. Speak out like a man! What's the matter with it?'

'Too ornate, sir.'

'Nonsense. A cheerful pink. Nothing more.'

'Unsuitable, sir.'

'Jeeves, this is the tie I wear!'

'Very good, sir.'

Dashed unpleasant. I could see the man was wounded. But I was firm. I tied the tie, got into the coat and waistcoat, and went into the sitting room.
Bertie's triumphs of apparel are always temporary, however. It's not long after one of these opening scenes before he finds himself embroiled in a tangled scheme to help out one of his Drones Club pals or a boisterous aunt or two. While Wooster wobbles, Jeeves stands by stoically and watches the events, politely pointing out that he has no immediate idea on how to untangle the Gordian knot, sir. After a few more complications, Jeeves always does come up with a plan—frequently one that at first makes things worse for Bertie, landing him in hot water with his friends, a girl he's smitten with, a policeman, or worse than the law, his ballistic Aunt Dahlia. But never fear: Jeeves's machinations always save the day, often in ways unexpected and tongue-clickingly clever. Wodehouse plots are in this way frequently like a mystery story with a snappy and surprising twist at the end: you know he will come up with an answer, and you know that solution will embarrass or endanger Bertie, but until you flip the last few pages, you never quite know what Jeeves has up his starched sleeve. But you do know that in the happy end, Jeeves gets his just reward:
I champed my egg for a bit. I was most awfully moved, don't you know, by the way Jeeves had rallied round. Something seemed to tell me that this was an occasion that called for rich rewards. For a moment I hesitated. Then I made up my mind.



'That pink tie.'

'Yes, sir?'

'Burn it.'

'Thank you, sir.'
So, you might argue: read one of 'em, read 'em all. Well, maybe, but you'd be missing a lot. Remember that each of these stories was written and published separately in magazine form (The Strand in the UK; The Saturday Evening Post in the US) and perhaps the slight similarity is forgivable. But even read as a book, there's often a formula to these short stories but never a tedious repetition. And Wodehouse frequently has fun with the formula too: the final story in the collection, "Bertie Changes His Mind," is narrated not by Wooster but by Jeeves, for a remarkably different effect—in edition to the measured, genteel prose of Jeeves, we can actually see that amazing fish-fueled, quicksilver mind in action as he develops his plot. There's also a lovely matter-of-fact bit in which Jeeves calmly discusses exactly who is in command of the Wooster household:
...Rarely had I observed Mr Wooster more set on a thing. Indeed, I could recall no such exhibition since the time when he had insisted, against my frank disapproval, on wearing purple socks. However, I had coped successfully with that outbreak, and I was by no means unsanguine that I should eventually be able to bring the present affair to a happy issue. Employers are like horses. They require managing. Some gentlemen's personal gentlemen have the knack of managing them, some have not. I, I am happy to say, have no cause for complaint.
There's another couple Famous Firsts in this collection as well: the story of how Anatole, the talented French chef and frequently a Silver Cow Creamer object of desire from other of the landed gentry, first came into the employ of Bertie's Aunt Dahlia: he originally worked for Bingo and Rosie Little, and was stolen away in a complicated shuffle of servants complicated by their entangled amorous relations with each other (the servants, not Bingo and Aunt Dahlia, although what a story that would have made!). The same tale also features the first appearance of Bertie's oft-mentioned single foray into publishing: he's writing the article on 'What the Well-Dressed Man in Wearing' for Dahlia's fashion magazine Milady's Boudoir (despite the disapproval of Jeeves over a section advocating soft silk shirts with evening suits). We get our first glimpse of Jeeves's extensive but generally off-stage family, Jeeveses (Jeevii?) who spring to the rescue to help out in the final implementation of a particular tricky valet-devised scheme like some jeevus ex machina. But the focus is never fully off Bertie and Jeeves himself, and it's delightful when a tale contain Jeeves fully anticipating every aspect of what's about to happen next (even if we and Bertie can't):
'Jeeves,' I said, 'this is a time for deeds, not words. Pack and that right speedily.'

'I have packed, sir.'

'Find out when there is a train for Cambridge.'

'There is one in forty minutes, sir.'

'Call a taxi.'

'A taxi is at the door, sir.'
Carry On, Jeeves also contains another example of Wodehouse humor that he comes back to more than once: yes, like in Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin and in Quick Service, we have yet another 'I've nothing against his morals" quip:
'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.'
(To tell you the truth, I'd thought we'd be at a higher counter than three by now. Wodehouse re-used the joke several times, but maybe not as many as I had expected. We shall see.)

So! In summary. A wonderfully entertaining collection of tales about two of the finest characters in literature—I'm not just talkin' British lit, or comic lit. I put Jeeves and Bertie up there with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, with Luke Cage and Danny Rand.

Like most of the Jeeves books—Wodehouse's most popular series—Carry On, Jeeves won't present tricky problems in trying to track down a copy. I've got a few: a Penguin mass-market-sized paperback so old the spine is beginning to crack (and I'm very careful not to crack the spines of books I read!), a dustjacketless but lovely Herbert Jenkins UK hardcover edition, featuring a cover illustration which looks a bit like Bertie proposing to Jeeves ('I'm most honored, sir. You have made me the happiest gentleman in London, sir.'). Add to that an Everyman Library/Overlook Press hardcover edition (its rather curious cover illustration features a somewhat mouthy-lookin' Jeeves...not my favorite of the Everyman designs). Pick yourself up one of these editions and enjoy: you can buy the current Penguin edition at by clicking on the link above on the right. You could do worse than to crack open its cover once it arrives, begin with the introduction of the perfect gentleman's gentleman into the household, and be swept along with giggles and delight on every page, and where every happy ending also includes a fashion lesson:
...'I am putting out the brown suit, sir.'

'No, I think I'll wear the blue with the faint red stripe.'

'Not the blue with the faint red stripe, sir.'

'But I rather fancy myself in it.'

'Not the blue with the faint red stripe, sir.'

'Oh, all right, have it your own way.'

'Very good, sir. Thank you, sir.'

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


SallyP said...

Oh, lovely. As much as I love Blandings, the Empress and Gally, Bertie and Jeeves are my first and best Wodehouse loves.

Novice said...

I agree with Sally P.

Anonymous said...

Mm-hm. Jeeves, as Bertie likes to say, stands alone.

Although I find that, unlike the J&W novels, these stories don't stand up all that well to repeated re-reads.
The fun of the characters and dialogue is durable enough, but somehow the plot devices get more and more mechanical. Not tedious, just...vaguely...pointless.