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The enduring appeal of Jeeves and Wooster

Ben Schott’s new novel is hugely welcome, but thankfully it will never threaten to obscure the genius of the canon

During the first lockdown, I often found myself going to bed with two especially charming gentlemen. The first was a boisterous Old Etonian called Bertie, who took understandable pride in his aptitude for theology (and, indeed, won the prize for Scripture Knowledge at his prep school), and whose conversation usually involved reference to his club, the Drones, and the unfortunate incident where he served a night in the cells for knocking off a policeman’s helmet during Boat Race festivities. And the other man – Reginald, though he preferred to be known as Jeeves – was of a more sombre and serious mien. Quieter and more reserved than his companion, he was less free with his opinions and chatter, but what he said revealed a serious and deep intellectual commitment and purpose, albeit one leavened with a degree of good-humoured and entirely understandable exasperation at his charge’s more whimsical and mercurial antics.

These homages will never seriously threaten to obscure the majesty and genius of the canon

Everybody has those books, and authors, that they go to when they are in need of escapism. For me, PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series have always been these tales. Nightly incursions into their pages during the pandemic made the misery and boredom of those long days and weeks considerably more bearable. He wrote 35 short stories and 11 novels featuring the duo, beginning in 1915 with Extricating Young Gussie (although purists prefer to begin with Leave it to Jeeves which appeared the following year and features the most recognisable incarnation of the characters), and ending shortly before his death in 1975 with 1974’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. Undoubtedly, if Wodehouse had somehow lived another five or ten years, there would have been more stories, but his prolific dedication to “the graft’” has left us with a truly splendid collection of tales, all revolving around a pre-lapsarian world that was always a fantastical creation, even when Wodehouse began writing. By the time of the last book’s publication, when Britain was immersed in the three-day week and the dying days of the Heath government, the events depicted bore as much relation to readers’ everyday lives as if Wodehouse had been writing about events on Mars.

This was, of course, the point from the beginning. As Evelyn Waugh, a great admirer, famously said, “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” Nobody has ever sat down to read about the adventures of Jeeves, Bertie, Bingo Little, Gussie Fink-Nottle, the terrifying Aunt Agatha and Roderick Spode (to say nothing of his black short-wearing followers) and expected gritty social realism.

Jeeves and the Leap of Faith by Ben Schott (Cornerstone, 2020).

Instead, they have come to marvel at the twentieth century’s greatest comic prose stylist’s apparently endless invention, in which matrimony is a predicament to be averted at all costs, where the distaste of one’s gentleman’s gentleman for an ill-considered sartorial faux pas can lead to a (happily temporary) breakdown in amicable relations, and where the sole work undertaken by Bertie is to contribute an article about “What the well-dressed man is wearing” to his aunt’s periodical. Like his prize for scripture knowledge, he remains proud of this modest achievement, and continually refers to it throughout his adventures.

There has been a recent vogue for well-known writers to resurrect the legendary characters of long-dead authors, which has included everyone from Sophie Hannah writing new Poirot mysteries to Anthony Horowitz, who has written both Sherlock Holmes stories (The House of Silk) and an account of his most famous nemesis, in Moriarty. James Bond remains a perennial favourite, and writers as eminent as Kingsley Amis (writing under the pseudonym Robert Markham), William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks have all offered their own interpretation of the character. And it was Faulks who first took on the task that many would have considered impossible: bringing back Jeeves and Wooster for his 2013 authorised homage, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.

Faulks is a noted Wodehouse aficionado, once saying to me that “there’s a scene between Bertie Wooster, Esmond Haddock and a port decanter in The Code of the Woosters which is probably my favourite moment in English literature.” And so he took on the task with joy, remarking “If someone had come to me at the age of 19 and told me that PG Wodehouse’s grandson would ask me to write another Jeeves and Wooster book, I would have been so thrilled and so excited … sometimes in life you don’t want to overthink things.” Although the critical reception was largely very positive, with most readers delighted by Faulks’s successful pastiche of the Wodehouse style, some aficionados objected to the ending – the clue is in the title – and there were a few who were less enamoured. He ruefully told me that “I had a jolly evening with my wife reading me some of the nastier comments. One said that I was ‘a fat, bearded git’, and she said ‘Oh, don’t worry. You’re not that fat.’”

Schott’s book is a combination of the old and new, done with panache and wit

Perhaps as a result of this (admittedly quite mild) abuse, Faulks only wrote one Jeeves and Wooster novel, but the mantle was subsequently taken up, with some style, by Ben Schott. Schott was previously best known for his wittily detailed miscellanies, which covered everything from food and drink to “sporting, gaming and idling”. Despite never having had any previous novel-writing experience, his interests in sporting, gaming and idling – all quintessentially Woosterian pursuits – endeared him to the Wodehouse estate, and he was commissioned to write the next resurrection of the characters, 2018’s Jeeves and the King of Clubs. When I interviewed Schott about how this came to pass, he said “the greatest challenges I faced while writing in Wodehouse’s style were nothing much; he’s just the greatest craftsman of comic prose in the English language”.

Therefore, when the opportunity came to persuade the Wodehouse estate that he was the man to take up the mantle, Schott said:

I managed to convince them that writing Jeeves and the King of Clubs was less ‘novelizing’ than a deadly serious game, the end result of which was a novel. Sir Edward Cazalet – Plum’s step-grandson – was especially kind, inviting me down to browse through Wodehouse’s personal library and peruse his original manuscripts. This, as you can imagine, was as moving as it was intimidating.

The book was a huge success, commercially and critically – my review in the Observer commented that “Schott excels with a series of similes and metaphors every bit as striking as those Wodehouse came up with” – and so he has now published a sequel, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, which has been billed as “an homage to PG Wodehouse”.

PG Wodehouse was guilty of little more than thoughtlessness

As with Faulks’s novel and King of Clubs, Schott’s book is a combination of the old and new, done with panache and wit. There is a plot about Bertie attempting to save the Drones’ Club from financial ruin by organising a complex series of bets that could have emerged from the pages of any of Wodehouse’s novels, but, just as Schott’s earlier book touched on darker and more dramatic subjects than the originals would have ventured, so this one strays into less frivolous territory. Some may be surprised by the ongoing storyline of Bertie’s recruitment into a clandestine secret service – especially given his undoubted clodhopperdom, which remains a consistent feature of his adventures – and in the character of Iona McAuslan, Schott creates a far more three-dimensional and believable female character than Wodehouse ever did, meaning that, unlike in the earlier books, the idea of matrimony is no longer so fanciful or terrifying. And the novel concludes on a humdinger of a twist which makes one hope, with some anticipation, for a third instalment in the series before too long.

Yet as Schott and Faulks would rush to acknowledge, there can be as many “homages” to PG Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster as the most able of writers can manage, but they will never seriously threaten to obscure the majesty and genius of the canon. Everyone will have their favourite moment in the stories. For me, it remains a toss-up between Gussie Fink-Nottle’s chaotic and drunken presentation of the prizes at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School in Right Ho, Jeeves and the moment when Bertie, threatened by Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters, prepares to deliver the coup de grace by quenching Spode’s ire with a well-delivered codeword, only to realise that he has forgotten it. Would that contemporary comic fiction could ever come up with moments so indelible.

Wodehouse himself has had a reputation that has risen and fallen over the decades, with the controversy over his actions in WWII continuing to affect how he has been perceived by general readers. While most of his admirers would argue that claiming that Wodehouse had Nazi sympathies of any kind was absurd, it is undeniably true that he was not a worldly man in many regards (although his collected letters show that he had  a keen eye on the sales and royalties of his books) and he could be manipulated into making broadcasts that played into the hands of German propagandists without too much trouble. He was guilty of little more than thoughtlessness, and his self-imposed exile from Britain, never to return, was a harsh punishment indeed.

Yet, for those encountering his work for the first time now, or for long-standing admirers of his books, it is his peerless prose that continues to enthral and delight. Schott’s new novel is a hugely welcome one, and deserves to soar up the Christmas bestseller lists, unless of course it is buried under the onslaught of other publications. But its greatest achievement could be to direct the curious to Wodehouse’s original writing for by far the most wholesome of nocturnal activities – and, dare I say it, quite the most enjoyable, too.

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