Dash it, Jeeves! Why are we so funny?
The other day, I lifted down the first volume of Hutchinson's old
Jeeves Omnibus. There are five volumes of this edition; each at
least 500 pages long - and that's just the Jeeves canon.
Wodehouse was incredibly prolific, and the amazing thing about how
prolific he was - the peculiar nature of his genius - is that what
he spooled out like a spider does silk is prose that is funny,
consistently, almost sentence by sentence.
I was about halfway down the first page when I first giggled aloud.
And three quarters of the way through the first page when I giggled
for the second time. What makes Wodehouse so extraordinary is the
perfection of his comic timing. He is in a select and miraculous
group of writers - in America, Damon Runyon is probably the closest
analogy - the very texture of whose language is funny.
What-ho! Hugh Laurie as Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves
Forget the door-slamming farces of his plots - with Bertie
alternately descending into, and being lifted out of, the soup more
or less chapter by chapter, and ending up in each case pretty much
exactly where he started.
Forget them, indeed, you will: they are very funny and absurd and
tightly sprung, and they vanish from the mind with the turning of
the last page. The point is that you laugh, or smile, or feel an
access of the warmer humours with practically every sentence he
Oddly, Wodehouse professed to have no problem with the sentences,
yet said he agonised over the plots: "Writing my stories I enjoy. It
is the thinking them out that is apt to blot the sunshine from my
You can't think out plots like mine without getting the suspicion
from time to time that something has gone seriously wrong with the
brain's two hemispheres and the broad band of transversely running
fibres known as the corpus callosum." He claimed to make 400 pages
of notes before starting to write.
What is it that - of all Wodehouse's comic creations - gives the
partnership between Jeeves and Wooster such enduring appeal? If
anything, the odds would seem to favour their lapsing into
obscurity. They should have dated. They live in a social situation
extraordinarily remote from that of the vast majority of their
readership: an idyllic, imagined version of the Edwardian gentry.
This is a world in which - having started the day by getting in
amongst the toothsome eggs & b - Bertram bowls back and forth
between Drones and the Savoy Grill, bumping into the usual bally
shower of weak-chinned, bread-roll throwing Gussies and Tuppies and
greeting them with fusillades of what-ho-ing. Lunch is always soup
Weekends are always in the country. Engagements are made and broken
Aunts are a menace, but a necessary evil, since it is aunts who,
invariably, control the purse-strings. Children are generally fiends
in human form, doted on by aunts or by the lisping beauties Bertie
and his chums are perpetually falling in love with.
Bertie's language - of almost Homeric epithets - may burlesque
period slang, but it has been entirely made Wodehouse's own.
In the opening pages of the very first book, Thank You, Jeeves, we
are introduced to the dreaded Sir Roderick Glossop - "a bald-domed,
bushy-browed blighter, ostensibly a nerve specialist, but in
reality, as everyone knows, nothing more nor less than a high-priced
loony-doctor." Glossop is in New York, visiting a patient.
"This George was a man who, after a lifetime of doing down the widow
and orphan, had begun to feel the strain a bit. His conversation was
odd, and he had a tendency to walk on his hands." Isn't that last
symptom just sublimely well-timed?
Felicities of writing on that level, of course, can't be captured in
any film, television or stage version. But the sheer number of
adaptations suggests there's something about these books that
survives the transition. You could call it flavour: that of their
uniquely sunny world, and the relationship between these two comic
types. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie captured it delightfully.
Jeeves and Wooster remain one of the great comic double-acts of all
time, alongside Bouvard and P¨cuchet, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,
Laurel and Hardy, Blackadder and Baldrick.
There is a peculiar twist to the dynamics of our pair, though - one
which aligns them more closely with Holmes and Watson. Most comic
partnerships involve one character who is a fool, and a friend who
is equally if not more foolish.
Wodehouse, instead, teams a fool and a sage: and he gives the
narration to the fool (except once: the butler narrates the final
story in Carry On, Jeeves, "Bertie Changes His Mind", and very
disconcerting it is, too).
Wodehouse puts a further comic twist on it by inverting the
master-servant relationship. Jeeves runs Bertie, as Bertie only
half-suspects. Jeeves, with his incomparable, fish-fed brain,
shimmers in and out of Bertie's story. It isn't always clear what
he's up to, or why - but Bertie trusts him, and his trust is always
Just as Watson - dull, amiable, a little blockheaded - is entrusted
with a story he only half-understands until the end, so is Bertie.
Watson is our representative, much as we long to be Holmes.
Likewise, we identify with Bertie - as we enjoy patronising him -
but look up to Jeeves.
They survive, perhaps, because their world is so fully imagined, so
self-enclosed, and so downright appealing. Even though it is
historical, history does not touch it. This is a world in which
everything, constantly, goes wrong - but in which nothing actually
goes wrong in any irrevocable way.
At the end of every story, Jeeves makes things right, and the pieces
on the chessboard are returned to their starting positions.
Time stands still. Bertie will never get married. Jeeves will never,
permanently, leave him. Oswald Mosley may appear, as the absurd
Roderick Spode (swanking around in his footer bags, the perfect
perisher), but the Second World War will never happen.
There is a rebounding, undefeatable innocence to the whole set-up.
Waugh or, later, Kingsley Amis, were sometimes funnier: but nobody
has been simultaneously as funny and as uplifting as Wodehouse.