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Dash it, Jeeves! Why are we so funny?
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The Daily Telegraph 12 April 2007

Dash it, Jeeves! Why are we so funny?

Sam Leith

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 writes.

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 life.

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 and fish.

Weekends are always in the country. Engagements are made and broken off incessantly.

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 vindicated.

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.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.