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Jeeves and Wooster March Into The Twenty-first Century
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The frequency with which the term 'Jeeves' is used without further explanation in the media of today, and its inclusion as a generic term in the Oxford English Dictionary, suggests that P G Wodehouse's Jeeves, together with his principal employer Bertie Wooster, remain the most popular of his many enduring characters. The republication by Penguin in May last year of virtually all the Jeeves and Wooster titles offers a fresh opportunity to make the acquaintance of these remarkable figments of the author's imagination.

For the regular reader of Wodehouse, the series essentially consists of three volumes of short stories (The Inimitable Jeeves, 1923, Carry On, Jeeves, 1925 and Very Good, Jeeves, 1930), together with eleven novels produced at regular intervals between 1934 and 1974, by which time he had passed his 93rd birthday. There were two further individual short stories, included in the general collections A Few Quick Ones (Herbert Jenkins, 1959) and Plum Pie (Herbert Jenkins, 1966), which were both new versions of earlier, non-Jeeves, stories. This article will also refer briefly to Come On, Jeeves, a stage play written by Wodehouse and Guy Bolton in about 1953, and published in 1956. However, even before the publication of The Inimitable Jeeves, two books had appeared which are of importance to the collector of Jeeves and Wooster (the names will be abbreviated to J&W quite frequently in this article) and have become the most expensive items with a J&W connection. The first is The Man With Two Left Feet, an unremarkable collection published in 1917 by Methuen, containing the story Extricating Young Gussie. It is narrated by a man-about-town named Bertie, who was possessed of an Aunt Agatha, a somewhat anodyne valet named Jeeves, and a cousin named Gussie Mannering-Phipps. What he did not have, however, was a surname, and it remains a matter of considerable debate amongst Wodehouse scholars as to whether he was indeed Bertie Wooster, or merely Bertie Mannering-Phipps, a shallow creature who had yet to blossom and earn his right to the greater name. I called Jeeves anodyne with good reason, for he was permitted just two lines in this first appearance. It was later that he was to grow in stature until he received the accolades not only of becoming part of the English language but also giving his name to a major Internet search engine (Ask Jeeves). So it is just possible that this was not the same Jeeves, but a less intelligent relation or namesake.

Partly, presumably, because of a relatively low wartime print run, but largely because The Man With Two Left Feet's other contents were somewhat ordinary, demonstrating little exceptional plot-making and showing few signs of the classic style which were to become the Wodehouse trademarks, few copies of the first edition have survived in collectable condition. It was printed by Jarrold & Sons, Ltd of Norwich on paper which seems to attract foxing, possibly because of its wartime pedigree. The boards were of light red cloth which fades to a dirty orange-brown. The dust-wrapper, which is virtually unknown today, was an unattractive brown which was not illustrated, merely giving plaudits to the stories within. Even without a jacket, you can expect to pay four figures for a reasonable copy, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that apart from The Globe By The Way Book (1909) it may be the most elusive title in Wodehouse's entire output.

The second of the relevant preliminary books is My Man Jeeves, a 1919 production by Newnes which appeared in a much smaller format (4" x 6"). This was printed on extremely brittle paper and its covers have a tendency to fade. It contained a total of eight stories, four featuring Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, and four about another man-about-town, by name Reggie Pepper. All the J&W stories were revised, to a greater or lesser degree, for inclusion in Carry On, Jeeves (Leave It to Jeeves changing its title for the purpose to The Artistic Career of Corky), and one of the Reggie Pepper stories, Helping Freddie, was extensively rewritten as a J&W story Fixing It for Freddie, also for Carry On, Jeeves. (Two of the other Reggie Pepper stories were to reappear after substantial revision: Rallying Round Old George became the Mulliner story George and Alfred in Plum Pie, and Doing Clarence a Bit of Good was transformed into Jeeves Makes an Omelette for A Few Quick Ones.) I do not believe that My Man Jeeves has been reprinted since the war, and in view of the subsequent history of most of its contents, if it should reappear at some time it is likely to be through the auspices of a small specialist publisher.

The frail nature of this book, coupled with its position as the first which contained substantive and authentic Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories, has led to its considerable scarcity. It may be offered in very good condition from £200; but add the jacket (which depicts Jeeves holding a tie) and the vendor can more or less name his price. Be careful of possible confusion of the true first with a second edition published the following year from the same plates, but on heavier paper and with larger margins. The easiest way to distinguish this is by the printer's name: the first was printed by Butler & Tanner, the second by Hazell, Watson & Viney. This title also carries the flag for the rarest J&W paperback, for the Newnes edition (undated, but understood to be late 1920s) may make £100 or a little more.

In January 1936 My Man Jeeves became the first of many Wodehouse titles to be published in paperback by Penguin. In retrospect it seems a strange choice, although no doubt the question of publishers' rights played a big part in the decision. Such a milestone has rightly created a very desirable title, and a knowledgeable seller of a fine copy will be asking up to £40-50. However, this book does offer an opportunity to pick up a bargain, as it is by no means unlikely that a general dealer will charge a normal price of a few pounds for an early Penguin.

If one is asked to point a finger at this series and explain just why the characters are so successful, one might reasonably conclude that it stems from Bertie's joint role as participant and narrator, which enables his personality to develop along two parallel tracks. As a highly competent story-teller, he is at first blush a different person from the apparent incompetent man of action or inaction, but one has the underlying feeling that the English habit of self-deprecation plays its part, and that he is generally 'talking up' Jeeves's part at the expense of his own. In connection with some of his own auto-biographical material, Wodehouse adopted the philosophy that, if something made a good story better, what did it matter if one hurt one's own feelings in the narration, and he seems at times to have cast Bertie in a similar mould. In this way he created a voice for relating Bertie's adventures which he did not achieve consistently elsewhere. For Ukridge, he tried each of Jeremy Garnet and Corky Corcoran as both narrator and participant, but in the final group of stories it was Ukridge himself who told the tale and Corky was merely the audience. Neither Mr Mulliner nor The Oldest Member was actively engaged in more than a handful of the incidents which they so enjoyed recalling. From this point of view Bertie was unique.

The Wodehouse world is a timeless world, and it may come as a surprise to some, especially when faced with the images depicted by book and magazine illsutrators, to find that, although Bertie regularly refers back to his schooldays and his time at Oxford University, he only aged from about 24 at the time of the first stories to a reasonably mature 29 or so by the end of Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974). Evidence for this is plentiful, and is independently supported by stories about Bingo Little or Freddie Widgeon in which Bertie does not make an appearance.

Bertie was regarded by many, both friends and family, as inconsequential in any matter other than the possession of Jeeves. As an aside, though, it seems most unfair of his Aunt Agatha to have called Bertie a 'spineless invertebrate' when one considers that, during this five-year period, he became engaged 17 times (to a total of nine different girls) and travelled to Cannes, Paris, Roville, Hollywood, New York (for some considerable time) and Florida, not to mention a round-the-world cruise. Not many men, even when supported by Jeeves, have the capacity for that sort of strenuous programme.

Nevertheless, the popular view is that Bertie had been born a chump, and it is the short stories which generally demonstrate how he came to have that reputation. Soon after he arrived, Jeeves was broadcasting Bertie's chumphood to deputy valets with the words "Mentally he is negligible - quite negligible", but as he came increasingly under the influence of Jeeves (and by concentrating on novels the author was able to take the time to build the character of his actors) three developments took place in the quality of Bertie's mind, and the use to which it was put. First, he started to remember some of Jeeves's quotations and reproduce them, or parts of them, or recognizable substitutes for them, quite often in the right context. Secondly, he began to believe that his brain was as capable of strategic planning as that of his mentor, so that what might have required a few simple steps to resolve was converted into a potential full-scale disaster requiring the restorative application of the master-brain after all. (To be convincing, of course, this technique required the greater space offered by the novel format.) And in the third development, Bertie started to interpolate more French words and phrases into his speech, possibly reflecting the number and length of the visits he made to Cannes, Paris and Roville. Chumphood gave way to over-ambition.

The fourteen mainstream books represent about 15% of Wodehouse's total fictional output, and all were first published by Herbert Jenkins or its successor, Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. All the short stories have frequently appeared in various omnibus editions, and more recently the novels have also been included in the five volume Hutchinson Omnibus. series The individual books have, almost without exception, been available in paperback for forty years from different publishers, although the holders of the paperback rights have been rationalized somewhat over the years. For the first substantial collection, The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), Wodehouse took a number of stories which had appeared in magazines, revised their order, added linking commentaries as introductory paragraphs or endings and produced what can be regarded as an episodic novel. He had previously used this technique with the Archie Moffam stories, from which emerged Indiscretions of Archie (1921). The other two major short story collections, Carry On, Jeeves (1925) and Very Good, Jeeves (1930) did not seek to emulate this approach.

The Inimitable Jeeves and Carry On, Jeeves were both printed by Wyman & black. The Inimitable Jeeves showed Jeeves chasing Harold, from The Purity of the Turf, while the cover of Carry On, Jeeves depicts a gentleman on his knees before Jeeves. The very scarce dustwrapper of The Inimitable Jeeves shows Bertie in the midst of escaping cats (from Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch). That of Carry On, Jeeves, which is slightly easier to find, has profiles of Bertie and Jeeves.

For Very Good, Jeeves, Jenkins transferred their printing contract to Purnell and Sons, and the pictorial covers were no longer found. The outside front of the book now merely gave the title and its author's name in a black frame. Most of Jenkins' books at this time, including this one, first appeared in an orange binding which retained its colour reasonably well. The dust-jacket, by Roberts, shows a large bust of Jeeves behind half a dozen full-length minor characters. This book, incidentally, drove Wodehouse to despair about the professional skills of publishers. In 1927 Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit had appeared in the Strand magazine. Early in the story, Wodehouse used a phrase with his trademark clipped noun: 'for the festive s.', meaning 'for the festive season', and so it appeared in Strand. But Herbert Jenkins made a big mistake, setting it as 'for the festives.'. Let Wodehouse himself take up the story, as he explained his views in a letter to Arnold Bennett of 16 August, 1930:

I can never see why printers should do their job so slackly. I had to leave England without seeing page proofs, but I went to enormous trouble over the galleys. In one place I had written 'festive s.' Meaning 'festive season', and they printed it as 'festives'. So I wrote in the margin of the galley as follows:- "Not 'festives.' Please print this as two words 'festive s.' - 'festive', one word, 's' another. Bertie occasionally clips his words, so that when he means 'festive season' he says 'festive s.' This is quite clear, isn't it? 'Festive' one word. 'S' another?" And so the book has come out with the thing printed as 'festives'. I see now I didn't make it clear.

When the story was included in The Jeeves Omnibus the following year, the editor, again part of the Herbert Jenkins empire, changed it to 'for Christmas'! These errors have led to a mini-coup. The new Penguin edition of Very Good, Jeeves (1999) has reverted to the original text, and represents the first book publication in that form! We look forward to a new short story omnibus in due course which also reflects the authentic text.

The first novel was Thank You, Jeeves (1934). Printed again by Wyman, it had stone-gray cloth with red lettering, and was the first of the novels not to have the black frame on the front board, a design feature which did not appear again. It had a dust jacket by Abbey which showed Pauline Stoker in Bertie's bed, one of the very few occasions on which he came close to having his licence endorsed. Later the same year Right Ho, Jeeves appeared, in similar cloth and with the same printer, and Abbey again designed the jacket, this time a sketch of the French chef Anatole, in bed, flailing his arms at Gussie Fink-Nottle peering in through the skylight.

The last novel to appear before the war was The Code of the Woosters (1938). Again printed by Wyman, it had green cloth and a jacket designed by Fenwick, which showed Bertie and Jeeves arriving at Totleigh Towers in a blue car with licence plate PGW 38. Variant printings are recorded with the same legend on the Copyright page, but with stone-gray, orange or turquoise boards.

Joy in the Morning (1947) was the first of two J&W novels to appear shortly after the war, still wearing the familiar orange cloth and printed by Wyman. Its jacket was the work of Frank Ford, a rather inappropriate depiction of Jeeves which removed any suggestion of gravitas. The jacket of the next book, The Mating Season (1949), which he also illustrated, was altogether more acceptable, showing a chastened Bertie rising from behind a sofa at the instance of Hilda Gudgeon and her gun.

In 1952 Guy Bolton had 'borrowed' the character of Jeeves to write a play, Come On, Jeeves in collaboration with Wodehouse (published in 1956 by Evans Brothers), but although tried out in places such as Brighton, it was never to enjoy a London opening. Wodehouse turned it into the only Jeeves novel not featuring Bertie Wooster, and it emerged as Ring For Jeeves in 1953. Wyman remained the favoured publisher, and the jacket, by Sax, showed cameo sketches of Jeeves on the telephone and Lord Rowcester, his employer. The style of the dust jacket of Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954) suggests the same artist was involved and, for the only time in a UK book, Bertie was shown with a monocle. Both had red cloth.

Jeeves in the Offing (1960) was the one Wodehouse book printed by Charles Birchall & Sons, Ltd, which may not be surprising when one considers the basic error for which they and the editors between them were responsible. In the first printing the half title page was that of the previous book, A Few Quick Ones, and although the principal blame must lie with the publisher, the printer should surely have spotted something so obviously wrong. The book was immediately reprinted with the corrected half-title, but there are plenty of copies of both versions around. Both copies had red boards, although the corrected version was reissued with successively gold and tan covers. The jacket shows a startled Bertie Wooster spilling his tea after hearing a suitably corpulent Sir Roderick Glossop (disguised as a butler) referred to by Bobbie Wickham as Swordfish. It is perhaps even more unforgiveable that a 1979 reprint with hard covers by Barrie & Jenkins repeated the original error and appeared with the wrong half-title.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963) was also given red covers, though printed by yet another firm, John Gardner (Printers) Ltd, while the jacket had a very stylized sketch of Bertie and Jeeves facing each other off. It was reissued in blue, light grey and beige boards.

Osbert Lancaster was invited to illustrate the last two jackets for J&W novels, and although the jackets are attractive if considered merely as pieces of art, the penmanship does not do justice to Bertie or Jeeves. Much Obliged, Jeeves was published in 1971 to celebrate Wodehouse's 90th birthday and the jacket features an elderly, balding Jeeves lighting a cake with ninety candles on it. Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, the last book published during Wodehouse's lifetime, showed a comic Bertie in his forties wearing clothes which would certainly have been banned by Jeeves. Much Obliged was printed by Northumberland Press Ltd and Aunts by Clarke, Doble & Brendon Ltd, both in blue cloth.

If you are put off by the thought of paying £600 to £750 for copies of the pre-war books with jackets (and The Inimitable Jeeves in a jacket may take you into four figure territory), do not despair. The short story volumes and the pre-war novels all went through numerous printings in cloth covers before the war, and when these can be found with their jackets in good enoughcondition they make an excellent and inexpensive addition to the appearance of any collection, few likely to cost more than about £30 to £50, and many costing rather less. The later novels have not been reprinted in cloth covers to anything like the same extent, partly because of the scarcity of paper after the war, partly because of the rapid development of the paperback market, and partly because of a number of attempts to publish Wodehouse in a standard collector's edition.

Two of these traits had been started by Tauchnitz, a long-established company based successively in Leipzig and Stuttgart which handled the English-language rights of many authors outside the English-speaking world. They were marked 'Not to be introduced into the British Empire and USA', were always in paperback (although examples of copies rebound in leatherette can be found), often had advertising supplements and were published with a more or less uniform appearance. A number went into several editions and the last new Wodehouse was published in 1954, by which time 41 separate titles were available. As far as J&W titles are concerned, the three main collections of short stories plus four novels (Thank You Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, The Mating Season and Ring For Jeeves) appeared in this form, and the usual price for Tauchnitz first editions is £ 10 to £ 25.

The next major attempt was the Autograph Edition produced by Herbert Jenkins, from 1956 to 1966, starting with Thank You, Jeeves, and again including the three books of short stories and the four novels (Right Ho, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit and Ring for Jeeves). This series, though valiant in its objective, was uninspired and gives the impression of having been produced for convenience rather than for prestige. The problem for publishers when attempting any 'Complete Works' series is largely one of finance: to commit to produce all an author's works (especially one with the prodigious output of a Wodehouse) demands the assurance that there will be a consistent level of sales. But the buyers in turn require the pledge of a commensurate quality feel for the edition. The extremely boring covers for the books in the Autograph Edition were presumably designed by committee to ensure long-term consistency, for they have eliminated any semblance of individual interest, but the outcome was that Herbert Jenkins, like Ukridge before them, failed to solve the equation of chickens and eggs, and the series shuddered to a halt after exactly the same number of books, 41, as Tauchnitz had managed. Today, these can be found in their jackets at prices ranging from £15 to £40 depending on condition and in some cases on whether they were first printings in that form.

The next minor collectable edition was produced by Heron Books in the 1970s, and consisted of 18 volumes, each containing two unabridged books. Four contained pairs of J&W titles, and one included Aunts Aren't Gentlemen in combination with Uneasy Money. Hutchinson then brought out nine titles of what they optimistically referred to as 'The New Autograph Edition' in 1986 and 1987, including Right Ho, Jeeves, Thank You, Jeeves and The Mating Season. Few collectors would pay as much as £10 for any of these even in excellent condition. The Folio Society published a set of six of the J&W novels in 1996 with new illustrations by Paul Cox.

A number of publishers have produced paperback editions at various times. Penguin and latterly Viking have been the main publishers of the various single books, Penguin having offered a number of different styles of cover over the years, starting with their classical horizontal bands of orange-red and white. In 1965 and 1966 they produced eight titles to tie into the BBC TV series, The World of Wooster, starring Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price as Bertie Wooster and Jeeves respectively. The Inimitable Jeeves, Carry On, Jeeves, Very Good, Jeeves, Right Ho, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, The Mating Season, Jeeves in the Offing and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves can all be found sporting photographs from the series but alas only one episode still exists in BBC archives. The paperback rights to Thank You, Jeeves, Joy in the Morning, Ring for Jeeves and Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit were all held at the time by New English Library/Four Square, which is presumably why those titles did not appear in this format, whilst the final two J&W books had not then been written.

Ionicus (J C Armitage, 1913-1998) was invited by Penguin to illustrate 59 titles between 1969 and 1987. The only major J&W titles not to be be blessed with Ionicus illustrations were the same four whose rights were mentioned as being held by NEL/Four Square, but Much Obliged, Jeeves and Aunts Aren't Gentlemen did both receive the Ionicus treatment. For the cover of Very Good, Jeeves, he selected the story Jeeves and the Impending Doom, in which the Cabinet Minister A B Filmer is marooned on an island in the lake at Aunt Agatha's home by her son Thos. When Bertie and Jeeves row to the rescue, they are surprised by an angry swan, but this should be invisible until after they have landed, which made it difficult for Ionicus to get the dramatic effect on the sketch. Thus on the book's cover, you find the swan in full sail, although he later painted a larger picture in which it was partly hidden.

Penguin's instructed David Hitch, the cover artist of their 1999 edition, to find a bright design aimed at attracting a new, younger, readership, and in a style that could be readily adapted to all Wodehouse titles. Few of these post-war paperbacks cost more than two or three pounds on the second-hand market, and impecunious collectors could make collections of the relevant titles with covers by each of the various stock artists.

Rights to the omnibuses have not always followed the individual volumes to the same company. The first short story omnibus was, appropriately, called The Jeeves Omnibus, and when published by Herbert Jenkins in 1931 it had a number of apparently unauthorized editorial changes in the text. Its dust-wrapper was again by Abbey. Apart from Extricating Young Gussie and the two stories which were to appear in 1959 and 1966, the only short story not included was Bertie Changes His Mind, uniquely narrated by Jeeves. This was restored to the 1967 The World of Jeeves (Herbert Jenkins), which also included the two later stories Jeeves Makes an Omelette (from A Few Quick Ones, 1959) and Jeeves and the Greasy Bird (from Plum Pie, 1966), but does not seem to have returned to the original texts. First editions in jacket of the two principal omnibuses are of significant value, the pre-war edition commanding around £500, and even the 1967 edition may have a price tag of as much as £100.

In 1981 Penguin combined Right Ho, Jeeves with The Inimitable Jeeves and Very Good, Jeeves in a large format paperback with Ionicus cover entitled Life With Jeeves. And for the last dozen years or so it has been possible to buy the entire J&W oeuvre in five Hutchinson Omnibuses, about 9¼" high. The contents of each are:

Volume 1
Thank You, Jeeves
The Code of the Woosters
The Inimitable Jeeves

Volume 2
Right Ho, Jeeves
Joy in the Morning
Carry On, Jeeves

Volume 3
The Mating Season
Ring for Jeeves
Very Good, Jeeves

Volume 4
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
Jeeves in the Offing

Volume 5
Much Obliged, Jeeves
Aunts Aren't Gentlemen
Short stories:
Extricating Young Gussie
Jeeves Makes an Omelette
Jeeves and the Greasy Bird

These remain in print.

The combination of Jeeves and Wooster has become a symbol of 'Englishness' which is recognised in many countries, not always, say the critics, to England's advantage. It is suggested that the image they convey has no relevance to the 21st century, and that may prove to be correct. On the other hand, they represent a golden age of comic writing, when a world could be created without giving undue offence to any group of individuals, when English in its purest modern form, still relatively untainted by the development of the American dialect, could be written, read and appreciated, when the virtuous (usually penniless and unemployed) triumphed, the dictatorial (usually authoritarian figures such as magistrates, businessmen, policemen, headmasters and aunts) suffered and the crooks were deprived of their spoils in the kindest way. Young lovers (even when crooked) always overcame whatever obstacles were placed in their way, and happy endings abounded. An unreal world, but an idyllic one, which the recent Penguin printings will allow a new generation to visit.

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