P.G. Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves

Thank You, JeevesIn interviews with Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins, when both men were asked to reflect on their friendship with Christopher Hitchens, they cited a mutual love for the works of P.G. Wodehouse that expedited their friendship and gave them something to talk about it. Wodehouse is widely regarded as the finest comic writer in the English language, and an important influence on all manner of later writers, but it was nothing more than this simple desire to share something in common with these men – to provide myself with more fodder for imagined conversations – that motivated me to pick up his works, beginning, where all Wodehouse readers should begin, with the famous Jeeves novels.

The television show Archer, a cartoon about a secret agent invoking all the best (and worst) tropes of the genre, is perhaps the funniest, best-written comedy still in production, and its protagonist has a British butler named “Woodhouse,” a nod to the ubiquity of Wodehouse’s beloved butler Jeeves. This reference may fly over the heads of the majority of the show’s audience (older readers might remember the once-popular search engine AskJeeves?), but it speaks nonetheless to the power of Wodehouse’s influence.

Thank You, Jeeves is the first of the Jeeves novels and a fitting introduction to the glib humor, situational comedy and punning that characterize the series. You would be forgiven for wondering, as I did, whether the humor of an early 20th century Briton, writing about the upper crust of British society prior to World War I, would translate well to a jaded North American audience raised on more puerile comedy. It does. Take, for example, the Preface, in which Wodehouse dismisses the possibility of dictating his work to avoid the back pain that comes with sitting at a typewriter for long periods of time:

Not that I ever thought of dictating it to a stenographer. How anybody can compose a story by word of mouth, face to face with a bored looking secretary with a notebook is more than I can imagine. Yet many authors think nothing of saying ‘Ready, Miss Spelvin? Take dictation. Quote No comma Lord Jasper Murgatroyd comma close quote said no better make it hissed Evangeline comma quote I would not marry you if you were the last man on earth close quote period Quote Well comma, I’m not the last man on earth comma so the point does not arise comma close quote replied Lord Jasper comma twirling his moustache cynically period And so the long day wore on.’

If I started to do that sort of thing I should be feeling all the time that the girl was saying to herself as she took it down, “Well comma this beats me period How comma with homes for the feeble minded touting for customers on every side comma has a fathead like this Wodehouse succeeded in remaining at large all these years mark of interrogation.’

Funny, right? If further convincing is required, Hugh Laurie (better known as Dr. House) and Stephen Fry combined to produce a television series called Jeeves and Wooster based on the Jeeves stories, and clips of the show can be found on YouTube.

I realized, by the end of this first work, that I had never read a comic novel. Even the concept of reading for amusement – reading not to be enlightened, not to be shattered or transformed but to laugh – is foreign to me. I have cherished Molière, devoured Shakespeare’s comedies (though it is the tragedies that I find funniest), but when I wish to be amused I turn on the television. TV and, to a lesser extent, film, have so co-opted the role of entertainment in my life that comedy had become synonymous with the visual medium. And so all the more pleasant, for me, to discover that Wodehouse is, in fact, funny. Hysterical, even.

Wodehouse satirizes the life of British aristocracy prior to World War I. The protagonist and narrator of Thank You, Jeeves is Bertram “Bertie” Wooster, who employs Jeeves as his butler, relying on him to supply the missing words of various literary quotations and expressions, finish (or improve upon) his thoughts and generally prevent his life from descending into chaos. The plot of this first novel revolves around the engagement of one of Bertie’s boyhood friends, a down-on-his-luck British lord, to an American heiress, and the tenuous relationship between these parties and the woman’s father. If all of this seems familiar comedic fare, Wodehouse nonetheless injects it with enough witty dialogue and lovable characters to keep the experience amusing from beginning to end, and literary nerds will enjoy attempting to pick up on all of the allusions written into the text.