30/09/2015

Very Good, Jeeves (by PG Wodehouse)

It’s over forty years since my father first introduced me to the work of PG Wodehouse, and in particular his best-known series featuring Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves (later popularised in an excellent TV adaptation featuring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry). I read several of the books during my teens, and then when my sons were teenagers, we read some of them aloud and enjoyed them afresh.

However it’s been many years since I read ‘Very good, Jeeves’, which is not a full-length novel but a set of eleven short stories about the classic pair. Determined to re-read more of my favourite authors, I pulled this from my shelves a couple of days ago, and finished it today. My volume is a hardback which I apparently acquired from my father’s collection many years ago.

PG Wodehouse was a master of language, of irony, and of classic understatements. In Bertie he created a caricatured wealthy upper-class young man from the early part of the 20th century, who isn’t particularly bright, but has an extremely kind heart. He finds it hard to say no, particularly to his rather terrifying Aunt Agatha. Jeeves, by contrast, is seen as a man of high intelligence, always able to solve problems for Bertie and his friends, by applying the psychology of the individual, and thinking outside the box.

Even the prologue to this book is amusing; it explains that some of the author’s readers felt that he’d written sufficient Jeeves books, but he enjoyed writing them so much that he planned to continue. He then advertises two of his other books both in English and bad French…

The first story, ‘Jeeves and the Impending Doom’, sees Bertie and his valet travelling to stay with Aunt Agatha in her country home. To add to his apprehension about the visit, he receives a strange and incomprehensible telegram just before leaving. Shortly after he arrives he sees, to his astonishment, his close friend Bingo Little, whom he thought was abroad… only to learn that they mustn’t be seen hob-nobbing. The plot quickly thickens, and - as ever - Jeeves sorts everything out, to everyone’s satisfaction.

The same basic plot underlies the other stories too, and in the hands of another writer might become repetitive or dull. But with Wodehouse, the main plot or theme isn’t important; what matters are the brilliant asides, the poetical allusions (accurate or otherwise), and the unlikely situations in which Bertie finds himself, usually because he’s helping out a friend or acquaintance, from the best of motives. In this book he’s caught by a policeman when up a tree in the grounds of a girls’ school; he hides behind a sofa smelling of aniseed; he punctures someone’s hot water bottle with a needle; he sings ‘Sonny Boy’ on stage at a fund-raiser… the situations are almost infinitely varied.

Everyone is caricatured, of course; yet it doesn’t matter in this kind of book. One has to have a certain kind of sense of humour to appreciate this, and to ignore the fact that Bertie is one of the idle rich upper classes whom many despise. Jeeves usually wins, not just solving problems but subtly ensuring that his employer does what he wants - yet it’s impossible to dislike him too.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this little volume. Some of the stories felt familiar, as did many of the characters, but there were some which I don’t remember ever having read before, although I’m sure I must have done.

Highly recommended.  This volume seems to stay almost continually in print on both sides of the Atlantic, and is available in Kindle form as well as various paperback editions.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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