Thank You, Jeeves book review
So here’s the thing: you either love Jeeves and Wooster or you don’t. Or, poor thing, you’ve never read them (by “them” I refer to the 15, by my count, novels and short story collections about Bertie Wooster and the world’s most perfect manservant). If that’s the case, all I can say is, get started. There’s only so much reading time allotted to us in this life; you don’t want to go to your grave without having read at least one book by the man who could write, “It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away.”
I’ve been a Wodehouse fan for a long time, so you will understand right off that this is not going to be a cool, collected, unbiased kind of review. It will be, for the most part, a fan letter. I say for the most part because there are parts of Thank You, Jeeves, written as it was in the early 30s, which are dated and unfortunate. I’ll get to those in a minute.
First, the author: Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, who died on Valentine’s Day, 1975, at the age of 93, was one of the most popular and prolific humorists of the 20th century. He hated his name, by the way, and was known to family and friends as Plum, a shortening of Pelham, making him sound like a character in one of his books. It may have been as a form of comic revenge that he gave a similar name to his most popular fictional hero: Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, commonly known as Bertie. In fact, all the characters in the Wodehouse canon, especially the young men, have stupendously silly names. Longtime readers will be familiar with, among others, Gussie Fink-Nottle, “Catsmeat” Potter-Pirbright, “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps, and Reginald “Pongo” Twistleton, to name a few.
While some of these bright sparks do have jobs, Bertie is first and foremost a gentleman of leisure. We understand that he inherited a large sum of money when his parents died and was raised by his aunts. When he’s not lounging about his club – aptly named the Drones – he spends much of his time avoiding marriage, being what you might call a “confirmed bachelor”.
Bertie is a well-meaning, even generous sort, but is not thought to be particularly intelligent. His own valet has remarked that while he has a heart of gold, he is “mentally somewhat negligible”. It’s the valet who’s the brains of the outfit. Jeeves, who’s perhaps 10 years older than Bertie, is loyal, erudite, dignified, and respectful. The closest he comes to expressing an emotion is the occasional lifting of an eyebrow or, when amused, a slight twitching of the mouth. As Bertie describes it, Jeeves most commonly wears “that expression of quiet intelligence combined with a feudal desire to oblige”.
The Jeeves and Wooster stories are generally set in England, in stately homes and castles peopled by wealthy eccentrics and occasional badly-behaved young boys. You get the impression that Plum didn’t like children very much; he had none of his own although when he married his beloved Ethel he adopted her daughter, Leonora, whom he adored.
Thank You, Jeeves begins with a contretemps (sorry – reading Wodehouse gets you into using all kind of $10 words) between our two heroes. Bertie has lately taken up playing the banjo, an instrument Jeeves loathes. When his neighbours threaten him with eviction if he doesn’t stop playing, Bertie chooses to move out of his apartment and retire to a cottage in the country. This is the last straw for Jeeves, who reluctantly gives his notice. Bertie, just as reluctantly, accepts it, and the two part company.
Bertie takes a cottage on the estate of his friend, Lord “Chuffy” Chuffnell, who has now become Jeeves’s new employer. I suppose you’d say Chuffy is “house poor”; he owns this vast estate and the whole village of Chuffnell Regis but, as he tells Bertie, the rents he receives barely cover the cost of keeping up the estate. What Chuffy is pinning his hopes on is selling Chuffnell Hall to an old foe of Bertie’s, a rich American nerve specialist (or “loony doctor”, as Bertie calls him) named J. Washburn Stoker. Bertie was recently engaged – briefly – to Stoker’s daughter, Pauline, before her father broke off the engagement. Now that she and Chuffy have met and fallen in love, they hope to marry. But Chuffy won’t propose to her until the sale of the Hall goes through; he’s feels it would be wrong to put her in the position of marrying a poor man.
Bertie comes up with a plan to kiss Pauline in order to make Chuffy jealous and push him to propose. Unfortunately, it’s her father, not Chuffy, who sees the kiss, leading him to assume that Bertie and his daughter are still in love. He takes Pauline back to his yacht and keeps her there, to keep her away from Bertie. Chuffy writes a love letter to Pauline and gets Jeeves to smuggle it on board and give it to her. With assistance from Jeeves, she manages to escape and swim to shore, arriving at Bertie’s cottage unannounced in the middle of the night, planning to visit Chuffnell Hall in the morning and throw herself into Chuffy’s arms.
In the meantime, Bertie needs a place to sleep. After trying the garden shed and being discovered by the local police constable, Bertie heads to the garage to sleep in his car. Once again he’s spotted by the officer who alerts Chuffy. Thinking his friend has had one too many, Chuffy drags Bertie back to the cottage. There he sees Pauline in bed in Bertie’s pyjamas; they argue and go their separate ways, vowing never to see each other again.
The next day Pauline’s father, having learned of her visit to Bertie, lures him to the yacht on the pretext of celebrating his son Dwight’s birthday. Once there, Stoker locks Bertie in a stateroom, determined to keep him there until he marries his daughter. Again, Jeeves comes to the rescue. Stoker has hired a minstrel troupe to entertain his son, white musicians in blackface posing as black performers. Jeeves suggests Bertie cover his face and hands with shoe polish, and pose as one of the minstrels, in order to get away. The ruse works, although once he’s back on land Bertie finds that soap and water won’t remove the polish. Deciding that butter is needed, he returns to his cottage, only to be met by his new valet, the highly excitable Brinkley, who’s drunk, armed with a carving knife, and believes that Bertie in blackface is the devil. Bertie barely escapes with his life while Brinkley inadvertently sets the cottage on fire, destroying everything in it, including the banjo.
Bertie then goes to the back door of Chuffnell Hall to see if Jeeves can rustle up some butter for him. He’s met by Mary, the scullery maid, who screams at the sight of him and goes into fits, leading Bertie to ponder the effect his darkened appearance is having on people:
“I mean to say, Bertram Wooster with merely a pretty tan calling at the back door of Chuffnell Hall would have been received with respect and deference … But purely and simply because there happened to be a little boot polish on my face, here was this female tying herself in knots on the doormat and throwing fits up and down the passage.”
It’s unfortunate that blackface takes up so much of the rest of the plot. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t appear in any of his other books, and I’ve never read anything else by Plum that I would call racist. Still . . .
P. G. Wodehouse’s reputation suffered a severe blow in the early days of World War Two, but it had nothing to do with race. In 1940 he was living in northern France and was captured by the Germans. In an ill-considered move, he agreed to record a series of comic broadcasts which were aired in the US via German radio. These provoked a severe backlash in Britain; politicians and journalists accused him of treason, he was “reviled … as a traitor, collaborator, Nazi propagandist, and a coward”. Although it later came out that he had been manipulated by the Nazi propaganda machine, he was deeply confused and embarrassed by the scandal. He removed himself to the US and became an American citizen in 1955. Shortly before his death he was awarded a knighthood but he never returned to his homeland.
Whatever we may think about his politics or his racial views, his stories remain a (somewhat) guilty pleasure. As other reviewers have said, the Jeeves and Wooster plots are almost indistinguishable from one another: Bertie is almost trapped into marrying some strong-minded, assertive young woman, and manages to escape with the help of the inimitable Jeeves. In the case of Thank You, Jeeves, I can assure you of two things: Jeeves returns to his employ and Bertie’s bachelorhood remains secure.
It’s all you really need to know.