Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
By Jeeves! British author Sebastian Faulks brings P.G. Wodehouse's most beloved characters – the feckless Bertie Wooster and the peerless valet – back to life.
Authorized sequels and prequels generally inspire a, well, quelling feeling in me.
The best of them are the work of sincere fans who are themselves gifted writers, like Anthony Horowitz’s 2011 take on Sherlock Holmes, “The House of Silk.” But while perfectly enjoyable, I’d still rather read an original work by the brilliant “Foyle’s War” creator and leaf back through “The Speckled Band” or “A Scandal in Bohemia” whenever I need a return visit to Baker Street.
In the case of British comic writer P.G. Wodehouse, the case for an authorized sequel is even thinner, since he penned more than 95 books over seven decades, meaning the average reader could go for years without running out of Blandings, Psmith, or Drones Club stories.
Wodehouse's most famous creations were Bertie Wooster, an amiable chap not overly burdened by brains, and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, who is given to reading Spinoza and extricating his employer from scrapes with aplomb. Wodehouse first introduced Bertie in 1915. His last book about the inimitable valet and his feckless employer, “Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen,” was published in 1974.
During one of literature’s most deftly lighthearted comic runs, no matter how many aunts, village fetes, speech days, lingerie-selling amateur dictators, cow creamers, or renditions of “Sonny Boy” with which the duo were confronted, Jeeves’ powers of ratiocination and diplomacy never faltered.
In the pair’s first outing in 40 years, British author Sebastian Faulks, who also tried his hand at channeling Ian Fleming in 2009, offers a homage in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells so clearly fond and well-intentioned that it would be downright mean-spirited to nitpick. While no “Code of the Woosters,” this also is no “Scarlett.”
But it must be said that, while Faulks seems to have been loaned the lathe on which Wodehouse turned his phrases, he does one thing the late author shied firmly away from: He has Bertie fall in love.
The object of his affection is one Georgiana Meadowes, who is, alas, already engaged to the stodgy writer of a series of travel books, “By Pullman to Peking” and “By Sled to Siberia.” (Or, as Bertie puts “By Handcart to Hell and so forth.”)
Now, Bertie was forever getting engaged, but despite the debatable charms of a Bobbie Wickham or Pauline Stoker, Jeeves would neatly winkle his hapless employer away from his intended and the two would wind up ensconced at home at Berkeley Mansions, with Jeeves quietly regulating the order of their days.
“Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” offers a comic country house misadventure, with Jeeves and Bertie forced to perform a switcheroo: Jeeves lounges about all day, offering racing tips to Sir Henry Hackwood, while Bertie has to sleep in an attic bedroom and drop gooseberry fool on the dinner guests. (Needless to say, while Jeeves has no trouble impersonating a gentleman of leisure, Bertie’s lot is not a happy one.)
“It was a haggard Bertram who stared back from the glass as he plied the morning steel and sponged the outlying portions,” he recounts of his guise as Wilberforce, the valet.
“Little did I know, as I set fire to an after-breakfast gasper in the cottage garden, what the lead-filled sock of fate had in store for me,” he intones.
As is typical, Bertie finds himself in this fix after one of his endless number of school chums arrives, “decanting his anguished soul on me,” as he once put it in “The Great Sermon Handicap.” Peregrine “Woody” Beeching is in love with Genevieve’s cousin, Amelia, and requires Jeeves’s help in winning her back. (Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little don’t make appearances in “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells,” but Stinker Pinker is on hand as a batsman in a game of cricket on which their host’s honor rests.)
“Sir Henry is a gentleman who appears keenly aware of matters of social standing,” Jeeves notes, echoing Wodehouse’s assessment of Harold, the page boy, in “The Purity of the Turf,” which along with “Sermon” are two of my favorite stories: “He is somewhat acutely alive to the existence of class distinctions, sir.”
Shakespeare, cricket and the threat of an imminent visit by the fearsome Aunt Agatha all play a role in the screwball antics, and Jeeves “shimmers” in with a cup of tea at least once. (Actually, another time he “shimmies,” much to this reader’s delight.)
The patter between Bertie and Jeeves is the book’s chief delight, as when an exasperated Bertie exclaims, “[T]here are times when the question of the appropriate dress is simply not on the agenda.”
“I have yet to encounter one, sir.”
Bertie even shows some glimmers that the years with his well-read valet are starting to rub off when he correctly identifies Keats as the source of one of Jeeves’ allusions.
“We drove on in silence for a mile or so. ‘I say, Jeeves, do you know, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever recognized one of your quotations.’
“‘I know, sir. I found it most gratifying.’”
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.