Reading PG Wodehouse’s original Wooster and Jeeves stories is like eating a lemon meringue pie – underneath some light, fluffy, insubstantial sweetness, there’s a hint of acid which livens the palate. So it is with Sebastian Faulks’s homage to Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – with the exception of a couple of eggshells in the meringue.
This isn’t the first such recreation Faulks has had a hand in. I wrote earlier (FSM, has it been five years?!) about his Devil May Care, a James Bond adventure that went straight back to Ian Fleming’s original style and sensibility. This time around he approaches, with proper reverence, the world of a comic genius and nails the breezy tones that Wodehouse seemingly cast off without thinking.
For those who aren’t familiar with the original stories, they revolve around Bertie Wooster, scion of a family whose bank accounts have thrived as their gene pool has evaporated. Bertie is a decent chap, though, with lots of time and few demands placed on him. He spends much of that time evading the matrimonial clutches of the various women of his circle, or helping his friends slip up to the altar despite the disapproval of their parents and guardians.
Wooster’s gentleman’s gentleman is the unflappable Jeeves, the very model of a discreet servant. Jeeves is also a master practitioner of psychology, and it is he who guides Wooster’s madcap schemes to their inevitable happy endings. With marriage averted or achieved, angry aunts soothed, and some truculent old man reduced to a buffoon, Wooster and Jeeves blithely return to Bertie’s London home for tea, cocktails, and dining at the Drones Club.
Wooster is surrounded by similar young men with surnames so sophisticated and schoolnames so childish they become a mockery of privileged genealogy – Cyril Bassington-Bassington, “Catsmeat” Potter Pirbright, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Bingo Little are the usual suspects. In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Peregrine “Woody” Beeching is the stymied lover, and Wooster must plot to help him conquer the hand of his beloved, Amelia Hackwood. Being a young though gifted lawyer, Woody has more prospects than assets, thus earning the disapproval of Amelia’s father. At the same time, Amelia’s best friend Georgiana is Sir Henry Hackwood’s ward, and the impecunious baronet wants to marry her off to a wealthy man who might save the family manse, a circumstance that renders Bertie unaccountably jealous.
Due to unforeseen circumstances (and Wooster always encounters circumstances unforeseen), he and Jeeves must reverse roles at a country weekend with the Hackwoods. Jeeves takes up the part of one Lord Etringham while Bertie becomes his manservant Wilberforce. Too bad Bertie has never polished a pair of shoes, boiled a shirtfront, or served from the left. Added to Bertie’s attempts to convince Amelia that Woody is faithful to her, his efforts to drive the wealthy suitor from Georgiana’s side, and to raise a cricket eleven for Sir Henry, it is small wonder that Bertie collapses into his servants’ quarters each night. As always, Bertie’s plotting goes delightfully astray, Jeeves saves the day, and in this story accomplishes a little more than the reader expects.
Wodehouse somehow created a timeless feel to his stories, a kind of eternal English summer where the fields were planted, the trees in bloom, young lovers gazed adoringly into each others’ eyes, and the most damage the aristocracy could do was to the furnishings at their clubs. There are cars, telephones and telegrams, jazz and flashy theater which all signify the Roaring Twenties, but a kind of self-satisfied innocence that predates August 1914. It seems to me that Wodehouse deliberately avoided bringing events from the outside world into the eggshell that encompasses his stories. Faulks makes a couple of historical references that crack that shell and momentarily turn Wodehouse’s tartness into bitterness, but steers the rest of the story back to the bucolic. All in all, Faulks does a masterful job bringing Wooster and Jeeves back to life for one final spin in the old two-seater.
Check the WRL catalogue for Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
And for a masterfully done light comic television series featuring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, check out the PBS show Jeeves and Wooster