Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was an English humorist, one of the most beloved and most popular writers of the 20th Century. He was born in Guildford in 1881 and educated at Dulwich College in London. He eventually moved to the USA and gained American citizenship in 1955.
Over the course of Wodehouse's career, he wrote plays, lyrics, nearly a hundred novels and countless short stories and articles. He wrote several non-affiliated novels, such as Piccadilly Jim and Hot Water, and series featuring characters like Psmith and Lord Emsworth. However, the most popular and best-known of Wodehouse's books are his stories which followed the life of Bertie Wooster and his valet of superior intelligence, Jeeves.
Bertie Wooster - the Idle Rich
Bertram Wilberforce Wooster is a young, wealthy, bumbling buffoon of a bachelor who lives in his London flat with his valet, Jeeves. Bertie always seems to be on the run from his formidable Aunt Agatha. When that isn't the case, though, he's usually caught in a spot of bother due to the mishaps of his friends, such as Bingo Little and Tuppy Glossop; or those of his enemies, Sir Roderick Glossop and his daughter, Honoria. Then it's up to Jeeves, Bertie's valet, to think up a plan to save the day, usually involving a hilarious and clever scheme with unexpected twists.
Bertie is also a member of the Drones Club. A drone is a male bee who doesn't do any work, which is a suitable description of the club's wealthy, layabout members.
Bertie was first introduced in 'Extricating Young Gussie', a short story which appeared in The Man With Two Left Feet, a compilation of 13 stories published in 1917. This story is clearly a prototype, though, as Bertie's surname is 'Mannering-Phipps'.
Bertie's own stories are written as his memoirs. Some of the books are episodic, such as Carry On, Jeeves, Very Good, Jeeves and The Inimitable Jeeves. These are compilations of short stories that are not necessarily connected, but occasionally refer back to each other. Other books, such as Right Ho, Jeeves and Much Obliged, Jeeves are complete novels rather than collections of separate stories.
Reginald Jeeves - The Gentleman's Gentleman
If he had been eating plenty of fish, as no doubt he would at a seashore resort, his brain will be at the top of its form, and when Jeeves's brain is at the top of its form, all you have to do is press a button and stand out of the way while he takes charge.
- Jeeves in the Offing
Jeeves's noggin seems to contain all the knowledge in the world and then some, which makes him the ultimate problem-solver. Bertie would never get by without Jeeves rescuing him from trouble, saving him from a potentially disastrous marriage, giving him (sometimes unwelcome) fashion advice or, possibly most important, making him tea in the morning.
Bertie sacked his previous valet for stealing socks, and Jeeves first comes to the rescue when Bertie has a terrible hangover. Jeeves mixes up his miracle cure: raw egg, Worcester sauce and pepper. Amazed by the mixture's potency, Bertie hires Jeeves on the spot.
There are scores and scores of characters in the stories. It would be impossible to mention them all, but here are (very) brief profiles of some of the most relevant.
Richard 'Bingo' Little is one of Bertie's closest chums. They were born on nearly the same day in the same town and attended the same school. Bingo has a nasty habit of falling madly in love with just about every female he lays his eyes on. In one story, Bingo falls in love with and wishes to marry a girl of whom his rich uncle will not approve. So Jeeves suggests that Bingo read his uncle the heart-warming romance novels of author Rosie M Banks, in the hopes of softening the uncle's heart. Then, Bingo has his uncle and Bertie meet in order for Bertie to talk him into letting Bingo marry the girl, while Bingo has lead his uncle to believe that Bertie wrote all of the books under a pseudonym! In a later story, Bingo in fact marries Rosie M Banks herself.
Augustus 'Gussie' Fink-Nottle is described as 'a teetotal bachelor with a face like a fish'. He and Bertie were schoolmates at Malvern House Preparatory School, and Gussie later moved to Lincolnshire, where he studies newts. He falls in love with and is engaged to Madeline Bassett, but breaks off the engagement when she wants him to take up a vegetarian diet.
She was a pretty enough girl in a droopy, blonde, saucer-eyed way, but not the sort of breath-taker that takes the breath.
- Right Ho, Jeeves
Madeline Bassett is the daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett of Totleigh Towers. She is described as being 'soppy' and is of the opinion that 'the stars are God's daisy-chain'. When Gussie Fink-Nottle breaks off their engagement, Bertie, to his utter dismay, finds himself engaged to Madeline, as she continues to be under the impression that Bertie is in love with her. But Jeeves comes to the rescue and Madeline is instead engaged to Roderick Spode, the 8th Earl of Sidcup and former head of a fascist group called the Black Shorts.
Dahlia Travers is Bertie's more lovable, affectionate aunt, who is, as Bertie describes her, 'an all-around good egg'. He often addresses her as 'Aged Relative' or 'Old Blood Relation'. Aunt Dahlia, on the other hand, describes Bertie as her 'fathead nephew', 'young blot' or 'young menace of the Western Hemisphere'. Still, she is fond of Bertie, despite his ineptitude. She lives in Brinkley Court, near Market Snodsbury, with her husband Tom, her son Bonzo, her superb French chef Anatole1, the butler, Seppings, and her daughter, Angela, who is off-and-on engaged to Tuppy Glossop, a friend of Bertie's.
My Aunt Agatha, the one who chews broken bottles and kill rats with her teeth.
- The Mating Season
Agatha Gregson, later Lady Worplesdon, is Bertie's severe, formidable aunt who dislikes Jeeves and frequently attempts to get Bertie married. She is married to Spenser Gregson, but he later dies and she marries Percy Craye, the Earl of Worplesdon. Bertie was engaged to Craye's daughter, Lady Florence, for a short period.
Aunt Agatha has one son, Thomas Gregson, and a butler called Purvis.
Claude and Eustace
The identical twins Claude and Eustace Wooster are Bertie's trouble-making younger cousins. They attend Oxford University and occasionally visit Bertie to borrow money, pinch some tea and rashers of bacon from his breakfast tray or ask him to bail them out of prison.
The stories of Jeeves and Wooster are formulaic in such a way that they typically start and end in similar situations, with relatively similar plot lines involving elements such as misunderstandings and quirky situations. To give an example of the humour and style of the stories, here is a summary of the plot of a story which appeared in The Inimitable Jeeves.
One day, Bertie runs into his friend Bingo Little and Bingo says that he has taken a job at Ditteredge, where he is tutoring young Oswald Glossop. Bingo tells Bertie that he has fallen in love with Oswald's older sister, Honoria. Bertie is surprised, as he has previously met Honoria and describes her as 'nothing more nor less than a pot of poison'. He dismisses this as not particularly important and goes on to lunch with his Aunt Agatha.
Over lunch, Aunt Agatha informs Bertie that she has found just the wife for him: her name is Honoria Glossop and he is invited to Ditteredge to meet her! Bertie is extremely distressed at this, but there is no way for him to worm out of it. The next day, he arrives at Ditteredge and meets Bingo, who is accompanying Oswald while he is fishing.
'This is Oswald,' said Bingo.
'What,' I replied cordially, 'could be sweeter? How are you?'
'Oh, all right,' said the kid.
'Nice place, this is.'
'Oh, all right,' said the kid.
'Having a good time fishing?'
'Oh, all right.'
Bertie subsequently hatches a plan for Bingo to win Honoria's heart. Bertie will push Oswald off a bridge while Bingo waits in the bushes. When Oswald falls in, Bingo will leap off the bridge after him, pulling him from the water and impressing Honoria.
When Honoria arrives, she and Bertie are conversing and she mentions that she wishes Oswald wouldn't sit on the edge of the bridge as he could fall in. So Bertie says that he will go and tell Oswald. But instead, he puts his hand on Oswald’s shoulder and 'accidentally' pushes him over. However, Bingo doesn't show up, leaving Bertie with no choice but to jump in himself to save Oswald. When he does so, Honoria catches him in the act and is amused at Bertie's attempts to impress her.
All the while, Bingo was distracted by Honoria's friend, Daphne Braythwayte. Bingo later explains to Bertie that Honoria was nothing but a mere passing whim and that he is now solidly in love with Miss Braythwayte. And so Bertie ends up engaged to Honoria Glossop.
The next part of the story involves Bertie's younger cousins, Claude and Eustace, along with their friend, Lord Rainsby. They tell Bertie that they and Lord Rainsby are joining a club at Oxford called The Seekers and are in London on related business. They ask Bertie to loan them a fiver. Bertie complies quickly and hurries back to his flat where he is entertaining Sir Roderick Glossop, Honoria's father, for lunch. Sir Roderick is a 'loony doctor' and is intending to scrutinise Bertie for any 'cerebral excitement'.
During the meal, Sir Roderick is telling Bertie how, earlier, someone driving past in a car snatched his hat from his head, and then tells Bertie that he just heard a cat meowing nearby. Bertie dismisses it at first, saying it was probably a taxi on the street, but when it happens again he then consults Jeeves on the matter. Jeeves informs Bertie that there are three cats in Bertie's bedroom, along with a salmon under the bed. Sir Roderick becomes angry at this and begins to leave. But as he reaches for his coat, he also finds his stolen hat!
Thinking Bertie is the thief and that he is also crazy, Sir Roderick storms off, explaining that he prefers to spend his time in less eccentric society. Later, Lord Rainsby comes by to retrieve the fish, cats and hat, which he had left there earlier. Lord Rainsby explains that to be elected to The Seekers, they must each pinch an item or souvenir of some sort. The cats were his, the fish was Eustace's and the hat was Claude's. Bertie explains that the cats ate the fish and then escaped, and that the man that they took the hat from was the one who was just at lunch.
No wedding bells for Bertie, so he and Jeeves decide to book tickets for New York to escape from Aunt Agatha's wrath.
TV, Radio and Film Adaptations
In 1936, the film Thank You, Jeeves was released, starring David Niven as Bertie and Arthur Treacher as Jeeves. In 1937 a sequel, Step Lively, Jeeves!, was made, also with Arthur Treacher in the title role. However, this film did not feature Bertie and was not based on any Wodehouse story.
From 1972 to 1981, BBC Radio 4 aired What Ho, Jeeves, in which Bertie and Jeeves were voiced by Richard Briers and Michael Hordern. In the 1960s, there was a BBC television series called The World of Wooster, which starred Ian Carmichael as Bertie and Dennis Price as Jeeves. Later, in the 1990s, an ITV television series entitled Jeeves And Wooster featured Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves.
A musical comedy entitled Jeeves opened in London in 1975. Andrew Lloyd-Webber composed the musical score and Alan Ayckbourne wrote the lyrics and story. Jeeves was only loosely based on the Wodehouse stories. Unfortunately, the show was not successful at first and was pulled after 38 performances.
Jeeves was later rewritten and opened again in London in 1996, with the revised title of By Jeeves, this time slightly more successfully. It also debuted in America later that year. By Jeeves was also specially recorded for DVD and VHS release.
- The Inimitable Jeeves - 1923
- Carry On, Jeeves - 1925
- Very Good, Jeeves - 1930
- Thank You, Jeeves - 1934
- Right Ho, Jeeves -1934
- The Code of the Woosters - 1938
- The Mating Season - 1949
- Ring For Jeeves - 1953 (US title: The Return of Jeeves)
- Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit - 1954 (US title: Bertie Wooster Sees it Through)
- Jeeves in the Offing - 1960 (US title: How Right You Are, Jeeves)
- Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves - 1962
- Much Obliged, Jeeves - 1971 (US title: Jeeves and the Tie That Binds)
- Joy in the Morning - 1971 (US title: Jeeves in the Morning)
- Aunts Aren't Gentlemen - 1974 (US title: The Catnappers)
PG Wodehouse died on 14 February, 1975, having been knighted earlier that year. He said he had no ambitions left, now that he was a knight and a waxwork in Madame Tussaud's. He once said, of writing:
I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life all together; the other is going deep down into life and not caring a damn.