“The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh is tasteless, irreverent, perverse, and merciless. These qualities, however, are the source of a strange sanity because they are the means by which we can all have a good laugh. Not only is it quite alright to take things lightly, it is a good habit… We are refreshed more readily by arrant absurdities than by academic analyses. Only a Chestertonian hat-chase on a windy day can bestow the hilarious and humbling reminder that, though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time—which is just one of the wonderful jokes of humanity.” – Sean Fitzpatrick, The Imaginative Conservative
At Plumfield and Paideia, it is our mission to focus on the transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Reading Right Ho, Jeeves, it might be natural to wonder how in the world P.G. Wodehouse fits into those categories. Wodehouse is witty, satiric, profane, and almost exasperating in the incredible stupidity and vanity of his characters, such as Bertie Wooster. And yet, in all of the head shaking and cringing, we manage to laugh. We laugh because the jokes are smart. We laugh because it is too stupid not to be funny. We laugh because it makes us feel free of some of the worldly weight that preoccupies our normal day. Jeeves’ long suffering resonates with us, and Bertie’s desire to be thought well of, coupled with his failure to achieve respect, amuses even the most sympathetic of us. This idiosyncratic pair is classic comedic entertainment.
In 1915, P.G. Wodehouse first introduced us to Bertie (Wooster) and his manservant (Reginald) Jeeves in the short story “Extricating Young Gussie.” In 1917, “Extricating Young Gussie” re-appeared in a collection of short stories called The Man With Two Left Feet. For the next 17 years, Wodehouse would continue to delight readers with 36 more Jeeves and Wooster short stories.
In 1934, Wodehouse gave us the first full length Jeeves and Wooster novel, Thank You, Jeeves. Slightly atypical of standard Jeeves and Wooster fare, the duo have had a falling out. In Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie has a new Butler and Jeeves has a new employer. By the end of the novel, however, everything is set aright and the duo settle into a long career of full-length novels. Over the next 40 years, the valet and his gentleman employer appear together in ten more novels, plus more short stories and a stage play.
Right Ho, Jeeves is the first “typical” full-length Jeeves and Wooster novel. As such, our book club chose it as our November, 2016 read because we thought it would be a good entry point for new readers. Typical of Jeeves and Wooster, it is jocular, prewar English Upper Class, and a bit Oscar Wilde-like (in the style of The Importance of Being Earnest). While the novel involves a good amount of alcohol, a touch of the vulgar, many politically incorrect jokes, and the Shakespearean use of the word a** every few paragraphs, it still manages to be pretty wholesome and rather hilarious.
Part of the humor in these stories comes from the way in which Wodehouse has constructed the primary characters. Bertie Wooster is a wealthy and useless playboy. No one in his acquaintance dislikes him, but neither do they respect him. Jeeves, on the other hand, is bright, strong, and firmly in control of all situations. In Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie is tortured by the fact that everyone moves into his sphere solely to gain the assistance of Jeeves in their personal affairs. Bertie acknowledges that Jeeves is a genius but his wounded ego (over a dinner coat in particular) has him routinely telling people that Jeeves “has gone off,” insinuating that Jeeves is losing his touch. Every remedy that Bertie tries to employ for his friends’ troubles causes more trouble instead of effecting solution. In the meantime, Jeeves has been bound by Bertie to not interfere. And yet, good natured Jeeves does interfere. The comedy is ripe.
Many of Wodehouse’s detractors have passed him off as superficial and only marginally funny. His defenders like Evelyn Waugh, Hillaire Belloc, Rudyard Kipling, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, however, speak of the genius behind the comedy and the subtlety in particular. I was a philosophy major in college, so I cannot escape the comparison to Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic. In Jeeves and Wooster, we have two characters whose strengths are dependent on the other letting them be strong. If Wooster were a less worthy character, Jeeves would not shine through. If Jeeves were a less humble servant, Wooster would be pathetic instead of funny. It is in their co-dependence on each other for power that makes the comedy so full and delightful.
Right Ho, Jeeves is some of the most delicious brain candy I have read. It is a very well constructed situational comedy that bears more than one reading. I found that watching the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry “Jeeves and Wooster” series enhanced my enjoyment of the story. Necessarily, the two episodes which cover this novel (S1, Ep 4-5) are trimmed, but the spirit of the story is absolutely present and a treat to watch.
Right Ho, Jeeves is a very good place to enter into the Jeeves and Wooster comedic drama. Some readers, however, may want to preface this novel with a quick reading of the short story “Jeeves Takes Charge” from Carry On, Jeeves. This volume of collected short stories contains Wodehouse’s recounting of how Jeeves came to work for Wooster. It is gratifyingly funny and will give a reader the necessary background to really appreciate the dynamic between the pair. The text of that short story can be found online here. The t.v. series episode (S1, Ep 1) covering this short story is absolutely perfect.
Audible has a number of options for Jeeves and Wooster. I personally strongly prefer Jonathan Cecil. The cover art is hideous but the recording is top notch. I was intrigued by The World of Jeeves because it is said to contain all of the Jeeves and Wooster short stories. My copy hasn’t arrived yet to verify this.