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The Inimitable Jeeves turns 100 – Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | May 18, 2023

Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg, 1917, Strand Magazine. Illustration by Alfred Leete


A century ago, this week that sublime Double Act, Bertie Wooster, and his valet Jeeves, appeared in their first novel, The Inimitable Jeeves. It would be a partnership that endured for the rest of the writing life of their creator, The Master, P.G. Wodehouse.

The Master was a genius at rewriting, revising, adapting, renaming, reissuing his superb copy. And so, although The Inimitable Jeeves, published on 17 May 1923 by Herbert Jenkins, was the first novel for literature’s Oddest Couple, most of the chapters that constituted it had already been published as short stories.

The 18 chapters were originally 11 short stories published between 1918 and 1922 in The Strand magazine. Another collection of short stories, though not a novel, had been published as My Man Jeeves in 1919 so the pair were not strangers and had already attracted their share of fans.

In fact, they first appeared in September 1915 in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. A hungover Bertie woken by a tap at the door, “Mrs. Gregson to see you, sir," and then "Very good, sir, which suit will you wear?" Jeeves, the ultimate gentleman’s personal gentleman, was born; and so they began. This was from ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ - the first of 35 short stories and 11 novels - to chart the adventures of the upper-class innocent cum Edwardian boulevardier, Bertie Wooster, and his consummate, inscrutable valet, Jeeves.

It was not until 1971 in Much Obliged, Jeeves that we - and Bertie - learn he had a first name, Reginald. But even Bertie took some time to take orf. At first, he was Mannering-Phipps and for the next four short stories featuring Jeeves, he was Reggie Pepper. Then at last, and forever twenty-four years old, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. By 1919, in ‘The Artistic Career of Corky’, the fantastic formula was set. As the author put it years later, “Why not groom this bit player for stardom…. make him a bird with a terrific brain who comes to Bertie’s rescue whenever the latter gets into a jam?” He confessed something like shame, "Now that I have written so much about him, to recall how softly and undramatically Jeeves first entered my little world."

The other odd aspect was that this first introduction to Jeeves and Bertie was set in New York. As the critic George Watson observed, “So the most famous manservant of modern literature started life as an expatriate - the creation, what is more, of an expatriate mind. Appropriately for a writer who spent much of his time evoking an England, which dwelt only in his imagination he spent most of his life outside the jurisdiction, in New York, Hollywood, Le Touquet, Cannes and ultimately Long Island.”

In The Inimitable, it is on the French Riviera that Aunt Agatha wants Bertie to marry Aline Hemmingway, the sister of a Dorsetshire curate, but Jeeves exposes the pair as con artists and recovers Agatha’s stolen pearls. In New York, Jeeves saves Cyril Bassington-Bassington from a career on the stage to spare Bertie more of Aunt Agatha’s wrath. Bertie’s all-night reveller cousins, Claude and Eustace, are sent to South Africa by Agatha. After being sent down from Oxford for spraying the senior tutor with soda water, where they fall in love with the same gel, Bertie’s friend Marion Wardour, and refuse to leave until Jeeves tricks them into going.

A recurring character and running theme are Bertie’s old school mate, Bingo Little, his tendency to fall in love; and his always having to be saved - of course by Jeeves. Apart from Honoria, there is Mary Burgess, niece of the parson Heppenstall; Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, a member of the Heralds of the Red Dawn communists; Lady Cynthia Wickhammersley; Rosie M Banks, the romantic novelist; and the waitress Mabel.

‘Is Mr Little in trouble, sir?’

‘Well, you might call it that. He’s in love. For about the fifty-third time. I ask you, Jeeves, as man to man, did you ever see such a chap?’

‘Mr Little is certainly warm-hearted, sir.’

‘Warm-hearted! I should think he has to wear asbestos vests….’

Bertie too has his romantic scrapes. His Aunt Agatha (that Mrs Gregson; later Lady Worplesdon), features in no less than four chapters and is the most fearsome of the auntage:

As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me

Agatha is determined that Bertie marries well and after Aline proves unsuitable, she proposes the formidable Honoria Glossop, who feeds Bertie a heavy diet of serious art and literature:

…[Honoria] looked at me in a proprietary sort of way. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie. It is true yours has been a wasted life up to the present, but you are still young, and there is a lot of good in you.’

‘No, really there isn’t.’

‘Oh, yes, there is. It simply wants bringing out…’

Jeeves manages to disentangle that engagement by convincing Honoria’s father, the eminent nerve specialist, Sir Roderick Glossop, that Bertie is unhinged.

Among the most famous, and treasured, of the episodes must be ‘The Great Sermon Handicap’ set at Twing Hall, the seat of Cynthia’s father, Lord Wickhammersley. Among the houseguests, lovesick Bingo who has fallen for Cynthia, and the mad Wooster twins, Claude and Eustace, who conceive, with a shady chap called Steggles, a book on who among the local clergymen will preach the longest sermon on Sunday.

The Rev’d Heppenstall withdraws due to hay fever. Bertie asks whether he should put another fiver all round on G Hayward, whom Eustace considered a cert. Of course, the only winner was Jeeves.

“I’m beginning to wonder,” said Eustace, “if there’s such a thing as a cert. in this world. I’m told the Rev’d Joseph Tucker did an extraordinarily fine trial gallop at a mothers’ meeting over at Badgwick yesterday.”

In 1930, seven years later, some imaginative Cambridge undergraduates founded The Wooster Society and ran a book on the real thing. The field included the bishops of Ely and Singapore, Monsignor Ronald Knox, and a missionary, the Rev. H. C. Read. Well, Read, preaching at the parish church of St Andrew the Great, won.

But what of the man behind the enigmatic duo? Pelham Grenville (PG/Plum) Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881, the son of a Hong Kong magistrate. The scion of one of Britain’s oldest baronetcies and the Earldom of Kimberley (he was also a great-nephew of the great - now Saint - John Henry, Cardinal Newman), two-year-old Plum was soon back in England with relatives – clergymen uncles and ‘a surging sea of aunts’ (among them Aunt Mary (Mary Bathurst Deane) his least favourite and his inspiration for the ferocious Aunt Agatha), accompanying them on visits to country houses where he often ended up in the servants’ hall. Then, having pleaded to go, he spent ‘six years of unbroken bliss’ as a border at Dulwich College - popular, clever, and good at games. He would remain at heart forever the schoolboy.

Family finances denied him a place at Oxford so his father found him a job in the London office of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He was, in his words, “the most inefficient clerk whose trouser-seat ever polished the surface of a high stool.” Writing - journalism and school stories - became an escape and, in 1904, allowed him to go to New York - “like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying”. He stayed there throughout the First World War, refused enlistment due to poor eyesight.

In 1914, he fell instantly in love – rather like Bingo Little throughout The Inimitable Jeeves but only once. He wed a fellow expat, the twice-widowed, former chorus girl, Ethel Rowley, who had an eleven-year-old daughter, Leonora, whom Plum adopted and adored. Ethel was described by Malcolm Muggeridge as “a mixture of Mistress Quickly and Florence Nightingale with a touch of Lady Macbeth thrown in.” In reviewing Robert McCrum’s consummate biography for The Spectator, Michael Vestey added, “She was everything Wodehouse wasn’t: highly sexed, sociable, extravagant with money and yet it was an extremely successful partnership that lasted sixty years.”

Interestingly, his own domestic contentment, supported by an endless succession of pets, mainly Pekinese, allowed him to write and was as enduring as that of Bertie and Jeeves’ six-decades together.

He reserved his wit and conversation for the page. When an uncharacteristically starry-eyed Evelyn Waugh met Wodehouse for the first time, he was disappointed to find their exchanges did not get beyond the inequities of income tax. And when Plum was invited to join the Round Table gang at the Algonquin, he complained, “All those three-hour lunches. When did these slackers ever get any work done?”

Although they came to life in 1915, Bertie and Jeeves were – and remained - men of an earlier age. Another Wodehouse devotee, Hugh Massingberd put it, “I like to believe that Wodehouse’s Edwardian never-never land was not so far removed from what England might have been like in the 1920s if the apocalyptic Great War had never taken place.”

It is often said that searching for models and muses for fictional figures is frivolous and self-indulgent and somehow robs the novelist of his genius. Yet Wodehouse would occasionally feed morsels to curious apostles. In Herbert Warren Wind’s fascinating New Yorker profile (1971), Plum insisted that when he was “living in London at the turn of the century a good many of the young men dressed in morning coats, toppers, and spats…” and by the time he started writing his stories, “Bertie was a recognisable type. All the rich young men had valets.”

He mentioned the amateur jockey, Lord Mildmay (1909 – 1950), as a model for Bertie, but one can see that in 1915, his Lordship was even younger than those monstrous younger brothers, Oswald Glossop and Edwin Craye. What this does indicate is that Bertie was not yet (was he ever?) fully-formed.

Another inspiration (identified by Colonel Norman Murphy in his decades of exhaustive study of the truth behind Wodehouse’s fiction) was surely Plum’s chum, George Grossmith Junior, who as an actor embodied the Edwardian dude in musicals and comedies on the London stage in the early years of last century.

As for Jeeves, we know the name came from the Warwickshire bowler, Percy Jeeves, whom Wodehouse saw play against Gloucestershire in 1913. But the character himself? J. M. Barrie had an extraordinary butler called Thurston who apparently read Latin and Greek as he polished the silver and would correct Barrie’s literary guests when they got their quotations wrong. Cynthia Asquith’s Portrait of Barrie refers to “Thurston, uncommunicative, inscrutable, puma-footed …. No one ever heard him enter or leave a room.” Uncannily like the shimmering Jeeves.

But again, the timing is not right. Thurston joined Barrie in 1922 and Lady Cynthia’s memoir was published in 1954 so perhaps Barrie’s butler (or Lady Cynthia’s recollection) had unconsciously assumed the mien of the by-then legendary Jeeves. A closer source might well have been two other fictional figures – Harry Leon Wilson’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1915), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Austin, Professor Challenger’s servant in The Poison Belt (1913):

‘I’m expecting the end of the world today, Austin.’

‘Yes, sir, what time, sir?’

‘I can’t say. Before evening.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Yet all-in-all, Jeeves had no forebear; nor did he have an equal. As if he did not have enough on his plate, it was invariably Jeeves’s lot to drive the plot – with all those winning ingredients - a country house, its peppery owner, an icy consort, a glacial Grande Dame, the odd aunt and an odder uncle or two, perhaps a clergyman, and of course a butler; a series of breakfasts, lunches, teas and dinners, a few chums, a fiancée and, of course, the requisite luckless, love-struck young couple. Add a cricket match, a game of golf, or a horse race, a break-in, a concert, or fete. And, with Jeeves and Bertie perhaps in disguise, the flawless formula is plumb in place.

But what makes the novels sing is the Master’s musical prose. The love interest with a laugh “like a squadron of cavalry galloping over a tin bridge”; the oft-quoted “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”; and “It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a complete food well in advance of medical thought.” Vintage Bertie. The same Bertie who never utters a biblical or literary quote that he can get right. Leaving it, of course, to Jeeves to correct him but never quite finish it. And yet, though ‘mentally negligible’ Bertie is an unselfconsciously brilliant narrator. Wodehouse wrote in Bertie’s voice more than any other and, although he would say that the absent-minded, hen-pecked, all-for-a-quiet life, Lord Emsworth (of Blandings fame) was his nearest alter ego, one must agree with the Wodehousean scholar, Richard Usborne, that there is much of Plum in Bertie.

Plum’s only brush with scandal was certainly the result of a Bertie moment. In 1940 he was taken prisoner at Le Touquet by the invading Germans. Ethel recalled his arrest. He had ten minutes to pack. “I was nearly insane; couldn’t find the keys to the room for the suitcase, and Plum went off with a copy of Shakespeare, a pair of pyjamas and a mutton chop.” He was interned for nearly a year, finally in Upper Silesia. (“If this is Upper Silesia,” he wrote, “what must Lower be like?”).

After his release, he made, at the request of the Nazis, six amusing, apolitical radio broadcasts from Berlin to the United States, which had not yet entered the war. To the British under siege across the Channel this was either treason or collaboration. Inquiries by the British and later the French found no evidence to prosecute Plum; while scholarly examination since has established nothing more than foolish naivety. As his biographer, McCrum, put it, “Jeevesian in his professional life, it was his fate to be Woosterish in Berlin.” Wodehouse would never again set foot on English soil.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, politics rarely raises its ugly head to tarnish the timeless Edwardian glow of Wooster’s World. There was of course the unattractive anarchist, Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, and The Code of the Woosters (1938), one of the best in the canon, which does feature Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the Blackshorts; an uncharacteristically up-to-date shot at Oswald Mosley but still a classic Wodehouse villain.

Of course, Plum also made Spode the secret owner of Eulalie Soeurs, a Bond Street emporium which designed and sold ladies' lingerie. Bertie would threaten Sir Roderick with exposure, “You can't be a successful Dictator and design women's underclothing. One or the other. Not both."

There is also the celebrated appearance of Sippy Sipperley in the dock as Leon Trotzky in “Without The Option” (1925). Even in Plum’s last novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentleman (1974), there are references to protest marches and civil disobedience.

But incursions into the real world are rare. Like politics – and parents, death, dates, and sex are alien. Beds are for nothing but sleeping, convalescing, or short-sheeting. Bertie is stirred of course, but by nothing more carnal than Madeline Bassett’s ‘blonde hair with all the trimmings’ and Florence Craye’s ‘wonderful profile’. Love is a different thing. His fellow Drones were stricken all the time - in the Mating Season (1949) the Master juggled no less than four infatuated couples.

True, Bertie was not as susceptible as Bingo Little, but he fell in love – with Cynthia Wickhammersley, Angelica Briscoe, Pauline Stoker. Although, in Bertie’s case, the state of betrothal does not always (or even usually) equal devotion and he NEVER makes it to the altar. His Aunt Dahlia quipped, if the girls Bertie has been engaged to were placed end to end, they would reach from Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner.

The arcane marks of a gentleman are taken as read. “Never trust a man who keeps billiard chalk in his waistcoat pocket.” And in cricket, “a gentleman should not score more than half his teams total.” There are of course weightier tropes. In The Code of the Woosters, Wodehouse lays down the two commandments upon which most of his Bertie plots hinge: Thou shalt not let down a pal; and Thou shalt not scorn a woman’s love.

Appearances are All in this exquisite universe and Bertie’s occasional sartorial lapses are one of the few causes of friction between him and Jeeves. Bertie’s choice of a garish cummerbund, a white dinner jacket, an over-checked suit are almost capital offences:

‘There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself ‘do trousers matter’?’

‘The mood will pass, sir.’

As Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited Plum’s letters) observed, “Bertie’s [heliotrope] pyjamas [with a gold stripe], carefully buttoned up to disguise true feeling.” Wodehouse once remarked to a friend, “there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.''

The writer Roger Kimball noted, “Most great artists plumb the depths; Wodehouse remained fixed, gloriously, on the surface.” As Evelyn Waugh saw it, Wodehouse inhabited a world as timeless as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Alice in Wonderland. Wodehouse himself said it was as if he was forever in his last year at school. It was, Waugh said, “as if the Fall of Man had never happened.”

For such an inimitably English writer, it is impossible to imagine him translated. Yet more than thirty Wodehouse titles have been published in a dozen languages – from Bulgarian and Hungarian to Finnish and French. A few titles are available in another sixteen languages. In his Penguin Wodehouse Companion (1988) Richard Usborne has fun with the French version: ‘I have just one thing to say to you, Wooster. Get out!” This appears as, “Je n’ai qu’un mot à te dire, Wooster, f …… le camp.” A particular favourite is the French rendering of ‘Loony to the eyebrows’: ‘complètement dingo’.

In an heroic hommage to the Master, Jimmy Heineman commissioned translations of ‘The Great Sermon Handicap’ into no less than 59 languages – Catalan and Afrikaans, Old Norse and Pidgin English, Sanskrit and Somali. Even Latin, “Bingo, ‘Jaevio enim’ inquit, ‘animus aleandi non inest’”. Oldies might recall the tale of Paddy Leigh Fermor emerging triumphantly from his study – his guests hoping he had made some progress on the much-awaited last volume of his ‘Great Trudge’ – only to announce he had just translated ‘The Great Sermon Handicap’ into Ancient Greek.

In a letter to some admirers, Wodehouse wrote, "The world I write about, always a small one – one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie … would say – is now not even small, it is non-existent. It has gone with the wind …….. In a word, it has had it. But I have not altogether lost hope of a revival." Of course, that revival never came, and Plum died aged 93, just six weeks after he was so belatedly knighted.

The Master met his Maker on Valentine’s Day 1975. The timing was as perfect as his prose - it was invariably love that underpinned his fiction. As Bertie reflected (a rare phenomenon), “I wonder if you have observed a rather rummy thing about it –viz. that it is everywhere. You can’t get away from it. Love, I mean. Wherever you go, there it is, buzzing along in every class of life.”