What larks, eh?

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
by P G Wodehouse

It’s perhaps surprising that I had never picked up a Wodehouse before, and I’m glad I’ve finally indulged. This is one of the later titles in the canon but I already knew the characters and storylines from the TV series so I figured it made no difference. Maybe one day I’ll read them all in order.

Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves are such well established characters that I’m not sure I need to describe them but I’ll give a quick sketch for the unfamiliar. Wodehouse wrote short stories and novels about these characters over an almost 60-year period but all are set at an unnamed time that appears to be between the two world wars. Bertie is a loveable idiot, an idle English gentleman who has a wide circle of friends and gets into endless scrapes. Jeeves cleverly and subtly (for the most part) extricates Bertie from said scrapes and generally puts the world to rights.

The story is narrated by Bertie, which is where much of the humour lies. Though he can be dim-witted, he is a lover of words and often drops in slightly ridiculous overblown literary references, though he generally has to confirm the line with Jeeves. He seems to have no fear of looking foolish, but quite happily wades in to any situation and does, says and wears whatever he likes (though Jeeves does exert some control over his wardrobe).

This novel refers back a lot to previous episodes but the salient facts are repeated so that isn’t a problem. The main story is that Bertie is persuaded to visit Totleigh Towers – a stately home in Gloucestershire – to fix a rupture in the relationship of his friends Madeline Bassett and Gussie Fink-Nottle. (Yes, the names are brilliant, though occasionally confusing because Bertie calls them all by nicknames such as Stinker and Stiffy.) It sounds like a selfless task but in truth Bertie’s primary motivation is that due to a previous misunderstanding he has promised to marry Madeline if things don’t work out with Gussie; only he really doesn’t want to marry Madeline.

As ever, Totleigh Towers is awash with visitors plus of course its owner, Sir Watkyn Bassett, who is a strong contender for Person Who Hates Bertie Wooster The Most. Mix in a few questionable favours that are bound to get Bertie in trouble and an attempt to lure Jeeves away to a new employer and the scene is set for all sorts of fun.

And fun it really is. While Bertie can be – as his friends and acquaintances frequently observe – an ass, he is well meaning and endlessly accommodating, not to mention frightfully chipper (as he himself might say). There is a certain degree of rose-tinted nostalgia about it all and we sadly learn next to nothing about Jeeves besides his impeccable professionalism, but let’s face it, this was never intended to be social realism. Wodehouse is amiably mocking not only Wooster but also all of his social circle, and yet there is also a clear yearning for those days when life was this simple. I would like to see if that tone is something that crept in over time (it seems likely) so I will just have to buy some of the earlier titles. What a hardship!

First published in 1963 by Herbert Jenkins Ltd.