Listen to this article
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells: A Homage to P.G. Wodehouse, by Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson, RRP£16.99 / St Martin’s Press, RRP$25.99, 272 pages
From the first page of Sebastian Faulks’s entirely delightful book, subtitled A Homage to P.G. Wodehouse, we are transported to Wodehouse-land. Bertie, for reasons that eventually become clear, is staying at the sort of country house where a hundred Jeeves and Wooster dramas have unfolded in the past. An unusual twist, however, is that Bertie is having to impersonate a valet, while Jeeves plays the role of a peer called Lord Etringham, appeasing his bad-tempered and impecunious host with racing tips. Needless to say, Jeeves impersonates a peer to perfection, while Bertie, who is enlisted to wait on the house guests, makes a hash of things, dropping china, and upsetting the gooseberry fool into the lap of the terrifying Dame Judith Puxley, a chum of his Gorgon-aunt Agatha.
All the details, of plot, of character, and of setting, are lovingly drawn. Bertie’s hare-brained schemes to help his friends through the ups and downs of their love lives go as loopily wrong as we should expect. The country house, Melbury Hall, is filled with the expected cast list of peppery old buffers, gimlet-eyed older women, pretty flappers and asinine drones. There is a very good, and very funny, village cricket match. And there is the statutory disastrous village fête, where Bertie remembers his lines from childhood, when he played Bottom in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Needless to say, what appeared to be a plot spiralling out of control had really, all along, been a puppet show in which Jeeves, and an accomplice below stairs, were pulling the strings. What could have been a series of disasters resolves itself into a classic, almost a Shakespearean, comedy, with every nice girl getting her mate, and everything smelling of roses.
The hours spent Jeeves and the Wedding Bells are pure pleasure; and if, like me, you are a Wodehouse addict, you will undoubtedly want to buy three copies for your friends’ Christmas stockings. But you will have a mixed motive in doing so.
First, you will be wanting to share the pleasure of what is, in effect, an extended after-dinner game. Faulks, who delivers a brilliant literary parody week after week in BBC Radio 4’s The Write Stuff, captures the flavour of Wodehousian prose to perfection, particularly with his use of the exaggerated simile – “She looked like a messenger charged with calling on King Harold’s bedchamber to tell him that the Normans had splashed ashore in force near a spot called Hastings ... ”
At the same time, where two or three Wodehouse fans are gathered together, they will be reminded of the very unusual nature of Plum’s genius. (We are speaking here of genial fans, and not the nit-picking, snarling pedants who will question the felicity of this or that phrase.) Rather, our ideal readers will recall Evelyn Waugh’s bullseye in that BBC broadcast of 1961: “For Mr Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man ... his characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit.” Waugh meant much more than the fact that Wodehouse’s characters are sexless. This is, of course, part of the magic recipe. And as soon as Faulks takes up his pen, we notice the difference, for Faulks’s Bertie really fancies the heroine, Georgiana Meadowes, from their first encounter in the south of France. “I felt her take my hand in hers ... ” Wodehouse never describes such a feeling. Faulks’s Bertie, unlike Wodehouse’s, not only feels lust; he feels grief, for his lost parents, something he has in common with the lovely Georgie Meadowes.
Although Wodehouse lived through the first and second world wars, he shielded his characters from the horrors. Never would you find in a Wodehouse novel a moment such as when Faulks’s Jeeves recalls how a distant relation of his played for Warwickshire and took four wickets for the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s. It was his swansong. “What a shame. Retire, did he?” “No, sir, he volunteered ... The Battle of the Somme, sir. He was in C Company of the 15th Royal Warwicks.”
Above all, the fans may note absence of the Master in the tale’s denouement. It is the convention among novel-reviewers that they should not disclose how the story ends. Faulks, however, gives you a fairly generous clue in his title. In so doing, he poses a threat to one of the most beautiful relationships in literary history. While the door is left open for Bertie and Wooster to continue in their perfect symbiosis, things will never be the same again.
AN Wilson is author of ‘The Potter’s Hand’ (Atlantic)