Once again I have engaged the deep thinkers of the Ferkytoodlers group at the Melbourne Savage Club in the life and times of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. I don’t know why, when again invited to impersonate Mr Mulliner, I chose this particular topic but somehow it turned out right for the times. The talk also coincided with the arrival of grandson Clarence on Plum’s birthday, which inspired a wonderful poem by Ashok Bhatia. And for those of you who have not been paying attention, Clarence is not only the given name of Lord Emsworth, seigneur of Blandings Castle, but also the first name of C.J. Dennis, author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, who has also featured in my wafflings to the Savage Club and recycled in The Traveller.
Enough of that. Here is the latest edition . . .
As a member of the Savage Club, I naturally have a profound understanding of the benefits of a springy pediment to house the billowy portions, some comforting restorative – preferably red – close to hand and a buzz of triviality drifting around the old bean. I wouldn’t call us lazy but perhaps we might have a leaning towards a certain, shall I say, relaxed approach to life, the universe and everything.
And this is how I made my first mistake in compiling my chat today on Reginald Jeeves, personal gentleman to Bertram Wilberforce Wooster of Crichton Mansions, Berkeley Street W1. Instead of simply getting a few gags from the internet, thus leaving myself free to play a few thousand more games of solitaire, I reached into my bookshelves and took down an oldish tome called Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes by an American academic named Kristin Thompson.
I swear I had no purpose other than seeking out a one-stop shop for some easy Wodehouse-isms to keep the troops amused – I most certainly did not want to sweat over any difficult research – but almost immediately I was plunged without warning into a world of Russian formalism, transferred epithets and psychical marriages. That’s what happens when the old grey cells are strolling along, smelling the flowers and just generally enjoying the sunshine. The said grey cells don’t expect to encounter the stinking rogers in the garden bed of existence.
Then, instead of bidding the thing begone and turfing it back into the unruly undergrowth of ill-discipline that is my library, I made my second mistake: I read on. In my own defence, I didn’t read all of it. Like numerous famous personages, I didn’t inhale. But the result nevertheless, my Brother Savages, is that, while I will make every effort in what ensues to heed Mel Brooks’ advice to keep it light, keep it bright, keep it gay – well, light and bright anyway – my subject matter in odd spots may take on the aspect of a Savage Club sticky date pudding. I suppose in the manner of today’s academy that constitutes a trigger warning.
At this point, a quantum of querulousness may be shoving its nose above the level of the house red in circulation around the table. If, I can hear you thinking, this idiot is giving us trigger warnings, why should we not just bung him out on his ear and get on with the browsing and sluicing unencumbered by loose talk about social consciences? Five minutes ago, I can sense you thinking, Jeeves’s social conscience was not an issue. Whoever thought it might be, or indeed, that it even existed? Why should we even bother with it?
Jeeves is one of the most famous characters in all of English literature. His name never has to be qualified – and indeed that’s how I’ve embarked on this exposition today. No one has asked who the hell is Jeeves. You only have to mention Jeeves and everyone knows you are talking about the butlerine genus. Jeeves, of course, is a valet – and that is val-ett, as the English upper classes say – or, as he prefers, a gentleman’s personal gentleman, but he can, when called upon, buttle with the best of them. Everyone also knows Jeeves as a man of few but well chosen words, as a fixer of life’s little problems and as a source of infallible information on any topic. At one stage in his career, he is asked: ‘Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don’t know?” To which he replies: “I couldn’t say, sir.” And there you have it – that’s Jeeves.
But is Jeeves sound? With civilisation apparently collapsing all around us, does Jeeves represent something enduring amid the chaos? Does the character have character? Is his social conscience alive and well? Does anyone really know Jeeves? My literary adviser, Kristin Thompson, thinks she does. In her earnest, humourless, Midwestern way, she delves to no little extent into the character behind his finely chiselled features. I’m afraid he doesn’t come out of it well.
Jeeves, says the fragrant Kristin, is intelligent (yes, we all agree of course), educated (autodidactic, surely), intellectual (oh dear), pragmatic (here we go) and fundamentally amoral (which seems to be a generic label for traits that later on in her text include wilful, headstrong, supercilious, snobbish, selfish, insensitive, cynical, Machiavellian, deceitful, reactionary and misogynist). She points out that Jeeves frequently resorts to trickery and blackmail, and has been known to use actual violence in furtherance of his ends. This, gentlemen, is not the portrait of a man with a social conscience – at least as far as that term is understood and used today.
“Social conscience” is a sibling of that other bastard son of hippie sanctimony, “social justice”. Authorities are agreed that “social conscience” is “a sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society”. The modern Jeeves, Wikipedia, explains: “While our conscience is related to our moral conduct in our day-to-day lives with respect to individuals, social conscience is concerned with the broader institutions of society and the gap that we may perceive between the sort of society that should exist and the real society that does exist.”
I don’t know about you but this stuff gives me a slight throbbing about the temples. Take a moment then and join me in the pause that refreshes. Everything will be all right. You see, for me, the definition and elaboration of “social conscience” as presented describe Jeeves perfectly. His social conscience is just not one that would be approved by the great and good occupying what they have staked out as the high moral ground.
P.G. Wodehouse introduced Jeeves to the world on 18 September 1915 in the story Extricating Young Gussie. It was just a walk-on part:
Jeeves came in with the tea. “Jeeves,” I said, “we start for America on Saturday.”
“Very good, sir,” he said; “which suit will you wear?”
He was given a bit of business handling the baggage at US customs but no more lines. That was it. But very little has ever been written that contains as much possibility and as much meaning as those five words “which suit will you wear?” For the next 60 years, everything Wodehouse had Jeeves do was based on that question.
It is central to my thesis today. Jeeves’s sense of right and wrong, his social conscience, is demonstrated by his adherence to certain standards in matters of (male) dress. I suppose there must be other characters somewhere in modern literature to whom the motto “clothes maketh the man” can be applied but few, if any, of them can have it as their whole personal ethos.
So it is that Jeeves moves rapidly from simply asking the young master what he might wear to fully editing the gents’ outer raiment. In only the fourth story in the series, Jeeves Takes Charge, which backtracks a little to when Bertie engages Jeeves as his valet, Jeeves’s frame of reference is constructed and nailed securely in place for ever more. Bertie has to visit Lord Worplesdon at his country house. Jeeves tells Bertie he was once in the employ of the Right Honourable Earl and tendered his resignation because he could not see “eye to eye with his lordship in his desire to dine in dress trousers, a flannel shirt and a shooting coat”. Jeeves asks Bertie the fateful question. Bertie says he’ll wear the suit he has on, “a rather sprightly young check”. Bertie confesses (to camera, as it were) that it is perhaps “rather sudden till you got used to it” but the lads at the club admired it. To which Jeeves does the “very good, sir” response that Bertie then and forever more recognises as “a kind of rummy something in his manner”. Then follows:
“Don’t you like this suit, Jeeves,” I said coldly.
“Oh, yes, sir.”
“Well, what don’t you like about it?”
“It is a very nice suit, sir,”
“Well, what’s wrong with it? Out with it, dash it!”
“If I might make the suggestion, sir, a simple brown or blue, with a hint of some quiet twill–”
What we learn from this exchange is that, as far as Jeeves is concerned, there is a right way and a wrong way, and he, Jeeves, will uphold the right – in other words, Jeeves is filling the gap he perceives between the sort of society that should exist and the real society that does exist. The earl, as a peer of the realm and a man of eminence in the community, even in the privacy of his own home has to maintain the standard expected of him. Bertie, who has all the eminence of a pimple, is still a gentleman and therefore bookmaker’s checks are out and a quiet twill is in.
Some years ago I promoted the idea that we should discard ties at the Savage Club. I was rebuffed in no uncertain fashion. It was a half-baked idea, I was told; the relevance of ties inside the club was strengthened by the retreating standards of dress outside. The abandonment of ties was the thin edge of the wedge; it was the start of the slippery slope. One club that did it collapsed, I was told – and in verse. I should have remembered Jeeves. A distraught Bertie, facing some kind of disaster, questions the need for a perfect butterfly shape to his white tie:
“What do ties matter Jeeves, at a time like this?”
“There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter.”
I dug out the old cummerbund and draped it around the old tum. I turned around and Jeeves shied like a startled mustang.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said in a sort of hushed voice, “you are surely not proposing to appear in public in that thing.”
Jeeves: “I fear that you inadvertently left Cannes in the possession of a coat belonging to some other gentleman, sir.”
“No, Jeeves,” I said, “the object under advisement is mine.”
“You wore it, sir?”
“But surely you are not proposing to wear it in England, sir?”
I reached for the umbrella and hat . . .
“Pardon me, sir, but are you proposing to enter the Ritz Hotel in that hat?”
. . . I had been asking myself what his reaction would be to the blue Alpine hat with the pink feather in it which I had purchased in his absence.
Later (in another book actually) Bertie tells Jeeves several fellows at the Drones had asked him where he acquired the hat, to which he receives a response familiar to all of us here: “No doubt with a view to avoiding your hatter, sir”
Haven’t got it yet? No. Well, how about Jeeves reviewing Bertie’s article on What the Well Dressed Man is Wearing for Aunt Dahlia’s paper, Milady’s Boudoir.
He took the manuscript, brooded over it, and smiled a gentle, approving smile.
“The sock passage is quite in the proper vein, sir,” he said.
[A sentence or two later.] “Come to the bit about soft silk shirts for evening wear?” I asked carelessly.
“Yes, sir,” said Jeeves in a low cold voice, as if he had been bitten in the leg by a personal friend . . . “Soft silk shirts with evening costume are not worn, sir.”
[After some argy-bargy, Bertie goes on.] “Nobody has a greater respect than I have for your judgment in socks, in ties and – I will go further – in spats; but when it comes to evening shirts your nerve seems to fail you. Hidebound is the word that suggests itself. It may interest you to learn that when I was at Le Touquet the Prince of Wales buzzed into the casino one night with soft silk shirt complete.”
“His Royal Highness, sir, may permit himself a certain licence . . .”
I may be suffering confirmation bias – I think that’s the term. I detect, though, a hint of “rummy something” in Jeeves’s attitude towards the Prince of Wales. Far be it from him to disapprove of the prince’s choice of evening shirt but I sense an uneasiness, a feeling that the prince has let the side down. The divine right of kings does not extend to gentleman’s attire. Jeeves’ social conscience is suggesting that this is the thin edge, the top of the slippery dip. Probably Mrs Wallis Simpson liked soft shirts.
Do not be mistaken that Jeeves’s sartorial correctness reflects a supercilious or even cynical view by him or, more importantly, his creator. The idea that “clothes maketh the man” has a long history dating from Classical times and is one of the thousands of cliches Wodehouse played around with over his career for our fun and his profit. He also knew his Shakespeare backwards and so he was well aware of Polonius’s injunction to Laertes:
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man . . .
Furthermore, in his own appearance Wodehouse was quite the correct dresser. His writing garb might have been baggy old flannels and cardigan but in public he was resplendent in appropriate dress for the occasion, whether it be pin-stripes, tweeds, plus-fours or the old soup and fish. Wodehouse was very much a man of his times, and of his social class, even if he liked to perform what his family called the Wodehouse glide to escape social gatherings.
Wodehouse always professed not to like this kind of analysis of his work. He found it unsettling, he said. He referred to Richard Usborne, the author of Wodehouse at Work and other appreciative pieces, as “a certain learned Usborne” – and meant it to sting. I suspect Kristin Thompson might have attracted a stronger Wodehouse epithet, maybe “exsanguinated” or even “blasted”. Wodehouse fan Evelyn Waugh, who wrote a bit himself, reckoned the sort of thing I’ve been indulging in today was like taking a spade to a soufflé. The equally late Christopher Hitchens claimed to hate the treatment of literary characters as real people.
Oh, but it can be fun, as long as you don’t take it too far – and I don’t think I’m going over the top to assert that on the basis of Jeeves’s views on dress he has a social conscience and it is firing on all cylinders. And to the extent that Jeeves reflects his creator, this can be extended to Wodehouse. Jeeves’s rules are not merely a comical device founded in English perceptions of social class and, even before World War II, on anachronism; they are symbols of social stability and moral certitude in a world of declining standards of behaviour. In other words, sloppy dress indicates at least the potential for poor behaviour. On the other hand it must be conceded that perfectly correct dress does not guarantee good behaviour, and there are many examples of that in the Wodehouse canon out of the sight of Jeeves.
Which opens a whole new train of thought – so before I go down that bumpy route and turn this slight chat into a 400-page book filled with opinions from even more obscure academics than Thompson, I’ll hand over for the last word to the man himself. No, not Jeeves – Wodehouse, and one of his most famous and often repeated quotes.
“From my earliest years,” he wrote in his late seventies, “I had always wanted to be a writer. It was not that I had any particular message for humanity. I am still plugging away and not the ghost of one so far, so it begins to look as though, unless I suddenly hit mid-season form in my eighties, humanity will remain a message short.”