This is my second P.G. Wodehouse experience following Cocktail Time, which was not a Jeeves and Wooster novel. I enjoyed Cocktail Time and was looking forward to Carry on, Jeeves, which I didn’t actually realize was an anthology. This proved to be even better than a novel as an introduction to Jeeves and Wooster. It gave me a nice sense of their relationship through the ages. And with each story nice and short and self-contained, I could read one, pause, and then dip into another. I could easily have done this for several days, but I was having so much fun that I finished the book in just one.
Jeeves is a “gentleman’s personal gentleman”, or a valet as we might call him, to Bertram “Bertie” Wooster. Bertie is the stereotypical young, carefree aristocratic detritus of the 1920s: old money combined with a youthful entitlement and sense of invincibility. Jeeves is a scarily-competent valet who is not just skilled at managing Bertie’s attire and household but, indeed, at managing Bertie himself. Jeeves has the ability to come up with schemes and plans to rescue Bertie—and, quite often, Bertie’s friends—from the embarrassing upper-class mistakes that might affect their social standing, if not exactly their lives or livelihood. Sometimes these schemes are so clever that they go off without a hitch. Other times, they seem to backfire and have the opposite intended effect, yet they still work out anyway—making you wonder if, just maybe, Jeeves knew what was going to happen all along. All in all, the stories remind of the saying: you don’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you need.
The stories are, for the most part, rather formulaic. Bertie begins by complaining about some opinion Jeeves has asserted about part of his wardrobe, whether it’s a necktie or a shirt or even Bertie’s most unfortunate moustache. Then, either Bertie or one of his friends gets into a scrape, most often involving the need to deceive an overbearing aunt or uncle, lest that person cut off their allowance (gasp!). Bertie turn to Jeeves for a plan, Jeeves furnishes said plan, and hilarious hijinks ensue as the plan falls to pieces, only to reveal that it all works out anyway.
(Is that a spoiler? Did I just spoil every single Jeeves and Wooster story by outlining the formula?)
As with many comedic pairings, Carry on, Jeeves lives and dies by the relationship between Jeeves and Bertie. The latter narrates all but the last story in this collection. Bertie is little more than a child, in many ways, unable to form lasting meaningful relationships with women and generally persisting in a permanent state of bachelor-induced immaturity. Jeeves is not just his valet but his keeper, something that Bertie freely admits in the first story, "Jeeves Takes Charge". As Jeeves reveals in the last story, which he narrates, he often feels compelled to orchestrate circumstances that influence Bertie’s moods and desires. On this note, it’s interesting to ponder how much of Jeeves’ actions are truly done for the service of Bertie and how much are self-interest (and how often do these two ends conflict?). Jeeves confesses in "Bertie Changes His Mind" that he doesn’t want Bertie to get married because that would likely mean an end to his employment under Bertie. What if Bertie met a woman whom he truly loved and who was truly good for him? Would Jeeves scheme to dispose of her anyway?
Wodehouse doesn’t really address such a moral dilemma. Similarly, he never really examines the morality behind the various deceptions Jeeves and Bertie undertake (thought it’s all very satirical). The greatness of these stories lies in their pitch-perfect dialogue, description, and timing. I ploughed through this book so quickly because I was chortling every few minutes at the latest scheme or the latest conversation between Jeeves and Bertie. The formula of the stories quickly becomes familiar, comfortable, and you start expecting certain things, like Jeeves appearing as if from nowhere and Bertie remarking upon that fact. This is my first Jeeves and Wooster experience, yet I already feel like we are old friends.
I don’t regret reading Cocktail Time first, but there’s no question which of the two works I prefer. That was a fun novel, but this is something more. This collection has an amazing pair of characters. Whereas Cocktail Time was an amusing diversion, Carry on, Jeeves leaves me wanting more of Jeeves and Wooster, despite being subjected to ten straight short stories so recently. If the novel piqued my interest in Wodehouse and confirmed what others had been telling me in their recommendations, this book has cemented my admiration for Wodehouse as a writer and a storyteller.