P.G. Wodehouse once wrote: “I go in for what is known in the trade as ‘light writing’ and those who do that – humorists they are sometimes called – are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at.”
The author, born on this day in 1881, certainly was a master of humorous writing with few comparisons, but contrary to what he thought about the “intelligentsia” looking down on him, his influence has lived on among writers from Zadie Smith to the late Christopher Hitchens. His quintessentially English humor also influenced one of America’s greatest humorists, S.J. Perelman, who considered Wodehouse both his friend and rival.
Along with writers like Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, his work is starting to find a new audience in the United States thanks to a renewed interest in all things early-20th-century England that’s largely due to Downton Abbey‘s stateside success. And it doesn’t hurt that Sebastian Faulks has written a forthcoming “homage” to Wodehouse that continues the (mis)adventures of his two most popular characters in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Out next month, Faulks’ book may not be a new reader’s best introduction to Wodehouse’s world, but its publication serves as further proof of how well his characters Bertie Wooster and his faithful valet Reginald Jeeves have held up all these years. Jeeves especially has become the standard to which all other fictional English servants are compared. Even though he isn’t a butler — a valet serves a gentleman; a butler serves an entire house — the name “Jeeves” has become synonymous with the profession to the point where a “Jeeves” has become a generic term for a butler in some dictionaries. And, of course, there was Ask.com’s original name, AskJeeves.com.
Wooster and Jeeves remain not just Wodehouse’s best characters, but two of the most beloved and complementary literary creations of the last century; they go together like peanut butter and chocolate (or maybe tea and crumpets). But it is evident from the very moment we meet Jeeves that he is the character who makes those stories so memorable; without Jeeves to save Wooster from whatever hot water he’s on the verge of getting into, the stories wouldn’t work. But Jeeves is also Wodehouse’s most interesting and complex character: a guy whose job is to serve somebody who is obviously of inferior intelligence, Jeeves is a fan of fiction and philosophy, but is also so good at and dedicated to the job that he’s content to go about his days making sure the fop who signs his checks doesn’t get into too much trouble. And that is why he still appeals to readers.
Based on a real-life butler Wodehouse actually employed named Eugene Robinson, Jeeves’ name came to Wodehouse one day while watching a cricket match, where he realized that Warwickshire County Cricket Club player Percy Jeeves had the perfect name for his new character. In 1915, in the short story “Extricating Young Gussie,” Wodehouse debuted his new character, and then revisited him a year later with another story, “Jeeves Takes Charge.” Whether or not the cricket player who inspired the name ever actually read any of the stories featuring the character that shared his name with him isn’t known; Percy Jeeves was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme during the First World War.
Although the real Jeeves died in battle, the fictional one lives on to this day. His most notable recent incarnation was Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the valet in the early-1990s ITV adaptation of Jeeves and Wooster, opposite Hugh Laurie’s dimwitted Wooster. Not only did the actors play the famous fictional characters in a way that echoed the books they were born out of, but Fry and Laurie made one of the best duos in television history.
A difficult act to follow, no doubt. And even though Faulks’ book won’t have the authenticity of a real work by Wodehouse, and a new stage play featuring the pair together again seems unlikely match Fry and Laurie’s mastering of the roles, it is a testament to the timelessness of Wodehouse’s imagination and writing that there is always someone who wants to give Wooster and Jeeves a new spin.