Hmmmppppphhhh. I have reached that stage of my PhD that all postgrads eventually hit: I hate it, I wish I’d taken that nice student health visitor post when I had the chance, do you know how much I’d be earning by now, 70 hours a week is too many hours to work, I’m probably going to fail anyway… If you’ve been through the process yourself, you know. You know. It’s looking likely that this is going to be the case until June at the earliest.
Because of this, I have not been reading very much. On the rare occasion that I get a proper evening off, I just want to sleep and eat proper meals and catch up on Designated Survivor. However, I have been listening to audiobooks while I do data analysis, or during my commute. For the most part, these are books with which I am familiar, so it doesn’t matter if I zone out for a few minutes. I listened to the whole of the Harry Potter series narrated by Stephen Fry, for example, which was a treat.
Another audiobook that I sometimes turn to at times of high stress is Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. This relatively recent addition to PG Wodehouse’s classic Jeeves series was penned by Sebastian Faulks. I would never have expected to like it. PG Wodehouse has featured heavily in my life since my infancy. His books, including the Jeeves series, are one of the few common interests that I share with my dad. When I was little, Dad had a giant, ancient volume of early 20th century comedy writing that I suspect had belonged to his dad, and Wodehouse featured heavily. I have a stash of as-yet-unread Wodehouse novels that I carefully ration for times when I am in serious need of comfort reading. Last year, I finally started the Blandings series after I failed an important exam, and it proved just the ticket.
The reason I have said all of this is to establish my Wodehouse Credentials. I really, really love these books. It’s important that you understand how much I love them, so that when I say Faulks wrote the absolute best homage that anyone ever could have written, you know what high praise that is. And he really did. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is certainly not a novel that Wodehouse would have written, for a few reasons, but it is, in my view, the perfect possible ending for two of my favourite characters. Rereading it (or re-listening to it, I guess) brought me such pleasure that I wanted to write about it. There will be a couple of spoilers for the ending—which is obvious from page one—but none for the various plot convolutions that carry us there.
Firstly, the reasons that Wodehouse would never have written a Jeeves novel like this. Jeeves is too much of a caricature. He spouts Latin phrases constantly. Although canonical Jeeves is an incredibly well-read genius, I tend to find that his allusions and references vary in nature throughout any given book, which is not so much the case here—he becomes a little one-note at times. Equally, this novel is set at a specified time (the 1926 general strike). The Jeeves novels in particular were never tied to any particular date—they appear to take place in the inter-war period, but that’s about it, and there are certainly never any allusions to WWI. It’s unsurprising that Faulks, who is a writer of historical fiction, was unable to resist setting it around a specific historical event.
Because of the real time period, there are references to women’s suffrage, independence for India, and Karl Marx. Wodehouse rarely talked directly about these issues (though in one memorable short story, the antagonists are all Comedy Communists). There is an actual-for-real romance in the novel: played for laughs at times, but also very sweet and genuine in places. The Jeeves novels were almost always straight comedy. When romantic entanglements entered into them, it was generally so that a capacity for mayhem could be exploited. Lastly, the novel closes with a very touching conversation between Jeeves and Wooster, in which the depth of the friendship between them—greatly exceeding master/servant—is very nearly acknowledged. Faulks spells it out for us, whereas Wodehouse was always more subtle.
None of these things remotely spoilt my enjoyment of the novel. In fact, once I accepted it as an homage to Jeeves and Wooster, they even improved my experience. The real-world setting, for example, did remove some of the escapism from the narrative—but it also helped the characters to come alive. There is a great deal of comedic potential in the idea of delightful upper and upper-middle class idiots (the usual inhabitants of Wodehouse novels) helping out during the strike. Faulks exploited this potential very effectively.
For the most part, though, these differences in narrative tone allowed Faulks to show us how much he loves the characters. Georgiana Meadowes, Bertie’s love interest, says to him at one point, “You’re very kind, aren’t you?” And Bertie is kind. Dim, clumsy, prone to getting into Fearful Scrapes—but kind. Wodehouse never tells us that Bertie is kind—he shows us in every one of the novels, but he never tells us—and Bertie is prone to believing that he is not really good for much—just a sort of useful idiot with a frightfully clever manservant. Having a character actually point out his kindness and generosity is unsubtle—but it’s also lovely. It feels like Faulks has written the novel as a thank you to Wodehouse for creating these characters, and as an excuse to compliment the characters themselves.
I also think that Faulks captured Jeeves very well, despite my earlier comment. The core is right, even if the details are sometimes off. Jeeves has always been a “good Slytherin” type of person. Sly, cunning, completely brilliant, an arch manipulator—and incredibly invested in the happiness of those he cares about. That’s what he always turns his skills to in the originals, and both talent and motivation are out in full force in this novel. At the end of the novel (and I suppose this is something of a spoiler), Bertie slowly pieces together the fact that Jeeves has been pulling the strings all along, as is his wont, this time with the end goal of Bertie’s happiness. Since there doesn’t seem to be anything in it for Jeeves, he asks him why on earth he went to all the trouble to secure a satisfactory conclusion—and then the extent to which Jeeves cares for him finally dawns on him.
Perhaps what I am trying to say is that, because these are not Faulks’ characters, he takes them more seriously (and allows them to take each other more seriously) than Wodehouse ever did. Though the story is still mostly japes and high jinks, there is real emotion at its core. The kindness and affection and generosity of the characters, the genuineness of their relationships—they were never Wodehouse’s primary concern, but making them the reason for this novel acts as a truly lovely homage to the original series.
Before I close, I do want to give credit where credit is due, and say that Julian Rhind-Tutt does an absolutely splendid job of narrating the audiobooks. The Jeeves and Wooster series starring Fry and Laurie is perhaps my favourite book adaptation, so it is always strange to hear someone other than Hugh Laurie being Bertie Wooster. When I have tried to listen to radio adaptations of the short stories, I have never made it very far. The narration of the audiobook, on the other hand, is ideal—not aping Laurie, though clearly influenced by him, and smoothing over a couple of the more jarring missteps that Faulks made in the narrative. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed this as much if I’d read it in print.
As it is, though, I did enjoy it, and I will continue to listen to it whenever I am highly stressed and don’t have the brainpower to read new books, and I am glad that it is in my life.