TT: Who’s Your Jeeves?

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back on to learn about a plague that sounds like something right out of the Bible – and to hear about the pre-publication attention Artemis Awakening is getting. Then come back and join me and Alan as we discuss the secret lives of the Hooray Henries and the Sloane Rangers.

Younger or Older?

Younger or Older?

JANE: Jim and I have continued watching the dramatizations of Jeeves and Wooster starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. As we were doing so, I was reminded of a bit of a controversy when these versions first came out. Many people felt that Fry was too young to be a proper Jeeves.

You’ve mentioned you were familiar both with a different adaptation and the original Wodehouse stories by the time you saw Laurie and Fry in the roles. What did you think?

ALAN: Like everyone who has come across the stories, I had a mental picture of Jeeves much coloured by Dennis Price’s performance. Price was suave and smooth in the role and very, very dryly sarcastic. Almost all the episodes have long vanished from the vaults of the BBC, but there is one episode available on Youtube. I’ve just watched it – Claude and Eustace, cousins of Bertie, arrive unexpectedly and explain to Jeeves that there is a club they wish to join – in order to join it, one has to steal things like policemen’s helmets. “Most stimulating, sir,” says Jeeves in his typical desiccated way…

JANE: I remember that story… The Seekers was the name of the club. Remind me, I need to ask you about clubs, but I shall valiantly restrain myself from tangenting at this point and let you get on about Price as Jeeves…

ALAN: Wodehouse himself was very fond of the series and declared that Dennis Price was born to play Jeeves. That’s quite a legacy for Stephen Fry to come to grips with, but I thought he caught the character perfectly. I was particularly impressed by his fruity accent and supercilious, though completely respectful, attitude. He was Dennis Price with extra smarm and one more layer of dry understatement. Absolutely top hole!

Interestingly, Price and Carmichael were almost the same age (Price was older by five years), but Price was not a healthy man and he looked considerably older than Ian Carmichael. So in the TV series Jeeves is played as an older man, almost paternalistic in his attitude towards Bertie. Fry and Laurie are exact contemporaries (they were at university together) and their Jeeves and Wooster are played as belonging to the same generation. It makes for an interesting contrast.

JANE: I was very surprised to find that some viewers of the Laurie/Fry versions thought that Fry was too young to play Jeeves. When I asked why, these dissenters said that Jeeves should be a wise elder, not Bertie’s contemporary.

Having now read pretty much all the stories, I strongly disagree. There are numerous little indications that Jeeves is closer to Bertie’s own age. In one of the Bingo Little stories, Jeeves and Bingo are (unknown to Bingo) competing for the affections of the same young lady. In another tale, Jeeves takes on the same circle of nightlife New York City that Bertie frequents and blends in like a natural – something that certainly would not be the case if he were prim and elderly.

Like Bertie, Jeeves is haunted by aunts and uncles. I’d guess Jeeves is a younger sibling, based on the age of his niece in one tale, but there is plenty of evidence that he is not an old man.

So, an elder brother, certainly, but not a father figure…

ALAN: I agree with you. And much as I admire Dennis Price’s portrayal of an older Jeeves, I now think that Stephen Fry’s portrayal is the better one.

You know, there is absolutely no way that Wodehouse could be called a naturalistic writer. The world that Jeeves and Wooster inhabit never existed. Nevertheless, Wodehouse perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the 1920s and, it has to be admitted that while we see his world through a very distorted lens, we can still recognise the characters that he caricatures.

Here’s some British slang you might enjoy. The Bertie Woosters of the world are known as Hooray Henries (I don’t know the derivation) and the females of the species are known as Sloane Rangers because their natural habitat is Sloane Square, a posh and expensive area of London handy for shopping and lunch. (They are sometimes called Hooray Henriettas as well, though that term is less common.)

JANE: I love that! I’d never heard either term. I think it’s interesting that Bertie and his crew never use these terms for themselves. To them, they are the soul of normality. I think that’s key to the effectiveness of the stories.

ALAN: Just so. As far as the characters are concerned, that is the way that the world works. And remember, as we have said many times before, there is a very thin line between comedy and tragedy. You and I might find Bertie’s dilemmas amusing, but to him they are very real catastrophes, and Jeeves is a desperately needed lifeline. I think it is that tiny little touch of reality that anchors the stories and gives them their strength.

Well, that and the fact that they really are screamingly funny. Let’s not lose sight of the most important thing.

JANE: I agree. The humor is crucial… However, it’s a type that doesn’t appeal to everyone. A friend of mine says the Bertie and Jeeves stories remind her of the old “I Love Lucy” TV show, with situations spiralling out of control. I can see her point but, while I can’t stand “I Love Lucy,” I adore Jeeves and Wooster. The key is, I think, Jeeves. There’s a comfort in knowing that, no matter how bad things get, Jeeves will come up with a solution. Bertie might end up a bit of a sacrificial lamb – in several stories, the conclusion is reached that he is mentally unbalanced – but Jeeves will never let Bertie be forced into an inappropriate marriage or left holding the bag for a conniving friend or relative.

Jim and I came up with our own lyrics to the opening music for the Laurie/Fry production that reflect this view. The final part , set to the stirring music, is: “Then came Jeeves, then came Jeeves, and, and, he saved the day!” Silly, yes, but it sums up why those stories work so well for me.

ALAN: I like that! Please send me a recording of you singing it.

JANE: Hmm… I wonder if anyone has the theme music on karaoke? (And, as an aside, both the opening theme and the animated credits are works of art in themselves.)

There’s another element that is crucial to the success of these stories as well: “The Code of the Woosters.”

In his own way, Bertie fits the model of the classic hero. His code won’t let him leave a pal in a bad situation. He will spend large sums of money, give up his dwelling, pilfer, and confront some truly terrifying people if he is appealed upon to come to the rescue.

ALAN: Oh, most certainly! Bertie is a very moral man, very honourable and straightforward. Some of Wodehouse’s other characters are more than a little dubious on the morality front, not the kind of people you’d have for tea for fear that they’d steal the family silver from under your nose. But you’d have no such worries about Bertie.

JANE: I believe that this was fully intentional on Wodehouse’s part. One of the novels is titled The Code of the Woosters, emphasizing this element of Bertie’s personality. I think this becomes more significant when one remembers that most of the other book titles are “Jeeves and…”

In this context, Bertie’s frequent, slangy references to Jeeves showing “the proper feudal spirit” take on a deeper context. I would be tempted to hazard that Bertie is a sort of Arthur, with Jeeves as his personal Merlin.

ALAN: You know, I’d never thought of Jeeves and Wooster as archetypes, but I find it hard to argue against you. Mainly because you are absolutely correct.

JANE: As you mentioned, Wodehouse didn’t always write about the same sort of characters. I’ve come to love some of his others nearly as much as Bertie and Jeeves – and to loathe at least one. Perhaps we can take a look at these next time?

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11 Responses to “TT: Who’s Your Jeeves?”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Hmmmm… Jane, I’d be a bit surprised if you’ve never heard ‘Sloan Ranger’, although it may not have stuck: I’m sure the Commonwealth press wasn’t unique in its depiction of Lady Diana Spencer 😉

    OTOH, I’m not surprised that Bertie and his friends don’t refer to anyone that way – they predate the Lone Ranger by some 2 decades. The term was probably coined in the late ’60s or early ’70s, and Wodehouse himself may never have heard it.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I never followed Lady/Princess Diana… The appeal completely escaped me. In fact, I don’t tend to follow celebrity culture at all…

      One morning Jim and I met some friends for brunch. One friend said, “Did you hear about Princess Diana?”

      I waited for the joke.

      When I said nothing, my friend said, “She died yesterday.”

      I admit, I was sad. I think if she’d gotten her life in balance, she would have put her celebrity to good use.

  2. Chad Merkley Says:

    I was introduced to Wodehouse in when I was in high school. I was playing a butler in a ridiculous melodrama the drama department was doing, and my mom gave me a Jeeves anthology to help me get into character (yes, Jeeves was a valet, not a butler, but as Bertie says, Jeeves could buttle with the best of them). I had fun. I think I actually like the “Blandings Castle” books better than a lot of the Bertie and Jeeves stories, though. I think it’s because the cast of characters changes and there’s a little more variety in the plotlines. The Bertie stories can lead to a sense of deja vu, because of the similarities.

    I’ve never bothered to watch any of the dramatizations, though. Maybe I should.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Hopefully, you would enjoy. There’s a lot of good to them — but, as Alan said, you do lose some of Wodehouse’s remarkable prose.

      • Chad Merkley Says:

        Watched the first three episodes of “Jeeves and Wooster” last night. I loved the way Laurie brought the dialogue to life and made the ridiculous slang seem natural. Fry as Jeeves was great, too. And I loved the soundtrack, especially the opening credits with the jazz combo led by a violin.

        I still have to wonder though, why is Jeeves the way he is? What’s his motivation? Why is he a valet when he obviously has the capacity to be successful at just about anything? He’s a great character, but also an enigma.

  3. Paul Says:

    Although I’m not a fan of endless attempts to remake classic movies or TV shows with new casts (the Star Trek reboot being an exception), I do like to see different actors playing the roles of classic characters, as I would consider those of Wodehouse. I haven’t seen these two sets of actors but I will keep an eye out for their shows.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Chad… Apparently someone recently published a “biography” of Jeeves.

    More realistically, Wodehouse was writing at a time when the class barrier was still fairly firmly in place. Many of the stories deal with those who attempt to cross it and are squelched.

    Except for one story where Jeeves seems very happy to encourage a romance between his niece and one of Bertie’s circle, Jeeves often upholds the line. And in that story, the romance was in place before Jeeves learns of it — he does not facilitate it as much as help along what was already happening.

    Well, there is Uncle George and his barmaid… Still, the members of the Ganymede club are horrified at the idea that their “gentlemen” might actually call them by their first names.

  5. Alan Robson Says:

    Hi Chad

    You ask: “I still have to wonder though, why is Jeeves the way he is? What’s his motivation? Why is he a valet when he obviously has the capacity to be successful at just about anything?”

    These are very good questions. Why is he the way he is? What is his motivation? I believe that he enjoys exercising his intellect and thinking his way out of difficult situations so that he (and sometimes Bertie) can come up smelling of roses. I imagine that gives him a great deal of job satisfaction. And that’s a motivation we can all understand, of course. Certainly it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning…

    But you go on to ask why is he a valet when he can be successful at just about anything? And that really cuts to the heart of the problem. You see he simply cannot be successful at anything outside of his chosen field. It’s the British class system. You can sum it up in two sentences: “I know my place” and “People like us don’t do that kind of thing”. What that means in practice is that opportunities for Jeeves are very limited. Doors are closed, and he has no way of opening them. He did not go to the right schools, he does not know the right people. Because of an accident of birth, only a few careers are open to him. He has succeeded brilliantly at the one he chose. He is respected and admired for his skill. If he attempted to take on another career in a different field, one that he was not born to, he would be despised.

    Perhaps he might succeed in purely monetary terms — he is certainly clever enough to do so. But success is not defined by money (the noveau riche are beneath contempt and they are never invited to dinner and are never seen in polite society). Success is defined by acceptance and respect for what you are within your class. Jeeves knows this and he would never be comfortable as anything but a valet. He knows his place…

    cheers.


    -Alan

    • janelindskold Says:

      Wodehouse reinforces this in the stories. There are noveau riche — often Americans — and even while members of Bertie’s circle are courting them for their cash or daughters, it’s clear that an impoverished Earl outranks an American billionaire any time.

      Jeeves routinely turns down job offers that would pay him more because he wants to stay within a certain social set.

  6. Chad Merkley Says:

    The class thing makes sense…of course, then you start running into the issue of separating a character from the writer and the writer’s intent. So after spending some with Wodehouse’s Wikipedia entry, it’s clear that he was impoverished upper class, but not at the very top. The audience he was writing for was definitely not the British upper crust. I get the impression that a large chunk of his audience was American (he lived in America for many years, and his wife was American). This implies that the Bertie/Jeeves relationship was meant to be satirical. He’s mocking the upper class/inherited wealth/the idle rich. Jeeves is just a foil for that.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Here’s the title of the “Jeeves biography” I mentioned earlier. I haven’t read it — but I think I will.

      _Encore Jeeves, A Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman_ by C. Northcote.

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