In a joyful but structured world

by
04 December 2015

Richard Lamey enjoys the delights of Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Perfect pairing: Stephen Fry (left) and Hugh Laurie in the ITV version of Jeeves and Wooster in the 1990s

Perfect pairing: Stephen Fry (left) and Hugh Laurie in the ITV version of Jeeves and Wooster in the 1990s

Jeeves and Wooster stand secure in the English literary pantheon, mismatched and yet wonderfully loyal and interdependent. Jeeves and Wooster go with croquet and Pimms, white tie and tails, whisky and soda. Nothing could be more English, or more timeless.

Writing notes for a reading group on them is slightly pointless for at least two reasons. First, the very names of Jeeves and Wooster evoke images and memories in everyone, whether we immediately picture Fry and Laurie or Carmichael and Price, or whether we instinctively hear comforting voices on the radio.

Second, they just are. There are no hidden depths to be plumbed, and no subversive political agenda waits to be discovered. Wodehouse is delighting in an innocent world, and inviting us to share his pleasure. And we do.

It is because Jeeves and Wooster are so much part of our culture that opening Carry On, Jeeves feels like visiting an old and reliable friend, even if we have never read one of the books before. First published in 1925, these are among the earliest adventures that Wodehouse wrote about Jeeves and Wooster — a third of their 30 short stories are here. The characters also appear in ten novels.

Writing rarely feels as effortless as Wodehouse’s, and yet that sense of ease, of words flowing from the pen without thought, hides the great skill that he has. Elegant observations, dry comments, and revealing detail all seem to come from his pen almost by accident (“she gathered me in like a bull pup swallowing a piece of steak”). It makes the reader greedy. We pass over moments of great beauty and real wit without noticing them, as we strain forward for the next wonder.

Reading P. G. Wodehouse can feel like sitting down at Christmas with a large box of chocolates. The fare is so rich and beautiful that you wish for less sweetness and arch perfection, and a little more fruit. You can have too many chocolates, and you can have too many stories of Wooster haplessly attempting to rescue another friend from the engagement he has accidentally wandered into, only for Jeeves to rescue the day once more with his unruffled and unruffable genius.

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Not all of the stories in Carry On, Jeeves are brilliant. They sometimes blur into one, with exactly the same rhythm and direction and style.

At his best, however, Wodehouse is one of the most engaging, witty, and entertaining writers in the English language. He has often been imitated, but never matched. His stories have simple plots, but what he does above everything else is to explore relationships, watching likeable people getting into and then out of scrapes (or, rather, watching Wooster get into them and Jeeves get him out).

Much of the joy of Wodehouse is that he invites us into an invented world, where any violence is comic, where great estates are not lost to death duties, and where there are few problems that cannot be solved by tapping a wealthy aunt. There is an innocence about Wooster which pervades his world — and because he cannot see malevolence or greed in those around him, neither do we.

The first seven stories are remarkably consistent in their tone and subject-matter. But the eighth and final stories in the book are an absolute triumph, building on and gently subverting our expectations. They are a poignant and delightful variation on all of the richness that has come before.

Love wins unexpectedly in “Fixing it for Freddie”. There is genuine humour and farce in Wooster’s attempts to reunite Freddie Bullivant and Miss Elizabeth Vickers. Even Jeeves tries to fix things without real success. In the end, it is simply two human beings’ seizing the passing moment with joy which saves the day.

In “Bertie changes his mind” it becomes clear that Jeeves needs Wooster every bit as much as Wooster needs Jeeves; that his niche maintaining Wooster’s whole world matters to him hugely. Jeeves directs the whole dry débâcle with great dignity; but this does not hide the fact that, for once, he is acting in his own interest and against the wishes of his master.

The importance of this amazing and wonderful story is underlined by the fact that this is the only story written from Jeeves’s point of view. Jeeves needs Wooster to stay single and unencumbered. His whole world, his need to be needed, his need to be in control — all depend on Wooster’s fancy failing. Jeeves is vulnerable and worried. Ultimately, normal service is resumed — but not before we have seen something of Jeeves’s humanity, cunning, and desires.

Ultimately, the world that Wodehouse creates is as innocent and warm as it seems, which is why it is such a joyful place to visit. Wooster’s loyalty to his myriad friends, his childlike delight in the moment, his comical haplessness are the perfect foil for Jeeves’s grave control, his desire for structure and order, his willingness to solve any crisis if it will allow him to dispose of Wooster’s latest pair of inappropriate socks.

How can there be jeopardy when the worst thing that can happen to a chap is having his aunt come to stay? How can we worry, as long as Jeeves and Wooster are together?

 

The Revd Richard Lamey is Rector of St Paul’s, Wokingham, with St Nicholas’s, Embrook, and Woosehill Community Church, Berkshire.

Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse is published in various editions, most recently by Arrow/Random House at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-09951369-8.

 

CARRY ON, JEEVES — SOME QUESTIONS

 

Which is your favourite story — and why?

 

What parts do women play in the book? How many are positive?

 

Would you rather have Bertie or Jeeves as your friend?

 

Is there a single sentence or phrase that is your favourite in the book?

 

Could you explain to Jeeves why Wooster is a better human being than he is?

 

Marian Keyes calls Wodehouse “the ultimate in comfort reading”. Are his stories purely escapist?

 

Did Carry On, Jeeves make you think differently about intelligence?

 

“Providence seems to look after the chumps in this world”: to what extent is there a spiritual element to the book?

 

What struck you about the way the stories dealt with relationships between the generations?

 

What aspects of Carry On, Jeeves did you find the funniest?

 

Is there a political side to these stories?

 

Did you enjoy the change of perspective in the book’s final story?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 January, we will print extra information about the next book. This is A Lot Like Eve: Fashion, faith and fig-leaves: A memoir by Joanna Jepson. It is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-4729-1317-3.

 

Book notes

Joanna Jepson’s memoir A Lot Like Eve draws on her eventful life to reflect on love and self-image. Jepson was brought up in a strictly Evangelical family. A jaw deformity meant that she was mercilessly bullied at school, before undergoing reconstructive facial surgery. The book describes her struggles with her faith, which led to a spell in a Welsh convent and eventual ordination in 2003, as well as her efforts to mount a legal challenge on the abortion of foetuses with cleft palates. Jepson’s book explores the parts women are expected to play, inside and outside the Church — and how, amid these expectations, they can find themselves.

 

Author notes

The Revd Joanna Jepson is an Anglican priest. In 2006, she was appointed the first chaplain of the London College of Fashion, later creating the Empty Hanger Project, a workshop serving members of the fashion industry. In 2012, she set up a mentoring programme for inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary. She acts as a coach in schools, and on conferences and retreats. The author lives in Wells with her husband and son.

 

Books for the next two months:

February: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

March: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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