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Wodehouse: Ring For Jeeves

I think it's been almost thirty years now since I discovered that the works of P.G. Wodehouse are a wonderful anti-depressant, producing a bubbling levity which I have previously described as feeling the way champagne looks. This effect, though, is sadly brief, and I've been a little concerned that, as with alcohol, steady use might reduce it, so I don't read Wodehouse all that often. 

I'm speaking mainly of the Jeeves and Wooster books, of which there are, I think, fourteen; it's a little difficult to fix the number because the U.S. and U.K. editions differ somewhat. Not wanting to go through them too quickly, I haven't read them all. Certainly they will continue to be delightful on re-reading--I've read Joy In the Morning and Code of the Woosters at least twice. But the happy shock of the first encounter with an especially funny bit can't be repeated. 

Lately, however, I've been thinking that this careful husbandry could be a mistake: being pretty old now, I might, if I'm too dilatory, die or be incapacitated with some of the novels still unread. And that would be very regrettable.

So it was time for another, and Ring For Jeeves was the next one in the approximately chronological order in which I've been reading them. Somewhat to my surprise, it doesn't seem to me to be quite up to the usual mark. When I noticed the publication date--1953--I speculated that this slight lessening in quality--and it is fairly slight--may have had something to do with Wodehouse's situation at the time. World War II had left him somewhat disgraced. Stranded in France in 1940, he had made several broadcasts at the behest of the Nazis, and although they were humorous and not political in content they caused Wodehouse to be reviled as a Nazi collaborator, which naturally cast a shadow over the following years. He had begun the previous Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Mating Season, in 1942, though it was not published until 1949. Ring For Jeeves seems to be the first one written entirely after the war. 

It seems to have been an experiment: it is the only novel to include Jeeves but not Bertie Wooster. Perhaps--this is pure speculation--Wodehouse thought the pattern had become a little stale, and wanted to vary it. The novel takes note of its actual situation in time in a way that I don't recall others doing. There is explicit mention that the time is the early 1950s. Television is acknowledged to exist, and even figures slightly in the action, though it remains offstage.

The plot involves the high taxation of the wealthy and the general leveling which were occurring at the time. Bertie is absent because he is at a school in which the aristocracy are taught the rudiments of taking care of themselves in the new order. Jeeves is in the employ of William Egerton Bamfylde Ossingham Belfry, ninth Earl of Rowcester, pronounced "Roaster."  The Earl, who for most of the book is referred to simply as Bill, is the inheritor of a vast and dilapidated mansion, Rowcester Abbey, which he cannot afford to keep up, and which he is desperate to sell. His sister Monica believes she has a likely buyer, a twice-widowed, rich, and still beautiful American woman, who, as the story opens, is on her way to view the place. But there are complications. Of course. And of course they're zany.

In a desperate move to get hold of some cash so that he can marry the young neighbor Jill Wyvvern--one of Wodehouse's delightful down-to-earth and pretty "girls"--Bill has gone into the bookmaking business, at the suggestion and under the direction of Jeeves. Calling himself Honest Patch Perkins, he frequents the race tracks in disguise:  

...in addition to wearing a very loud check coat with bulging voluminous pockets and a crimson tie with blue horseshoes on it which smote the beholder like a blow, he had a large black patch over his left eye and on his upper lip a ginger moustache of the outsize or soupstrainer type.

He seems to have been doing all right until a bet went against him at spectacularly long odds, leaving him owing three thousand pounds, which he does not have, to a Captain C.G. Brabazon-Biggar, a fierce White Hunter stereotype who has spent some large part of his life Out East, with, for some reason, a particular emphasis on Kuala Lumpur. The Captain is also on his way to Rowcester Abbey, in hot pursuit of Honest Patch. And it turns out that both he and Bill have had previous involvement with the rich and beautiful widow. 

Naturally it all gets more and more complicated, with more and more elaborate stratagems and deceptions and narrow escapes when the stratagems go wrong. But it all works out in the end. And Jeeves will be returning to Bertie, who is no longer at the school, under circumstances which I would enjoy relating but must refrain from doing so, for the sake of your enjoyment, on the presumption that you haven't read the book. 

I hope it isn't because I've become jaded that this book seems to sparkle less than others. Bertie's absence is part of that; though Bill is a somewhat similar character, he lacks Bertie's effervescent goofiness. And this makes him less effective as a foil for Jeeves. Perhaps as a consequence, Jeeves himself seems to me a bit overdone. His circumlocutions and literary quotations become at times obtrusive, a little too frequent and lengthy. And I felt that the winding up of the plot threads was a bit rushed. Still, less than the best Wodehouse is very, very good. 

In my limited experience the Blandings books are just as good as the Jeeves and Wooster ones, so I have several of those to look forward to as well. I've only read one novel that was part of neither series, Picadilly Jim, and although it was enjoyable it was not in the class with the others. 


The rich widow is interested in psychical research, and is thrilled by the family lore which holds that an old family ghost, Lady Agatha, wife of Sir Caradoc the Crusader, is sometimes seen in the chapel (ruined, naturally).


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I am always happy to have a new Wodehouse recommendation--thank you, Maclin. In another exception to the standard Bertie-and-Jeeves format, I've read one in which Jeeves is the narrator. I can't now remember whether that was successful.
"Bertie is absent because he is at a school in which the aristocracy are taught the rudiments of taking care of themselves in the new order." Re-education camps for the nobs? That sounds far more topical and political than the usual Wodehouse.

It was treated as something he chose, not something forced on him. Jeeves takes care to mention that Bertie's finances are ok and that he's just being prudent in case that changes. But there is a slightly bitter note from other characters about the "social revolution" that's making the aristocracy poorer.

I've read something in which Jeeves is the narrator. Perhaps only a story, not a complete novel. I can't remember.

I realized a week or two ago that I've probably read more books by Wodehouse than by any other author. There are so many of them: Jeeves/Wooster, and the Blandings Castle books, and the Uncle Fred books, and the Mulliner books, and the Psmith books, and the golf books, and all the stand-alone ones too. Even if one has only read a small percentage (as I have), it still adds up to a lot of books. I recently read "A Damsel in Distress", which is not part of a series, and I loved it!

It's cheering to know that there is an essentially endless fount of good humour and glittering prose to turn to from Wodehouse's pen. One of life's consolations.

You're implying that the Other books, beyond J&W and Blandings, are near enough in quality to the latter to give comparable enjoyment. That's enormously encouraging.

It's like having a huge box of chocolates that you know are all delicious, so you don't have to pore over the illustrated card to choose one.

I think it was Wilfred Sheed who said that the world of Wodehouse is what the world would be like if Original Sin hadn't happpened. That the Brideshead of Waugh is essentially Blandings lost.

I'd say rather that Wodehouse's world is one in which the only sins are trivial and easily dealt with, never leading to violence etc. Waugh has a beautiful tribute to Wodehouse which I'll quote if I can find it.

Seems unlikely that I would know someone named Bill Hannegan and that another Bill Hannegan would show up here. Hello, Bill.

Anne-Marie: :-) Also, you can have the whole box, and the ones you don't eat right away won't get stale.

Good to read your prose again Maclin!

Thank you. Let's catch up. Is the email address you left with the comment valid?

Yes or you can text me:

I just read the first 10 pages or so of Ring for Jeeves and because the all-important Bertie Wooster first-person narration and his "effervescent goofiness" are lacking, I think it falls pretty much completely flat.

I just read that it didn't start as a novel, but a stage play written the year before with Wodehouse's long-time collaborator, Guy Bolton, and that its original title was Derby Day:

"At the time of writing the play, Wodehouse doubted whether his pre-war subject matter would still be acceptable to readers, and was experimenting with ways to make his stories more plausible in a post-war setting."

This is interesting, in a letter Wodehouse wrote:

"I was very relieved that you liked Ring for Jeeves. But I think I made a bloomer in using Jeeves without Bertie. It's really Bertie whom people like. What happened was that when Guy and I were doing the play and had given Lord Rowcester a butler named Ponsonby, I got what I thought was an inspiration and said 'Why not make it Jeeves?'. But it would have been better without Jeeves. It's odd about those 'double acts'. You need the stooge. Sherlock Holmes wouldn't have been anything without Watson."


Anyway, Mac, I don't think it's jadedness on your part at all; heck, even Wodehouse thought he'd made a "bloomer". :)

You know, I didn't even think about the change from first-person Bertie to third-person being the problem. You are absolutely right, that is surely the single biggest reason for the flatness. I read a biography of Wodehouse a few years ago and it may well have mentioned something about that episode, but I don't remember, and didn't want to go to the library to find out. Glad to know I'm not jaded!

It really is Bertie that people like, or at least that we are most amused by. Jeeves without Bertie, at least as exhibited in this book, borders on being pompous.

Don't know why I don't read more Wodehouse than I do. I started 'Ukridge' a couple of YEARS ago, and really liked the first two or three stories. But then I put it down for some reason and never picked it back up again! There really is no excuse for this.

"It's odd about those 'double acts'. You need the stooge."

Great point made by Wodehouse there. And sometimes they're both stooges, as in the case of Laurel and Hardy. Jeeves certainly isn't a stooge, but he's not a traditional straight man either. He's funny in and of himself in a way that the typical straight man isn't, but his humor tends to lie in reactions/responses to Bertie and the other "stooges."

That last point suggests part of the problem with this book: absent Bertie, he tends to come across as almost intrusive, his Shakespeare references and such a little show-offy.

Yes, I can see how that could be. Too bad Wodehouse didn't leave him as Ponsonby!

He would have had to change the character as well. If Ponsonby had basically been Jeeves with another name it would have seemed cheap. Thinking about the book now, I think the butler could have been very different and potentially funnier--he's really the one behind the whole ridiculous bookmaker grift, which struck me as a little below Jeeves. He could have been portrayed as a sort of lowlife, maybe hired because he was cheaper than most, which would have fit with the impoverished aristocrat thing.

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