Hot on the heels of the Blandings centenary in June comes the 100th anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Reginald Jeeves. The characters first appeared together in the story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, published in September 1915 in the Saturday Evening Post.
The centenary has been commemorated with a flurry of articles (try What ho! Celebrating 100 years of Bertie, Jeeves and Blandings by Aparna Narrain). But in spite of praise for Wodehouse and his beloved duo, who made their final appearance in 1974’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ continues to hide it’s light under a bushel. If indeed that’s what lights do.
In his introduction to the 1967 omnibus The World of Jeeves, Wodehouse laments giving Jeeves just two lines, and no important role in the story:
It was only some time later, when I was going into the strange affair which is related under the title of ‘The Artistic Career of Corky’, that the man’s qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.
‘Extricating Young Gussie’ was the only story omitted from The World of Jeeves omnibus, but readers wanting to assess its merit for themselves can find it in the 1917 short story collection The Man with Two Left Feet. The story begins:
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can’t have been half past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news:
‘Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.’
Jeeves makes one more personal appearance:
Jeeves came in with the tea.
‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘we start for America on Saturday.’
‘Very good, sir,’ he said; ‘which suit will you wear?’
And he is referred to in another passage, when Bertie arrives in New York:
I left Jeeves to get my baggage safely past an aggregation of suspicious-minded pirates who were digging for buried treasures among my new shirts, and drove to Gussie’s hotel, where I requested the squad of gentlemanly clerks behind the desk to produce him.
Many readers, and evidently Wodehouse himself, look back on ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ as a poor beginning for this reason. It doesn’t fit the Jeeves and Wooster formula we’ve come to know and love. Some of the centenary commentators (presumably those who’ve not read it) also find fault with it as a story. In my previous piece ‘Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge’ I too was dismissive, claiming that ‘… it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.’
Dutifully re-reading ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ for the 100th Anniversary in the belief that this was not Wodehouse’s best, I was thrilled to find the story better than I had (mis)remembered. It’s well-crafted, enjoyable and complete without Jeeves playing a major role. If we are disappointed with it (and I wasn’t) it is only because we’ve developed high expectations of Jeeves through the later stories. But there is much to like without him, and Bertie’s narrative voice and character (developed via an earlier prototype called Reggie Pepper) are firmly established:
If I ever breakfasted at half past eight I should walk on the Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
And Bertie is in excellent form on the subject of Aunt Agatha.
My experience is that when Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
The story takes Bertie from London to New York at Aunt Agatha’s insistence, to break the engagement of his cousin Gussie to a vaudeville performer.
…according to Gussie she does something which he describes as a single on the big time. What this degraded performance may be I have not the least notion.
Bertie treats us to a personal tour of New York hotels, bars and theatre. On arrival, he tells us:
New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America, so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You can’t lose your way. You go out of a barn and down some stairs, and there you are, right in among it.
In fact, the whole bally story is so packed with good stuff that when the conscientious blogger (that’s me) starts quoting, it becomes dashed difficult to stop. Rather than continue to cherry-pick the best bits for another twenty seven pages, I urge you to read them in situ, especially if it’s been some years since you encountered it. The older Wodehouse might have found fault with it, but we don’t have to agree with him.
It was rotten. The poor nut had got stage fright so badly that it practically eliminated his voice. He sounded like some far-off echo of the past ‘yodelling’ through a woollen blanket.
Happy Jeeves & Wooster centenary, everyone!