Think comedy duos—Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Jerry and George…. Well, Pelham Grenville (P.G.) Wodehouse was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century in English, or any other language for that matter. And he is best remembered for his creation of the duo of Jeeves and Wooster, who became extremely popular when the stories were first published in 1915, and then were recently re-popularized by the Granada Television productions in the early 1990s, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.
It should come as no surprise, then, that that someone would write a tribute novel reviving these beloved characters. This is not unlike the various tribute bands that have sprung up that attempt to recreate for contemporary audiences the experience of what it was like to attend a concert performed by celebrated bands like Pink Floyd or Queen or the Rolling… Hang on! Those guys are the Rolling Stones!!!
The creator of this 2013 “Homage to P.G. Wodehouse”, entitled Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, is Sebastian Faulks, a London writer who has produced several novels of his own, as well as an Ian Fleming tribute Devil May Care. [Four of his works can be found in the Lennoxville Library in the Adult English section (F2635); Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is available by inter-library loan.]
I thought it would be fun to compare the tribute with the originals. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the only piece of Wodehouse’s writing available in English in any public library in the Eastern Townships is a short story in Treasury of Great Cat Stories in Adult English. Fortunately, my lovely wife owns The Jeeves Omnibus, so I was able to compare Faulks’ effort with Wodehouse’s own Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963). (NB, if you are desperately in search of a Wodehouse fix, there are some DVDs to be had, and the Bishop’s Library has several classics.)
The narrator of the Jeeves stories is Bertram Wooster, an heir to a family fortune which allows him to maintain a London apartment and engage Jeeves as his valet. Bertie spends most of his daytime hours at his gentlemen’s club, The Drones, where he whiles away his time eating, drinking, and playing snooker, darts, or cards. Bertie is a rather dim bulb whose indiscretions regularly leave him in difficult fixes which require the wisdom and multiple skills of Jeeves to address.
Most of the duo’s adventures involve excursions into the English countryside to stay at the estates of the parents of Bertie’s pals from his days at private school, Oxford, or his club. (Picture Downton Abbey with a surplus of effete and ne’er-do-well lords and ladies). The impetus for many of these jaunts is to help these friends out with their love lives, as they endeavour to cement or avoid matrimonial entanglements.
In Stiff Upper Lip, Bertie is importuned by his chum, the Rev. Harold P. “Stinker” Pinker to travel out to Totleigh Towers in Gloucestershire, home of Sir Watkyn Bassett, to perform an undisclosed favour for Bassett’s niece, Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng, who also lives at Totleigh. Stiffy is engaged to Stinker, but the marriage cannot move forward unless Stinker can arrange to get promoted from curate to vicar in a parish of his own. Sir Watkyn has the authority to appoint vicars within his domain, where there is a vacancy, but has been dragging his feet on naming Stinker to the post.
What follows is a typically Wodehousian mayhem as the different characters’ desires and actions are misunderstood, thwarted, or otherwise rendered ineffectual. All comes out well in the end, although most of the dénouement occurs with Bertie hiding behind the sofa in the drawing room while the other characters, with a little assistance from Jeeves, sort matters out.
In Faulks’s longer and more elaborate story (and a worthy tribute it is), the summons to Melbury Hall, home of Sir Henry Hackwood in Dorsetshire, comes from Peregrine “Woody” Beeching, a lawyer who is engaged to Sir Henry’s daughter Amelia. Amelia has decided to call the wedding off because she finds that Woody is not sufficiently aggressive in his rejection of flirtatious approaches from other women.
Bertie had previously been out on the town with Sir Henry’s ward Georgiana Meadowes, a book editor, during a recent vacation on the Côte d’Azur. Since that time, Georgiana has become engaged to one of her firm’s clients, Rupert Venables, author of several travel books. But his chief appeal to the Hackwood family is that he stands to be the heir to the Spanier’s Sausage Casing fortune. (The Hackwoods are desperate for cash so they can manage to hang on Melbury Hall.) This is where things get complicated! Faulks, in true Wodehousian form, ensures that the usual chaos breaks out. Among some of the more hilarious complications, Jeeves must assume the guise of a Lord, and Wooster, that of his manservant. Bertie subsequently finds himself the unwilling participant in a staging of Scene 1 of Act III in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where ye “rude mechanicals” (tradesmen) rehearse the play that will be their contribution to the Duke of Athens’s wedding festivities.
Wodehouse’s works are some of the most un-put-downable works in English, and capture an interesting era in English social history with the decline of the nobility and the rise of the middle class. All in all, Foulks manages to replicate the setting, the ambience, the plotting, and most of all, the dialogue and endlessly entertaining interchanges between Wooster and Jeeves.
As an aside, lucky residents of the Townships will have the chance to see all nine scenes from Shakespeare’s original comedy when the Bishop’s Drama Department presents it as their main stage production next week at Centennial Theatre. Previous productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have actually sold out both Centennial and the Turner Theatre. So if you want a good seat on the weekend, you might not want to wait until the early reviews appear on Facebook!!!