Reviewed by Ali Hope.
Before I talk about the book itself, let’s just pause to consider the task which faced Sebastian Faulks here; already a successful and well thought of writer, there was a very high chance of him making a bit of a fool of himself. Of this novel, and his writing of it, Faulks has said he had no intention of writing either an imitation or a parody; as the cover declares, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a homage to Wodehouse. I have of course read some P. G. Wodehouse novels, though not all of them, and the ones I did read were years ago. Therefore I can in no way declare myself to be a Wodehouse purist, but neither is his unmistakeable voice unknown to me. Overall I think Faulks has done more than a creditable job, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells does have a wonderfully Wodehousian air about it, and it is also a funny, engaging read, one that will presumably bring Jeeves and Wooster to a new generation. What is has also done for me, and I expect will do for others too, is to make me want to read some P G Wodehouse again.
I’ve seen the inside of a few country-house bedrooms in my time, but I must say Lord Etringham had really landed seat first in the butter. I found him sitting up in bed in a burgundy dressing gown with a light paisley pattern that I recognised as one of my own and reading a book whose title, if I remember right was The Critique of Pure Reason by one Immanuel Kant.
‘Your tea, Lord Etringham,’ I said.
‘Thank you. Please be so good as to leave it by the bed,’ replied Jeeves – for it was he and no bona fide member of the aristocracy who reclined among the crisp linens of the four-poster.
‘I trust you slept well,’ I said, with a fair amount of topspin.
‘Exceedingly well, thank you, sir.’
Here we see Jeeves and Wooster swapping places, which naturally enough leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and complications. Poor Bertie, who cannot even boil an egg, is cast in the role of a gentleman’s personal gentleman, and that gentleman is of course Jeeves, who is first seen sitting up in bed wearing Bertie’s dressing gown. The reader has to read on for a few pages to find out how and why this has come about – a clever device as by now the reader is hooked. We are of course back in familiar territory; as so often, the plot revolves around affairs of the heart and matters of finance in the aristocracy.
Weeks earlier Bertie had met Georgina Meadowes on the Cote d’Azur. Now Georgiana, this heiress to a considerable fortune is engaged to Rupert Venables. Georgiana is the ward of Sir Henry Hackwood, whom she loves and is deeply grateful to for bringing her up. Needing to secure the future of his beloved Melbury Hall, Sir Henry has rather pushed the marriage of his ward to Rupert. Back in London Bertie is visited by his friend Woody (Peregrine ‘Woody’ Beeching) who relates to Bertie and Jeeves his tale of love-struck woe. For Woody is engaged to Sir Henry’s daughter Amelia, but after a disagreement following a bit of mild flirtation on Woody’s part, he finds himself, desperately needing to regain her trust, not helped by her father’s dislike of him. Sir Henry will be hosting a house party at Melbury Hall where Woody hopes to mend matters with Amelia, and also staying will be Georgiana and the Venables family.
With Bertie expecting Aunt Agatha and the awful young Thomas to arrive any moment, panic sets in until Jeeves hits upon a plan. The plan initially is to take up residence at a cottage near to Melbury Hall in an attempt to aid Woody in his plight.
This June morning was no exception. Jeeves had made up for lost time at the local shops. The eggs had a pleasing orange glow and the bacon came from a beast far removed from the baleful husbandry of any Jude, obscure or otherwise. Yet despite the cloudless blue sky over Kingston St Giles, the day’s task was a serious one, and I felt it would tax my resources to the last drop. Little did I know, as I set fire to an after-breakfast gasper in the cottage garden, what the lead-filled sock of fate had in store for me.
When Jeeves runs into Woody and Sir Henry in the village, Woody hastily introduces Jeeves to Sir Henry as Lord Etringham, a real earl as it turns out, much older than Jeeves in reality, but totally reclusive and virtually never seen in society or known to anyone. Jeeves – in the guise of Lord Etringham — is invited to dine at Melbury Hall, so the first thing to do is ensure that Jeeves is not discovered to be an imposter. Bertie is dispatched by his manservant to remove volumes of Burke and Debrett from the hall – involving Bertie climbing through the library window, so that Sir Henry cannot consult them and discover the real Lord Etringham is nothing like Jeeves. The dinner is an enormous success, and Lord Henry really takes to his new acquaintance, with Jeeves providing his lordship with some hot racing tips, and Sir Henry invites Lord Etringham to join the house party at the hall. Going to dinner is one thing, but when attending a house party one really can’t turn up without one’s valet. So Bertie finds himself sleeping on a regrettably thin mattress in the servants’ quarters, while Jeeves inhabits his dressing gown and enjoys a lavish breakfast in bed. Thus are Bertie and Jeeves in the perfect place to aid poor Woody, although Jeeves has the happiness of another couple in his sights too. Much hilarity ensues naturally enough, with plan A leading to the implementation of plan B and so on.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is great fun. It is not pure Wodehouse – it is not meant to be — however it is as close as anyone is ever going to get to the original, and I very much enjoyed meeting up with Bertie Wooster and Jeeves again. Once or twice, Faulks has allowed the real world to creep into his novel, something Wodehouse didn’t do: there are mentions of WW1, and the deaths of relatives, and I think this serves to separate the Faulks narrative from Wodehouse, while retaining much of the feel of the original.
Ali blogs at Heavenali, reviewing books from a bygone era as well as some more recently published titles.
Sebastian Faulks, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (Arrow, London, Aug 2014) 978-0099588979 paperback, 352 pages.