Essays and Criticism
Influence on Film and Television of the Late Twentieth Century
In 1917, P. G. Wodehouse first introduced the characters of Bertie Wooster, the young, rich, and endearing English nitwit, and Jeeves, his cool and ingenious butler. More than 70 years later, the critical and popular success of the early 1990s British television series, Jeeves and Wooster, clearly demonstrates the enduring influence of Wodehouse’s fiction on popular culture. Wodehouse’s ‘‘Jeeves and Wooster’’ stories have been adapted many times for the stage and screen through the years, perhaps most regrettably for a pair of ‘‘Jeeves’’ movies starring Arthur Treacher in the 1930s. (These films had no trace of Wodehouse’s actual stories; Jeeves is portrayed as an idiot and, unbelievably, there is no Bertie Wooster character!) However, the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster television series benefited from faithfulness to the original stories, sharp writing, and brilliant characterizations by Stephen Fry (Jeeves) and Hugh Laurie (Wooster). A frequent criticism of Wodehouse is that his fiction has always been oblivious to contemporary culture; although he wrote ‘‘Jeeves and Wooster’’ stories for over 50 years, the characters seem to be in a time-warp, circa Edwardian England. In another wise favorable essay published in the 1958 annual edition of New World Writing, John Aldridge writes:
One does have to suspend one’s sense of the contemporary world, either through physical isolation or an act of the imagination, while reading Wodehouse, for he belongs exclusively to Edwardian times and has apparently chosen to remain unaware of just about every important development which has occurred in the world since those times. All efforts, including his own, to up-date his work must end in failure: his characters, even when they strike out with brave allusions to Clark Gable and Gatsby, betray in their every gesture, action, and assumption their helpless allegiance to the past.
Grumpier critics, such as the solemn Edmund Morris, found this type of fiction superficial and tedious. But as Aldridge explains in his essay, Wodehouse was simply a product of his era. Wodehouse’s fiction was no doubt formulaic; but what an ingenious and effective formula! The familiarity of the characters and settings somehow facilitates a variety of situations in Wodehouse’s stories. Thus, the Jeeves and Wooster television series is an almost perfect situation comedy. Here it is seen just how much Wodehouse’s admittedly light, yet influential, fiction has permeated even today’s culture. Perhaps the person who coined the television word ‘‘sit-com’’ never read Wodehouse’s stories, but there is a Wodehousian element to the term nonetheless.
Wodehouse had great early success writing lyrics for the musical theater. His collaborations with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton revolutionized American musical comedy. Today, the plots of these plays resemble those of television situation comedy. He later commented that his fiction was musical comedy without the music. He created two vibrant characters in Jeeves and Wooster and placed them in absurd situations in dozens of stories and novels. The writers of television’s comedy series do the same thing every week (and Wodehouse was almost as prolific). The 1990s television adaptation of his stories, Jeeves and Wooster, is only the most obvious evidence of the influence of his fiction on the popular media of the late twentieth century. There are several other examples.
One example of Wodehouse’s influence, as suggested above, is the very form of the television situation comedy series, which has existed since the 1950s. The ten stories in the 1957 Penguin edition of Carry On, Jeeves average 21.3...
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Butler, Dabbler, Spy: Jeeves to Wimsey to Bond
In writing this essay (which started out to be a study of Lord Peter Wimsey), I was struck by the parallels between the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers and those of two other—hugely popular—British writers: P. G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. The more deeply I looked into it, the more interested I became. As a result, I will try to show that Sayers is a centerpiece joining the other two.
Wodehouse, Sayers, and Fleming were three of the more popular novelists to come out of Britain in the twentieth century. Wodehouse (pronounced ‘‘Woodhouse’’) had an almost unbelievable longevity as a published author. His first novel, The Pot Hunters, was published in 1902; his last (and ninety- sixth), Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (U.S. title: The Cat-Nappers), in 1974. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries covered the 1920s and 1930s. And Ian Fleming’s James Bond series ranged from 1953 to 1964, ultimately topping the bestseller charts. All three continue to be read widely throughout the English-speaking world. In addition, the BBC productions of the Lord Peter stories have been seen by millions; and every year or so Hollywood brings out another James Bond movie. I believe these writers have more in common than simply their popularity and nationality. I think literary dependency can be traced: from Wodehouse to Sayers; and from Sayers to Fleming. Jeeves to Wimsey to Bond, if you will.
First, Jeeves to Lord Peter. It’s a simple matter to prove that Sayers read Wodehouse. No less a Sayers authority than James Sandoe takes it for granted. But we needn’t rely on Sandoe: in the early pages of Murder Must Advertise Sayers mentions Wodehouse twice.
First, Pym’s Publicity’s new copy-boy (Lord Peter Wimsey) is compared to Bertie Wooster, one of Wodehouse’s major characters: ‘‘I think I’ve seen him,’’ says Miss Meteyard. ‘‘Tow-coloured, supercilious-looking blighter. . . . Cross between Ralph Lynn and Bertie Wooster.’’ (A good indication of Wodehouse’s popularity this: Sayers felt no need to explain to her readers who Bertie Wooster was.) A page later we read about ‘‘a bulky, dark youth in spectacles, immersed in a novel by P. G. Wodehouse and filching biscuits from a large tin.’’ Obviously, Sayers was conversant with Wodehouse.
But Wodehouse achieved more than mere mention. He clearly left his mark on Sayers. (I suspect he leaves his mark on everyone who reads him. In researching this essay I discovered, to my surprise, clear evidence of dependency on Wodehouse in my own books—despite a thirty-year gap between the last time I read him and the beginning of my writing career.)
As evidence of Wodehouse’s influence on Sayers, consider Wimsey’s self-description in The Nine Tailors: ‘‘I’m a nice wealthy bachelor. Fairly nice, anyway. And it’s fun to be rich. I find it so.’’ Such a self-description would be just as appropriate on the lips of Bertie Wooster.
Or take the way Wimsey occasionally strikes others: ‘‘I met [Lord Peter] once at a dog show. He was giving a perfect imitation of the silly-ass-abouttown.’’ Later in the same book, another character says, ‘‘If anyone asked, ‘What is . . . the Oxford manner?’ we used to show ‘em Wimsey of Balliol. . . . One never failed to find Wimsey of Balliol planted in the centre of the quad and laying down the law with exquisite insolence to somebody. . . . After wards, the Americans mostly said, ‘My, but isn’t he just the perfect English aristocrat?’’’ Each of these descriptions would fit Bertie Wooster at least as accurately as it fits Wimsey.
Wooster and Wimsey are both bachelors. (Lord Peter’s life on the printed page would end shortly after his marriage to Harriet Vane.) Both are harddrinking, fast-talking party animals with a penchant for finding and losing pretty women. Both have faithful, ingenious butlers. Both, finally, are upperclass, with an unquestioned, albeit unspoken, loyalty to the class system.
But Wimsey moves far beyond Wooster, as the leading character in a series of crime novels should, as opposed to the centerpiece in a set of humorous entertainments. Lord Peter is venturesome, daring, and self-reliant: qualities totally alien to Bertie.
But if Bertie knows nothing of these qualities, that doesn’t mean they are absent from Wodehouse’s stories. This brings us to the character who is more truly Wimsey’s—and therefore Bond’s—literary antecedent than Wooster: Wodehouse’s supreme creation, Jeeves. Bertie’s butler may not be venturesome or daring, but he is supremely self-reliant.
‘‘I’m sitting on the roof.’’
‘‘Very good, sir.’’
‘‘Don’t say ‘Very good.’ It’s nothing of the kind. The place is alive with swans.’’
‘‘I will attend to the matter immediately, sir.’’
‘‘All is well,’’ I said. ‘‘Jeeves is coming.’’
‘‘What can he do?’’
I frowned a trifle. The man’s tone had been peevish and I didn’t like it. ‘‘That,’’ I replied with a touch of stiffness, ‘‘we cannot say until we see him in action. He may pursue one course, or he may pursue another. But on one thing you can rely with the utmost confi- dence—Jeeves will find a way . . .’’
Jeeves is an expert on fashion, on cuisine, on horse racing, on literature, on politics, and, of course, on le grand jeu: he knows precisely the way to a woman’s heart.
There are, of course, striking differences as well. Jeeves is primarily concerned with saving his master’s onions; Lord Peter is concerned with solving murders. Lord Peter is a master (of Bunter, his butler) and Jeeves a servant. Nonetheless, I maintain, the difference between the characters is far less than the difference between the genres of their stories.
Wodehouse’s stories rely on an inverted master- slave relationship as old as Plautus: the servant, for all his social inferiority, is the brains of the pair. Sayers’s stories, though they contain an element of irony and self-deprecation (the Egotists’ Club, for instance) depend finally on the cleverness of Lord Peter, who, after all, has Jeeves’s trick of showing up at exactly the right time and place. (Though Bunter is a faithful servant and a delightful companion, his contributions to Wimsey’s crime-fighting tend to be minimal.) Like Jeeves, Lord Peter is omniscient, omnipotent, and always right.
Now to the second point: if Jeeves, the superior servant, is literary antecedent to Lord Peter, the wealthy aristocrat, Lord Peter, with even more justice, can be said to have been the same for Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
Not that Bond is either aristocratic or rich. He, first of all, is far from rich—Moonraker lists his salary as 1,500 pounds a year taxable, plus 1,000 pounds a year in tax-free income. But (like Jeeves) Bond enjoys elaborate perks, including travel to exotic locales and stopovers at luxury hotels. Furthermore, he never seems to lack for money with which to gamble, occasionally at very high stakes.
As to Bond’s place within the British hierarchy of class, he is definitely a commoner. Or is he? Observe him on an outing at M.’s prestigious club, the Blades. We find another inverted master-servant relationship in the two men’s dining habits: M., the aristocrat, dines on such items as deviled kidney, bacon, peas, and new potatoes—decidedly proletarian fare—while Bond orders smoked salmon, lamb cutlets, asparagus with Hollandaise. Bond, the commoner, has the upper-class tastes his boss lacks. And though he technically takes his orders from M., he is also shown to be the brains as well as the class of the partnership.
Is some of Lord Wimsey in James Bond? I think so, despite the complete lack of reference to Sayers in any of Fleming’s biographies.
First of all, take the following description of Wimsey in Gaudy Night: ‘‘height of the skull; glitter of close-cropped hair . . . minute sickleshaped scar on the left temple. . . . Faint laughterlines at the corner of the eye and droop of lid at its outer end. . . . Gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. Wide spring of the nostril . . . an oddly amusing set of features.’’ Compare this passage, in its wealth of minute detail, to the way Ian Fleming frequently describes James Bond. Ironically, the best of these descriptions is in The Man with the Golden Gun, in a passage that describes not Bond but the assassin Scaramanga—who looks enough like Bond to be able to impersonate him successfully:
Age about 35. Height 6 ft. 3 in. Slim and fit. Eyes, light brown. Hair reddish in a crew cut. Long sideburns. Gaunt, sombre face with thick pencil moustache, brownish. Ears very flat to the head. Ambidextrous. Hands very large and powerful and immaculately manicured.
(Note both writers’ use of elaborate detail. Wodehouse, by contrast, is extremely sparing in his descriptions. Virtually all we are ever really told of Jeeves’s appearance is that he is a ‘‘darkish, respectful sort of Johnny.’’)
Another connection between Lord Peter and James Bond may be seen in the two men’s use of cardsharping to foil villains. Lord Peter’s behavior in Sayera’s short story ‘‘The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker’’ provides a basis for considering similar activities of James Bond.
In the Sayers story, a parasite named Paul Melville has stolen a diamond necklace from Mrs. Ruyslaender. She is unable to bring charges because along with the diamonds he also stole a small portrait with a highly compromising inscription.
Melville likes to play poker. Lord Peter, knowing of Mrs. Ruyslaender’s predicament and wishing to help her, engages the thief in a game. During Melville’s deal Lord Peter catches him by the arm, and a card falls from Melville’s sleeve. Melville protests his innocence—correctly if vainly—because by adroit sleight of hand Lord Peter had planted the incriminating card on him. Having forced the thief into a corner, Wimsey offers him a way out: if he will return the necklace to its rightful owner he will be allowed to slink away.
This idea of cheating a cheater was used by Ian Fleming more than once, first in Moonraker. The initial premise of this book...
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P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves: The Butler as Superman
There can hardly be any doubt that the most intriguing character created by P. G. Wodehouse is that of butler Jeeves, even though, as the clever servant who, episode after episode, proves superior to his master, he is anything but original. From the viewpoint of literary history he is indeed of as ancient a family as that hopelessly inefficient rich young man whom he serves. The extraordinary fascination Jeeves has held for a vast number of readers invites some investigation of how his author made use of one of the stock figures of comedy.
But, as we hope to demonstrate, Jeeves is not only the traditional sly servant; he is also one of the supermen of popular literature, who may be considered in relation to, for...
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Wodehouse at the Top of His Form
The cynical and witty W. Somerset Maugham once remarked that to be a grand old man of letters it was necessary to do two things: write a great many books and live a very long life. By Maugham’s law, P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) was a grand old man of English letters, for he published about a hundred books and lived to be nearly ninety-four. The fact is that Wodehouse was obviously one of the masters of English comedy when he was still in his thirties.
Beside Wodehouse, many British and American comic writers who flourished between World War I and World War II now look like figures in a museum or an old scrap book. The ‘‘brittle’’ sophistication of Noel Coward has cracks through which sentimentality is...
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