A sequel that has some rewards for nostalgic Wodehouse fans.
A brave man is Sebastian Faulks to embark on a story about the well-beloved team of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, even with the blessing of P.G. Wodehouse’s estate. Readers of Wodehouse are an easygoing tribe, imbibing little sips of comic fiction with our Marie biscuits, but we are almost all middle-aged or old, and we like to keep our fictional icons just so. Every reader of Faulks’ “homage to P.G. Wodehouse” will watch like a hawk for his slightest slip.
The architecture of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is familiar: When Bertie bumps into a girl with long legs in a Cannes hotel, she falls flat and he falls in love. Bertie must selflessly visit a country estate in order to unite true lovers while sundering the untrue. Jeeves — Bertie’s valet, ally and saviour — conceals an agenda of his own. Aunt Agatha and young Thos are invoked, to chilling effect. Even in the absence of his aunts, Bertie must face the formidable dowagers who were their schoolmates. Bertie slides down a drainpipe. Bertie flubs a catch in a cricket game on which, somehow, everyone’s happiness depends.
While Wodehouse’s stories of Bertie and Jeeves took place in a timeless paradise between the wars, the misadventures documented in Faulks’s novel can be precisely dated because Bertie’s friend mentions that he is going to drive a train: the General Strike — which took place in May 1926 — is still on, and volunteers are keeping the transport system in operation. Given a date, the nit-picking reader is sure to find anachronisms in Faulks’s tale. For example, there may well have been a Collector of Chanamasala in the 1920s, but there was no Uttar Pradesh. And Bertie could not have been reminded of Mount Rushmore on first beholding the butler at Sir Henry Hackwood’s stately home, because construction of that American monument began only in 1927. On the other hand, Faulks may have planted anachronisms just to play with his readers, or to raise a glass to his editor heroine, Georgiana Meadowes, who would have to spot such errors for a living.
Though they may value consistency, today’s readers will certainly not insist on a slavish adherence to the gender perspectives of the 1920s, or the class perspectives. Georgiana is a terrible driver and dangerous to Bertie’s equilibrium, but Bertie and Jeeves no longer seem to live in their stubborn boys’ club. And we are quite curious about what Jeeves had for dinner while Bertie feasted at someone’s lordly table, whether Jeeves’s mattress was as downy as his master’s, and whether he had hot water for his morning shave before serving his master breakfast in bed. Faulks cleverly allows the reader into the servants’ rooms without violating the narrative point of view that Wodehouse maintained in nearly all his novels, which was Bertie’s. In this story, it is Jeeves (impersonating a Lord Etringham) who is the houseguest, and Bertie must play the part of Lord Etringham’s valet.
It is difficult for any writer to recreate the gaiety of Wodehouse’s tone, which was a product of that prosperous age, some years after a war that seemed to have ushered in an unending peace. Faulks manages it most of the time but he acknowledges, though briefly, the loss of friends on the battlefield and the loneliness of a man whose parents died young.
This homage is not likely to be repeated. Anyone who checks the title of this novel will guess how Bertie’s latest love story ends, but there are still rewards in store for the nostalgic reader.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells; Sebastian Faulks, Random House, Rs.599.