“The Inimitable Jeeves” is a corking collection of absurd and entertaining tales focused on love – and betting. Published in 1923, it is one of the first Jeeves and Wooster novels – but is in fact less a novel than a collection of short stories strung into a single narrative.
The Inimitable Jeeves: the comedy is in the stories
Worshippers of PG Wodehouse find many sources of comedy. The rich language teems with jokes; the characterisation is exquisite; the stories are hilarious.
In “The Inimitable Jeeves”, much of the comedy lies in the stories themselves. In addition to the usual comic themes such as the tension between Bertie and Jeeves over the former’s wardrobe, two long-running gags run through the largely separate stories.
Betting on anything that moves
The first is the idea that Bertie and his pals, supported by Jeeves, will bet on anything that moves. More: they ceaselessly seek competitions, races or simply random events on which they can bet, often in competition with the bookmaker, Steggles. Did I say random? No! The whole point is that Bertie’s crew will always seek to bet on something where they know, or can fix, the outcome in advance – or can try to do so.
Wodehouse stokes the jokes by using racecourse and race-horse language about betting on everything from vicars and the length of their sermons (“The Great Sermon Handicap”) to an egg-and-spoon race (“The Purity of the Turf”). Here, he describes a vicar who he hopes will preach a long sermon:
Eustace had been right. The man was a trier. He was a tall, rangy-looking grey-beard, and he went off from the start with a nice, easy action, pausing and clearing this throat at the end of each sentence and it wasn’t five minutes before I realised that here was the winner. His habit of stopping dead and looking round the church at intervals was worth minutes to us, and in the home stretch we gained no little advantage owing to his dropping his pince-nez and having to grope for them.
Bertie discovers a new event on which to bet:
‘What’s the next?’ ‘Boys’ and Girls’ Mixed Animal Potato Race, All Ages.’ This was a new one to me. I had never heard of it at any of the big meetings.
Here, Bertie encounters a small girl who turns out to be a participant in the egg-and-spoon race on which he plans to bet:
‘I’m Prudence Baxter.’ Naturally this put our relations on a different footing. I gazed at her with considerable interest. One of the stable. I must say she didn’t look much of a flier. She was short and round. Bit out of condition, I thought.
Bingo Little falling in love with anything that moves
The second running gag is Bertie’s friend Bingo constantly falling in love. Witness Jeeves’s comment on Bingo, and Bertie’s reply:
‘Mr Little certainly is warm-hearted, sir.’ ‘Warm-hearted? I should think he has to wear asbestos vests.’
Here, Bingo awaits the object of his desire as she approaches down the lane:
[Bingo’s] emotion was painful to witness. His face got so red that, what with his white collar and the fact that the wind had turned his nose blue, he looked more like a French flag than anything else. He sagged from the waist upwards, as if he had been filleted.
Bingo’s rhapsodies extend even to the families of the girls he adores, as here, where he describes his new girlfriend’s socialist father:
‘You must meet old Rowbotham, Bertie. A delightful chap. Wants to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy. Well, nothing could be fairer than that, what?’
The Inimitable Jeeves – and Bertie
The relationship between Jeeves and Bertie is as rich as ever:
I went straight back to my room, dug out the cummerbund, and draped it around the old tum. I turned round and Jeeves shied like a startled mustang.
[Bertie overhears Jeeves on the phone] ‘You will find Mr Wooster,’ he was saying to the substitute chappie, ‘an exceedingly pleasant and amiable young gentleman, but not intelligent. By no means intelligent. Mentally he is negligible – quite negligible.’
“What are the chances of a cobra biting Harold, Jeeves?”
“Slight, I should imagine, sir. And in such an event, knowing the boy as intimately as I do, my anxiety would be entirely for the snake.”
‘Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don’t know?’ ‘I couldn’t say, sir.’
Towards the close of the book, Bertie is determined to fire Jeeves, only to be overwhelmed by the comfort and routine Jeeves provides:
One thing I was jolly certain of, and that was that this was where Jeeves and I parted company. A topping valet, of course, none better in London, but I wasn’t going to allow that to weaken me. I buzzed into the flat like an east wind… and there was the box of cigarettes on the small table and the illustrated weekly papers on the big table and my slippers on the floor, and every dashed thing so bally right, if you know what I mean, that I started to calm down in the first two seconds. It was like one of those moments in a play where the chappie, about to steep himself in crime, suddenly hears the soft, appealing strains of the old melody he learned at his mother’s knee. Softened, I mean to say. That’s the word I want. I was softened. And then through the doorway there shimmered good old Jeeves…
The Inimitable Jeeves: other treasures
“The Inimitable Jeeves” is packed with other good stuff. Here are a few quotations that caught my eye:
[Bertie surveys the options in a coffee shop to which Bingo has dragged him to meet his latest obsession:] A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed the only things on the list that hadn’t been specially prepared by the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a particular grudge against.
[Of Aline Hemmingway and her brother] I noticed that she appeared considerably rattled, and as for the brother, he looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.
I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.
There’s something about evening service in a country church that makes a fellow feel drowsy and peaceful. Sort of end-of-a-perfect-day feeling. Old Heppenstall was up in the pulpit, and he has a kind of regular, bleating delivery that assists thought.They had left the door open, and the air was full of a mixed scent of trees and honeysuckle and mildew and villagers’ Sunday clothes.
It was no use arguing, of course. Aunt Agatha always makes me feel as if I had gelatine where my spine ought to be.
I don’t know if you’ve ever met my Uncle George. He’s a festive old egg who wanders from club to club continually having a couple with other festive old eggs. When he heaves in sight, waiters brace themselves and the wine-steward toys with his corkscrew. It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a food, well in advance of modern medical thought.
The Inimitable Jeeves: a summary
Taken together, the stories that make up “The Inimitable Jeeves” form a splendid canvas of hilarity. This is one for every Wodehouse fan, from beginner to aficionado. Enjoy!