Jeeves: P. G. Wodehouse’s enduring character

August 23, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers.

Jeeves, the omniscient valet of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories, began life in the author’s mind as a one-off character. He appeared in a 1915 story titled “Extricating Young Gussie” and was supposed to have only two lines: “Mrs. Gregson to see you, sir,” and  “Very good, sir. Which suit will you wear?” 

Had Wodehouse kept with his original intention, Jeeves might have disappeared into the literary mists.

But Wodehouse kept writing about Bertie Wooster. In the story “The Artistic Career of Corky,” the author got Wooster and his friend Corky into a scrape and could not figure a way to get them out.

And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That’s how a character grows.

And grow Jeeves did. During the next six decades, Wodehouse wrote about Jeeves, mostly as Bertie Wooster’s valet but occasionally as a character on his own. He is constantly saving Bertie from his mixed-up view of the world and his hare-brained schemes. At one point, Bertie fires Jeeves because Jeeves instigates the break-up of an engagement to a young lady into which Bertie has ill-advisedly entered. Bertie quickly hires him back when he realizes that Jeeves has once again saved him from himself.

In another story, Jeeves quits Bertie’s employ because Bertie won’t give up his banjolele. Of course, he eventually does so, and the two get back together.

One of the running jokes through many of these stories is that while Bertie recognizes Jeeves’ abilities and genius, he never quite comes to grips with his own incompetence. The relationship between Jeeves and Bertie is sometimes thought of as the comic side of a Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson partnership. Even Wodehouse himself made some reference to this idea.

Two more things about Jeeves:

– He had a first name, something that Wodehouse did not reveal until his next-to-last novel, Much Obliged, Jeeves. Bertie is shocked to hear another valet greeting Jeeves with “Hullo, Reggie.” Bertie had never considered that Jeeves might have a first name.

– Jeeves lives on despite the death of his creator in 1975. More than 30 years after that date, Ask Jeeves became the name of an internet question-and-answer search engine now known simply as Ask.com.

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