For as long as I can remember — I take neither pleasure nor pride in the admission — I have been one of those people who feels an irresistible curling of the lip at reviews of the ‘I laughed till I cried’ variety. Something about that hackneyed claim, invariably trumpeted in bold letters outside West End theatres, inspires absolute scepticism. No longer. At two memorable moments in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells I did indeed laugh until I cried.
To readers unfamiliar with his role as a team captain on Radio 4’s The Write Stuff, the literary quiz which culminates each week with a pastiche of an author’s style, Sebastian Faulks, still best known for his novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, may appear an unlikely candidate for donning the mantle of P.G. Wodehouse. Modestly — or perhaps disingenuously — Faulks himself makes carefully circumspect claims for his new novel in which he revisits Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s personal
gentleman, Jeeves. He describes it as a ‘tribute’, and denies any expertise on his part. Hollow claims, as it happens. For this Wodehouse devotee at any rate, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a masterpiece — albeit no self-respecting aficionado would wish marriage on Bertie, with its attendant risk of Jeeves moving on (Faulks nimbly negotiates that hazard).
Faulks’s plot is bang on-message. Not for the first time Bertie Wooster finds himself in a country house where his presence is definitely irksome to at least one member of the host family. Determined to help a friend in romantic hot water, Wooster is nothing daunted by vigorous intimations of froideur around him. Plans are made, scrapes ensue. As in Wodehouse’s novels, when those plans originate with Jeeves, the reader feels reassured that all will be well. Not so when Bertie takes the tiller. Mistaken identity, corridor-creeping and fabulously improbable coincidences all have their part to play. So, too, do hateful aunts, an Aberdeen terrier of noted ferocity and sheep’s eyes on the part of nice young people of both sexes. Throughout it all the Wooster good humour never fails, as Bertie seeks, page by page, to offer the reader an object lesson in civilised (if not over-intelligent) bonhomie and how to be an all-round good egg.
As in all sequels of this sort — Jill Paton Walsh’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels spring to mind — the key is to read without pedantry and with a willing suspension of disbelief. For me, Faulks captures perfectly both the tone and the spirit of Wodehouse’s originals. What’s more, he does so in a manner that, in rekindling happy memories of those books, reinvigorates one’s retrospective enjoyment of the originals. Some readers may pick holes. Perhaps the references to contemporary figures, used to establish the period outlook, are more heavy-handed than would have been necessary for Wodehouse. But for the most part, this is a pitch-perfect undertaking: proof, almost a century after his debut, that Jeeves may not be so inimitable after all.
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