I know I’m very late to writing a review of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. After all it came out in 2013 and I read it six months ago, but I’ve had that hankering again to write my own Wodehouse pastiche and have to remind myself that’s a bad idea.
If you’re unfamiliar with Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks, you should know that it’s an homage sanctioned by the estate of P.G. Wodehouse (extant in Sir Edward Cazalet, Wodehouse’s grandson), like those officially sanctioned new Sherlock Holmes-ish novels by Anthony Horowitz (I will review his Moriarty in a later post). Wodehouse, of course, is the comic genius who gave us the blundering but kind-hearted Bertie Wooster and his keeper and manservant, Jeeves. For all that he wrote (near a hundred books if you include novels and collections of short stories and non-fiction), he’s best known for these two characters. It’s understandable that the public want more, for Jeeves and Wooster inhabit a magic, timeless interwar age of jazz, oddly named drinks and before death taxes destroyed the manor house. But new stories and their authors ran afoul of the Wodehouse estate until Faulks was tapped to write Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.
I was determined not to like the book because of some unfavorable reviews (although there are many favorable ones), and because I didn’t like what I’d read about the plot and frankly because of the hubris of daring to pen an “official” new Jeeves and Wooster novel … oh, and the decision to call it a homage to Wodehouse. You can see it was doomed for me from the beginning. What was surprising is that despite all my worst fears, I don’t despise it. In some ways, I even liked it and I’m not ashamed to put it on the same shelf (shelves) as the rest of my Wodehouse. And having made that somewhat positive recommendation, I am now ready to savage it.
There are several ways in which the book stumbles, but its fundamental flaw is Faulks’ decision is to write a homage (that’s what it says on the cover) and not a pastiche. Faulks has said he didn’t want to write too close an imitation and drift into parody but that’s exactly what a Wodehouse reader wants. I wanted to pick up Faulks’ book and be able to pretend it was a recently discovered lost Wodehouse novel that had been moldering away in a tin dispatch box in some bank vault. I wanted to be able to check off my Wodehouse bingo card that has squares for every mention of Infant Samuels, scripture knowledge prizes, Sir Philip Sidney, larks on the wing and all the tropes the master included in every book.
Any Wodehouse fan knows the Master got away with using the running gags because we expected them, we liked them, but Faulks thought he couldn’t get away with it. Faulks’ novel became the literary equivalent of one of those aging rock legends who won’t on tour play the songs that made him famous and endeared him to his fans. Faulks was just too afraid to write in the genuine Wodehouse style and instead gave us his take on Jeeves and Wooster.
Then there is his decision to place the book in a specific time, something Wodehouse never did. Despite the occasional mention of a television set or the war or death taxes, his stories reflect an Edwardian period that never ended (it just sort of morphed into the interwar years) and characters who never age. Faulks, however, firmly sets the story in 1926 because of the references to the General Strike. There really is no reliable chronology to the Jeeves and Wooster stories (Roderick Spode’s similarity to Oswald Mosley being an exception), but I nevertheless sense that Faulks wanted to pick a time before the full flowering of the J&W stories to avoid entanglement with the epic events of the Totleigh Towers saga. There’s also an uncharacteristically (for Wodehouse) mention of the death by submarine warfare of a character’s parents. Parents are often dead in Wodehouse novels, but the reason is never given.
Another somber note is struck when Jeeves, Bertie’s valet (although in this story, Jeeves pretends to be Lord Etringham while Bertie pretends to be his valet), admits his distant relationship to Percy Jeeves, a cricketer for Warwickshire County Cricket Club (Wodehouse named Jeeves after the cricketer) who died during the Great War in the Battle of the Somme. After relating the information of the death of that Jeeves, Faulks writes: “It was quiet for a moment; you could hear the rooks chattering in the elms and cedars.” All well and good but the thing is, you don’t read Wodehouse for somber notes.
Another problem with the novel is that there seems very little to tie us to the world of Jeeves and Wooster that we know and love. New characters take center stage—Georgiana Meadowes, a love interest for Bertie, and Peregrine “Woody” Beeching, a heretofore unmentioned lifelong friend of Bertie. To make up for this, Faulks has an almost obligatory inclusion of the Rev. Harold “Stinker” Pinker and his fiancée Stiffy Byng (from The Code of the Woosters) and Esmond Haddock (The Mating Season). Pinker and Haddock are needed to round out the cricket game that plays an important role in the story. (Which brings up the fact that a cricket game plays an important role in the story. I’ve actually seen a cricket game and have some vague idea of the rules and have some fondness for it, but all the cricket in the book seems forced.)
There are also a few structural flaws in the book. On page 13 of my copy, Jeeves says: “A gentleman called an hour ago to see you, but I told him you were not to be disturbed. A Mr. Beeching, sir. He said he would return at eleven.”
Bertie says: “Good God, not ‘Woody’ Beeching?”
“He did not confide his first name, sir.”
“Tallish chap, eyes like a hawk?”
‘There was a suggestion of the accipitrine, sir.”
All of which makes it sound like Jeeves had not made the fellow’s acquaintance. And yet on page 15, Beeching says: “The thing is, Bertie, the reason I needed to consult you, or rather your excellent manservant …” He goes on to get Jeeves’ advice on how mend a rift with is fiancée.
I think I know what happened here. Faulks wanted to use the “accipitrine” gag (which is pretty good), even though it makes it sound as if Jeeves had never met Beeching. I also was a little confused about the relationship between Georgiana Meadowes and Amelia Hackwood (Beeching’s love interest). I suddenly discovered that Amelia and Georgiana were cousins, which I should have been able to figure out from earlier in the book, but I’d forgotten that until reminded of it later. Partially my fault for not figuring it out, but Wodehouse always did a good job of keeping the reader informed of the convoluted plots and numerous characters in his stories.
I know all this sounds counter to the beginning of this review, where I said I liked this book. Perhaps I should have said that I sympathize with the challenge Faulks took on and I can see all the decisions he made that led him to writing this book. Unfortunately those decisions led him into writing something so different from Wodehouse that he probably should have started over, at least in my estimation. What I had hoped for was to discover that long lost story I mentioned earlier, and that’s not what this is. It’s a new story written by a man who obviously loves the characters P.G. Wodehouse created a century earlier, but who was afraid of falling flat on his face by imitating one of the greatest, if not the greatest, comic English writer of all time. And I can entirely understand that.