P.G. Wodehouse has reached the ripe age of ninety, and according to the list Simon and Schuster give us. Jeeves and the Tie That Binds is his seventy-fifth book. He started writing at about the same time as Joyce or, say, about the time Mark Twain died. The dust-jacket photograph shows Mr. Wodehouse touching his toes without bending his knees--something I have yet to be able to do. He is a remarkable man.
If his longevity and the quantity of his output are astonishing, even more so is the quality of his work. His seventy-fifth novel is as fresh and as funny as his fiftieth, or his first, and not very different from either. Wodehouse has been lucky and talented enough to have found a formula for comedy that works; and he has been wise enough not to deviate from that formula in well over half a century of writing.
Wodehouse's comedies take place in a Never-neverland of fin-de-siecle English aristocracy, where a young man like Bertram Wooster has nothing to do but go to his club, visit his aunts in the country, and fall in and out of love, a world in which the greatest crime is to knock off a bobby's hat during Race Week at Oxford, and the greatest calamity is to find oneself engaged--a sort of Importance of Being Earnest world, but without Wilde's malice. Though Wodehouse has other sets of characters who live in this world, none have been more popular and successful than Bertie Wooster and his butler, the inimitable Jeeves.
Much of the success of the Jeeves novels is due to Bertie's first person narration. Wodehouse shows us Jeeves through the eyes of this pleasant, well-meaning, but definitely addle-brained young man-about-town, and the vision is little short of awe-inspiring. Bertie runs out of words in describing the depth of Jeeves' intellect, the brains that have rescued him from so many desperate romantic entanglements; he can only ascribe Jeeves' wisdom to the quantities of fish he consumes. From Bertie's vantage point, Jeeves is definitely superhuman, and if we were to ask why he should spend his life looking after such an amiable cretin, he would only reply (as he does in this novel) that there is a tie that binds.
Two major premises start the plot rolling in Jeeves and the Tie That Binds. The first is that Jeeves is writing up a record of Bertie's latest misadventures for his club, the Junior Ganymede, an exclusive organization for butlers which keeps a book on the habits and peculiarities of their employers. Bertie is naturally concerned least the book fall into the wrong hands. The second is that Bertie's old Oxford chum. Harold "Ginger" Winship, is standing for Parliament in the by-election at Market Snodsbury, in deference to the wishes of his bossy finance, Florence Craye, Bertie goes to his Aunt Dahlia's house in Market Snodsbury to help Ginger--though unwillingly, since he too has been engaged to Florence Craye, with traumatic results. At Aunt Dahlia's he meets a collection of old friends and enemies and gets into all kinds of jams, from which Jeeves inevitably extricates him. The club book turns up, of course, in the hands of a villainous butler, with possibly devastating consequences for Bertie and Ginger. Jeeves, however, recovers it by slipping the butler a Mickey Finn, or, as he puts it, by inserting "a chemical substance in his beverage which had the effect of rendering him temporarily insensible." Everything turns out well in the end: Ginger gets the heave-ho from Florence and finds true love, the club book is returned to its proper place, minus the embarrassing pages about Bertie, and Bertie remains single, the proud possessor of the greatest butler in the world.
The plot is slightly less complicated than the normal Wodehouse novel, which is too bad, since the intricacies of Bertie's woes account for much of the fun. To make up for this, there is more reliance on verbal humor. A device used more than usual is the juxtaposition of the silly situations with Jeeves' somber quotations from world literature:
"One always has to budget for a change in the weather. Still, the thing to do is to keep on being happy while you can."
"Precisely, sir, Carpe diem, the Roman poet Horace advised. The English poet Herrick expressed the same sentiment when he suggested that we should gather rosebuds while we may, Your elbow is in the butter, sir."
"Oh, thank you, Jeeves."
There are also loony flights of fancy: the world as understood by Bertram Wooster. In one of Wodehouse's few topical allusions. Bertie and his Aunt Dahlia muse on Jeeves' statement that, "If steps are not taken shortly through the proper channels, half the world will soon be standing on the other half's shoulders":
"All right if you're one of the top layer."
"Yes, there's that, of course."
"Though even then it would be uncomfortable. Tricky sort of balancing act."
"And difficult to go for a stroll if you wanted to stretch the legs. And one wouldn't get much hunting."
It's impossible not, to like people who see things that way, and it's impossible not to admire a writer who can create them. But there are more important things being done in literature, and, for the dedicated student, it's impossible not to feel a little guilty wasting one's time on such froth. A Wodehouse novel goes in one hemisphere of the brain and out the other, leaving little more behind than a television situation comedy--some of his novels I've read twice with only the slightest feeling of deja vu. Still, at times one would rather watch a Three Stooges short than 2001, and it's somehow nice to know there are hundreds more Three Stooges episodes, even if there is only one 2001.
Sean O'Casey called Wodehouse "English literature's performing flea." Wodehouse gloried in the phrase, and used it as the title of a volume of reminiscences. If being a performing flea isn't the greatest talent in the world, it is, nevertheless, a talent, and nowadays that's something to be treasured. Genuine performing fleas are, after all, a rarity. We could use a few more.