In Right Ho, Jeeves the amiable fop and oblivious juggernaut of chaos, Bertie Wooster, tries to save his friends’ love lives without the help of his ingenious butler Jeeves.
Though this is the sixth installment in P.G. Wodehouse’s celebrated — televised, radio serialized, and even musical-ized — Jeeves & Wooster series, the story and characters are instantly accessible to someone who, like me, is just jumping in here.
The plot? It’s the early 1900’s and life should be one long dinner party for our “heroes”, a circle of idle British upper class, but all is not well. A lovelorn chap can’t get up the nerve to propose, an argument over the potential existence of a shark threatens an engagement, gambling debts are bad for the magazine business, and Wooster has a new jacket.
How is it? The plot is pure sitcom: guy loves girl, girl loves guy, and from the start you can pretty much bet your swanky British estate that everything will turn out perfectly. But the road to happily-ever-afters is paved with misunderstandings, bungled schemes, and chase scenes, and soon the plan to fix everything has grown like a terrifying black hole, sucking in even innocent bystanders. Right Ho, Jeeves is a charming, light read where if the stakes seem high (love! marriage! a ladies’ magazine!) that’s only because the characters don’t share our comfortable insight that this is a world in which nothing can really go wrong.
“ ‘Tuppy! You didn’t?’
‘Have you no delicacy, no proper feeling?’
‘Oh? Well, right-ho, of course, but I think you ought to have.’ ”
What’s truly engaging about the novel is the language, and the delightfully twisted logic of Wooster’s worldview. Wooster’s narration is absurdly British and his manhandling of metaphors and stylish slang are comically ridiculous.
Despite his bumbling, Wooster is likeable in his genuine affection for his friends and his willingness to be the butt of ridicule for their sakes. It makes us not mind being in his head, but at the same time he’s puffed up enough that we can usually enjoy when he’s cut down to size. Wooster has a goldfish-like memory for most emotional turmoil — blink and it’s gone — that makes it easy for him to shrug off insults (just as long as his clothing isn’t among the victims), so as in slapstick, there’s a sense of no harm done.
As a reader, I love when I’m wrapped inside someone else’s head and then glimpse the boundaries of their perceptions. There’s plenty fun to be made from Wooster’s limited self-awareness, and how he rationalizes the world to himself. Though cognizant that he’s not tolerable company for any extended period of time, Wooster doesn’t conclude that there’s anything wrong with him or anything to be upset about. He chalks it up to a rule of nature: ““Dash it all, she’s just had nearly two months of me…and many people consider the medium dose for an adult two days.”
Where the story pushes past the fun and games is in its reveals of Wooster’s deeper emotional core. There are a couple fun exchanges where Wooster gets an unexpected letter or summons and the news absolutely paralyzes him.
“ ‘A note for you, sir.’
‘A note for me, Jeeves?’
‘A note for you, sir.’
‘From whom, Jeeves?’
‘From Miss —,* sir.’
‘From whom, Jeeves?’
‘From Miss —, sir.’
‘From Miss —, Jeeves?’
‘From Miss —, sir.’
… ‘But what,’ I mused, toying with the envelope, ‘Can this female be writing to me about?’ ”
(* name omitted to avoid spoilers)
Wooster’s mind seems to shut down and set on loop in the face of the unknown. His aversion discussing anything related to honest emotion is stronger yet, causing “a hideous feeling of shame.” At times Wooster even thinks about himself in the third person, as though trying to create an emotional distance between himself, and, well, himself: “Bertram Wooster is not accustomed to this gluttonous appetite for his society.” The surprising darker undercurrent under the comedy is humanizing and intriguing.
Overall, the plot of Right Ho, Jeeves isn’t particularly gripping, but the reward of humorous scenes and commentary keeps us flipping pages. The real selling point is how fun it is to be in Wooster’s head and some rather funny dialogue, and there Wodehouse heartily delivers. And for myself, I’ll be curious for any more glimpses of Wooster’s demons.