In this literary game where too many novelists will go on producing the same book over and over (with ever-less-convincing disguises), Sebastian Faulks has a demonstrated flexibility and range that few British authors since Anthony Burgess can match. Having already written about the trench combatants of World War One (Birdsong), the Resistance in Vichy France (Charlotte Gray), and diplomatic shenanigans in Cold War-era America (On Green Dolphin Street), Faulks in 2006 published Pistache, a little collection of squibs parodying authors from Chaucer to Updike, which showcased his surprising talent for literary mimesis. It was on the strength of that performance, perhaps, that he was subsequently commissioned to write his thriller, Devil May Care, starring Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Now comes Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, where once again he’s had to infiltrate another author’s world and take charge of iconic characters already determinedly set in their ways.
In his introductory Author’s Note, Faulks – all modesty and caution – admits to having been fearful of somehow besmirching P.G. Wodehouse’s fiction, and says his aim is to merely “give people who haven’t read the Jeeves books a sense of what they sound like; while for those who know them well I tried to provide a nostalgic variation.” The result shows admirable fidelity to the source material. Moneyed man of leisure, Bertie Wooster, remains frivolous, excitable, besieged by unfortunate coincidences, importuning relatives, and romantic misunderstandings. Jeeves, his manservant (or, rather, “his gentleman’s personal gentleman”), remains erudite, unflappable, impossibly resourceful, and given to uttering sublimely deadpan circumlocutions in response to his master’s outbursts and febrile speculations (“It does lie, sir, at the extremity of one’s power to conjecture”).
The plot, too, is recognizably antic: our duo must contend with the usual cast of upper-class boobies (prim dames, bluff baronets) while visiting a country estate in Dorset, with new pratfalls and subterfuges every few pages. Purloined library volumes, nocturnal creepings across rooftops, sabotaged phone lines: the capering is ceaseless. On the lam from Bertie’s Aunt Agatha and in need of an alias, Jeeves assumes the identity of one Lord Etringham, leaving his employer no option but to play, with dubious authenticity, his valet, Mr. Wilberforce. (As Jeeves himself notes, pace Shakespeare, “It would appear that confusion now hath made his masterpiece, sir.”) Can the two avoid detection, help reunite Bertie’s school chum with his estranged betrothed, and each perhaps wangle a bit of romance for himself?
Near the end of the novel, Bertie makes a mortifying appearance onstage as part of an amateur theatre troupe, and observes that “There are few silences more poignant than the one left for unforthcoming laughter.” There is, mercifully, much laughter to be had here. And while the qualities that make Wodehouse’s novels imperishable – the marvelously inventive figurative language, the zinging dialogue, the deft interplay of two incongruent but inextricably linked characters – here never quite rise to the empyrean heights of The Master’s best work, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells nevertheless provides hours of mirthful diversion. Right ho.
Matt Sturrock is a Canadian living in London, where he reviews books for the Time Literary Supplement.