In the British TV series Jeeves and Wooster, ditsy aristocrat Bertie Wooster answers his door to find a dignified personage, his new valet Jeeves, who says, “I was given to understand that you required a valet, sir.” As usual, Bertie Wooster’s life is in disarray, so Jeeves has arrived not a moment too soon. So begins a howlingly funny saga that says a lot about British social classes. The series, drawn from the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P.G. Wodehouse, ran from 1990 to 1993.
Hugh Laurie, better known to American audiences as the difficult genius Dr. House, plays Bertie. His real-life friend and collaborator Stephen Fry plays Jeeves.
The joke is that the valet is miles ahead of the aristocrat in intelligence, education, proper behavior, and common sense. So Jeeves uses his ingenuity to pull Bertie out of one impossible scrape after another, all of them caused by Bertie’s cluelessness.
Jeeves is also at pains to save Bertie from fashion faux pas, as in this exchange, concerning an unsightly white jacket Bertie insists on wearing:
Jeeves: I assumed it had got into your wardrobe by mistake, sir, or else that it has been placed there by your enemies.
Bertie Wooster: I’ll have you know, Jeeves, that I bought this in Cannes!
Jeeves: And wore it, sir?
Bertie Wooster: Every night at the Casino. Beautiful women used to try and catch my eye!
Jeeves: Presumably they thought you were a waiter, sir.
Actually, Jeeves is much more than a valet. Bertie is a single young man, and the time is the 1930’s when servants are becoming few and far between. So Bertie only has one servant. Jeeves is cook, butler, driver, valet, and guardian angel. Jeeves knows everything. (The search engine “Ask” was originally named “Ask Jeeves”). In his spare time, Jeeves reads Shakespeare and Spinoza, and can come up with a pithy quote for every occasion.
P. G. Wodehouse wrote about Jeeves and Wooster all through his long writing career, over a span of 59 years. Jeeves’s first appearance was in 1915 and his last in 1974, the year before the author’s death. During that time, ideas about the master/servant relationship changed dramatically.
World War I brought about the greatest change. As in Downton Abbey, servants often accompanied aristocratic officers to the battlefield. In the story, footman William accompanies Matthew Crawley to the trenches.
During the war, it became clear to everyone that servants faced battle with at least as much courage as their social betters. In fact, true or not, there was a popular idea that aristocrats were much more likely to be victims of what was then called “shell-shock.” The number of servants employed in Britain went from about a million and a half before the war to just over a million afterwards. Those who returned from the fighting often sought better opportunities. Wealthy families had less money to keep up their estates, too. And lampooning the rich made P.G. Wodehouse extremely popular.
One of the pleasures of watching British films is trying to recognize film locations. One episode of Jeeves and Wooster, “Trouble at Totleigh Towers,” was filmed at–you can probably guess–Highclere, the location for Downton Abbey. All the more reason to visit sometime!
Join me next time for more explorations into the art, literature and history of Europe and the British Isles.