My Man Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse

This is a collection of eight short stories by P.G. Wodehouse, about an equal share of stories featuring Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves. These all take place in New York City, where Bertie doesn’t seem to be doing much more than enjoying the nightlife and trying to stay as far as possible from family in England while still being in civilization. The other stories feature Wooster-like toffs.

If you have never read them before, Wodehouse is a comic writer who wrote about British upper classes, especially the young men who were cropping up in England and the U.S. following the First World War and into the Roaring 20s. They are almost universally dolts. Bertie, even though solidly sure that there should be division, stands a bit in awe of Jeeves. Jeeves has the ability to appear silently when Bertie so much as thinks of a need; he helps Bertie dress and sternly recommends which bits of clothing are improper for the season; he is always up on the latest news, gossip, and fashions; and most importantly he has a genius for helping Bertie and his friends concoct solutions to their problems, usually with girls or older relatives holding the purse strings.

Jeeves, for his part, seems happy in his position. He can think and plan better than Bertie and friends but never chides or scolds them over it. His only moments of being willful are when Bertie makes poor fashion choices or, in one story, when Bertie grows a moustache. Bertie will often reward Jeeves for an especially successful plan by giving in.

I recently heard someone from the U.K. talking about class differences in Britain and the U.S. He basically said that England had a superior system because people understood that there were class layers and this made life easier, unlike the U.S. where there were class layers but everyone assumed there were none and that they could all be millionaires any minute.

This may be why Wodehouse can show the idiosyncrasies of the upper classes (dull-witted, greedy, self-absorbed, eccentric) and still create a comfortable hand-in-glove relationship between the two men.

As for the stories, they all involve people facing some problem that English propriety makes difficult to repair with a frank conversation and some general honesty. So Jeeves, or someone else in the non-Jeeves stories, will work out a complicated plan. This will usually go wrong at first and then a solution, almost as complicated, will save the day.

The stories are easy to read and in a bright and well-honed modern language despite being nearly a hundred years old. In some ways it’s a picture of times past and in others the English system hasn’t changed much at all. There are dozens of editions available, including free public-domain versions for Kindle. It’s worth spending a few dollars for a version with illustrations. Simon Prebble does the best Audible version.