First published in 1934, this is the first of the Jeeves novels, although he had appeared as Bertie Wooster’s valet in many stories since 1917. The unthinkable has happened – Bertie and Jeeves have parted brass rags. The casus belli is Bertie’s insistence on playing the banjolele within the confines of his flat in Berkeley Mansions, W1.
Bertie resolves to move out when the neighbours complain, settling on a small cottage in the seaside village of Chuffnell Regis in Somerset. This is the final straw for Jeeves, who can just about tolerate the music in a relatively large flat, but balks at having to hear it at closer quarters. So the Agency send Bertie another valet, the melancholy dipsomaniac and socialist revolutionary, Brinkley.
Bertie rents the cottage from Chuffy, an old schoolfriend from Eton and Oxford, who owns Chuffnell Hall and the whole village. He is particularly pleased with the location because a “nigger minstrel” band is there for the summer, and he hopes to pick up few tips on playing the banjolele.
Bertie anticipates a summer spent immersed in the musical arts, with the added pleasure of an old pal he can drop in for dinner with at any time. True, that “pair of pustules,” Dowager Lady Chuffnell and her son, Seabury, are in residence, but Bertie thinks he can avoid seeing too much of them.
So imagine his horror when a yacht the size of a “young ocean liner” drops anchor in the harbour and disgorges the four people he most wishes never to meet again. It belongs to J. Washburn Stoker, a cigar-chomping American tycoon, and also contains his daughter, Pauline Stoker, young son, Dwight, and the famous nerve specialist, Sir Roderick Glossop. Why is Bertie so aghast? He got engaged to Pauline in America, but Pop Stoker put a stop to it as soon as he heard about Bertie’s eccentricities from his nemesis, Sir Roderick. And Dwight is just as much of young thug as Seabury.
They’re visiting Chuffnell Regis so that J. Washburn Stoker can buy the estate from cash-strapped Chuffy, and turn the Hall into a fashionable loony bin for Sir Roderick. Why? Because Sir Roderick is the expert witness in a case involving Stoker’s $50 million inheritance and needs to be kept sweet.
Chuffy and Pauline fall in love, of course, but he can’t declare himself until he’s sold the estate.
Multiple complications ensue before Jeeves, now Chuffy’s valet, sorts it all out. Wodehouse’s dazzling web of language creates a comic world above and beyond the reality of a set of social parasites carving up a huge portion of the economic pie. Damon Runyon does the same thing with gangsters in New York. It’s like tearing a souffle apart with your bare hands to see what the ingredients are to even suggest that the world doesn’t work like a P. G. Wodehouse novel.
Wodehouse’s easy acceptance of the contemporary phrase, “nigger minstrels,” tends to give modern readers a bit of a frisson, but they were part of mainstream popular culture, with even black artists sometimes putting on blackface for that authentic look. They survived on British television until 1978. Here are a couple of eye-popping clips from the Black and White Minstrel Show: Part 1 and Part 2.
A large part of the plot revolves round the local reaction to these black faces. Both Bertie and Sir Roderick end up putting on blackface – genuine ingredients, burnt cork and shoe polish – and find themselves outcasts until they can find the necessary butter with which to get it off. Obviously written for laughs. But I wonder if Wodehouse was making a point, as in the portrayal of Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts in other novels. As Bertie says:
I had never realized before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life. I mean to say, a Bertram Wooster with merely a pretty tan calling at the back door of Chuffnell Hall would have been received with respect and deference….But purely and simply because there happened to be a little boot polish on my face, here was this female tying herself in knots on the doormat and throwing fits up and down the passage.
I don’t want to tear into this delicious souffle any more. Bertie and Jeeves get back together in the end, as you must have guessed, and everyone lives happily ever after – until the next novel.