Saturday, November 9, 2013

2,338: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is the result of the commissioning of Sebastian Faulks by P.G. Wodehouse’s literary estate to write a new official Jeeves and Wooster novel.  To be fair to Mr Faulks, a fine author when using his own voice, it’s a pretty tall order to try and follow one of the greatest stylists of English literature.  Does he carry it off?  Well, in this Wodehouse fan’s opinion, not quite.  Does this make it a bad book?  Not at all.  It’s just that it’s not Wodehouse.

It opens with Bertie carrying out (or rather trying to carry out) a most unusual task – making a cup of tea, a turn of events that becomes even stranger when it transpires that he is taking said cuppa to Jeeves, who is in bed of all places.  We gradually find out that Bertie and Jeeves are at Melbury Hall, the country pile belonging to Sir Henry Hackwood, an impoverished baronet hoping to save himself by marrying his ward, Georgiana, off to a wealthy (but dull) man.

But things aren’t as they should be.  For Jeeves is pretending to be Lord Etringham and Bertie is masquerading as Wilberforce Berkeley, his Lordship’s valet in an attempt to save another set of impending nuptials – those of Amelia Hackwood, Sir Henry’s daughter, and Beeching P., a childhood friend of Bertie’s.

As can be guessed even from the brief lead-in I’ve given, plenty of Wodehousean hi-jinks ensue.  We get impersonations, break-ins, a village cricket match and fete, romantic mix-ups and the ghastly presence of two of Aunt Agatha’s old school-friends.

There is plenty to enjoy in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells both in terms of plotting, set pieces and language.  Mr Faulks adopts many of Wodehouse’s stylistic tricks with some success and, all in all, it’s a pleasant and easy read.

On the other hand, the pacing isn’t quite right.  The first part of the book was sluggish in comparison to Wodehouse but warms up in the second part, which has a much lighter and sparkly feel to it and it is more a reflection on the genius of Wodehouse than anything else to say that Mr Faulk’s imitation of Wodehouse’s style seems slightly laboured by comparison.

One of the interesting features of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is that the main characters are imbued with more psychological depth than in the original novels.  We see far more of both Jeeves and Wooster’s inner lives than we ever did in Wodehouse’s stories and, indeed, there is almost a slightly sombre feel to parts of the book, with both Bertie and Georgiana referring to the deaths of their parents on occasion and Jeeves telling the story of his (real life) namesake, a cricketer who dies in the First World War.  This is not the only reference to the war, as Georgiana’s parents turn out to have died on the Lusitania, sunk by a U-boat.  It’s a different approach to Wodehouse’s world – not necessarily a criticism but certainly a real point of difference.

The most jarring moment for me, and I accept that, in matters Wodehouse, I am a near-fundamentalist, comes at the end of the book.  As usual, I am trying to avoid spoilers and so can’t expand on this cryptic comment save to say that Mr Faulks goes where Wodehouse would never have trodden with Bertie and Jeeves.

Mr Faulks is a self-confessed Wodehouse aficionado and bills Jeeves and the Wedding Bells as an homage to Wodehouse.  He makes the good point that he wanted to avoid parodying the master or just writing a pale imitation and he has achieved that.  His differentiation may not always work for me but I can appreciate what he is doing.  I also want to reiterate – this is a good book; I enjoyed it greatly but probably had invested too much hope in it for it ever to satisfy me fully.

Interestingly, Mr Faulks says that the Wodehouse estate want the book to attract a new generation of Wodehouse fans.  Hopefully, the publicity surrounding the new book will achieve this.  I can’t help feeling though that new readers would do far better to grab a copy of, say, The Mating Season or The Code of the Woosters.  I actually believe it is the old lags who will find Jeeves and the Wedding Bells most interesting.

Consequently, having thanked Random House for allowing me to read this via Netgalley, I’d like to end by recommending it as an interesting read to those familiar with the original, whilst strongly encouraging the curious neophyte to go straight to the fons et origo of Jeeves and Wooster before returning to Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.

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