“Employers are like horses – they require management.”
There’s a school of thought that says that to analyse Wodehouse is to miss the point. “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour,” writes Stephen Fry, who, along with Douglas Adams, is one of the key proponents of this school of thinking. Wodehouse is a wordsmith, the Fry-Adams school says. The point is in the wordplay and the wit and the “sunlit perfection” of his humour, not in anything so crass as narrative or cultural context.
If three years of studying English Literature and a lifetime of reading have taught me anything, it’s this: if someone’s telling you not to look too hard at something, it’s usually because there’s something they don’t want you to see.
Carry On, Jeeves is a collection of ten short stories centring on Wodehouse’s most famous double act, Jeeves and Wooster. Jeeves is the impassive, brilliant manservant; Wooster is the foppish, aristocratic bachelor several sandwiches short of a picnic. All of the stories follow the same basic pattern: Wooster gets himself into a scrape involving a) a woman who wants to marry him, b) a rich relative, c) an old school chum, or d) all of the above. Then Jeeves cooks up a fiendishly clever plan which gets him out of it.
If you want to understand a culture, look at what it laughs at.
The humour of Jeeves and Wooster turns, of course, on the inversion of power encoded in the pair’s relationship. It’s ridiculous (the text says) that the manservant should be so much more intelligent than the master; it’s ridiculous (the text says) that Jeeves should be able to manage Wooster so effectively. Which is only another way of saying: the text is invested in making the idea of an intelligent manservant ridiculous; it is invested in making that inversion of power ridiculous.
Which is (again) only another way of saying that this is a text that is worried, profoundly so, by the idea of an intelligent manservant, a master who can be so effectively handled. The figure of Jeeves troubles the text, in fact: plaguing the edges of all of these stories is the question of why Jeeves is happy to remain a manservant when, clearly, he could be whatever he wanted to be.
What is he up to? the text asks, anxiously. What is he doing, managing our aristocracy quite so assiduously?
And, by extension: What is your manservant doing?
Comedy is a conservative mode, which is why the establishment would not have us look too closely at it. Wodehouse’s strategy, it seems to me, is to try to protect the status quo by ridiculing that which falls outside it, by making it impossible, laughable, impotent. And that doesn’t only include the rising lower class, the Jeeveses of Wodehouse’s world of “sunlit perfection”, taking power quietly, by degrees, while the aristocracy collapses into foppish dependency; it includes women who know what they want, who in Wodehouse’s hands become overbearing, unnatural, monstrously threatening – and ridiculous. The entire book, in other words, feels like an attempt to keep the underprivileged underprivileged, to downtread the downtrodden some more.
Perhaps, as Fry and Adams might claim, I am reading too much into Wodehouse’s work. Perhaps I should only read on the surface, and “bask in sunlit perfection”.
Well: considered purely superficially, taken only for what it claims to be, I still didn’t really enjoy Carry On, Jeeves. Humour is personal, and, personally, I don’t really find Wodehouse funny. And, personally, his unapologetic misogyny rubs me the wrong way. And, personally, I can only read so many stories about a foppish aristocrat getting into scrapes before I start getting fatally, deadeningly bored.
According to Stephen Fry, this makes me “fit…only for treason, stratagems and spoils.”
Well. So be it.