P.G. Wodehouse is the absolute master of first-person narrative. Bertie’s voice in the Jeeves books is one of the greatest achievements in all of comic fiction–absolutely consistent, totally confident, unerringly wrong. Jeeves is the title character, and certainly the greatest butler in literary history, but Bertie is nonpareil. And it’s no wonder that the Jeeves books haven’t really worked in dramatic form — without Bertie’s narrative, what you’ve got is somewhat mechanical drawing-room comedy with plot reversals that wouldn’t look out of place in a sitcom. As an example, one of the highlights of this book, Bertie’s account of an eighteen-mile bicycle ride, in the dark, to fetch a key no one actually needs, would be, on film, a man on a bike in the dark, whereas in Bertie’s telling it takes on almost Homeric proportions.
I don’t mean to knock Wodehouse in any way. He creates marvelous characters — in this book, we have Aunt Dahlia and one of the dampest females in fiction, Madeleine Bassett, who believes the stars are God’s daisy chain except when she believes that every time a fairy cries a new star appears. Even Bertie registers the inconsistency. Madeleine’s dialogue is Wodehouse in top form, as is the prize presentation at a local elementary school in which Gussie Fink-Nottle, drunk for the first time in his life, makes the keynote speech.
The plot springs primarily from Bertie’s conviction that Jeeves has sprained his brain and he, Bertie, had better step in and take charge of fixing all that’s wrong in his immediate world. And, of course, chaos results and Jeeves eventually has to step in. It’s so much better than it sounds that I almost cut this paragraph. The magic is what Wodehouse makes from this material, filtered through Bertie’s skewed and somewhat filmy perspective. I laughed out loud more or less continuously.