Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975, after writing only fourteen Jeeves and Wooster novels among his roughly hundred books during a seventy-plus year career as a working writer. It was difficult for his estate to claim then that there wasn't enough Wodehouse, so they busied themselves with licensing the existing books to publishers around the world, commissioning a quite good TV series in the early '90s, and other activities.

But time marches on, and the bottomless gullet of book publishing is always hungry for new works. And so, eventually, the Wodehouse estate, for whatever reasons we may want to attribute to them, decided that, maybe, just maybe, there weren't quite enough Jeeves and Wooster books after all.

Maybe they had a beauty parade of would-be Wodehouses, maybe they quietly asked a few well-connected agents to recommend authors who might be interested, maybe they just threw darts at a Sunday Times bestseller list. In any case, Sebastian Faulks was anointed as the Man with the Plan. (One might surmise that his previous sharecropping work, the James Bond novel Devil May Care, somehow figured into the decision.)

Again, we don't know how many drafts he wrote, how picky the Wodehouse estate was, or any of the other really juicy behind-the-scenes details. But, in 2013, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells was published, a full 38 years after Wodehouse's final novel, the minor Jeeves and Wooster book Aunts Aren't Gentlemen.

Faulks is a "real" novelist in a way Wodehouse wasn't, which has its pluses and minuses. Faulks seems to want to have characters that grow and change, and that are actually living in a specific point in time -- those are all things that Wodehouse studiously avoided, and one might consider that, as it were, an important gap in the literature that creates the overall Wodehouse gestalt. On the other hand, Faulks is also serious enough to write a deeply Wodehousian book, full of impostors at country homes, sundered loves, quotes from improving books from Jeeves, young people engaged to the wrong other young people, and the usual tangle of would-be marriages and unhappy guardians to be all put right in the end.

Wedding Bells is Wodehousian without ever quite turning into a Wodehouse novel: Bertie has emotional depths, which I found deeply distracting, and Faulks doesn't quite manage the Wodehousian two-step of telling the book from Bertie's point of view while still showing how confused and dim he actually is. His prose, also, is Wodehouse-esque without trying to closely ape the same style: this is probably a good thing.

All in all, Wedding Bells feels like an alternate-world Jeeves novel, one written in a universe where there is a consistent Wodehouse shared world, where each book can be placed at a moment in time (likely all in the interwar period), and where major characters change from book to book. That's not the world we live in -- and I for one am very happy I don't have to contemplate the book in which the Empress of Blandings has gotten too old and must be put down -- but it was pleasant to visit for the space of one book.

But Wedding Bells, like most posthumous sharecropped books, is at best a thin replica of something distinctive. What it most does is remind us of how inimitable Wodehouse was, and send us back to reading his real books. (And, come to think of it, that's probably precisely what his estate wanted. Tricky fellows!)

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