Friday Book Club: The Art of Being Jeeves

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome back to Friday Book Club, where we’ve been reading Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse!

Although some recall Jeeves as a butler, they are mistaken.  Jeeves “can butte with the best of them”, but his primary occupation is that of valet to Bertie Wooster.  So what exactly does a valet do?  I’m referring here to an ordinary valet.  “Rescue your employer from a continual series of farcical mishaps” is not generally part of the valet’s job description.

A valet is the male equivalent to a lady’s maid.  Basically, the valet is the gentleman’s personal assistant.  He lays out his employers clothes in the morning and makes sure they stay clean, ironed, and dust-free.  He may personally order new clothing for the gentlemen.  He helps the gentleman dress and undress and lays out and cleans shaving implements.  He may also be the gentleman’s barber.

A valet may help arrange travel for the gentleman and will certainly pack and unpack the gentleman’s clothing.  While other servants will usually clean the gentleman’s rooms, the valet ensures that the rooms stay tidy and comfortable (lighting a fire on cold day, airing the rooms, etc.

A valet is not a butler, but in many households a valet will do double duty and fill both roles.  Jeeves fills in as a butler on several occasions in the P.G. Wodehouse novels, and he does it well, as he does everything well.  The difference between a butler and a valet is that a valet attends to the personal needs of one person, while a butler is the head of male staff and may in some cases manage the entire household.

Want more details?  Here are links!

Jane Austen’s World lists the duties of a valet in great detail, using information from these sites:
The Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton, 1881 edition, page 978

The Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy Thomas Webster, Mrs. William Parkes, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852

And the duties of a valet don’t seem to have changed much.  Here’s an ad from an agency, TriState Domestic, that will help you hire your very own valet.  Please note that I am NOT endorsing this agency – I don’t know anything about it.  I mention it because I found its very existence to be fascinating.  One assumes that the modern valet uses modern technology to achieve his aim, but the actual job requirements seem pretty much the same as those in the 1800’s.  Note that “computer literacy” is a must if you wish to be hired as a valet by TriState.

Friday Book Club: Behold the Banjolele

SWT-Book-ClubsIn Thank You Jeeves, Jeeves quotes Bertie’s employ because Bertie will not stop playing the banjolele.  It turns out that the banjolele is a real thing.  It was most popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s but keen-eyed and sharp-eared fans will recognize it being played by classic rockers Brian May and George Harrison.  It’s one of those instruments that appears inexplicably and then never goes away – also known as the banjo ukelele or banjo uke.  It’s basically a banjo with the neck of a ukelele.  Want to hear what it sounds like?

One assumes that Bertie’s level of playing was slightly less adept.

Music is used for comedy in the Wooster books but P.G. Wodehouse was an accomplished lyricist.  He wrote lyrics for songs with Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, among others.  Here’s one of his most famous songs, “Bill”, from the musical Show Boat (music by Jerome Jern).  Helen Morgan was the first of many performers to sing this.  This version is from the 1936 film version of Show Boat.

Wednesday Videos: Jeeves and Wooster

WednesdayVideoToday you get a medley of Wednesday videos!  Jeeves and Wooster  was a series based on the Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse that ran from 1990 to 1993.  It starred Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster.  Fun fact:  Emma Thompson introduced Fry and Laurie to each other, thus sparking a comedic duo of epic proportions.  Here are a few clips from YouTube to give you the feel for the thing.

Here is Jeeves meeting Bertie for the first time:

There’s nothing Jeeves can’t handle, including syncopation:

And I haven’t the foggiest idea of what’s going on here but I laughed so hard I almost dropped my laptop.  “We should loosen his collar!”  “Oh, I hardly think such drastic measures are called for.”  Harrrr!

Friday Book Club: P.G. Wodehouse and Race

SWT-Book-ClubsOf all the books and stories about Jeeves I could possibly have picked for our book club (and there were 35 short stories and 11 novels to choose from) I accidentally picked the one where Bertie Wooster uses That Word (read on to find out which word, if you dare).  The bad thing is, I suspect I put a lot off people off Wodehouse for life.  The good thing is we now have an opportunity to talk about the many different meanings one word can have.

In Thank You Jeeves, much of the plot involves the fact that a group of minstrels of African descent is performing at the country estate where Bertie is staying.  Bertie expresses nothing but admiration for this troupe and is quite eager to meet them, because he expects they might be able to advise him on his banjolele playing.  But he uses the word “nigger” to refer to them.  He uses the word three times, completely matter-of-factly.  I considered using “the n word” or something similar in this post to avoid causing offense and above all to escape my extreme discomfort with typing it, but it seems foolish not to stare that word, with all its ugly history, right in the face, and that means I have to spell the damn thing out.

The word “nigger” has become so incredibly inflammatory in our society that I can barely bring myself to type it.  Its ugliness brings us right out of the story.  Bertie is supposed to be an affable, sweet, dim but soft-hearted guy – how could he use such an ugly slur?  I think the answer to that is that in the context of the times and the country, that word was slang (and we know Bertie loves slang) but it doesn’t seem to have had the full pejorative meaning that it developed later on, at least not in the self-consciously pejorative way it would be used today.

In terms of historical usage, the word in question was used to describe any person who was not from the British Isles and who had dark skin – this included people of Asian descent as well as African and Middle Eastern.  The word was still in common use in the 1950’s – for instance, there was a brand of candy cigarette with that word in the title (sort of a perfect storm of cultural norms that have fallen out of favor for excellent reasons).  By the 1970’s the word was universally considered an insult in Britain much as it is in the United States, although in the USA it fell out of semi-acceptable common usage much sooner.

There are a lot of clues in Bertie’s behavior that he is not particularly racist despite using a word that today practically defines racism.  He doesn’t look down on the minstrel troupe.  He admires them.  He can’t wait to meet him, because he acknowledges that they are better than him at music and he hopes they will teach him how to play his beloved banjolele better.  He never makes fun of them or insults him other than using a word which today is a great insult.  We never see the minstrels so there are no insulting scenes of he minstrels bowing or scraping or otherwise having to behave in a demeaning fashion.

To me, the most compelling evidence that neither Bertie the character nor Wodehouse himself does not intend to cause offense is that Bertie (and Wodehouse) almost never intend to cause offense.  Bertie is  a kind person, but he’s not a thoughtful or intellectual or introspective person.  He uses whatever slang is popular at the time with no thought of its connotations.  Jeeves, who is more formal and more thoughtful about social niceties, does not use that word.  He uses the word “negro”.  Although the word “negro” has fallen somewhat out of modern favor, it was considered to be the most polite word available for a person  of color at the time.  It’s still used today by civil rights organizations such as “United Negro College Fund”.  Although we sympathize with Bertie throughout the series, our admiration goes to Jeeves, so it’s significant that the true hero of the series uses the most courteous language at his disposal.  This suggests that Wodehouse is not trying to be hateful in his attitudes in general.

But despite his lack of malice, Bertie is not completely off the hook, and neither is P.G. Wodehouse.  When I look up the history of the word “nigger” in England, I find frequent references to it being a generally accepted word, one that was in common usage well into the 1940’s.  It seems to have been used as a commonplace word, not as a calculated insult.  The problem is, I can’t seem to find anything about how people reacted to this word who were actually black, and I also know that racism was a huge problem in England’s history.  I’m less interested in what Bertie meant than in what the minstrel group would have felt if they had heard Bertie address them using that word – and they have no voice, so I don’t know.

There’s a phrase I hear a lot these days:  “Check your privilege”.  It means, take a look at your words and actions and make sure that you aren’t overlooking the viewpoint and/or struggles of those who have to struggle for respect and survival.  P.G. Wodehouse and his characters are all about privilege and they have no interest in checking it.  If a modern white character called a black character “nigger” than we could assume that a calculated insult was being delivered (the term is used in hip-hop culture in ways that I’m not well-educated about, but in any other context an insult would be pretty much guaranteed).  In Wodehouse’s day, the word may have been used innocently by Bertie, who doesn’t want to hurt anyone but just wants to practice his banjolele.  Even when he puts on blackface, it’s not to make fun of anyone – he just wants to escape his captor (and the fact that then he can’t remove the boot polish he used makes it something of a cautionary tale).

But just because Bertie isn’t trying to hurt anyone doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt anyone, and the same could be said for P.G. Wodehouse.  As Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility” and when it came to social issues, P.G. Wodehouse assiduously avoided great responsibility.  Reading classics lets us see the values and norms of an earlier age – and sometimes those values and norms aren’t pretty.

Here are a couple essays that helped me formulate my thoughts (I also looked up some language background on Wikipedia which was both interesting and depressing):

FreeThoughtblogs:  Bertie and the N-Word

Wodehouse and Racist Epithets, by Neil Midkiff

Friday Book Club: Thank You, Jeeves!

SWT-Book-ClubsThis month we’re reading Thank You, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse.  Join us here every Friday, and if you are in the Sacramento area join us at Arden Dimick Library at 2PM on January 26th!

As usual, we’re kicking of Book Club with some cool facts about the author, P.G. Wodehouse.  Here’s a few things you may not have known about this prolific comedic author:

1.  His real name was Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.  It’s hard to picture looking at a tiny infant and saying to oneself, “I think I’ll name him Pelham Grenville!” but somebody did.  His nickname was “Plum”.

2.  He spent most of his life away from England.  His father was a British judge in Hong Kong, and Wodehouse lived there until he was three years old.  He was then sent to England to live with a nanny before starting boarding school.  He saw very little of his parents for most of his childhood, as they continued to live in Hong Kong while we was in England.  He started spending quite a bit of time in the United States in 1914.  He was also fond of France and moved there in 1934.  When war broke out, he stayed in France, which leads us to our next fact:

3.  He scandalized Britain by making some comedic radio broadcasts while he was held prisoner by the Germans during WWII.  He was branded a traitor and in fact never lived in Britain again (after France he lived in the United States).  He was eventually acquitted and given a knighthood.  His broadcasts seem to not have been pro-German or treasonous, but simply terribly tone-deaf to the belligerent and patriotic mood of the British who were in the middle of The Blitz.  P.G. Wodehouse repeatedly expressed embarrassment at his political naiveté.  Harry W. Flannery  said, “Wodehouse was his own Bertie Wooster”.

4.  Wodehouse became a United States citizen in 1955.  He continued writing well into his nineties.  He always wrote about the same time period (approximately 1910 – 1930, but with no mention of WWI or any political or social upheavals).  He lived from 1881-1975.

More to read:

Georgeorwell.gov has a great essay by Orwell that defends P.G. Wodehouse and, along the way, puts the Wodehouse novels into historical context.  This is the site where I found the Harry Flannery quote, by the way.  The essay is long but its wonderful, thought-provoking reading.

The Paris Review has a wonderful in-depth interview with P.G. Wodehouse that was conducted shortly before his death – it’s fascinating!

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Friday Book Club: Prepare to be Amused

SWT-Book-ClubsFriday Book Club is going on a bit of a vacation, but we will be back in January with a three-month series that features humor writing.  If the last series, Gothic Literature, made you mopey, then January should perk you right up.

Our January book will be:  Thank You, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse.

This classic British comedy is the first full-length Jeeves novel, and what a joy it is, as the unflappable butler, Jeeves, has not one but two upper-class idiots to take care of.  Thank You, Jeeves was published in 1934.  I’m still waiting for the final Jeeves installment, which I’m sure will come any day now:  Jeeves, Put Down that Uzi!

Cover of Thank You, Jeeves

The February Book Will Be:  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

I can’t imagine humor, or science fiction, or…well, anything, without this delightful book.  The Guide has been a radio show, a TV show, and audiobook, a hollywood film, a stage play, and of course a trilogy consisting of five books (not a typo).  Follow the insane adventures of Arthur Dent, Earthman, as he travels though space with his friend Ford Prefect, fellow earthling Trillian, the two-headed party boy and President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the eternally depressed robot Marvin (“Life.  Don’t talk to me about Life”).

Cover - Hitchhikers Guide

And for the Grand Finale:  700 Sundays, by Billy Crystal

700 Sundays is a change of pace, from wacky madcap British comedy to bittersweet autobiography from one of America’s most beloved comics.  In this book, Billy Crystal talks about the family and friends who supported and inspired him.

Cover of 700 Sundays

So, start reading now, and join us back here for Friday Book club, starting January 3rd!