My flat, quite literally, has paper-thin walls. If you bump one, the whole room shakes. We can hear each other talking, eating, and watching TV; if my neighbour has a bad night, his snoring keeps me awake until I finally come out of my tortured semi-dose enough to insert ear plugs. It should bother me more that we all hear each other having sex, except I have discovered a strange fact of getting older. Sex noises through the wall are traumatic when you are younger, because you remember the times in childhood when you heard your parents. Then, in your late thirties, you become your parents and it no longer matters. As long as you’re all enjoying a fair, equal and pleasurable share of sex, bonking moans and groans become part of the wallpaper. If an imbalance should arise, I expect that there may be difficulties; otherwise, all is fair in love and associated utterances.
I am not here to talk about the opera of bonking, however. At least, not quite. I am here to talk about archetypes – personas permeated and reflected throughout culture; complexes and incarnations that guide us through a confusing adult identity that happens to be intrinsically, sometimes even operatically, sexual. Specifically, on the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who – possibly his most well-known manifestation – I am here to talk about the most enduring, shape-shifting, imperative archetype of the 20th and (so far) 21st centuries. I am here to talk about the Jeeves.
Jeeves, for those of you who have never met him in the original, is PG Wodehouse’s greatest, funniest, and most enduring invention: the omniscient valet of hapless minor aristocrat Bertie Wooster, who can’t get through a day without him – or so Bertie comes to believe, as his dependency on his subtle employee grows.
As critics like to point out, Jeeves comes from a long line of clever servants dating back to Roman times. But he is more than that. We have forgotten the Admirable Crichtons that went before him in our cultural memory; the Fascistic inventions that maintained a firm line between master and servant, no matter how daft the upper-class master and how deft the serving-class lackey. ‘No man is a hero to his valet’ was the Classical paradigm for this character; the slave that stood behind a victorious Roman general at his triumph, whispering ‘Remember you are mortal’ in his master’s ear. Jeeves is not a blind devotee of the social order. He is a gifted autodidact who has learned to outsmart the confines of his class, and who has made an early realisation that those born more privileged are helpless without him.
You don’t have to have read Wodehouse to know him. There is Alfred in the Batman tradition, of course, and empowered male servants like Sir John Geilgud’s Hobson, the weary enabling parent-butler in Arthur. But you may have met him in a less obvious guise: If you laughed watching Fawlty Towers, he was there as the unflappable Polly. If you were entertained and intrigued by the odd but touching bromance at the centre 0f Boston Legal, he was the morally ambiguous but loyal and loving Alan Shore. Helen Mirrin played a lethally protective Jeeves in Gosford Park. Harvey Keitel’s gangster-Jeeves turned up in a tux to fix the unfixable, steal the show, and still have time to take his best girl out for breakfast in Pulp Fiction.
Not every Jeeves is a direct incarnation of the gifted problem solver. Rowan Atkinson cleverly injected machismo into the role in Blackadder, as the Jeeves who somehow never quite wins the day. If you grew up watching Doctor Who, you know this archetype in a hero role. If you watched and loved Twin Peaks, you will know Special Agent Dale Cooper just as well.
Like the original, his descendants transcend (but are rarely so coarse as to buck) the social order. A Jeeves is chaotic, with a self-determined and unpredictable agenda. Shrewd, secretive, duplicitous, autonomous and canny, but never false, cowardly, sycophantic, unfeeling or servile. Respectful, but never obsequious. Benign, but individual. A Jeeves is a mix of intelligence, aptitude, pragmatism, philosophy and intuition. A deeply ingrained sentimentality saves this Machiavellian creation from a sadistic nature; he or she may border on sociopathic, but always somehow lands on the right side of a shakily drawn line in the pursuit of natural justice. Jeeves has firm ideas about morality, part of a larger picture, but they are his own. He will look after you if you behave yourself. If you don’t, he will knock you out with a confiscated cosh.
In short, a Jeeves is the pure feminine in male form, or for a woman vice-versa. The super-ego and the anima or animus, rolled up into one.
Despite his mutability as an archetype, once encountered in the original on the page or on the screen Jeeves seems to form a clear picture in the mind – a trait that suggests he was already there, waiting to be substantiated. Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the feline manservant in Jeeves and Wooster attracted some negative responses at the time, from critics used to an older and more detached Jeeves on screen – too young, too tall, too twitchy, were the complaints. Christopher Hitchens, a life-long Wodehouse devotee, later wrote that it took him years to forgive his friend for his performance (2010). Yet for many viewers who had not encountered the early films or the now lost 1960s BBC series The World of Wooster (which featured Dennis Price in the role – an actor about the same age as Ian Carmichael playing Bertie, but who was dramatically aged in appearance due to alcoholism), Fry’s Jeeves became definitive. A frail, austere and remote version would be as wrong to them as a six foot five, kinetic, somewhat kinder Jeeves was to Hitchens.
It’s fascinating that this character has endured and been perpetuated in so many forms over the last hundred years. We need him, obviously, in an uncertain world; a protector who can adapt, who can shift lines and allegiances without going wrong, who knows when to serve a cocktail and when to save the universe and when to protect you by killing a bad man before you try it yourself.
For me, though, the overarching intrigue of the Jeeves archetype is in his creation more than in his subsequent lives. How was it that Wodehouse, the quintessential English comic writer – an intensely hard-working practitioner with no pretensions to deep meaning, despite his obvious genius – came up with this most individual and Jungian archetype? How did a man who was so good natured, so affable, that his infuriated public school headmaster said of him ‘You can’t help liking the boy’, invent a male persona both so indomitable and maternal? And why is it that of all his comic creations, he kept coming back to Jeeves and the well-meaning ‘nature’s bachelor’ Bertie Wooster; a devoted couple in every sense, apart from (the least important, in the end) the physical?
Jeeves is one of only two adult characters that Wodehouse ever wrote. Every other person in his universe, from Uncle Fred to the inhabitants of Blandings Castle and to Bertie himself, dwells in a perpetually blissful latent state of development. The other adult in Wodehouse is Bertie’s terrifying Aunt Agatha, the bane of his life yet possibly the only relative who really cares about him. Agatha is the threat of adulthood, constantly tormenting Bertie with the horror of prospective marriage to one of a string of well-bred harpies for the purpose of breeding children. Jeeves, his saviour, extracts him from this fate time and time again.
Yet Jeeves himself has girlfriends. He is engaged to women, sometimes more than one at a time. He ‘dabbled’ in the First World War, the only real mention in Wodehouse of the agonies outside of his carefully constructed idyll. Despite the physically unimposing middle-aged to elderly screen representations of the character (perhaps an attempt to negate a possible homoerotic subtext) prior to Jeeves and Wooster, he is described as tall, dark, ‘bronzed’ and ‘fit’, with ‘chiselled features’, and is preternaturally strong. He likes to spend his annual holidays pulling in shrimping nets, hardly the hobby of an effete older gent, and loves seagoing travel – a trait Bertie ascribes to his ‘old Viking strain’.
The character arc of Jeeves and Bertie has pathos. The clever valet from Brixton starts off controlling his childlike and innocently snobbish employer for his own ends – sometimes purely out of boredom – and the results are hilarious. He knocks Bertie’s ridiculous assortment of foppish friends out with handy objects on the pretence of aiding one scheme or another – most notably an unsightly vase Bertie refuses to part with, thus dispensing of both the object and the friend in one blow. He sends his high-handed master out on a bicycle in the freezing rain to bring him down a peg; marries his uncle, a Lord, off to a Cockney barmaid; and, on more than one occasion, convinces Bertie’s entire social set of his employer’s dangerous insanity.
When the first Jeeves stories were published, critics didn’t know what to make of this anarchic, class-defying character. It wasn’t just that fiction had never seen a servant like this, although that was confusing enough. Wodehouse was known for light comedy – a peculiarly enacted kind of ‘English’ drawing room farce in which, despite the complexities of plotting and crescendos of chaos that later lent themselves so well to screwball comedy, happy endings are guaranteed. He had never written a character anywhere near as complex as Jeeves. He is the only major Wodehouse character with any sort of brooding dark side (the curse he must bear for sentience) – and also, perhaps, a hint of resignation. The brilliant Jeeves would’ve thrived given the Oxford education wasted on Bertie. Through an accident of birth, he is instead stuck doing his ironing.
Was this character evil? Spiteful? Criminally mad? Early films featuring Jeeves show a malicious, charmless machinator who gets his comeuppance in the end; a representation nothing like Wodehouse’s smooth talking, graceful and ultimately well-intentioned original.
Over time, though, the pair becomes fond of each other, and their bond deepens as the books continue. Bertie is heartbroken after he fires his valet in a fit of pique, and Jeeves does everything in his power to get his job back. (Bertie’s description of life apart in an earlier escapade, in which he has to give up his flat and his valet to a friend and move into a hotel, is touching in its evocation of pining for the person who makes you feel safe.) Eventually they are life partners, inseparable equals in spite of class differences that both seem to have forgotten about. With friendship comes loyalty, and with loyalty comes the protection and care that Bertie craves and so desperately needs.
In Wodehouse’s last novel Aunts Aren’t Gentleman, written in his nineties, the idyllic world the author carefully constructed over his entire working life starts to crumble. Protest marches are mentioned, despite the book’s inter-war setting. Friends and family are far away from a lonely Bertie and seem to drift further as the novel reaches its close, finally dwindling to remote voices heard almost as memories through the telephone. As the story opens, for the first time ever Bertie is seriously ill and has to cancel his annual trip to New York. All he wants is for Jeeves to care for him. He is confused by his valet’s initial displeasure at this, but we are not; it is obvious, despite Bertie’s ignorance, that there is a lover waiting for him in the US whom he will now be unable to see. His first priority is his employer and equal, however, and so he stays.
Many lovers of Wodehouse – and it has to be said, he was without a doubt the greatest comic writer of the twentieth century working in the English language – have lost a great deal of sweat wondering which of his characters was the man himself. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to be obvious. These two, the clever, worldly Jeeves and the innocent, yet brilliantly observant Bertie, were both him. Both sides of him. The creative innocent who invented a whole and perfect childlike world, and the attentive adult who knew enough about human evil to fight to protect it.
Wodehouse’s Jeeves failed him when he was interred by the Germans in World War II, or perhaps under the stress of the circumstances he failed to listen to that inner voice – the self-protecting adult in us all, the urge to run from danger or to fight it, the part of you that gets you home and looks after you no matter how blind drunk you find yourself in a far-flung suburb at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning. At the urging of his German captors, he broadcast an infamous series of lightly funny radio announcements playing down the conditions of the camp. His thinking was that this displayed courage under fire, a stiff upper lip; at home, however, with the London blitz in full progress and families losing their children in a bitter war, the broadcasts were met with rage and derision. A A Milne publicly attacked him; George Orwell defended him (and also perhaps damned him with faint praise); the press published furious attacks against the once-loved author. This trauma saw Wodehouse under a self-imposed exile in the US for the rest of his life.
You ignore your Jeeves at your own peril, as his creator had learned. Relations between master and valet smoothed out after this point, apart from the odd sartorial power struggle over unsuitable socks and Bertie’s occasional attempt at growing an unsightly moustache (a point on which, as I’m sure most women would, I have to side with his employee).
The first time I became aware of this side to my own personality was in my late teens and early twenties. A series of rather nasty events had driven me crazy, quite literally. I didn’t know why at the time, it took over a decade to put the pieces together, but I was always in verbal and sometimes physical fights with random strangers; I was perpetually drunk; I fought in my sleep, physically punching and kicking dream assailants to death before they could kill me. I had no idea I did this until I kicked the wall in my sleep one night, and woke up to the screaming pain of a broken toe. Sometimes, I would wake up with my girlfriend holding my feet down to stop from being pummelled.
Eventually, the young woman I was broke into pieces and a new personality stepped into the breach. Someone more capable, more adept with people. More likeable. Kinder. And yet, more resilient. Not as creative in the raw sense, less sensitive, but smarter and funnier; not as self-destructive, yet perfectly capable of drinking until the blood sang with alcohol.
This was my Jeeves. The male aspect to my personality. The caretaker side, forced to take over until the main part of me recovered. He did it admirably for years. He got me dressed, kept me fed, sent me out to work and brought me home again. He maintained friendships, visited my family and looked after my cat. He kept me going, the machine of me, while I wasn’t here.
The unthinkable happened recently, when circumstances combined to deliver the mother of all psychic sucker punches. My Jeeves was knocked out for the count. I found myself once again fully female, the raw and sensitive warrior persona that simply couldn’t face another battle. I was broken and unfixable, alone and inconsolable.
One night, I dreamed a young man – not the man I’d had in my bed and ejected amicably into the street hours before, but a friend – came to the flat. He was horrified by the mess I’d made of my brain, made slightly jealous by the interim caretakers put in place in his absence. But I was glad he was home, and he was glad to be there again.
We shared my bed that night without a noise; not a fight, not a moan, not a kick to the wall or an orgasmic gasp to wake the couple on the other side. I was once more bisexual in both senses of the word. Complete. We have been together ever since.
A Jeeves is tough. Never beaten.
He will always come back.
REFERENCE: Hitchens, C 2010, “Jeeves Spoken Here”, Vanity Fair, March 2010, viewed 11/09/2015, <http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/03/hitchens-201003>