Nov 26, 2013

Bertie and Jeeves: A Gay Gentleman's Gentleman

In the early decades of the 20th century -- at least in fiction -- there was a certain category of aristocratic but impoverished young men who lived on the largess of imperial aunts.  The funds came with the demand, and eventually the hope -- that the young men would settle down to a wife and a prosperous career, but they would have none of it.

Indeed, they spent so much time plotting ingenious escapes to the twin prisons of marriage and work that they had precious little time left over for golf, tennis, gambling, the theater, and other pleasures of indolence.

We can see the roots of this Young Man of Indolence in the 19th century aesthetic movement: "Life should not have a use; it is a work of art"; and his descendants occupy such unlikely places as Carl Barks' Gladstone Gander, but his most important chronicler was P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote 35 short stories and 11 novels, mostly between 1915 and 1930, about Bertie Wooster.

Recent Oxford graduate Bertie spends most stories evading marriage and gainful employment, saving his friends from jams, and getting into a few of his own.  While not averse to feminine charms, he definitely occupies a homosocial world: his life is informed by his friends from college or the Drone's Club, with names like Barmy, Biffy, Gussie, Stinker, Sippy, and Beefy.  And his gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves.

A professional valet, Jeeves popped into Bertie's life unannounced, like witty servants from Mary Poppins to Charles in Charge, and quickly made himself indispensable.  He had three aunts, but they never encouraged him to marry, nor did he ever fall prey to feminine charms.  Everyone understood that Bertie was the love of his life.

And they were together forever.  The last Jeeves and Wooster novel, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, published in 1974, involved Jeeves helping Bertie evade a woman's clutches yet again.

The gay subtext is so obvious that one wonders if it was intentional.  Wodehouse was personally asexual, allergic to sex in all of its forms (although he married a woman). But he worked in the theater, where he had many gay friends, so he was aware of same-sex desire.  And many gay couples of the early 20th century masqueraded as young libertine and valet, so even if Wodehouse didn't intend for Bertie and Jeeves to be read that way, he surely knew that they could be.

Bertie and Jeeves have been played on film by David Niven/Arthur Treacher (1936) and by Martin Jarvis/John Scherer (2001), and tv by Ian Carmichael/Davis Price (1965-67), and by Hugh Laurie/Stephen Frye (1990-1993).

A theatrical version, Perfect Nonsense, premiered on London's West End in 2013, with Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen.