Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"And I thought, Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet?", or, P. G. Wodehouse on Jeeves

The two highlights for me of the new fourth volume of The Paris Review Interviews--reason enough on their own for me to buy the book--are the interview with Haruki Murakami, which I drew on yesterday, and the one from 1975 with P. G. Wodehouse.

Wodehouse comes across as amiable and a bit goofy, but at the same time every bit the master craftsman and hard worker his fans know him to have been. The interview is sprinkled with wonderful moments--like when Wodehouse says, "I'm bad at remembering things, like when flying really became fashionable," or "It's a shame when things like spats go out"--but what has inspired today's post is one of the standard questions that Wodehouse must have fielded hundreds of times, but to which this time he gave an interesting answer:
Did you ever have a butler like Jeeves?

No, never like Jeeves. My butlers were different, though I believe J. M. Barrie had one just like Jeeves.
Really? Now this calls for a trip to the bookshelves, where from Lisa Chaney's Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie (2005), we learn about Barrie's manservant Frank Thurston, who entered Barrie's service in the 1920s and does seem to have been remarkable:
Thurston's ability to enter and leave a room with absolute silence was a reflection of his enigmatic and, some thought, slightly sinister personality. To compound the mystery he had somehow familiarised himself not only with Spanish and French, but also with Latin and Greek. In addition to admirably fulfilling his role as skilled and urbane butler, it soon became clear that Thurston was a man of startling learning. Cynthia [Asquith] wrote of him:
Dictionaries and various learned tomes soon cluttered up the pantry, where I would constantly find him reading Latin or Greek while he polished the silver.
Thurston had an astonishing memory for other things besides living and dead languages. He could supply any forgotten date or quotation. One day Barrie remarked that the only line in an Oxford quotation that survived was "A rose red city half as old as Time." Though we all knew this line, no one of us could remember the name of the poet.
When Cynthia's husband, Beb, confessed that he couldn't remember the name of the "rose red city" and no one else at the table could either, Thurston, passing around the meat, finally said, "Was it not Petra, Sir?"
In light of Thurston's surprising erudition, Chaney tells us, Barrie took to warning his guests that
if they were thinking of reading a thriller in bed they would be advised "to hide it between a Pliny and the latest theory of Ethics."
While Robert McCrum's recent biography of Wodehouse barely mentions Barrie, and Thurston not at all, it does appear
(if Google Book Search's frustratingly limited preview isn't leading me astray) that N. T. P. Murphy at least touched on the question of Thurston as an inspiration for Jeeves in his In Search of Blandings: An Investigation into the Sources That Inspired P. G. Wodehouse (1986), writing that, through the accounts of Wodehouse's friend Denis Mackail, Thurston "played a part in the 'growth' of Jeeves in the early part of the 1920s."*

All of which makes me wonder how Thurston would have handled an odd incident involving Barrie that I've related before, but which seems worth sharing once again. It's from Penelope Fitzgerald's loving, perceptive group biography of her uncles, The Knox Brothers (1977), and, appropriately or not, it's the first thing that comes to my mind when Barrie is brought up:
Desmond MacCarthy, the most genial of Irish critics, had been at King's, and wanted to help [Fitzgerald's uncle Edmund Knox], as he wanted to help everybody he met. He also knew everybody. Eddie must come to him and ask advice from James Barrie, who was at the height of his fame, though he could sometimes be a little disconcerting, unless the side of him which spoke to adults, and which he called "McConachie," happened to be foremost. Buoyed up by MacCarthy's confidence, the two of them called at 133 Gloucester Terrace, where they found the room empty, except for a large dog, with which Barrie used to play hide-and-seek in the Park. While they waited, Eddie in sheer nervousness hit his hand on the marble mantelpiece. It began to bleed profusely. MacCarthy was aghast. Barrie could not bear the sight of blood. They tried to staunch it with handkerchiefs, and with the cuffs of MacCarthy's soft shirt, which became deeply stained. Barrie appeared at the doorway, took one look at them, and withdrew. Kind-hearted though he was, he was obliged to send down a message that he could not see them.
For that matter, how would Jeeves himself have handled it? Bertie's scrapes, though plentiful and harrowing, were rarely the sort to draw blood. Most likely, I suppose, is that no such incident would have occurred, Jeeves having quietly sanded all the corners of the mantelpiece at some point in the past in anticipation of just this sort of danger.


  1. I must get the new volume--thank you for this! The other day my grandmother mentioned, apropos of nothing, that she happened to have a bunch of letters from Barrie to her father, who had been a barrister in London before removing himself to Australia for his health. I'm trying to get her to find them in the warren of her house.

  2. Wow--I hope your grandmother's able to find those letters!