Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, 1922 illustration by A. Wallis Mills
|First appearance||"Extricating Young Gussie" (1915)|
|Last appearance||Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974)|
|Created by||P. G. Wodehouse|
|Portrayed by||Hugh Laurie|
Ian Carmichael and others
|Alias||Eustace H. Plimsoll|
|Occupation||Socialite, Idle Rich|
|Relatives||Mrs Scholfield (sister, no first name given)|
Three unnamed nieces
Dahlia Travers (aunt)
Agatha Gregson (aunt) and more
Bertram "Bertie" Wilberforce Wooster is a fictional character in the comedic Jeeves stories created by British author P. G. Wodehouse. An amiable English gentleman and one of the "idle rich", Bertie appears alongside his valet, Jeeves, whose intelligence manages to save Bertie or one of his friends from numerous awkward situations. Bertie Wooster and Jeeves have been described as "one of the great comic double-acts of all time".
Bertie is the narrator and central figure of most of the Jeeves short stories and novels. The two exceptions are the short story "Bertie Changes His Mind" (1922), which is narrated by Jeeves, and the novel Ring for Jeeves (1953), a third-person narration in which Bertie is mentioned but does not appear. First appearing in "Extricating Young Gussie" in 1915, Bertie is the narrator of ten novels and over 30 short stories, the last being the novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, published in 1974.
The Wodehouse scholar Norman Murphy believes George Grossmith, Jr. to have been the inspiration for the character of Bertie Wooster. The Wodehouse character Reggie Pepper was an early prototype of Bertie Wooster.
Bertie Wooster and his friend Bingo Little were born in the same village only a few days apart. Bertie's middle name, "Wilberforce", is the doing of his father, who won money on a horse named Wilberforce in the Grand National the day before Bertie's christening and insisted on his son carrying that name. The only other piece of information given about Bertie's father, aside from the fact that he had numerous relatives, is that he was a great friend of Lord Wickhammersley of Twing Hall. Bertie refers to his father as his "guv'nor".
When he was around seven years of age, Bertie was sometimes compelled to recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade" for guests by his mother; she proclaimed that he recited nicely, but Bertie disagrees, and says that he and others found the experience unpleasant. Bertie also mentions reciting other poems as a child, including "Ben Battle" and works by poet Walter Scott. Like Jeeves, Bertie says that his mother thought him intelligent. Bertie makes no other mention of his mother, though he makes a remark about motherhood after being astounded by a friend telling a blatant lie: "And this, mark you, a man who had had a good upbringing and had, no doubt, spent years at his mother's knee being taught to tell the truth".
When Bertie was eight years old, he took dancing lessons (alongside Corky Potter-Pirbright, sister of Bertie's friend Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright). It is established throughout the series that Bertie is an orphan who inherited a large fortune at some point, although the exact details and timing of his parents' deaths are never made clear.
Bertie Wooster's early education took place at the semi-fictional Malvern House Preparatory School, headed by Rev. Aubrey Upjohn, whom he meets again in Jeeves in the Offing. (Wodehouse himself attended a school by that name, in Kearsney, Kent, but the Malvern House that appears in the stories is in the fictional town of Bramley-on-Sea.) At Malvern House, Bertie's friends called him "Daredevil Bertie", though Upjohn and others called him "Bungling Wooster".
One detail of Bertie's Malvern House life that comes into several stories is his winning of the prize for scripture knowledge. Bertie speaks with pride of this achievement on several occasions, but in Right Ho, Jeeves, his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, while intoxicated, publicly accuses Bertie of having won the award by cheating. Bertie stoutly denies this charge, however, and on the same occasion, Gussie makes other completely groundless accusations against other characters. Despite his pride over his accomplishment, Bertie does not remember precisely what the prize was, simply stating that it was "a handsomely bound copy of a devotional work whose name has escaped me".
Bertie once won a prize at private school for the best collection of wildflowers made during the summer holidays. When Bertie was fourteen, he won the Choir Boys' Handicap bicycle race at a local school treat, having received half a lap start.
Bertie is a member of the Drones Club, and most of his friends and fellow Drones members depicted in the stories attended one or both of these institutions with him. It was at Oxford that he first began celebrating the night of the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge. Though ordinarily he drinks in moderation, Bertie says he is "rather apt to let myself go a bit" on Boat Race night, typically drinking more than usual and making mischief with his old school friends. Specifically, Bertie and others tend to celebrate the occasion by stealing a policeman's helmet, though they often get arrested as a result. London magistrates are aware of this tradition and tend to be lenient towards Bertie when he appears in court the morning after the Boat Race, generally only imposing a fine of five pounds; while this would have constituted a significant amount of money for many people at the time, Bertie has no trouble paying it.
The Jeeves canon is set in a floating timeline (with each story being set at the time when it was written though the characters do not age), in an idealized world where wars are downplayed or not mentioned. Certain Edwardian era elements, such as traditional gentlemen's clubs like the Drones Club, continue to be prevalent throughout the stories.
With a few exceptions, the short stories were written first, followed by the novels. The saga begins chronologically in the short story "Jeeves Takes Charge", in which Bertie Wooster first hires Jeeves. Bertie and Jeeves usually live at Berkeley Mansions, though they also go to New York and numerous English country houses. Throughout the short stories and novels, Bertie tries to help his friends and relatives, but ends up becoming entangled in trouble himself, and is ultimately rescued by Jeeves. Typically, Bertie has a new piece of clothing or item that Jeeves disapproves of, though Bertie agrees to relinquish it at the end of the story.
Almost always narrating the story, Bertie becomes involved in many complex and absurd situations. He appears in the one short story he does not narrate, "Bertie Changes His Mind", and does not make an appearance in Ring for Jeeves, though he is mentioned. An important story for Bertie is "Clustering Round Young Bingo", in which Bertie writes an article titled "What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing" for his Aunt Dahlia's weekly magazine, Milady's Boudoir. For his article, Aunt Dahlia paid Bertie a packet of cigarettes. As with his prize for scripture knowledge, Bertie is proud of this article and mentions it many times. Two other events that are particularly significant for Bertie are his short-lived interest in living with his nieces in "Bertie Changes His Mind" and his temporary separation from Jeeves when Bertie refused to stop playing his banjolele in Thank You, Jeeves.
On several occasions, Bertie assumes an alias. After being arrested on Boat Race night, he calls himself Eustace H. Plimsoll when appearing in court (in Thank You, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves). He is also brought to court after tripping a policeman in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, and calls himself Ephraim Gadsby. In one scene in Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, he is said to be a thief named Alpine Joe, which is mentioned again in Aunts Aren't Gentlemen. He also impersonates three other people in different stories, namely Rosie M. Banks in "Jeeves in the Springtime" and "Bingo and the Little Woman", Oliver "Sippy" Sipperley in "Without the Option", and Gussie Fink-Nottle in The Mating Season.
In Ring for Jeeves, set in post-WWII England, Bertie attends a school that teaches the aristocracy basic skills, including boot-cleaning, sock-darning, bed-making and primary-grade cooking. This school does not allow its students to employ valets, so Jeeves cannot follow Bertie there and instead works as a butler for Lord Rowcester. However, Bertie is eventually expelled for cheating after he pays a woman to do his sock darning, and Jeeves returns to his side.
Bertie is approximately 24 years old when he first meets Jeeves in "Jeeves Takes Charge". His age is not stated in any other story. In the reference work Wodehouse in Woostershire by Wodehouse scholars Geoffrey Jaggard and Tony Ring, it is speculated that Bertie's age ranges from approximately 24 to 29 over the course of the stories.Nigel Cawthorne, author of A Brief Guide to Jeeves and Wooster, also suggested that Bertie is approximately 29 at the end of the saga.
Tall and slim, Bertie is elegantly dressed, largely because of Jeeves. He has blue eyes. Normally clean-shaven, he grows a moustache in two different stories, and ultimately loses the moustache, as Jeeves does not think a moustache suits Bertie. It seems that he has an innocent-looking appearance; when Bertie wants to wear an alpine hat in Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, he states, "I was prepared to concede that it would have been more suitable for rural wear, but against this had to be set the fact that it unquestionably lent a diablerie to my appearance, and mine is an appearance that needs all the diablerie it can get." Bertie has an expressive face that Jeeves can read easily.
In illustrations, Bertie Wooster has frequently been depicted wearing a monocle. However, this is probably merely a stereotypical depiction of an upper-class gentleman, as Bertie does not seem to wear a monocle in the original stories. The only evidence of Bertie wearing a monocle occurs in "The Spot of Art", when Bertie sees a portrait of himself, wearing a monocle, in a poster advertising soup. Bertie is revolted by the image, which gives him a look of "bestial greed". The monocle seems to exaggerate this expression, and Bertie makes fun of how large the monocle looks, calling it "about six inches in circumference". Bertie is never described as wearing a monocle elsewhere. It is unlikely that Bertie would wear a monocle that would not be mentioned, since the glasses of other characters, particularly Bertie's friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, are well-described, and another prominent Wodehouse character, Psmith, has a distinctive monocle that is mentioned many times.
Bertie is pleasant and amiable, according to Jeeves. A well-intentioned and honorable young gentleman, he has a strong moral code and prides himself on helping his friends. Unlike his Aunt Agatha, he is not snobbish to servants and is not bothered when one of his pals wants to marry someone from a different social class. He gladly spends time with a variety of people, including rich aristocrats and poor artists.
Tending to be unworldly and naive, Bertie is tricked by con artists in "Aunt Agatha Takes the Count" and "Jeeves and the Greasy Bird", though Jeeves could have warned him earlier on during the former occasion and he was driven by desperation in the latter circumstances; in Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, he realizes he is being tricked by a man named Graham, but is unable to avoid paying Graham anyway. He is not interested in global affairs or politics, and advises Jeeves to miss as many political debates as possible in order to live a happy and prosperous life. Usually modest about his intelligence, Bertie states, "I know perfectly well that I've got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess", though he occasionally wants to prove his intelligence, for example in "Scoring off Jeeves". He comes up with well-intentioned if ill-advised or unfortunately botched schemes, such as when he decides to kiss Pauline Stoker to spur his friend Chuffy to propose to her in Thank You, Jeeves.
Sometimes, Bertie acts diffidently, giving in to the whims of his formidable aunts or fiancées, but there are also times when Bertie displays a strong will, for example when he attempts to defy Jeeves's wishes on clothing, and when he resolves to confront Aunt Agatha at the end of The Mating Season. Nonetheless, Bertie lacks what Jeeves calls "Presence" and has difficulty presenting himself with authority in front of an audience. On two occasions, Bertie mentions reluctantly playing a part in an amateur theatrical production at a country house, once when roped into playing a butler, and another time when compelled to play King Edward III at his Aunt Agatha's house; for Bertie, both times were a trying ordeal.
By no means an ambitious man, Bertie seeks neither a prestigious job nor a socially advantageous marriage. In his own words, Bertie is the sort of person who is "content just to exist beautifully". He likes living a leisurely, quiet life and appreciates small things in his day, such as the oolong tea (which he sometimes calls Bohea) that Jeeves brings to him every morning.
Bertie participates in a number of physical activities. He likes swimming under ordinary circumstances; he is less fond of it when he falls into water unexpectedly while dressed in regular attire, which occurs multiple times in the stories. He plays tennis with Bingo Little in "Jeeves and the Impending Doom". Bertie also plays golf in the same story. His golf handicap is 16, and he plays in the Drones Club golf tournament every year. At Oxford, he obtained a blue for rackets playing with his friend Harold "Beefy" Anstruther, and briefly went in for rowing under the coaching of Stilton Cheesewright. Later, he rows a boat that Jeeves is steering in "Jeeves and the Impending Doom". Bertie plays squash and was runner-up one year in the Drones Club Annual Squash Handicap. There is no doubt in his mind that he will win the Drones Club darts competition in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. Claiming that he can "out-Fred the nimblest Astaire" Bertie enjoys dancing and likes fancy dress balls.
Capable of reading sheet music, Bertie has a light baritone voice and sings often, most prominently in "Jeeves and the Song of Songs". He keeps a piano in his flat, and once played "Happy Days Are Here Again" with one finger on the piano at Totleigh Towers when there was no other method of self-expression available. In Thank You, Jeeves, he attempts to play the banjolele, apparently with little success despite his enthusiasm. In an early story, Bertie claims that "bar a weekly wrestle with the 'Pink 'Un' and an occasional dip into the form book I'm not much of a lad for reading", yet Bertie is frequently in the middle of reading a mystery or crime novel in later stories. He states that he is never happier than when curled up with the latest Agatha Christie, and regularly references literary characters in mystery and crime fiction, including Christie's Hercule Poirot and others such as Sherlock Holmes, A. J. Raffles, and Nero Wolfe.
When Bertie Wooster catches his valet Meadowes stealing his silk socks among other things, he sacks him and sends for another from the agency. Jeeves arrives and mixes Bertie a hangover cure. The cure is remarkably effective, and Bertie engages Jeeves immediately. Thereafter, Bertie happily cedes much of the control of his life to the competent Jeeves, despite occasional clashes on matters of dress and appearance.
Due to the volume of stories and time span over which Wodehouse wrote them, there are a number of inconsistencies and contradictions in the information given about his relatives. Bertie and several of his relations appear in the early semi-canonical short story "Extricating Young Gussie". In that story the family name is Mannering-Phipps, not Wooster, and the story has been excluded from most collections of Jeeves and Wooster material, even though the incidents in that story are referenced in later stories.
The family members who make an appearance in the most Jeeves stories are Bertie's Aunt Dahlia (7 short stories, 7 novels) and Aunt Agatha (8 short stories). Aunt Dahlia is friendly and good-natured while Aunt Agatha is cold and haughty, though both make demands of Bertie. Bertie feels obliged to follow their whims, often getting in trouble doing so. Aunt Dahlia's husband Tom Travers and children Angela and Bonzo Travers play important roles. Spenser Gregson, Aunt Agatha's first husband, does not play a major role, but their son Thomas "Thos" Gregson and later her second husband Percy Craye, Earl of Worplesdon appear in the stories.
Aside from Aunts Dahlia and Agatha, Bertie Wooster's father had other siblings. In "Extricating Young Gussie", Bertie's Uncle Cuthbert is described as the "late head of the family", but it is said his son Gussie has no title; Cuthbert's widow is Bertie's Aunt Julia. Another uncle is Uncle Willoughby, upon whom Bertie is initially financially dependent. One of Bertie's uncles, the late Henry Wooster, was the husband of Bertie's Aunt Emily; Claude and Eustace are their twin sons and Bertie's cousins. Bertie's Uncle George is Lord Yaxley, so if he inherited that title he is likely to be Bertie's eldest living uncle, and Bertie's paternal grandfather may have held the title as well. However, the relative ages of Bertie's father and remaining uncles are not delineated, so it is unclear whether Bertie or one of his male cousins is in line to inherit the peerage. It is theoretically possible that the title was a life peerage under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, but unlikely as Uncle George is described as having devoted his life to food and drink.
Bertie never marries, but frequently finds himself engaged. In the early years, he is rather given to impulsive and short-lived infatuations, under the influence of which he proposes to Florence Craye (in "Jeeves Takes Charge", the fourth story in terms of publication and the first in the internal timeline of the books), to Pauline Stoker, and to Bobbie Wickham. In all of these cases, he rethinks the charms of the holy state and a "lovely profile" upon closer understanding of the personalities of the girls in question. Having already received a proposal from him, each girl assumes that she has an open invitation to marry Bertie whenever she has a spat with her current fiancé. Madeline Bassett and Honoria Glossop suffer from a similar delusion, though in each of their cases Bertie was attempting to plead the case of a friend (Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little respectively) but was misinterpreted as confessing his own love. In all of these cases, Bertie, who aims to be an honorable preux chevalier (valiant knight), feels he has to agree to the marriage, and relies on Jeeves to somehow end the engagement. In the later stories and novels, Bertie regards engagement solely as a dire situation from which Jeeves must extricate him. In the last novel, Bertie acknowledges that his infatuations have all been short-lived.
In Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie states that he is glad he did not marry Pauline Stoker because she is "one of those girls who want you to come and swim a mile before breakfast and rout you out when you are trying to snatch a wink of sleep after lunch for a merry five sets of tennis", and adds that his ideal wife should be, in contrast to the dynamic Pauline, "something rather more on the lines of Janet Gaynor". However, later in the same novel, Jeeves tells Pauline that he doubts a union between her and Bertie would have been successful as Bertie is "essentially one of Nature's bachelors".
Though Jeeves frequently rescues Bertie from unwanted engagements, only rarely do they openly discuss the matter, as they both feel it would be unseemly to "bandy a woman's name" in such a way.
Of the women Bertie Wooster becomes engaged to, those who appear in the most Jeeves stories are Madeline Bassett (5 novels), Lady Florence Craye (1 short story, 3 novels), Bobbie Wickham (3 short stories, 1 novel), and Honoria Glossop (4 short stories).
Bertie is loyal to his friends, willing to do whatever he can to solve their problems, saying "when there is a chance of helping a pal we Woosters have no thought of self". This has led to problems for him, since he is regularly drawn into troublesome tasks. Though he continues to provide help, Bertie is aware that people do not hesitate to give him unpleasant jobs; as he says, "Whenever something sticky was afoot and action had to be taken the cry was sure to go up, 'Let Wooster do it.'" Bertie's friends are eager to ask for advice from Jeeves, who enjoys helping Bertie's pals. Jeeves essentially runs a "big Mayfair consulting practice" from their home, and Bertie is accustomed to his acquaintances consulting Jeeves directly without talking to him first. Sometimes Bertie tries to assert that he can also solve problems, but truly he thinks of Jeeves as a genius as much as everyone else does.
Among Bertie's friends, those who appear in the most Jeeves stories are Bingo Little (10 short stories), Gussie Fink-Nottle (4 novels), and Tuppy Glossop (3 short stories, 1 novel). Others include Rev. Harold P. "Stinker" Pinker, Claude "Catsmeat" Potter-Pirbright, Oliver "Sippy" Sipperley, and Rockmetteller "Rocky" Todd. Sometimes a friend or acquaintance will become a jealous antagonist, for example G. D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright.
Some pals of Bertie's are occasionally mentioned who do not play major roles in the Jeeves stories, including Freddie Widgeon, Cyril "Barmy" Fotheringay-Phipps, and Oofy Prosser. Many Drones Club members appear in the separate Wodehouse Drones Club stories. Bertie is acquainted with Lord Emsworth, another of Wodehouse's best-known characters, who appears in the Blandings Castle stories. Bertie also knows Lord Emsworth's son Freddie Threepwood.
Bertie encounters a number of adversaries who are suspicious of him or threaten him in some way. These individuals are often quick to misinterpret Bertie's actions, which may seem strange due to the bizarre situations he becomes involved in, and come to the conclusion that Bertie is somehow mentally unsound or that he is a thief.
Among Bertie's various adversaries, those who appear in the most Jeeves stories are the "nerve specialist" or "loony doctor" Sir Roderick Glossop (4 short stories, 2 novels), and the intimidating "amateur dictator" Roderick Spode (4 novels), though Sir Roderick Glossop later becomes Bertie's friend. Others antagonists include Sir Watkyn Bassett and Major Plank.
With two exceptions, the stories are told in the first person by Bertie Wooster. Although Jeeves occasionally describes Bertie as "mentally negligible", Bertie's narrative style reflects notable facility with the English language. He displays what would be considered by today's standards a broad, if not very deep, knowledge of English literature, making allusions from sources including the Bible, Shakespeare, and romantic literature of the 19th century (all of these references typical of the schooling he and his 20th-century audience received), even if he relies on Jeeves to complete quotations for him. Bertie frequently applies these serious references in an over-simplified, farcical manner to the situation he is in, or uses the reference in a way totally contrary to its original context and meaning. In one story, Bertie complains about the constant attentions of a woman in whom he has no interest by referring to her as "young Sticketh-Closer-Than-a-Brother" in an annoyed fashion. The verse (Proverbs 18:24) that Bertie partially quotes actually praises the value of close friendship when it refers to a "friend that sticketh closer than a brother".
Bertie is fond of pre-World War I slang, peppering his speech with words and phrases such as "what ho!", "pipped", "bally" and so on, and he informally abbreviates words and phrases, such as "eggs and b" (eggs and bacon). He uses exaggerated imagery, and throughout the stories, he almost never says the word "walk", instead using terms and phrases like "toddle", "stagger", "ankle", "leg it", "make tracks", "whoosh" and "whizz". His informal language is juxtaposed with advanced vocabulary; Bertie claims that over the years, he has picked up a vocabulary of sorts from Jeeves. As the years pass, he makes references to popular film and literature that would have been well known to readers when the books were written.
One literary device Bertie employs is the transferred epithet, using an adjective to modify a noun instead of using the corresponding adverb to modify the verb of the sentence. Examples of this include "I balanced a thoughtful lump of sugar on the teaspoon" and "He waved a concerned cigar". He also favours the mixed metaphor, an absurd combination of two incompatible metaphors. For example, after one of Bertie's plans goes awry, he decides not to dwell on his mistake, saying "spilt milk blows nobody any good"; this combines the proverbs "It's no use crying over spilt milk" and "It's an ill wind that blows no good". Bertie also uses running gags, making humorous statements and recalling them later within the same story and in other stories.
Audiobooks of many of the Jeeves stories and novels in which Bertie Wooster is the narrator have been recorded by British actors, including Simon Callow, Jonathan Cecil, Ian Carmichael, Martin Jarvis, Frederick Davidson, and Dinsdale Landen.
Jeeves and Wooster remain one of the great comic double-acts of all time, alongside Bouvard and Pécuchet, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Laurel and Hardy, Blackadder and Baldrick.