Reginald Jeeves is a fictional character in a series of humorous short stories and novels by P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975), being the highly-competent valet of a wealthy, idle, and rather foolish young Londoner named Bertie Wooster. Created in 1915, Jeeves continued to appear in Wodehouse’s work until his last completed novel Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen in 1974, a span of 59 years. The name “Jeeves” comes from Percy Jeeves (1888–1916), a Warwickshire cricketer killed in the First World War.
Both the name “Jeeves” and the character of Jeeves have come to be thought of as the quintessential name and nature of a valet or butler, inspiring many similar characters (as well as the name of the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves). A “Jeeves” is now a generic term in references such as the Oxford English Dictionary.
In a conversation with a policeman in “Jeeves and the Kid Clementina”, Jeeves refers to himself as both a “gentleman’s personal gentleman” and a “personal gentleman’s gentleman.” This means that Jeeves is a valet, not a butler—that is, he serves a man and not a household. However, Bertie Wooster has lent out Jeeves as a butler on several occasions, and notes: “If the call comes, he can buttle with the best of them.”
The premise of the Jeeves stories is that the brilliant valet is firmly in control of his rich and foppish young employer’s life. Jeeves becomes Bertie Wooster’s protector and all-purpose problem solver, devising subtle plans to rescue Bertie and his friends from tiresome social obligations, demanding relatives, brushes with the law, and, above all, problems involving women. Wodehouse derives much comic effect from having Bertie, his narrator, remain blissfully unaware of Jeeves’s machinations, until all is revealed at the end of the story.
Jeeves presents the ideal image of the gentlemanly manservant, always impeccably dressed, gliding silently in and out of rooms, and speaking mainly when spoken to (most often replying “Yes, sir” or “No, sir). His mental prowess is attributed to eating fish, according to Wooster, who often offers the dish to Jeeves. Jeeves supplements his brain power by relaxing with “improving” books, such as the complete works of Spinoza, or “Dostoyevsky and the great Russians”. He frequently quotes from Shakespeare and the romantic poets. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and academic subjects, he is also a “bit of a whiz” in all matters pertaining to horse racing, car maintenance, drink preparation (especially hangover remedies), etiquette, and the ways of women. Perhaps his most impressive and useful area of expertise is a flawless knowledge of the British aristocracy.
Jeeves has distinct ideas about how an English gentleman should dress and behave, and sees it as his duty to impart these values to his employer. When friction arises between Jeeves and Bertie, it is usually over some new item about which Wooster is enthusiastic, such as a garish vase, a moustache, monogrammed handkerchiefs, a straw boater, an alpine hat, a scarlet cummerbund, spats in the Eton colours, a white dinner jacket, or purple socks. Wooster’s decision to take up playing the banjolele in Thank You, Jeeves almost led to a permanent rift between the two. Jeeves’s problem-solving ability often includes a discreet means to dispose of the offending item.
Jeeves is a member of the Junior Ganymede Club, a London club for butlers and valets. In the club book, all members must record the foibles of their employers to forewarn other butlers and valets. The section labelled “Wooster, Bertram” is the largest in the book. In Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit it contained “eleven pages”, and by Much Obliged, Jeeves it has grown to eighteen pages. However, at the end of Much Obliged, Jeeves, Jeeves informs Wooster that he has destroyed the eighteen pages, anticipating that he will never leave the latter’s employment.
Jeeves’s first name of Reginald was not revealed for 56 years, until the penultimate novel in the series, Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971), when Wooster hears another valet greet Jeeves with “Hullo, Reggie.” The readers may have been surprised to learn Jeeves’s first name, but Wooster was stunned by the revelation “that he had a first name” in the first place. Only once in the Wodehouse canon does Jeeves appear without Wooster: Ring for Jeeves (1953), in which he is on loan to the 9th Earl of Rowcester. The novel was adapted from Wodehouse’s play Come On, Jeeves, which Wodehouse felt needed a more conventional ending, although he was unwilling to marry Wooster off.
Richard Usborne, a leading scholar of the life and works of Wodehouse, describes Jeeves as a “godlike prime mover” and “master brain who is found to have engineered the apparent coincidence or coincidences”.
Inspiration and influence
The concept which eventually became Jeeves preceded the Wooster character in Wodehouse’s imagination: he had long considered the idea of a butler—later a valet—who could solve any problem. A character named Reggie Pepper, who was very much like Wooster but without Jeeves, was the protagonist of seven short stories. Wodehouse decided to rewrite the Pepper stories, switching Reggie’s character to Bertie Wooster and combining him with an ingenious valet.
Jeeves and Bertie first appeared in “Extricating Young Gussie”, a short story published in September 1915, in which Jeeves’s character is minor and not fully developed and Bertie’s surname appears to be Mannering-Phipps. The first fully recognisable Jeeves and Wooster story was “The Artistic Career of Corky”, published in early 1916. As the series progressed, Jeeves assumed the role of Wooster’s co-protagonist; indeed, their meeting was told in November 1916 in “Jeeves Takes Charge”.
In his 1953 semi-autobiographical book written with Guy Bolton, Bring on the Girls!, Wodehouse suggests that the Jeeves character was based on an actual butler named Eugene Robinson whom Wodehouse employed for research purposes. He recounts a story where Robinson extricated Wodehouse from a real-life predicament. Wodehouse also recounts that he named his Jeeves after Percy Jeeves (1888–1916), a popular English cricketer for Warwickshire. Wodehouse witnessed Percy Jeeves bowling at Cheltenham Cricket Festival in 1913. Percy Jeeves was killed at the Battle of the Somme during the attack on High Wood in July 1916, less than a year after the first appearance of the Wodehouse character who would make his name a household word.
Jeeves’ propensity for wisdom and knowledge is so well known that it inspired the original name of the Internet search website Ask.com (called “AskJeeves” from 1996 to 2006). In the twenty-first century, a “Jeeves” is a generic term (in the fashion of “a Jonah”) for any useful and reliable person, found in dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary or the Encarta World English Dictionary. The term has also been used in World of Warcraft, where an engineering character may construct a “Jeeves” robot to repair equipment.