Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks – review

This joyful tribute to PG Wodehouse finds Bertie in the soup once more

It was in 1915 that Bertie Wooster, Wodehouse's favourite man about town, first made a cameo appearance in the Saturday Evening Post. Nearly a century on, Faulks's joyful tribute finds him unexpectedly transformed. Gone are the check suits, purple socks, and heliotrope pyjamas with the old gold stripe. Stuck in an attic bedroom, alone and palely crumpling, Bertie cobbles together "the uniform of a gentleman's personal gentleman", complete with tricky collar studs, "goggles", and an unflattering centre parting. Whither Jeeves?

Switcheroos and imposters have always been Wodehousean staples. The original Wooster assumed variously unlikely roles over the years, from newt fancier to romantic novelist, and usually ended up hanging off a drainpipe or two. Faulks, in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, puts Bertie in the soup once more. The complex plot is played out in Melbury Hall, a handsome but crumbling country pile belonging to the financially embarrassed Sir Henry Hackwood. Bertie's disguise forms part of a plan to reunite an old schoolfriend, Beeching (P), with Hackwood's daughter, Amelia. Jeeves, meanwhile, is busy ingratiating himself with Sir Henry by impersonating a peer of the realm and proffering insider information on Ascot.

Bertie's own love interest, Georgiana Meadowes, is a Wodehousean heroine of the old school. A "hazard to male shipping", with "eyes about as deep as the Bermuda triangle" and a penchant for driving double-decker buses, she has tiresomely got herself engaged to someone other than Bertie. Faulks is generous with his set pieces: we get staged break-ins, toga-wearing, cricket matches, romance aplenty and a critical "error of judgement" involving one Dame Judith Puxley ("expert on Sumerian tablets and the cuneiform script"), plus five helpings of gooseberry fool and an ill-placed Georgian tablespoon.

But the best comic turn comes from the novel's own double texture. Faulks, like Bertie, is involved in his own complicated act of dressing up – the literary equivalent of squeezing himself into someone else's trousers. Throughout the book we get a sense of what Faulks hears in Wodehouse's style. There's zeugma ("Georgiana wore a plain satin dress and a distant look"), etymological daftness ("If Hoad could best be described as inert, Beeching, P. was about as ert as they come"), addresses to camera ("New readers, as they say, start here") and abundant literary allusions, including the "gloomy Russians", Keats, Shelley, and Thomases both Hardy and Gray. Loopy backstories abound, epithets are transferred, and comparisons stretched. Even the pace pays tribute to Wodehouse's impeccable timing:

"An odd thing I've noticed over the years, chronicling these adventures of mine, is that even in the middle of an absolute corker – the Steeple Bumpleigh Horror, for example – there are days when not much happens. This is ticklish for the author. I dare say that at such a point in one of those novels beloved of Jeeves and Georgiana, old Tolstoy took advantage of a lull in the action to bung in a bit of family history … The author of The Mystery of the Gabled House, if in doubt, generally throws in another corpse. Not having any stiffs at my disposal, I can only say that little of note took place … for the next 24 hours. Nothing really got going until Friday afternoon, after which things got pretty fruity. End of lull. Now read on."

Faulks has been almost Woosterian in his modesty about this project. Press releases noted his hesitation about taking on the "inimitable". He worries, in his prefatory note, whether the book may fall "too lamentably short of the mark". It isn't quite as sharp as a Wodehouse novel. The minor characters aren't always as well delineated. The similes are good, but they don't have the same extraordinary magic. And the major players seem uncharacteristically (but endearingly) in touch with their feelings, as if they have all swapped their usual jolly to Le Touquet for a session on the therapist's couch. But the difference doesn't matter. In fact, the difference is the point. This is a gentle, funny, knowing act of tribute – and one can sense Faulks's enjoyment throughout. If one were to get, in Bertie's words, all "Plato and the gang" about it, the novel could be read as an exploration of selfhood. Like any homage, it makes us think about what it means to be (and to write) beyond oneself – and about selfhood's ineffable core. Faulks's "nostalgic variation" works as a sort of counterpoint: it brings us just that little bit closer to understanding why Wodehouse, himself, was so out of this world. It is a wonderfully happy book.

• Sophie Ratcliffe edited PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters (Hutchinson).

Sophie Ratcliffe

The GuardianTramp

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