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Jeeves who served up Jeeves

- The player who never knew

London, July 16: Perhaps the third in line to the British throne, when it appears, will be named Jimmy Anderson Cambridge after the bowler. Or, maybe J.K. Rowling will write her next novel under the batsman-inspired pseudonym Ian Bell.

If so, they would be following in a fine tradition — one that will be honoured on Wednesday when the P.G. Wodehouse Society marks the centenary of the cricket match that inspired the naming of Jeeves, the immortal gentleman’s gentleman to that prize ass Bertie Wooster.

Wodehouse was an up-and-coming comic writer when he decided to spend a weekend in 1913 with his parents in Cheltenham. The town’s annual cricket festival was on and he went to watch Gloucestershire play Warwickshire, where one of the visiting team’s bowlers caught his attention.

Percy Jeeves was in his first season of county cricket and did little of distinction in the match — one wicket for 55 runs, two catches and one run — but there was something about the name that stuck in Wodehouse’s mind.

He had been planning a series of stories in which a valet gets his master out of scrapes, but the name he had been working with before going to Cheltenham was Jevons.

“Jeeves had much more of a ring about it,” Norman Murphy, the author of A Wodehouse Handbook, said. “Wodehouse was schooled in Greek and Latin and the feeling he learnt for what sounds good when spoken never left him.”

Within two years, Jeeves made his first appearance in the short story Extricating Young Gussie in the Saturday Evening Post. At the same time, the cricketing Jeeves was training with the 15th Warwickshire Regiment on Salisbury Plain.

He was killed on the Somme, one of the bloodiest battlefields in the First World War, 10 months later, never knowing the influence that his name had on one of literature’s most enduring characters.

The story is told in a new book called The Real Jeeves, the first biography of the cricketer, by Brian Halford, who will be with 100 members of the Wodehouse Society, including Edward Cazalet, Wodehouse’s grandson, at a special brunch at Cheltenham tomorrow.

Wodehouse rarely describes his Jeeves, save Wooster calling him a “darkish respectful sort of Johnny”. But Murray Hedgcock, a Wodehouse scholar, says the cricketing Jeeves had the look of a valet.

“He was a very tidy, methodical, clean-cut chap and hugely popular,” Hedgcock says. “Many think that he would have played for England but for the war.”

It is possible that Wodehouse was following the example of his friend and fellow author Arthur Conan Doyle, who had a habit of naming characters, especially peripheral ones, after cricketers. Halford says that as many as 240 Conan Doyle names came that way.

The first name of Sherlock Holmes is derived from two cricketers, Mordecai Sherwin and Frank Shacklock, while Holmes’s brother is named after William Mycroft, a Derbyshire fast bowler.

“Wodehouse and Conan Doyle played cricket together and had lunch regularly,” Murphy said. “I suspect Wodehouse was pleased to name one of his most famous characters in the same way that Conan Doyle named his.”

There is another famous cricket-related inspiration in literature, since Ian Fleming named Blofeld, the Bond villain, after a school friend, whose son, Henry, is a cricket commentator.

One of Wodehouse’s earliest creations was Mike Jackson, one of seven cricket-loving brothers. Murphy says the name was taken from the Honourable Stanley Jackson, England captain in 1905.

This year’s President of MCC is Mike Griffith, Wodehouse’s godson, who was christened after Jackson. He would be at tomorrow’s commemoration, if it were not for a Test match at Lord’s this week.

THE TIMES, LONDON


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