Public Domain Day advent calendar #17: Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Prolific humorist P. G. Wodehouse has many fans, both in his native Britain and in his adopted home in the United States.  Due to our differing copyright laws, we in the US get his early work in the public domain first, but the UK will get his later work before we do.  His first published novel, The Pothunters (1902), has been in the public domain here since 1958.  The works from the end of Wodehouse’s career won’t be public domain here until the start of the 2070s, while they’ll join the public domain in the UK along with the rest of his works in 2046.

Wodehouse’s most famous creation is Jeeves, the ultra-competent valet to a less-competent Bertie Wooster, an idle rich English gentleman who gets into many difficult situations with various friends and relations.  Jeeves is often the person who gets Bertie out of those scrapes, winning Bertie’s frequent adulation. “A most amazing cove,” says Bertie of Jeeves.  “So dashed competent in every respect”.

The basic character of Jeeves is in the public domain in the US, having first appeared in print in the story “Extricating Young Gussie” in the September 18, 1915 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.  Jeeves continued to appear in various stories throughout the rest of Wodehouse’s career, making his final bow in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974; published in the US as The Cat-Nappers).

In 1923, Wodehouse took 11 Jeeves stories that had previously appeared in magazines and turned them into a novel of sorts, published in the UK as The Inimitable Jeeves and in the US simply as JeevesJeeves is the name used in the book’s 1923 copyright registration, and in its 1950 renewal. The magazine stories are already in the public domain in the US, having appeared in The Strand, The Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan between June 1918 and December 1922.  Wodehouse was still entitled to claim copyright on changes he had made for the book version, however.

Wodehouse’s changes for Jeeves seem to be mostly intended to create a “fix-up”, with more continuity between the stories than they had in their original separate publications.  For instance, the “Purity of the Turf” chapter in the book starts with a couple of new paragraphs connecting it with earlier incidents, and then continues as the magazine version does.  Sometimes, though, Wodehouse made more significant changes between magazine and book versions.  The serialized magazine version of Leave it to Psmith, Wodehouse’s other major 1923 work, and the last to feature another of his well-known characters, has a notably different ending than the revised book version does.

In 15 days, we’ll have both the first Jeeves novel and the last Psmith novel joining the public domain in the US.  With both of those becoming free next month, I can see American Wodehouse fans then thinking to themselves as Bertie Wooster does in one of the Jeeves stories, “I can’t remember having been chirpier”.

2019 update: Link to full text of The Inimitable Jeeves, now in the US public domain, at Project Gutenberg.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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