The cover of the September 18, 1915, issue of the Saturday Evening Post features an illustration of an owl on a branch, set against a rising sun. The owl isn’t looking at the sun; rather, it stares back over its shoulder at us, its eyes bloodshot but knowing. Below it is a roster of contributors, nearly all of whom will be unknown to the modern reader.

Who is Holworthy Hall, for instance? Whatever happened to Charles E. Van Loan or Thomas H. Uzzell? The name of P. G. Wodehouse, though, shines forth. In this issue, through a short story called Extricating Young Gussie, Wodehouse sent Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves into the world. The story is an exemplar – of how so many of Wodehouse’s particular talents were near fullness in this mid-morning of his career, but also of how characters can escape a writer’s initial imagination to find their own, roaring life.

The first story

Extricating Young Gussie isn’t among Wodehouse’s gems – it sags in parts, and its prose is not quite watertight – but it carries many of his beloved hallmarks. There is the classic plot: Bertie is rousted out of bed and sent to New York to prevent a cousin from marrying a small-time vaudeville actress. There are the characters: a brace of aunts, including the fearsome Aunt Agatha, with “an eye like a man-eating fish”; Augustus Mannering-Phipps, the titular Gussie and the fool in love; a theatre agent named Abe Riesbitter, who has “a zareba of chins” and says things like: “You lizzun t’me.”

As always with Wodehouse, young love wins through in an unexpected but satisfying manner. Even Bertie Wooster’s narrative voice – its cloth-headed, aristocratic languor; its fine mix of high and low registers; its essential good nature – is close to perfected.

The writer’s writer

Most remarkable is Wodehouse’s style, which is already musical and inventive and funny in the ways we will come to know and adore. Wodehouse is a writer’s writer; only another hack, toiling daily in English’s mess of verbs and adjectives and bountiful clichés, will best appreciate what he can do with the language. “He never backed a horse that didn’t get housemaid’s knee in the middle of the race,” Bertie notes about Gussie’s long-dead father, for example.

The double negative – so often forbidden by purists – gives that sentence a backhanded crackle, and the choice of ailment, housemaid’s knee, is flawless, an injection of mundane domesticity into the anxious energy of a horse race. “All over the country,” Gussie says on another occasion, “as August wanes, sparkling comediennes burst into bloom, the sap stirs in the veins of tramp cyclists, and last year’s contortionists, waking from their summer sleep, tie themselves tentatively into knots.” The rhythm of this declamation is hard to beat, and the final image – of something as bold as tying oneself into knots being done with tentativeness – is hilarious precisely for its internal contradiction.

But where is he?

The sole serious complaint one can register about this inaugural Bertie-and-Jeeves story, really, is the utter absence of Jeeves. Where this prince among manservants should be, there is a void. Jeeves does nothing to propel Gussie and his fiancée towards the happy ending. In fact, beyond reciting two lines – “Mrs Gregson to see you, sir” and “Very good, sir. Which suit will you wear?” – and performing some stage business with tea and luggage, Jeeves is left out of the script altogether.

This will flummox readers who have dipped into the Wodehouse canon out of chronological order, and who are familiar with Jeeves’ habit, in later works, of resolving complicated situations like thwarted love, blackmail and the burglary of silver cow creamers. (“I’ve always said, and I always shall say, that for sheer brain, Jeeves, you stand alone,” Bertie gushes in a 1921 short story. “All the other great thinkers of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.”)

In a way, it flummoxed Wodehouse himself. “I find it curious, now that I have written so much about him, to recall how softly and undramatically Jeeves first entered my little world,” he wrote, many years later, in the introduction to a Jeeves omnibus. “I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.” He had never thought, he once admitted to Lawrence Durrell, that Jeeves “would ever do anything except open doors and announce people.”

Wodehouse surprises himself

But fiction possesses the marvellous ability to animate itself in ways that will surprise even its author. Writing another Bertie Wooster short story for the February 1916 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, Wodehouse assembled a thorny state of affairs for Bruce “Corky” Corcoran, Bertie’s impecunious friend. Corky and his fiancée cannot get married without the spiritual and financial blessing of his wealthy uncle, a foul-tempered jute magnate who sneers at Corky’s artistic career.

“I saw how to solve the problem,” Wodehouse recalled to Durrell, “but my artistic soul revolted at the idea of having Bertie suggest the solution. It would have been absolutely out of character. Then who? For a long time I was baffled, and then I suddenly thought, ‘Why not make Jeeves a man of brains and ingenuity and have him do it?’ After that, of course, it was all simple.” Jeeves glided to the rescue – of his young master’s friend, but also of his young creator in the throes of writer’s block.

Here to stay

A year after the publication of Extricating Young Gussie, Wodehouse must have felt confident about the durability of Bertie and Jeeves, because he wrote them an origin story, describing how they entered each other’s lives. Jeeves Takes Charge appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1916. Bertie, poised on the brink of frightful matrimony, has dismissed his valet Meadowes for pilfering his silk socks, and the agency sends around a replacement, “a kind of darkish sort of respectful Johnnie” named Jeeves.

First Jeeves repairs Bertie’s thundering hangover; by the end of the story, he has also eased Bertie out of his engagement and gently bullied him to stop wearing a favourite checked suit. Bertie balks a little about the suit. “I had a feeling that I was passing into this chappie’s clutches,” he worries. “On the other hand, this was obviously a cove of rare intelligence, and it would be comfort in a lot of ways to have him doing the thinking for me.” Finally, Bertie comes to a decision. The suit is abandoned. Jeeves has taken charge.

Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for The National. His latest book, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, is out now.