P.G. Wodehouse has occasionally been criticised, along with other male writers of his era, for his portrayal of women. As a female reader with feminist views, the diversity and strength of Wodehouse’s female characters is something I particularly enjoy. Subsequently, I find the criticism rather baffling.
In order to better understand and unravel some of the issues, I’d like to consider the charges levelled against Wodehouse in a recent criticism of Indian Summer of an Uncle by Janet Cameron. While I don’t agree with Cameron’s assessment, I am grateful to her for providing a starting point for my thinking. There is too much to be said on this particular subject in one article (I’d like to make it a PhD study) so I propose to respond in a series of pieces.
I begin today with the first charge:
‘Women are excluded as complex characters’
This charge is partially correct, but misleading because Wodehouse was simply not in the business of creating complex characters at all.
“I believe there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.”
Wodehouse in a letter to William Townend
Bertie Wooster is arguably P.G. Wodehouse’s most complex character. As the first-person narrator of over 10 novels and 30 stories, we have greater insight into his character than any other in the Wodehouse canon – but he is hardly a complex character. In the short story Indian Summer of an Uncle (1930) Bertie and Jeeves are well established and familiar to Wodehouse readers. Of the female characters, two (Rhoda Platt and her Aunt Maudie) make no further appearance. Their characters are developed only to the extent required for the comedy to work – along with the hundreds of other male and female ‘bit part’ characters Wodehouse created in the course of his prolific career.
Wodehouse’s characters don’t require complexity – and certainly not in his short stories. As Hilaire Belloc noted, Wodehouse was a practitioner of commedia dell’arte, adapting a well established cast of stage characters to suit his comedic purpose:
“…the rules of the game are already agreed upon between the actors and their audiences, so that the former had either to play the game with a new brilliance each time or be frankly given the bird by a disappointed audience.”
Hilaire Belloc in From the World of Music, Ernest Newman (Calder, 1956) cited by Frances Donaldson in P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorised Biography (1982).
Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson adds to this assessment:
I think it is often forgotten how close Wodehouse… was working to the world of the stock company, the English equivalent of commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century the provincial theatres of England had resident ‘stock’ companies who played all the supporting parts, while the leads were played by visiting stars. These stock companies consisted of actors engaged to play stereotyped parts – the Juvenile lead and the Leading Lady, the Low Comedian, the Heavy Father, the Chamber Maid (later known as the soubrette), Walking Ladies and Gentlemen, later to be known as supers. Playwrights of the nineteenth century had to write plays which included parts for the salaried stock company and the playwrights of the early twentieth century were their immediate descendants.”
Frances Donaldson in P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorised Biography (1982).
Janet Cameron criticises Aunt Agatha – the only recurring female character in the story – as ‘a caricature of an aunt‘. Frances Donaldson would have agreed, having argued in her biography that Wodehouse’s fictional Aunts ‘…are stock characters in a long line of British humour.’ Indeed this is rather her point – that applying well recognised theatrical character types enabled Wodehouse to focus his attention on his intricate farcical plots.
It is clear from Wodehouse’s personal letters that his work in musical theatre greatly influenced his approach as a prose writer, particularly in terms of characterisation. Wodehouse’s involvement in the theatre dates back to 1904 with Sergeant Brue, which ran for 152 performances at the Strand Theatre in London. Wodehouse went on to make a significant contribution to American musical theatre through his collaboration with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern.
But what of the charge that Wodehouse’s women are less complex than his men? Certainly, in the Indian Summer of an Uncle, Bertie Wooster is the central and more complex character, but not just in comparison to the women. Bertie’s Uncle George is a male ‘walk-on’ role, and we never get any closer to knowing the inscrutable Jeeves in spite of his many appearances. If one reads Wodehouse just a little more widely, it’s clear that this particular charge does not stick.
The opposite has even been argued. Robert Hall believes that Wodehouse’s heroines frequently have more depth and interest than his heroes:
Wodehouse’s leading girl-characters are, by and large, somewhat more individualised than his male juvenile leads. Significantly, the Junior Lipstick Club, to which some of Wodehouse’s heroines belong, does not play a parallel role to that of his Drones, in supplying young feminine leads. Almost all of his ingénues have energy and sparkle, often (like Sally Painter in Uncle Dynamite, when she pushes the policeman into the pond) taking the initiative when the “hero” wavers in his resolution.
Robert Hall inthe Comic Style of P.G. Wodehouse (1974)
It is reasonable to give weight to the view of those, such as Belloc, Donaldson and Hall, who have made a detailed study of Wodehouse’s life and work. To their views, I humbly add my own – that Wodehouse could still draw minor characters with great sympathy and affection. For example, in the short story, Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend, he devotes just one paragraph to describing the female lead:
She was a small girl of uncertain age – possibly twelve or thirteen, though a combination of London fogs and early cares had given her face a sort of wizened motherliness which in some odd way caused his lordship to look on her as belonging to his own generation. She was the type of girl you see in back streets carrying a baby nearly as large as herself and still retaining sufficient energy to lead one little brother by the hand and shout recrimination at another in the distance. Her cheeks shone from recent soaping , and she was dressed in a velveteen frock which was obviously the pick of her wardrobe. Her hair, in defiance of the prevailing mode, she wore drawn tightly back into a short pigtail.
Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend (1926)
Wodehouse consciously informs us in this passage that he is describing a ‘type of girl’, and yet his description is no less effective or moving because of it.
In summary, Wodehouse’s female characters are no less lacking in complexity than his males. With the possible exception of Bertie Wooster, all his characters are lightly, and delightfully drawn. Thousands of men and women around the world continue to derive great pleasure from the work of P.G. Wodehouse and share great affection for his characters – who extend beyond stereotypes when given the Wodehouse treatment.
While the lack of depth and human complexity might be considered a failing by some serious-minded critics, theirs is just one way – a very prescriptive and narrow one – of viewing literature. Surely there is enough complexity in the world already without wishing it upon our humourists.
- Wodehouse on women: Bachelors Anonymous (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)