Wodehouse’s women: in the eye of the beholder

girl on the boatWodehouse offers so much more to female readers than he is usually given credit for. A few months ago, I responded to criticism of Indian Summer of an Uncle by Janet Cameron (see my case for the defence). I feel sad that Cameron’s cursory appraisal of perceived gender issues has blinded her to the exquisite joys of his work. So today, I want to talk about why Wodehouse is a great writer of, and for, women.

First, Wodehouse presents readers with heroines who are full of pep and ginger;  independent, sometimes feisty, characters who frequently outsmart the men. What a refreshing change this makes from the kind of insipid, helpless females we so often see in romantic fiction (often created by women writers).

And I am thrilled to find other female readers who feel the same. In her excellent piece P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’, Marilee Scot discusses Wodehouse heroine Joan Valentine, who appears in Something Fresh (1915). Marilee says,

“…the woman has already had an adventurous life: she’s worked a variety of jobs (including magazine-writing), lives alone in a London flat, introduces herself to the young man she’ll eventually marry, and has excellent ideas for scarab-stealing.”

My favourite Wodehouse heroine, Jane Hubbard (The Girl on the Boat, 1921) is a crack shot with an elephant gun. Nor are feminine youth and beauty prerequisites for romance in Wodehouse’s world. His women find love regardless of age, class, shape or size. ‘Plus-sized’ Maudie Stubbs is a widow of mature age, a butler’s niece, former barmaid, and Detective Agency proprietress. She is touchingly reunited with former flame ‘Tubby Parsloe’ (now Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe) who returns her affection, preferring her to the young woman he’d been about to marry. In Galahad at Blandings (1964), Lord Emsworth’s nephew Wilfred Allsop falls in love with his Uncle’s ‘pig-girl’ Monica Simmons, whose solid build and agricultural occupation could hardly be less feminine. Wilfred Allsop objects strongly when his friend Tipton ‘Tippy’ Plimsoll points this out.

“I’m sorry you think she looks like an all-in wrestler,’ he said stiffly. ‘To me she seems to resemble one of those Norse goddesses. However , be that as it may, I love her, Tippy. I fell in love with her at first sight.’ Recalling the picture of Miss Simmons in smock and trousers with a good deal of mud on her face, Tipton found this difficult to believe, but he was sympathetic.”

In Wodehouse’s art, as in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This puts him above most writers I know, male or female. who rarely take the trouble to create ‘unattractive’ female characters, let alone make them central figures in romance. Of course Wodehouse offers plenty of attractive women too. All this makes Wodehouse a terrific writer of, and for, women (Terry Pratchett is another) and it’s hardly surprising to learn that he has a large and enthusiastic female following. His fans include Dr Sophie Ratcliffe from the University of Oxford, who edited P. G. Wodehouse: A life in Letters. Fittingly, she dedicated the book:

For all Wodehouse’s heroines,

imaginary and real, especially Leonora.

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18 thoughts on “Wodehouse’s women: in the eye of the beholder

  1. I completely agree with all of this. One of my absolute favourite Wodehouse books is The Adventures of Sally, precisely because Sally is such a wonderful heroine. Yes, she is pretty and charming, but also feisty and with a fabulous sense of humour.
    I remember being infuriated at reading something (I can’t even recall what it was, book, article…no idea!) in which the author stated that Wodehouse fans were almost all male, but judging by the membership of the UK PGW Society, (the majority of whom are male) the author may sadly have had a point.
    But I have recommended Wodehouse books to women and men in about equal numbers and I do honestly believe that his books are appealing to both genders. I hope that more women discover the joy of Wodehouse as you and I have done!

    1. Thanks for the great comments. The book you mention might be Frances Donaldson’s biography of Wodehouse. She makes this comment herself, and I have never agreed with it. The modern online world seems to bringing us female readers out of our shells a bit more – and I’ve met male and female fans in equal measure I’d say. The Fry and Laurie series of Jeeves and Wooster also helped bring Wodehouse to a wider audience.
      I think perhaps some people (women and men) have formed the mistaken impression that Wodehouse’s work somehow belongs to the (male dominated) ‘establishment’. Lots of ‘the establishment’ love him (for some it’s their only redeeming feature), but Wodehouse wasn’t part of this establishment himself. His family couldn’t even afford for him to have a University education. He may have created the Drones club, but he was not a big fan or frequenter of clubs himself. For some reason, Wodehouse (and Jeeves) have seeped into the wider public consciousness as representing things that they frankly don’t. Luckily they’ve got people like us to tell ’em they’re wrong, eh what?

      I’d like to come along to a UK society thing.

  2. Agree with you. In ‘Ring for Jeeves’, we have Mrs Spottsworth who demands immediate attention from ghosts and internally craves for Captain Biggar to propose to him after her previous two husbands – both in the heavens – have approved of the match. The range of female characters he has sketched for us range from the extremely potty to the very intelligent whose only desire is to reform the male counterpart, whether in terms of his literary tastes or by avoiding certain culinary pleasures of life!

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  5. Lovely article on a rich topic. Thanks for posting. I introduced my mom to PGW via, I think, ‘Code of the Woosters’ back in the early 1980’s. She loved it, and as I remember her first comment was “he writes the English language so beautifully.” My two grown daughters are huge fans – one named her cat Ukridge; and I have a 13-year old grandaughter on whom I’,m going to spring “Uncle Fred” on at Christmas. From by the Way, September 1905: “Mr. W. Pett Ridge gives a few hints to would-be novelists in a weekly contemporary. Talking of the heroine of the story, he remarks: “Perfect and accurate beauty is at the present day not insisted upon, but the eyes must be right.” Nothing spoils the reader’s interest in a novel more than to find that the heroine has a decided squint or different-coloured eyes.”

    1. Excellent quote, John. The only heroine with a squint I can think of is Magrat Garlick, one of Terry Pratchett’s fine women. I think Ukridge is the perfect name for a cat – most cats would agree with the Ukridge outlook on life. It’s such a terrific feeling giving Wodehouse as gift too.

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