P.G.Wodehouse, creator of dapper drones like Bertie Wooster (who once wrote an article for Milady’s Boudoir on ‘What the What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing’) was not a beard lover. His leading men were clean shaven, taking to false beards only in times of crisis.
Writing of his own experiences in a German internment camp during WWII, Wodehouse said:
A lot of us grew beards. Not me. What I felt was that there is surely enough sadness in life without going out of one’s way to increase it by sprouting a spade-shaped beard. I found it a melancholy experience to watch the loved features of some familiar friend becoming day by day less recognizable behind the undergrowth. A few fungus-fanciers looked about as repulsive as it is possible to look, and one felt a gentle pity for the corporal whose duty is was to wake them in the morning. What a way to start one’s day!
O’Brien, one of the sailors, had a long Assyrian beard, falling like a cataract down his chest, and it gave me quite a start when at the beginning of the summer he suddenly shaved, revealing himself as a spruce young fellow in the early twenties. I had been looking on him all the time as about twenty years my senior, and only my natural breeding had kept me from addressing him as ‘Grandpop’.
Wodehouse in a letter to Bill Townend, printed in Performing Flea
The origin of Wodehouse’s anti-beard prejudice is unclear. None of his biographers have, to my knowledge, produced a hirsute Aunt or bewhiskered school-master who might be held responsible. And while Wodehouse might not have been an actual pagonophobe, his views on the subject are remarkably consistent.
Wodehouse returns to melancholia of the beard in his masterly short story, ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert.
His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair, but his eyes were visible through the undergrowth, and it seemed to Cuthbert that there was an expression in them not unlike that of a cat in a strange backyard surrounded by small boys. The man looked forlorn and hopeless, and Cuthbert wondered whether he had had bad news from home.
Looking at a photo of that other Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, one begins to understand Wodehouse’s point.
I love Tolstoy — Anna Karenina is one of my favourite novels — so it’s some consolation to know that this depressed looking soul may have read Wodehouse! I was thrilled to find Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy’s account of Ian Spoat’s discovery that Tolstoy had a copy of The Captain (magazine in which Wodehouse’s early stories were published) on his bedside table.
For Wodehouse on the moustache, revisit one of my first posts at Plumtopia: Movember, and the psychology of the upper lip.