Last weekend I visited the charming Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon for a bit of browsing and sluicing with fellow members of the PG Wodehouse Society — the first, we hope, of many gatherings in the South-West. Our luncheon took place at an outstanding local pub called The Longs Arms and we were unanimous in the view that, should we ever extend our activities to include compiling a Pub Guide for Wodehouse fans, the Longs Arms would make a worthy inclusion — the only obstacle being a lack of any obvious Wodehouse connection, unless you’re prepared to accept Haddock on the menu and the Mullineresque conversation of our very own ‘oldest member’, Graham.
From the moment I alighted from the train at Bradford on Avon, I was struck with Wodehouse associations (fortunately not at the base of the skull). The most obvious of these is the town’s celebration of ‘The Gudgeon’ in the title of their town newsletter, a local ale, and more. The Gudeon they’re honouring is of course the fishy variety, and not the memorable character created by P.G. Wodehouse.
Hilda Gudgeon has long held a special place in my heart, though she appears only briefly in The Mating Season as Madeline Bassett’s school friend. Bertie describes her as ‘a solid, hefty girl, of the type which plays five sets of tennis without turning a hair…’. This Gudgeon is refreshingly unlike Madeline, and Bertie is initially disposed to like her (a view he revises when she offers to boost his chances of a union with Madeline).
‘Good morning, Hilda,’ said the Basset in that soupy, treacly voice which had got her so disliked by all right-thinking men. ‘What a lovely, lovely morning.’
The solid girl said she didn’t see what was so particularly hot about it, adding that personally she found all mornings foul. She spoke morosely, and I could see that her disappointment in love had soured her, poor soul. I mourned for her distress, and had the circumstances been different, might have reached up and patted her on the head.
If being unlike Madeline Basset isn’t enough inducement, Hilda Gudgeon is also fond of cricket:
‘…Have you seen the paper this morning? It says there’s some talk of altering the leg-before-wicket rule again. Odd how your outlook changes when your heart’s broken. I can remember a time when I’d have been all excited if they altered the leg-before-wicket rule. Now I don’t give a damn. Let ‘em alter it, and I hope they have a fine day for it.’
As you may recall from a previous post, cricket was my first love before discovering Wodehouse, and I’ve always looked on Hilda Gudgeon as a kindred soul –I even made her the central character of my attempt at Wodehouse homage. Seeing The Gudgeon so revered by the good people of Wilshire filled me with joie de vivre. I purchased both their newsletter and their ale – and what’s more, I’d do it again!
Leaving Gudgeons to one side for the moment, though preferably not in the sun, there are Wodehouse connections in the area surrounding Bradford on Avon. Young Wodehouse spent boyhood holidays with relations in Wiltshire and nearby Somerset, making it probable that he would have visited the town. His mother’s family, the Deanes, excelled at the production of spinster Aunts, a gaggle of whom lived just five and half miles away in the village of Box. Deanes also pop up in the registers at Freshford village, three miles to the West, and the area known as ‘the Deverells’ is roughly twenty miles away. This combination of Aunts, Deverills, Gudgeons and Haddock can only mean one thing to a Wodehouse fan – The Mating Season.
We may never know if young Wodehouse passed the Longs Arms on a country walk, or called in for a whiskey and splash with the local raconteur, but if you’re looking for a fine lunch (with an enticing menu that changes daily) in Wodehouse territory, I heartily recommend it. Better still, why not join us next time? We’re planning further exploratory jaunts in the region so please get in touch. We look forward to meeting you, although… I can’t promise that I won’t slap you on the back and address you with offensive familiarity — in the spirit of the Gudgeons.
The solid girl, whom I had dimly heard telling the gardener he needn’t be afraid of breaking that spade by leaning on it, came back and immediately proceeded, in what I considered an offensively familiar manner, to give me a hearty slap on the back.
‘Well, Wooster, old bloke,’ she said.
‘Well, Gudgeon, old bird,’ I replied courteously.
A hearty farewell to you!
This post on Wodehouse’s portrait of an ideal man struck a chord with me. Hope it strikes you too… in a thoughtful sort of way that is, not roughly, like a stuffed eelskin from behind.
Just in case you missed the recent series by Ashokia Bhatia celebrating Wodehouse’s young squirts and pests, his ‘Gallery of Rogue Kids’ is a delicious summary (with links to the previous installments).
Another specimen for the gallery might be ‘Albert the page’ at Belpher Castle in A Damsel in Distress (1919):
‘To one who saw his deep blue eyes and their sweet, pensive expression as they searched the middle distance he seemed like a young angel. How was the watcher to know that the thought behind that far-off gaze was simply a speculation as to whether the bird on the cedar tree was or was not within range of his catapult? ‘
A saunter down the Gallery of Rogue Kids in Plumsville leaves us amazed at the innovative skills, cunning and resource of the children we come across in the works of P G Wodehouse.
Some end up boosting the sagging morale of their fathers. Some treat their step fathers with as much scorn as they can muster at a tender age. They do not spare them while out to collect protection money. Their antics could make or break matrimonial alliances in a jiffy. Souring up business deals comes easy to them. When they burn down cottages, guests are forced to seek shelter in garden sheds.
When seniors devise a Good Conduct award, they leave no stone unturned to prove their mettle. When infatuated with celebrities, they devote their lives to being worthy of their affections. When in the company of clergymen, they end up making them more spiritual, thereby making them…
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‘…he [Barmy] would have been the first to agree that he had never been one of those brainy birds whose heads bulge out at the back. Some birds bulged and some birds didn’t, you had to face it, he would have said, and he was one of the birds who didn’t. At Eton everyone had called him Barmy. At Oxford everyone had called him Barmy. And even in the Drones Club, a place where the level of intellect is not high, it was as Barmy that he was habitually addressed.’
Barmy in Wonderland (1952)
Cyril “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps (pronounced Fungy), a member of Wodehouse’s famed Drones Club, stars in two stories of his own.
‘Tried in the Furnace’ is a short story from Young Men in Spats (1936 UK edition), and a great favourite of mine. Barmy and fellow Drone Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton retire to the country to rehearse their act for a Drones smoking-concert. When they both fall under the spell of Angelica Briscoe, it tests the bonds of friendship as well as the lengths to which a chap will go to prove his love. Angelica, daughter of the Rev P.P. Brisco, enlists Pongo’s help with the local School Treat, while Barmy is conscripted to oversee the annual village Mother’s outing:
“No sooner were they out of sight of the vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent . . . a very stout Mother in a pink bonnet picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell . . .”
I have reread this episode half a dozen times and it never fails to bring on a case of hysterics.
Barmy eventually finds love in America, in the 1952 novel Barmy in Wonderland (based on George S. Kaufman’s play ‘The Butter and Egg Man’). As the story opens, we learn the astonishing news that Barmy is gainfully employed as a hotel clerk, although his intellectual capabilities do not seem to have been improved by the experience.
‘Cyril Phipps was tall and willowy, a young Englishman of the type so common in the Drones Club, Dover Street London, an institution of which… he remained a member in good standing. His disposition was intensely amiable, his hair the colour of creamery butter and his face one of those open, engaging faces which arose the maternal instinct in women…’Barmy in Wonderland . But in the opinion of Barmy’s employer, J.G. Anderson, Barmy has ‘…an I.Q. somewhat lower than that of a backward clam – a clam, let us say, which had been dropped on its head when a baby…’
Barmy in Wonderland
Happily, Barmy manages to win the love of Eileen ‘Dinty’ Moore, a street-wise Irish-American dame who promises to add a much needed dash of common sense to the blood of the Fotheringay-Phipps. For more snippets from ‘Barmy in Wonderland’, have a look at my piece ‘Moments when one needs a drink’.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it seemed fitting to revisit this 2013 piece, ‘Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire’ — looking at the men in Wodehouse’s world in search of a mate.
Who is your Wodehouse dream date?
I’d like to take a short break from my series exploring Wodehouse on Women to share a remarkable piece entitled 111 Male Characters Of British Literature, In Order Of Bangability by Carrie Frye, in which Ms Frye lists 111 fictional characters she finds sexually desirable enough to take to her bed. Almost as astonishing as her stamina, is the fact that she includes not one, but three Wodehouse characters in her list of male sex objects. These are, in order of appearance:
– Gussie Fink Nottle (at 106)
– Bertram Wooster (at 87)
– Jeeves (at 65)
Gussie’s inclusion in the list defies belief, as does Jeeves, who at 65 ranks above the virile and irresistible Flashman. Ms Frye gives her source for these appearances, as Right-Ho Jeeves and the story Extricating Young Gussie
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As Doctor Sally begins, we meet Sir Hugo Drake, nerve specialist and keen golfer, who is impressed by the sight of a golf ball in flight, that plops superbly upon the green of the devilish eighteenth hole. I say impressed. What Wodehouse says is: ‘The stout man congealed like one who has seen a vision.’ Sir Hugo toddles off in admiration to find the golfer responsible, to congratulate him on a magnificent shot.
It was not the pro. It was not a man at all. It was a girl – and a small girl, at that. That she was also extremely pretty seemed of slight importance to Sir Hugo. He was not a man who paid much attention to women’s looks. What mattered to him was that he stood in the presence of a female who could handle a mashie like that.
Upon introduction, he also discovers that Sally is a Doctor.
‘Good God!’ You’re not a doctor?’
‘Yes, I am. Smith – Sally Smith. Doctor Sally Smith.’
‘Good God!’ exclaimed Sir Hugo again.
The suspicion of a shadow passed over the girl’s face. She was always meeting men who exclaimed ‘Good God!’ or it’s equivalent, when informed of her profession, and she disliked it. It seemed to her that they said it in the voice a small boy would use on being introduced to a circus freak. The male mind did not appear to be able to grasp immediately the fact that a woman doctor need not of necessity be a gargoyle with steel-rimmed spectacles and a washleather complexion.
Re-reading Doctor Sally, I was reminded of criticism levelled against P.G. Wodehouse for his supposed misogynist portrayal of women, discussed previously in ‘The Case for the Defence.’ Wodehouse also seems to have developed (astonishingly and incorrectly) some reputation as a writer enjoyed by more men than women. Some Wodehouse fans argue that he should be excused any hint of misogyny on account of the era in which he wrote. This position irks me because I find nothing misogynistic in his treatment of women at all.
Among the cast of Wodehouse males we find a range of attitudes toward women. Some of these are outdated or unchivalrous – but such characters exist to be ridiculed, not admired. And they always compare unfavourably to Wodehouse’s heroines. Wodehouse also offers some more passionate, broad-minded chaps who love women and marry them often. In Doctor Sally, we meet Lord Tidmouth, a pleasant fellow who is attracted to fiery women. We meet him here, between engagements:
Lord Tidmouth liked peace and quiet. Women, in his experience, militated against an atmosphere of quiet peace. Look at his second wife, for instance. For the matter of that, look at his third and fourth.
Wodehouse sometimes employed paternal behaviour toward women (needing a father’s permission to marry, for example) in his plots as obstacles for his heroes and heroines to overcome along the path to romantic happiness. They ought not be considered evidence of Wodehouse’s own attitudes.
As I’ve argued here before, Wodehouse offers more to the female reader than many male authors of his era. In 1932, when Doctor Sally was published in novel format, English women had been entitled to vote for just 4 years (behind the more egalitarian countries of the age, but they got there in the end). The novel Doctor Sally was closely based on Wodehouse’s earlier play Good Morning, Bill! which ran for 136 performances at The Duke of York’s Theatre (London) in 1927, a year before voting rights were extended to women.
Wodehouse’s Dr Sally Smith is an independent, professional woman. There is no mention of a stern father or inherited wealth. She isn’t enticed by Bill Bannister’s marriage proposal, though he is a handsome and pleasant. Sally enjoys her work as a doctor, is a first-rate golfer, and breezes through the novel with attractive confidence. There is none of that sappy Bridget Jones-style pining for male attention that has so infected modern literature that it has been quarantined as a separate genre (chick-lit). It seems some modern female writers are not quite so endowed with feminist principles as Wodehouse’s women.
My only quibble – and it is a minor one – is that Wodehouse made Dr Sally Smith so attractive. It’s rather hard on us lady gargoyles to find so few role models within the pages of romantic fiction. But Wodehouse is hardly the only writer to create a beautiful leading-lady, and in the course of his long writing career, he offered us a smorgasbord of romantic heroines with varying degrees of outward beauty. In Wodehouse’s world, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sally’s pleasing outer crust is of no importance to her future Uncle-in-law, Sir Hugo Drake. Nor is her social status. He is won over by her personal merits and accomplishments.
‘William, you have made me a very happy man. What did you say your handicap was, my dear?’
‘Six – at Garden City.’
‘Six – at Garden City! Wonderful! What the Bannisters need,’ said Sir Hugo, ‘is a golfer like you in the family.’
He toddled off, rejoicing, to his breakfast.
And so too, shall I.
The play Good Morning, Bill! has been published in the collection: Wodehouse: Four Plays. For more on Wodehouse’s theatre career, grab a copy of The Theatre of P.G. Wodehouse by David A. Jasen. And if you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s autobiographical account of his life as a Broadway lyricist time, you should correct this omission at the earliest opportunity by reading Bring on the Girls! written with Guy Bolton.
You can read more posts on this subject by selecting ‘Wodehouse’s Women’ from the Categories menu on the right hand side of this page. And for more on Doctor Sally, try this little piece from the critic ‘Bully‘.
I confess I have a soft spot for the romantic Bingo Little. When we first meet him in The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie warns us about his habit of falling in love.
Ever since I have known him – and we were at school together – he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time; and at Oxford his romantic nature was a byword.
The first of Bingo’s romances to be chronicled by Bertram Wooster involves a Mabel, a waitress in a tea-and-bun shop. Described by Bertie as ‘rather a pretty girl’, Mabel attracts the attention of both Bingo and Jeeves. At the end of the proceedings, she and Jeeves have ‘an understanding’.
We know very little about Mabel, except that she has dubious taste in gents neck wear, having given Bingo a crimson satin tie covered in horseshoes. This may explain why we hear no more about her as the potential Mrs Jeeves. But Mabel must have been more than a pretty face to have attracted Jeeves to the point of ‘an understanding’. What is her story, I wonder?
If you’ll permit me to speculate, I imagine Mabel as a country girl in former service at a large house, who has come to London in search of something better – work, romance, adventure? The dashing young Bingo appears to have impressed her, but Jeeves orchestrates an end to his rival’s hopes. How did her affair with Jeeves end? Did Jeeves later revise his opinion of Mabel as an suitable partner (as he seems to have done with her predecessor)? It is difficult to imagine him wedded to a woman with dubious taste in menswear. Jeeves could certainly have contrived circumstances so that Mabel would cancel the fixture, but it would hardly be to his credit to do so twice. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it is Mabel who ends the affair.
Why does Mabel cast Jeeves aside, then? Perhaps she is keen to travel – to establish herself on the New York stage, or ingratiate herself with a rich Australian Uncle? Or does the pretty waitress become embroiled in a new love triangle, in which Jeeves loses out to someone more dashing, less stuffy, or socially well-connected? It’s all very well for Bingo’s uncle and Rosie M. Banks, who are both rolling in the stuff, to cast aside outdated class snobbery in favour of marrying for love – but neither of them have had to support themselves in London on a waitress’s salary.
I’d like to think of Mabel as having intellectual qualities we didn’t see in her brief appearance in The Inimitable Jeeves, but there is little evidence to suggest this from our brief encounter with her:
‘Hallo, Mabel!’ he said, with a sort of gulp.
‘Hallo!’ said the girl.
‘Mabel,’ said Bingo, ‘this is Bertie Wooster, a pal of mine.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said. ‘Nice morning.’
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘You see I’m wearing the tie,’ said Bingo.
‘It suits you beautiful,’ said the girl.
And this is it. Our brief encounter with Mabel, the waitress, is at an end.
We wish her well.