Recently, over the morning eggs and b., I stumbled across a thoughtful piece by Alessandro Giuliani called Wodehouse Game. I was prompted to reply, but when my comments hit the 1200-word mark – and diverged substantially from the original piece, I felt the decent thing to do was post it here, rather than infest someone else’s blog with my rambling.
The premise of Alessandro Giuliani’s piece is that men are repelled by women who are smarter or physically more dominant than them. P.G. Wodehouse’s Florence Craye is provided as an example:
The root of the trouble was that she was one of those intellectual girls, steeped to the gills in serious purpose, who are unable to see a male soul without wanting to get behind it and shove.
Florence Craye is a well-chosen example that illustrates Alessandro Giuliani’s point. She is one of many characters from the world of fiction (male and female) who illustrate the adage that beauty is only skin deep. The premise gives Wodehouse some good plots involving Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones. They are the kind of chumps we can believe would idolise a woman’s exterior and find themselves entangled, without first taking due care to investigate her character.
But there are also examples from Wodehouse’s world that exemplify the opposite view – that men can and do fall in love with women who are their intellectual and physical equals, or betters.
Wodehouse created a diverse range of female characters in over 90+ published works, of whom Florence Craye is just one example. His heroines are frequently intelligent, without repulsing the men around them. Joan Valentine (Something Fresh) and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith) spring to mind as two of my favourite examples, but there are many Wodehouse heroines, sympathetically written without censure from the author for being clever or dominant characters.
In The Girl On The Boat, feeble young Eustace Hignett falls in love with the stronger and more capable Jane Hubbard, an African explorer. Their mutual adoration and romance is delightfully drawn by Wodehouse. Jane’s strength and cool headedness is exactly what Eustace needs, and Wodehouse presents them as a perfect and natural fit for each other – there is no suggestion that Eustace has been trapped, or has any cause to resents his union with a dominant female.
…Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa. Ever since he had become ill, it had been the large-hearted girl’s kindly practice to soothe him to rest with some such narrative from her energetic past.
‘And what happened then?’ asked Eustace, breathlessly.
He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient begins to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle -pump.
‘Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!’ said Jane Hubbard.
‘You know, you’re wonderful!’ cried Eustace. ‘Simply wonderful!’
Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm. He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.
‘Why, if an alligator got into my tent,’ said Eustace, ‘I simply wouldn’t know what to do! I should be nonplussed.’
Most of the criticisms I read about Wodehouse’s portrayal of women are put forward by people who haven’t read much Wodehouse beyond the Jeeves stories. These stories are written in the wonderful, half-witted narrative voice of Bertie Wooster — a unique comedic creation who cannot seriously be considered a mouthpiece for his creator’s personal views. Nor are his relationships with women the only type of male-female relationships in Wodehouse’s fictional world.
I’ve read Wodehouse’s published works several times over and I find him a great egalitarian. His cast of characters includes heroes, heroines, blighters and stinkers –of all shapes and sizes, age and genders. The behaviour and opinions of his characters can be used to exemplify a wide range of contradictory world views. Provided we don’t take it too seriously, this ‘Wodehouse Game’ can be fun and instructive to play.
Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party, the 39th outing for Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, was first published In November 1969.
Christie dedicated it:
To P. G. Wodehouse — whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.
In February 2015, many of Agatha Christie’s letters were published to mark the 125th anniversary of her birth. They included a letter from P.G.Wodehouse, thanking Christie for the dedication.
Wodehouse and Christie were mutual admirers of each other’s work, and had begun corresponding fifteen years earlier, although a 1955 letter from Wodehouse to his friend Denis Mackail shows their relationship got off to a rocky start.
…I’m seething with fury. Sir Allen Lane of Penguin was over here not long ago and told me that Agatha Christie simply loved my stuff and I must write to her and tell her how much I liked hers. So with infinite sweat I wrote her a long gushing letter, and what comes back? About three lines, the sort of thing you write to an unknown fan. ‘So glad you have enjoyed my criminal adventures’ – that sort of thing.
The really bitter part was that she said the book of mine she liked best was The Little Nugget –1908 production. And the maddening thing is that one has got to go on reading her, because she is about the only writer today who is readable.
(Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’)
But as Wodehouse himself wrote, in ‘Strychnine in the Soup’ (Mulliner Nights): “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” Despite this inauspicious beginning, Wodehouse and Christie continued corresponding until the early 1970s (Wodehouse died in 1975). As prolific and popular writers, they had much in common. They discussed their methods, their work, and in later years, their ailments.
In one letter, Wodehouse wrote to Christie:
I often wonder how you write, — I mean do you sit upright at a desk? I ask because I find these days I can’t get out of an arm chair and face my desk, and when I write in an arm chair I have the greatest difficulty in reading what I have written. This may be because I have a deckchair, a Boxer and one of our seven cats sitting on me. But oh, how I have slowed up. It’s terrible.
(Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’)
Agatha Christie’s letters to P.G. Wodehouse are contained in the Wodehouse archives, which I was privileged to view in 2016. Among the treasures I discovered during my visit, was a letter from Agatha Christie dated 15 October 1969, telling Wodehouse of her dedication of Halowe’en Party to him.
Other letters from Christie recount her pleasure on finishing a novel, frustrations with proof readers’ corrections, and her delight that their waxworks were ‘…sitting side by side in Madam Tussauds’ in 1974. These letters, many of them handwritten, were among the Wodehouse archives acquired by the British Library last year.
This will be welcome news for Wodehouse readers who are also fans of Agatha Christie – of whom there are many. A 2014 poll in the Fans of P.G. Wodehouse Facebook group suggests Agatha Christie is the Number 1 author Wodehouse lovers read when not reading Wodehouse.
I am happy to count myself among them. I started reading Agatha Christie in my early teens — a natural progression from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, which I had collected and read many times over as a child. By the time I encountered my first Wodehouse story, in my 21st year, I had a solid grounding in the culture and era in which he wrote, and the crime genre he so admired (which he often incorporated into his work). Having also read my allotted share of Shakespeare and Chaucer by this time, I was not frightened by the complexity of Wodehouse’s style, or his extensive literary, classical and biblical references.
Agatha Christie needs no endorsement from me — she is the top selling novelist of all time. But I particularly recommend her books to people wanting to prepare younger readers for enjoying Wodehouse at a later age.
Of course, I shall take it as read that some of you were child geniuses, devouring Wodehouse novels from the age of five, and that your own child began (under your expert tutelage) to read Wodehouse — and possibly Shakespeare — in the womb. Top stuff, old Bean! However, the average modern child is likely to be thoroughly put off Wodehouse, whose writing is more complex than he’s given credit for, if it’s thrust upon them too soon. I suggest these wilderness years can be productively spent reading Agatha Christie instead.
Murders are not as uncommon as you might think in the often gruesome world of Young Adult fiction. Unless your prospective younger reader is particularly sensitive, they may well appreciate the central murder in Hallowe’en Party — of a boastful thirteen year old called Joyce, during a children’s party.
Christie also created some terrific young heroines, try Cat Among the Pigeons, and The Secret Adversary. When the time comes to move on to Wodehouse, the adventures of Joan Valentine in Something Fresh, and Eve Halliday in Leave it to Psmith, will make great places to start.
In fact, I think I’ll finish with a dash of Joan Valentine and Ashe Marson now.
To set the scene for you, Ashe is struggling to come up with a plot for his new mystery story, which he has decided to call ‘The Wand of Death’, when he is interrupted by a girl (Joan Valentine).
‘I am sorry for your troubles,’ said Ashe firmly, ‘but we are wandering from the point. What is a wand of death?’
A wand of death?’
‘A wand of death.’
The girl paused reflectively.
‘Why, of course it’s the sacred ebony stick stolen from the Indian temple which is supposed to bring death to whoever possesses it. The hero gets hold of it, and the priests dog him and send him threatening messages. What else could it be?’
Ashe could not restrain his admiration.
‘This is genius. I see it all. The hero calls in Gridley Quayle, and that patronizing ass, by the aid of a series of wicked coincidences, solves the mystery, and there I am with another month’s work done.’
She looked at him with interest.
‘Are you the author of “Gridley Quayle”?’
‘Don’t tell me you read him?’
‘I do not read him. But he is published by the same firm that publishes “Home Gossip”, and I can’t help seeing his cover sometimes while I am waiting to see the editress.’
Ashe felt like one who meets a boyhood’s chum on a desert island. Here was a real bond between them.
‘Do the Mammoth publish you too? Why we are comrades in misfortune — fellow-serfs. We should be friends. Shall we be friends?’
‘I should be delighted.’
(From: Something Fresh, 1915)
May all your pumpkins be prize-winners this Halloween.
Sally stopped and drew a deep breath. Ginger Kemp did not reply for a moment. He seemed greatly impressed.
“When you talk quick,” he said at length, in a serious meditative voice, “your nose sort of goes all squiggly. Ripping, it looks!”
Sally uttered an indignant cry.
“Do you mean to say you haven’t been listening to a word I’ve been saying,” she demanded.
“Oh, rather! Oh, by Jove, yes.”
“Well, what did I say?”
“You… er… And your eyes sort of shine, too.”
“Never mind my eyes. What did I say?”
“You told me,” said Ginger, on reflection, “to get a job.”
“Well, yes. I put it much better than that, but that’s what it amounted to, I suppose…”
The Adventures of Sally (1921; US Title Mostly Sally)
Today’s post concludes Jon Brierley’s look at The Adventures of Sally –you can catch up from the beginning here. I am incredibly grateful to Jon for taking on this commission for Plumtopia and doing such a sterling job of it. Here’s hoping that bookstores are soon filled with his novels, and we can smugly tell our friends we ‘discovered’ him first. Please do take a peep at his blog (he is also looking for beta-readers if you can spare some of your time for the cause).
The Adventures of Sally
A Romance (continued…)
Nobody ever accused P. G. Wodehouse of being a feminist*, but it strikes me that Sally Nicholas is quite a liberated and modern (for 1921) young woman – no doormat, she. Single, footloose and unchaperoned, she engages freely and on equal terms with all the menfolk she encounters, giving every bit as good as she gets and always (except for when kicked into the slough of despond by the shenanigans of Foster and Fillmore) standing up for herself and on her own two feet, taking no guff from anybody. Wodehouse has been accused of writing in an Edwardian timewarp, but Sally (and the whole book generally) is very clearly a woman of the 1920s, revelling in the newly won post-war freedom for women to work, travel and express themselves independently. Carmyle disapproves of this, but Carmyle is, as Ginger so rightly observes, a blighter.
One wonders if, perhaps, Sally owes something to Wodehouse’s wife of sixty-one years, Ethel. Ethel is described as ‘gregarious, decisive and well organised’, which is Sally to the letter. Furthermore, Ethel is said to have taken the ‘shy and impractical’ Plum and arranged his life for him, which again is a thing Sally does (or tries to do) with everyone she meets.
If Sally was, at least in part, a portrait of Ethel, one hopes Mrs. Wodehouse took it as the great compliment it undoubtedly was. Sally is an engaging and sympathetic heroine, fun to be with and admirable in every respect. If the book is a little more serious than most Wodehouse novels, and correspondingly less funny than the bulk of his output, perhaps, just perhaps, it was because the protagonist was a little closer to Wodehouse than usual – and as we have seen, the story incorporated a number of elements from Wodehouse’s real life. Plum himself, of course, was very far from being a chump, so there isn’t much of him in Ginger, I don’t think, but nevertheless the personal connections between the story and the author, while speculative, are, I feel, attractive. Seen in this light, what seems a fairly insubstantial work at first glance becomes more interesting, and perhaps worthy of a higher rank in the Wodehouse canon.
Of course, I could be wrong. But I’d like to think I’m not.
*Postscript from Honoria Plum
Readers may be surprised to learn Wodehouse has been accused of being a feminist. ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’ was the title of Elin Woodger Murphy’s memorably convincing talk at the 2015 Seattle convention of The Wodehouse Society (US). Elin in turn, took her title from an excellent 2005 article by Marilee Scott. And I have argued in support of Wodehouse’s feminist credentials myself (try Wodehouse’s women: in the eye of the beholder).
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!
‘The only one of the family I really know is the girl.’ I had hardly spoken these words when the most extraordinary change came over young Bingo’s face. His eyes bulged, his cheeks flushed, and his Adam’s apple hopped about like one of those india-rubber balls on the top of the fountain in a shooting gallery.
‘Oh, Bertie!’ he said, in a strangled sort of voice.
I looked at the poor fish anxiously. I knew that he was always falling in love with someone, but it didn’t seem possible that even he could have fallen in love with Honoria Glossop.
This is our introduction to Honoria Glossop, in Chapter Five of The Inimitable Jeeves, and our second encounter with young Bingo, who in Chapter Two was in love with a waitress named Mabel.
Bertie Wooster is astonished that Bingo could love Honoria (daughter of noted ‘nerve specialist’ Sir Roderick Glossop), whom he describes as:
One of those dashed large, brainy, strenuous, dynamic girls you see so many of these days. She had been at Girton, where, in addition to enlarging her brain to the most frightful extent, she had gone in for every kind of sport and developed the physique of a middle-weight catch-as-can wrestler. I’m not sure she didn’t box for the ‘Varsity while she was up. The effect she had on me whenever she appeared was to make me want to slide into a cellar and lie low till they blew the All-Clear.
Honoria Glossop is no model of delicate femininity. She excels in sports and has a serious, educated sort of mind that she’s not afraid to use. Poor Bertie quivers in her presence, no doubt scarred from his former engagement to Lady Florence Cray, who made him read Types of Ethical Theory and was about to start him on Nietzsche.
Whatever his faults, Bingo Little does not share Bertie’s prejudices. He has the endearing capacity to appreciate the merits in any woman. Bertie shrinks from Honoria’s Amazonian qualities, Bingo admires them.
‘Have you told her?’
‘No. I haven’t the nerve. But we walk together in the garden most evenings, and it sometimes seems to me that there is a look in her eyes.’
‘I know that look. Like a sergeant-major.’
‘Nothing of the kind! Like a tender goddess.’
‘Half a second, old thing,’ I said. ‘Are you sure we’re talking about the same girl? The one I mean is Honoria. Perhaps there is a younger sister or something I’ve not heard of?’
‘Her name is Honoria,’ bawled Bingo reverently.
‘And she strikes you as a tender goddess?
‘God bless you!’ I said.
‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies; and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes. Another bit of bread and cheese,’ he said to the lad behind the bar.
I include Bingo’s poetic testimony here because Bertie’s assessment of Honoria is so often accepted as the only plausible one. Considered objectively, Honoria has her good points; she is bright, capable and jolly. Her characteristic laugh — ‘like a train going into a tunnel’ or ‘the Scotch express going under a bridge’ — may delight her pals and admirers. Fond as I am of Bertie, we should remember that he is an unreliable narrator whose view is prejudiced by his own character and tastes, just as Bingo’s assessment is blinded, if briefly, by love.
And I mean briefly — Bingo’s love for Honoria lasts exactly ten pages in my old Penguin edition. The spell is broken not by any action on her part, but by the appearance of another eligible female on the premises:
Walking across the lawn I saw the most radiant, the most beautiful girl in the world. There is none like her, none. Bertie, do you believe in love at first sight? You do believe in love at first sight, don’t you Bertie, old man? Directly I saw her, she seemed to draw me like a magnet. I seemed to forget everything. We two were alone in a world of music and sunshine. I joined her. I got into conversation. She is a Miss Braythwayt, Bertie—Daphne Braythwayt. Directly our eyes met, I realized that what I had imagined to be my love for Honoria Glossop had been a mere passing whim. Bertie, you do believe in love at first sight, don’t you? She is so wonderful, so sympathetic. Like a tender goddess——”
If Bingo’s endearing capacity to fall in love with any woman has a down-side, it’s his lack of constancy. We hear nothing further of Miss Braythwayt, and when we meet ‘Comrade Bingo’ again in Chapter 11 he in love with someone new (I look forward to discussing that particular romance another day).
Meanwhile, Bingo thinks nothing of leaving Bertie with the unpleasant task of disengaging himself from Honoria Glossop, a feat he has to perform again in ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’ (Plum Pie). Bertie also saves old pal ‘Biffy’ Biffen from marrying Honoria in ‘The Rummy Affair Of Old Biffy’ (in Carry On, Jeeves):
Of course, there are probably fellows in the world — tough, hardy blokes with strong chins and glittering eyes — who could get engaged to this Glossop menace and like it; but I knew perfectly well that Biffy was not one of them.
Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge. A beastly thing to have to face over the breakfast table. Brainy, moreover. The sort of girl who reduces you to pulp with sixteen sets of tennis and a few rounds of golf, and then comes down to dinner as fresh as a daisy, expecting you to take an intelligent interest in Freud.
After some rough treatment from these flitting and sipping Drones, Honoria Glossop’s friends and well-wishers will be pleased to hear that she seems set to marry the ‘angry young novelist’ Blair Eggleston at the conclusion of ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’. The news was certainly a great relief to Bertie Wooster.
Reginald, mark you, whose normal batting style was a sort of cross between hop-scotch, diabolo, and a man with gout in one leg trying to dance the Salomé Dance.
Reginald’s Record Knock
‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in 1909. When I encountered the story in Murray Hedgcock’s excellent collection Wodehouse at the Wicket (1997), it instantly struck a chord. You see, my first love, long before I discovered P.G. Wodehouse, was cricket. When I was young, my parents would drop me at the Adelaide Oval (they having no interest in the game) where I would spend the day watching cricket and keeping score in a little notebook. My greatest wish was to play professional cricket, but tragically, like Reginald Humby, I was an indifferent cricketer:
‘When a boy at school he once made nine not out in a house match, but after that he went all to pieces. His adult cricket career was on the one-match one-ball principle. Whether it was that Reginald hit too soon at them or did not hit soon enough, whether it was that his bat deviated from the dotted line which joined the two points A and B in the illustrated plate of the man making the forward stroke in the ‘Hints on Cricket’ book, or whether it was that each ball swerved both ways at once and broke a yard and a quarter, I do not know. Reginald rather favoured the last theory.’
Unlike Reginald, who we shall return to anon, my story is a painful one. As a young girl in 1970s Australia, finding an opportunity to play cricket was challenge enough. I joined the school team of course, but was never allowed to bat or bowl in the nets at practice. My duties were restricted to fetching wayward balls. My name was usually omitted when the weekly team notice was posted, although occasionally I was named 12th and my parents would drop me at some far-flung suburban ground to spend a day watching others play.
I was named in the first eleven once, when an outbreak of cholera or dengue fever gave the coach no other choice. He put me at the bottom of the batting order and sent me to field in the car park, where I could not adequately return the ball. To my lasting shame, I also dropped a catch. Wodehouse knew this feeling, which he described in the poem ‘Missed’:
Oh ne’er, if I live to a million,
Shall I feel such a terrible pang.
From the seats in the far-off pavilion
A loud yell of ecstasy rang.
By the handful my hair (which is auburn)
I tore with a wrench from my thatch,
And my heart was seared deep with a raw burn
At the thought that I’d foozled that catch.
Missed (1903) (Full text at www.madameulalie.org)
Batting last, I made four not out in the last two desperate overs of our innings, but my poor showing in the field reinforced the coach’s prejudices and I was never picked again.
As a young woman, no longer dependent on the benevolence of adults, I worked hard to learn the game with the assistance of talented cricketing friends. When no friend was to hand, I spent hours alone in the local nets, bowling at an empty wicket. I played indoor cricket several times a week, wrote match reports for a newsletter, and enjoyed every opportunity for a social game. As a bowler, I developed a knack for ousting over-confident batsmen. Their faces would light up like a child’s at Christmas when I came on to bowl, for in addition to being a girl, I was also short, pudgy and wobble-breasted. The decent players would pretend not to have noticed, but more ordinary batsmen looked on me as their big chance – like Wodehouse’s Reginald when he discovers Blagdon is bowling.
The sight sent a thrill through Reginald. He had seen Blagdon bowl at the nets, but he had never dared to hope that he might bat against him in a match. Exigencies of space forbid a detailed description of Blagdon’s bowling. Suffice to say that it was a shade inferior as bowling to Reginald’s batting as batting.
And later, when Reginald faces Westaway:
Scarcely had Reginald recovered from the pleasurable shock of finding Blagdon bowling at one end when he was amazed to find that Westaway was bowling at the other. Critics had often wrangled warmly as to the comparative merits of Blagdon and Westaway as bowlers; some thought that Blagdon had it, others that Westaway was the more putrid of the two; a third party called it a dead heat.
The prospect of my bowling evoked similar joy in opposing batsmen. Even before my first ball, hitherto unpromising players would be seen scoping-out gaps in the field and practicing hook shots in the air. By the time I waddled up to release my ball (which I insisted was medium pace, however slow the act of delivery appeared) the batsman would have invariably run out of patience and danced up the pitch to meet the anticipated long-hop or full toss he had mentally prepared to score off. I was wise to this and never pitched short. The over-confident amateur would find himself stranded a long way from home with no time to make alternative plans for unexpected deliveries. Every wicket claimed felt like a great triumph.
In describing Reginald Humby’s emotions on the occasion of his unexpected century, Wodehouse shows us the depth of human feeling he was capable of bunging into his art.
The ordinary batsman, whose average always pans out at the end of the season between the twenties and the thirties, does not understand the whirl of mixed sensations which the really incompetent cricketer experiences on the rare occasions when he does notch a few. As ball follows ball, and he does not get out, a wild exhilaration surges through him, followed by a sort of awe as if he were doing something wrong, even irreligious. Then all these yeasty emotions subside, and are blended into one glorious sensation of grandeur and majesty, as of a giant among pygmies.
Buoyed by minor successes with the ball, I decided to join a cricket club, where I was permitted to carry the drinks and keep score for F Grade (or perhaps it was Q grade). It was a starting point, and the players welcomed me, a 19 year old girl with limited cricketing experience, more warmly than I expected. A little too warmly in fact. It became quickly and painfully clear that they did not take my interest in playing cricket seriously — I was considered something of a groupie, ‘hanging around’ the team presumably in order to bed them.
The team in question were arguably the most unattractive assortment of male specimens ever gathered together on a field; lecherous gout-ridden has-beens, beer swilling could-have-beens, and arrogant thought-they-weres. The only player whose personality would not make his own grandmother wince was the wicket-keeper, who was permanently stoned. Their collective lack of hygiene and inability to keep whites white (members opting instead for a shade of fungal yellow to match their teeth) would have repelled even the staunchest admirer. The idea that I would set my heart on bedding a team of cricketers is insulting; that I would then proceed to select this bunch of degenerates, is astonishing. And yet, this deluded idea they undoubtedly had.
Encountered on the field, they would have given Wodehouse’s Psmith, always sensitive to vulgarity, a shock from which he might not have recovered. As he confessed to Mike:
The last time I played in a village cricket team match I was caught at point by a man in braces. It would have been madness to risk another such shock to my system. My nerves are so exquisitely balanced that a thing of that sort takes years off my life.
Mike and Psmith (1909)
If our team had contained a man in braces, it would have raised the tone considerably and helped draw the eye away from the fungal yellows.
It has now been over twenty years since I played the game and reading Wodehouse on cricket is the closest I get to capturing the enthusiasm I once held for it. Every so often I grow wistful and think about returning to the game, but if the chaps couldn’t accommodate me in my prime, they’re unlikely to indulge me in flabby middle-age. Women do play cricket these days – and good luck to them – but women’s cricket is highly competitive, for skilled and serious athletes. There is no tradition of laid-back social cricket, where women of advanced years and limited ability can combine their love for the game with a long lunch break and a few pints — like Reginald Humby’s club, The Hearty Lunchers.
They belong to the school of thought which holds that the beauty of cricket is that, above all other games, it offers such magnificent opportunities for a long drink and a smoke in the shade. The Hearty Lunchers do not take their cricket in that spirit of deadly and business-like earnest which so many people consider is spoiling the game.
A Hearty Luncher who has been given out caught at the wicket does not explain on arriving at the pavilion that he was nowhere near the ball, and that the umpire has had a personal grudge against him since boyhood. No, he sinks into a deck chair, removes his pads, and remarks that if anyone was thinking of buying him a stone ginger with the merest dash of gin in it, now is his time.
The Hearty Lunchers don’t mind that Reginald can’t bat, they make room for him anyway, giving ‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ a special place in my heart.
In a wonderful twist, Reginald’s betrothed Margaret Melville is also revealed as a cricket lover who plays in ladies matches. Wodehouse depicts her enthusiasm for the game as genuine, perfectly natural – even admirable. Nothing sordid or unseemly is suggested when we learn Margaret regularly attends the Chigley Heath matches, with a crowd ‘…mainly composed of small boys and octogenarians…’ The fact that Margaret plays in ladies matches also suggests the presence of other lady cricketers — some 17 years before England had a Women’s Cricket Association. Once again it’s worth observing that Wodehouse’s ‘treatment’ of women betters not only his contemporaries, but often our own.
While writing this piece has brought back some painful memories, Wodehouse provides balm for such wounds. Returning to the poem ‘Missed’:
Ah, the bowler’s low, querulous mutter
Points loud, unforgettable scoff!
Oh, give me my driver and putter!
Henceforward my game shall be golf.
If I’m asked to play cricket hereafter,
I am wholly determined to scratch.
Life’s void of all pleasure and laughter;
I bungled the easiest catch.
The world of cricket may have lost me, but perhaps it’s not too late to try my hand at golf.
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.
The Old Reliable Ashokbhatia has written yet another pippin on the subject of Plum – this time offering a chap’s perspective on the issue of Wodehouse’s female characters. Your thoughts?
The delicately nurtured amongst us occasionally bemoan the way they have been treated by the Master Wordsmith of our times – P G Wodehouse. Admittedly, his narratives are replete with somewhat jaundiced references to the fairer sex. We could readily jump to the conclusion that his works have been written only for an exclusive boys’ club.
Consider these samples from ‘Jeeves in the Offing’:
‘It just shows you what women are like. A frightful sex, Bertie. There ought to be a law. I hope to live to see the day when women are no longer allowed.’
‘That would rather put a stopper on keeping the human race going, wouldn’t it?’
‘Well, who wants to keep the human race going?’
‘I see what you mean. Yes, something in that, of course.’
‘Why? You were crazy about the girl once.’
‘But no longer. The fever has…
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Another reader’s perspective the subject of Wodehouse’s women is offered here. Interestingly, her view of the subject changed after she varied her Wodehouse diet beyond the Jeeves stores.
- Wodehouse’s women: in the eye of the beholder (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
I don’t know if you’ll remember but I kind of have a thing for this guy called Pelham Graham Wodehouse. Relax, it’s not at hidden-shrine-in-back-of-closet level, I just happen to think the man is a legend and the creator all things amazing and beautiful. The most I’ve read of Wodehouse is the Jeeves series, a few Blandings novels, The Uncle Fred series and a school story or two from the early years (I recommend A Prefects Uncle and The Golden Bat.) Yet as a woman, there was always the impression that I was butting into a very exclusive boys club. The women in Wodehouse novels, as I’ve mentioned on Small Fry before, are neatly categorised into one of three. The sappy, annoying kind that need to be drowned with immediate effect (Madeline Basset), the tall, stately ones with their minds full of the higher pursuits in life (Florence Craye, famed…
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