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“Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”
“But, dash it all…”
“Yes! You should be breeding children to…”
“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking-room.”
The Inimitable Jeeves
Once again, Plumtopia is celebrating the romances of P.G. Wodehouse to commemorate the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day 1975.
This year’s topic is the romances of Bertie Wooster. It’s a potentially controversial subject because Bertie is best known — celebrated even– as one of literature’s bachelors. Despite numerous engagements and entanglements, he always manages to slip the wedding knot.
Bertie’s romances, if we can call them that, are mostly unwanted entanglements brought about by Aunt Agatha’s efforts to marry him off, and his own chivalric code.
In Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie makes it clear that “…the thought of being engaged to a girl who talked openly about fairies being born because stars blew their noses, or whatever it was, frankly appalled me.” But when Madeline Bassett offers to marry him, Bertie is helpless to refuse her.
“ … I can never forget Augustus, but my love for him is dead. I will be your wife.”
Well, one has to be civil.
“Right ho,” I said. “Thanks awfully.”
Right Ho, Jeeves
Wodehouse was playing with a well-established romantic tradition, just as the great romantic satirist Jane Austen had done a century earlier.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)
Like Bertie Wooster, Jane Austen’s leading men had their difficulties with unwanted entanglements. In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars’ sense of chivalric obligation prevents him from breaking his engagement to the conniving Lucy Steele, and it takes an accident to save Captain Wentworth from an entanglement with Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion.
Austen also served up a smorgasbord of revolting relations. Mr Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is every bit as scaly and intimidating as Bertie’s Aunt Agatha.
“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet: I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”
Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)
Jane Austen’s heroes have more to lose from an unsuitable marriage than Bertie because they have true love loitering in the wings. Wodehouse also used reluctant love-triangle plots of this kind in his Blandings stories and novels. But Wodehouse could never have allowed Bertie Wooster to marry. The introduction of a Mrs Wooster to the home would have broken up the winning Jeeves and Wooster double act. So Bertie remained a bachelor, with an inexhaustible supply of chums to play romantic lead.
Without the inducement of ‘true love’ to motivate Bertie, Wodehouse set about making his prospective spouses as ghastly as possible. They had to be — the reader (unless a misogynist) could hardly sympathise with Bertie’s predicament otherwise. Wodehouse thrived in the creation of ghastly characters and Bertie suffered more than his fair share of narrow escapes.
Bertie’s prospective wives were not always repulsive. He willingly proposed to Pauline Stoker (in Thank You, Jeeves) and was as mad as a wet hen when Pop Stoker cancelled their engagement under advisement from Sir Roderick Glossop. After Pauline’s affections transferred to Bertie’s pal “Chuffy” Chuffnell, the pair remained on terms of sufficient chumminess as to give Chuffy and Pop Stoker the distinct impression that the old love-light lingered.
“I am assuming that you wish to marry my daughter?”
Well, of course … I mean, dash it … I mean, there isn’t much you can say to an observation like that. I just weighed in with a mild “Oh, ah’.
Thank You, Jeeves
We know Bertie was not opposed to marriage, or the opposite sex. He willingly proposed to Florence Craye (albeit inadvisably) and intended to propose to Roberta Wickham — before the infamous episode of the water bottle and the poker changed his mind. But he never seemed to find the right girl.
When I asked fellow Wodehouse readers on Facebook and Twitter, which of the women in Bertie’s life would have made the best marriage partner, Pauline Stoker and Roberta Wickham ranked clear favourites. But a substantial portion objected to the idea of Bertie marrying at all. It seems his creator’s determination to continue writing about Bertie’s bachelor days have led many fans to consider Bertie a confirmed bachelor for life – with the inimitable Jeeves by his side.
We wish them well.
Hot on the heels of the Blandings centenary in June comes the 100th anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Reginald Jeeves. The characters first appeared together in the story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, published in September 1915 in the Saturday Evening Post.
The centenary has been commemorated with a flurry of articles (try What ho! Celebrating 100 years of Bertie, Jeeves and Blandings by Aparna Narrain). But in spite of praise for Wodehouse and his beloved duo, who made their final appearance in 1974’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ continues to hide it’s light under a bushel. If indeed that’s what lights do.
In his introduction to the 1967 omnibus The World of Jeeves, Wodehouse laments giving Jeeves just two lines, and no important role in the story:
It was only some time later, when I was going into the strange affair which is related under the title of ‘The Artistic Career of Corky’, that the man’s qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.
‘Extricating Young Gussie’ was the only story omitted from The World of Jeeves omnibus, but readers wanting to assess its merit for themselves can find it in the 1917 short story collection The Man with Two Left Feet. The story begins:
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can’t have been half past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news:
‘Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.’
Jeeves makes one more personal appearance:
Jeeves came in with the tea.
‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘we start for America on Saturday.’
‘Very good, sir,’ he said; ‘which suit will you wear?’
And he is referred to in another passage, when Bertie arrives in New York:
I left Jeeves to get my baggage safely past an aggregation of suspicious-minded pirates who were digging for buried treasures among my new shirts, and drove to Gussie’s hotel, where I requested the squad of gentlemanly clerks behind the desk to produce him.
Many readers, and evidently Wodehouse himself, look back on ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ as a poor beginning for this reason. It doesn’t fit the Jeeves and Wooster formula we’ve come to know and love. Some of the centenary commentators (presumably those who’ve not read it) also find fault with it as a story. In my previous piece ‘Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge’ I too was dismissive, claiming that ‘… it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.’
Dutifully re-reading ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ for the 100th Anniversary in the belief that this was not Wodehouse’s best, I was thrilled to find the story better than I had (mis)remembered. It’s well-crafted, enjoyable and complete without Jeeves playing a major role. If we are disappointed with it (and I wasn’t) it is only because we’ve developed high expectations of Jeeves through the later stories. But there is much to like without him, and Bertie’s narrative voice and character (developed via an earlier prototype called Reggie Pepper) are firmly established:
If I ever breakfasted at half past eight I should walk on the Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
And Bertie is in excellent form on the subject of Aunt Agatha.
My experience is that when Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
The story takes Bertie from London to New York at Aunt Agatha’s insistence, to break the engagement of his cousin Gussie to a vaudeville performer.
…according to Gussie she does something which he describes as a single on the big time. What this degraded performance may be I have not the least notion.
Bertie treats us to a personal tour of New York hotels, bars and theatre. On arrival, he tells us:
New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America, so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You can’t lose your way. You go out of a barn and down some stairs, and there you are, right in among it.
In fact, the whole bally story is so packed with good stuff that when the conscientious blogger (that’s me) starts quoting, it becomes dashed difficult to stop. Rather than continue to cherry-pick the best bits for another twenty seven pages, I urge you to read them in situ, especially if it’s been some years since you encountered it. The older Wodehouse might have found fault with it, but we don’t have to agree with him.
It was rotten. The poor nut had got stage fright so badly that it practically eliminated his voice. He sounded like some far-off echo of the past ‘yodelling’ through a woollen blanket.
Happy Jeeves & Wooster centenary, everyone!
I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
The Inimitable Jeeves was one of the first Wodehouse books I encountered, and one I recommend to new readers as a great place to start. It has been included in several lists of ‘classic books you must read’, but don’t let that put you off – it’s terrific! The Inimitable Jeeves is a great introduction to Wodehouse’s best known characters, Bertie Wooster and his valet (or gentleman’s gentleman) Jeeves. It’s not the first Jeeves and Wooster instalment – that honour goes to the short story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ but The Inimitable Jeeves is one of the earliest and best collections in the saga. It is also where we meet key personnel including Bingo Little, Honoria Glossop, her father Sir Roderick Glossop, and the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks.
A collection of connected stories rather than a conventional novel, The Inimitable Jeeves is a book Wodehouse fans return to, dipping into favourite chapters when our troubled souls require soothing. The thirteenth chapter, The Great Sermon Handicap, is particularly revered by readers, and compulsory inclusion in any ‘Best of Wodehouse’ collection.
In The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie goes through a series of personal ordeals, as well as acting as confidant in the affairs of his pal, Bingo Little.
‘Is Mr Little in trouble, sir?’
‘Well, you might call it that. He’s in love. For about the fifty-third time. I ask you, Jeeves, as man to man, did you ever see such a chap?’
‘Mr Little is certainly warm-hearted, sir.’
‘Warm-hearted! I should think he has to wear asbestos vests….’
An alternative title for The Inimitable Jeeves might have been ‘The Romances of Bingo Little’. Although Bingo does not feature in all of the episodes, his quest for a soul mate is a recurring theme throughout the book. Wodehouse opens proceedings with Bingo’s ill-fated romance with a waitress named Mabel and, after further disappointments, closes with his eventual happy union.
Bertie has matrimonial problems of his own in The Inimitable Jeeves, thanks to the interference of Aunt Agatha, who feels her nephew requires improvement. Aunt Agatha had appeared previously in ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ and she remains a force throughout the saga as one of Wodehouses’s most serious-minded characters.
‘It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in idle selfishness a life which might have been made useful, helpful and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.’
‘But, dash it all . . .’
‘Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .’
‘No, really, I say, please!’ I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.
Aunt Agatha first selects Aline Hemmingway, a curate’s sister she meets while on holiday in France. Her next candidate for the future Mrs Wooster is the formidable Honoria Glossop, who proves more difficult to shake off. During their brief engagement, Bertie is fed on a diet of serious art and literature until his eyes bubble.
…She looked at me in a proprietary sort of way. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie. It is true yours has been a wasted life up to the present, but you are still young , and there is a lot of good in you.’
‘No, really there isn’t.’
‘Oh, yes, there is. It simply wants bringing out…’
Jeeves finds a way to disentangle Bertie from these affairs. In the case of Honoria Glossop, he convinces Honoria’s father, Sir Roderick Glossop (the noted nerve specialist), that Bertie is mentally unhinged. This particular story was one of the best adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster television series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Although the series created additional scenes, characters (there is no Lady Glossop in the book) and dialogue (often erroneously attributed to Wodehouse), their adaptation was in keeping with the original, and expertly handled by Fry and Laurie.
Not all Wodehouse adaptations have been so well made, causing some people to feel that Wodehouse simply cannot be adapted. I disagree, although I appreciate the difficulty of adapting a humourist whose prose style is so integral to his comedy. Take, for example, this much quoted passage from The Inimitable Jeeves:
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me.
How do you translate the joy of reading this passage on the screen? In the case of Jeeves and Wooster, they had a distinct advantage in that Bertie’s narrative could be turned into authentic dialogue. Adapting Wodehouse’s other works, predominantly written in the third-person, is more challenging and a delicate touch is required. Certainly nothing brings greater despair to the optimistic Wodehouse lover than a misguided adaptation, but we can’t expect Wodehouse adaptations to match the pleasure of reading the original. Nonetheless, it is possible to adapt Wodehouse’s marvellous plots and dialogue very successfully.
Similar problems are faced when quoting Wodehouse. A joyful passage or witty one-liner shoved out into the online universe falls pitifully short of the joy of reading the words in situ. I often struggle to select quotations to include in this blog, because a passage I love on the page often seems to lose a little of its sparkle in isolation. It seems a shame to quote a mere three sentences when the preceding seven paragraphs are full of ripping stuff. Where does one draw the line? It’s rather like hacking off a piece of Michelangelo‘s David and plopping it on the table for inspection – without the rest of him.
But quote and adapt we do, because of the joy Wodehouse brings us.
I’ve digressed rather a lot, as usual. There’s much more to The Inimitable Jeeves that I haven’t mentioned, like Bertie’s period of exile in America, and Comrade Bingo’s brief membership of the Heralds of the Red Dawn.
‘Hospitality?’ snorted the man Butt, going off in my ear like a depth-charge. He was scowling in a morose sort of manner at young Bingo and the girl, who were giggling together by the window. ‘I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!’
‘Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!’
‘I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,’ said old Rowbotham. ‘And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.’
Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.
And then there’s the incomparable ‘Purity of the Turf’, but… I’m not going to do all the heavy spade work for you. If you haven’t read about them, you’ll just have to buzz off and read The Inimitable Jeeves for yourself. And if you have already done so, I can do no better than leave you to reflect on happy memories.
Yesterday, I pondered the rather baffling discovery that some of Wodehouse’s male characters have been named literary sex symbols. This subject can hardly be taken seriously. As the critic Emsworth notes, sex was never allowed to creep into Wodehouse’s world.
- Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off. Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.
Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950) characters use…
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Last week, I began a series exploring ‘Wodehouse on Women’ in response to criticism of Indian Summer of an Uncle by Janet Cameron. In Part 1, I opened the case for the defence by demonstrating that Wodehouse did not specifically exclude women as complex characters in his work. One Wodehouse expert has added further evidence, noting that several Wodehouse novels featured well-developed female central characters. The Adventures of Sally (1922) is a good example.
Today, I address the next item on the charge sheet.
‘Men are portrayed as being in league against women’
Cameron writes: ‘the male characters (are shown as) victims who support each other as if repelling an unwelcome, alien force’ and that the ‘need to exclude women even overcomes class-consciousness.’ In order to respond to this, a short summary of Indian Summer of an Uncle (1930) is required.
Bertie Wooster‘s Uncle George is ‘a prominent London clubman’ of advanced years and even more advanced waistline: ‘tailors measure him just for the sake of the exercise.’ He spends his life gorging at table and boring anyone who’ll listen with complaints about the lining of his stomach or (especially after a few drinks) a barmaid he once loved. At the beginning of the story, Uncle George announces his intention of marrying a young waitress, Miss Rhoda Platt.
Bertie thinks Uncle George is behaving like an ‘old fathead’ over a young girl, but he has no particular objection to the girl’s social position. Bertie’s only thought is to escape London before his Aunt Agatha – a notorious snob – hears of it and attempts to involve him in breaking off the affair . He is too late however, and Agatha sends him off, most unwillingly, to offer the girl money to ‘release’ Uncle George.
When this scheme fails, Bertie consents to a more subtle plan proposed by Jeeves (whose friend is also in love with the young girl) to introduce Uncle George to the young woman’s Aunt Maudie. Mrs Wilberforce is a large, jovial woman who plans to live with her niece when she is married. Jeeves suggests that Uncle George’s resolve might weaken when he meets this woman, who is definitely ‘of the people’. However, when Bertie orchestrates the meeting, he learns that Aunt Maudie is the barmaid who Uncle George loved and lost in his youth – a fact already known to Jeeves (but withheld from Bertie).
An affecting reunion takes place.
‘Maudie, you don’t look a day older, dash it!’
‘Nor do you, Piggy.’
‘How have you been all these years?’
‘Pretty well. The lining of my stomach isn’t all it should be.’
‘Good Gad! You don’t say so? I have trouble with the lining of my stomach.’
‘It’s a sort of heavy feeling after meals.’
‘I get a sort of heavy feeling after meals. What are you trying for it?’
When Uncle George and Aunt Maudie become engaged, Bertie is (rightly) annoyed to discover that this was Jeeves’ plan all along. But for the reader, the union between Uncle George and Aunt Maudie is a satisfying end. Far from brooding on the engagement, Bertie’s primary concern is to escape the metropolis before his Aunt Agatha finds out.
Treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
Indian Summer of an Uncle, like most Wodehouse stories, is tangled with plots and sub-plots. The complexity of his plots is one reason why he needed to sketch his characters so lightly and make use of stereotypes. His characters are frequently drawn into league with other characters, not always willingly, with an ambitious and eclectic array of personal motives.
In this story, the following characters work ‘in league’ at some point:
- Bertie reluctantly colludes with Aunt Agatha to undermine Uncle George – Aunt Agatha’s plan to bribe Rhoda Platt to ‘release’ Uncle George (without his knowledge) parodies popular romantic fiction of the era. It would have been unpleasant for Miss Platt, but she would at least have some choice in the matter -unlike Uncle George.
- Bertie and Jeeves work in league to end Uncle George’s engagement – While they collude to end Uncle George’s attachment, theirs is not an open and honest partnership. Jeeves hides critical facts from Bertie when he proposes the scheme that will reunite Uncle George with his old flame, Mrs Wilberforce.
- Bertie and Jeeves unite to escape Aunt Agatha – They conspire to leave town as quickly as possible, before Bertie is asked to intervene in Uncle George’s new engagement.
The charge of men ‘working in league’ is therefore partly correct, but most of the collusion in this story occurs at the expense of besotted Uncle George. But there is never a suggestion that Bertie and Jeeves are acting to save George from the clutches of a female or the state of marriage on principle. For that particular storyline, we must turn to Bachelors Anonymous.
‘…for many years I have belonged to a little circle whose members have decided that the celibate life is best. We call ourselves Bachelors Anonymous… When one of us feels the urge to take a woman out to dinner becoming too strong for him, he seeks the other members of the circle and tells them of his craving, and they reason with him. He pleads that just one dinner cannot do him any harm, but they know what one dinner can lead to. They point out the inevitable results of that first downward step. Once yield to temptation, they say, and dinner will be followed by further dinners, lunches for two and tete-a-tetes in dimly lit boudoirs, until in morning-coat and sponge-bag trousers he stands cowering beside his bride at the alter rails, racked with regret and remorse when it is too late.”
Bachelors Anonymous (1973)
If you’re looking for male characters who plot against women purely on misogynistic principle, the book you want is Bachelors Anonymous; it’s stuffed to the gills with male ‘victims’ banding together to thwart the romantic attachments of their comrades. But it would take a stern and humourless critic to object to Bachelors Anonymous on these grounds, when Wodehouse is clearly poking fun at these men and their sentiments. Later, one of the Bachelors complains:
‘Have you ever considered what marriage means? I do not refer to the ghastly ordeal of the actual service, with its bishops and assistant clergy, its bridesmaids and the influx of all the relations you have been trying to avoid for years, but to what comes after… From what you were saying about the dimple on this girl’s left cheek I gather that she is not without physical allure, but can she drive a car? Somebody has got to drive the car and do the shopping while you are playing golf. Somebody has got to be able to fix a flat tyre… Like so many young men… you have allowed yourself to be ensnared by a pretty face, never asking yourself if the person you are hoping to marry is capable of making out your income tax return and can be relied on to shovel snow while you are curled up beside the fire with a novel of suspense.’
Wodehouse’s misogynist-bachelors are just as ridiculous as the other extremists in his wide cast of characters that includes amateur dictators, snobbish peers, communists, business executives, golfers, Bishop, serious poets – not forgetting the gang of Aunts. By the end of Bachelors Anonymous, his chief Bachelor has seen the light, and espouses just as fanatically on the joys of marriage.
Elsewhere in the world of Wodehouse, men and women can frequently be found plotting and scheming together in harmony, thwarting the machinations of appalling villains of both sexes. In Piccadilly Jim (1917), Jimmy Crocker and Ann Chester conspire to kidnap the revolting Ogden Ford. In Leave it Psmith (1923) Psmith unites with Eve Halliday to outwit Rupert Baxter (and a cunning male-female crime duo) to steal Lady Constance’s necklace.
It is true that Wodehouse’s men often collude against women, but the reasons are usually complex and plot driven. There are men who are portrayed as victims of women, and in the Jeeves stories the need to ‘save’ chums from marriage (to particular females) is a recurring plot device. But Bertie also helps friends – male and female – towards marriage – and is supportive of his female friends and relatives. As someone who has read Wodehouse widely, I feel qualified to say there is no pattern of male characters specifically excluding and working against females.
I feel satisfied that we can dismiss this second charge.
- Wodehouse on Women: the case for the defence (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
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)