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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.
Meet Jeeves, the world’s most famous valet and P.G. Wodehouse’s best known character. The name Jeeves has come to symbolise the epitome of efficient service to millions who’ve never even read Wodehouse. Among fans, he is spoken of with a reverence usually reserved for deities. And how many of us have wished for a Jeeves in our lives? But is this rosy view of Jeeves’ as Bertie Wooster’s domestic saviour justified, when so often it is Jeeves who contrives the situations from which Bertie must be rescued? Nor is his support lacking in self-interest. In Wodehouse’s idyllic world, is Jeeves more serpent than servant?
The story of Jeeves’ introduction to the Wooster home is told in ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’ (Carry On Jeeves). Jeeves enters Bertie’s employment after Bertie’s previous man, Meadowes, is caught pinching his socks.
I was reluctantly compelled to hand the misguided blighter the mitten and go to London to ask the registry office to dig up another specimen for my approval. They sent me Jeeves.
Jeeves enters in style, his almost supernatural powers evident from the first.
…he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start. Meadowes had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in.
Jeeves’ first act is to mix Bertie a hangover remedy that instantly transforms his new employer from a weakened state, winning his approval. A mere page after his arrival however, Bertie notices ‘…a kind of rummy something about his manner’ when Bertie announces he is engaged to Lady Florence Craye. The page after that, Jeeves conveys his disapproval of Bertie’s check suit.
Again there was that kind of rummy something in his manner. It was the way he said it, don’t you know. He didn’t like the suit. I pulled myself together to assert myself. Something seemed to tell me that, unless I was jolly careful and nipped this lad in the bud, he would be starting to boss me. He had the aspect of a distinctly resolute blighter.
Bertie tells us Florence Craye is ‘…a dear girl, and, seen sideways, most awfully good-looking; but if she had a fault it was a tendency to be a bit imperious with the domestic staff.’ Florence orders Bertie to destroy his Uncle Willoughby’s memoirs, which contain some rather fruity stories about her father, before they reach his publisher. Bertie pinches the manuscript and asks Jeeves to dispose of the remains, but Jeeves posts it to the publisher. When Florence cancels their engagement, Bertie is appalled to discover Jeeves’ presumptuous interference in his affairs and sacks him.
Jeeves slips off the mask of deference and explains his motives:
“As I am no longer in your employment, sir, I can speak freely without appearing to take a liberty. In my opinion you and Lady Florence were quite unsuitably matched.”
He speaks at length of Florence’s bad temper, her reputation in the servants’ hall, and her plans for Bertie’s education — having started him on Types of Ethical Theory, she was preparing to introduce him to Nietzsche.
“…You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”
On reflection, Bertie sees that he is well out of the engagement, and we feel relieved for him. But he reinstates Jeeves without pausing to question Jeeves’ methods or motives. It is certainly in Jeeves’ interests to remove Lady Florence as a dominating force in Bertie’s life (as he does with Bertie’s later love-interests). Even if we feel Jeeves’ motives are sound, his underhanded methods are not. To interfere in the love-life of a friend is a moral grey-area, but as a new employee it definitely crosses the line.
Poor Bertie is too preoccupied with his lucky escape from Florence Craye, and hailing Jeeves as his saviour, to appreciate that he may have succumbed to an equally dominant force in Jeeves.
“Oh, Jeeves,” I said; “about that check suit.”
“Is it really a frost?”
“A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.”
“But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.”
“Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.”
“He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.”
“I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”
I hesitated a bit. I had a feeling that I was passing into this chappie’s clutches and that if I gave in now I should become just like poor old Aubrey Fothergill, unable to call my soul my own. On the other hand, this was obviously a cove of rare intelligence, and it would be a comfort in lots of ways to have him doing the thinking for me. I made up my mind.
“All right, Jeeves,” I said. “You know! Give the bally thing away to somebody!”
He looked at me like a father gazing tenderly at the wayward child.
“Thank you, sir. I gave it to the under-gardener last night. A little more tea, sir?”
And so, like the young Dorian Grey, our hero Wooster makes his pact. If this was the first installment in a sci-fi serial, we would have sufficient clues to mistrust Jeeves’ and gnash our teeth between episodes in fear for Bertie’s safety. But somehow we do not. We too are under Jeeves’ spell. Snake or saviour? It’s too soon to tell.
‘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.
New Wodehouse readers sometimes ask which of the Jeeves stories they should read first. Opinion on the matter is divided; some people recommend ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ (1925) whereas I suggest ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923). Both are excellent. The question is a matter of chronology. This piece explores these starting points in more detail.
Readers looking for a more complete reading list, with suggestions for getting started, may find this reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories helpful.
Beginning with ‘Carry On, Jeeves’
Carry On Jeeves (1925) is a collection of short stories, beginning with ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’, in which Jeeves enters Bertie’s employment, cures his hangover, and disentangles him from an engagement with the unsuitable Florence Craye.
…he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start. Meadowes had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in.
This is followed by several stories which had appeared in an earlier collection called ‘My Man Jeeves’ (1919). Set mainly in America, the original stories featured a chap called Reggie Pepper. In Carry On Jeeves, Wodehouse revised the stories to include Bertie Wooster, who had made his debut in ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923) and firmly established himself as a narrator.
However Carry On Jeeves also includes new stories that follow on from events in The Inimitable Jeeves, ‘The rummy affair of old Biffy’ and ‘Without the Option’. Both feature Honoria Glossop and her father Sir Roderick, the eminent ‘nerve specialist’.
One of the things that get this old crumb so generally disliked among the better element of the community is the fact that he has a head like the dome of St. Paul’s and eyebrows that want bobbing or shingling to reduce them to anything like reasonable size. It is a nasty experience to see this bald and bushy bloke advancing on you when you haven’t prepared the strategic railways in your rear.
These Glossops are notorious among Wodehouse readers, but unless you’ve read ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ you won’t have met them. Although Wodehouse can generally be enjoyed out of order, these particular stories are better if you’re familiar with the characters already, and ‘The rummy affair of old Biffy’ gives away the plot of the earlier story.
There are similar issues with ‘Clustering around young Bingo’. This is a very successful reworking of the Reggie Pepper story, ‘Rallying Round Old George’. George has been replaced with young Bingo Little, whose love life featured heavily in ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’. If you read ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ first, you’ll find out who Bingo eventually marries. This may not spoil your enjoyment of ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’, but it will spoil the surprise.
Beginning with ”The Inimitable Jeeves’
Chronologically, the events of ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ take place sometime between the first and the sixth chapters of ‘Carry On, Jeeves.‘ But it would be pedantic and unnecessary to read the stories in that order. ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ makes an excellent introduction to the saga because no prior knowledge is required to enjoy and fully understand the stories. There are no plot spoilers or references to past events. Reading ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ first won’t diminish your enjoyment of ‘Carry On, Jeeves’. ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ also introduces many of the saga’s recurring characters.
For modern readers who are unaccustomed to reading short stories, ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ is also a more seamless collection than ‘Carry On Jeeves’. The stories, mostly published during 1922 in Cosmopolitan (US) and The Strand (UK) magazines, are more closely interconnected than the collection in ‘Carry On, Jeeves’.
Other possible beginnings
If you have a particular mania for chronological correctness, you could begin with the aforementioned My Man Jeeves (1919). Getting your hands on a copy may not be so easy, and as Wodehouse revised most of it for ‘Carry On, Jeeves’ there really isn’t much point. This is a volume best left for the Wodehouse fanatics (the ranks of whom, you may soon be joining).
At the risk of complicating things further, a purist might scoff at the sort of slacker who begins with My Man Jeeves, when the first Jeeves story, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, was published much earlier, in 1915 (not to be confused with the other ‘first’ Jeeves story, ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’, which was not the first written, but recounts Bertie and Jeeves’ first meeting). ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ appeared in the 1917 collection ‘The Man with Two Left Feet‘ and there is some question as to whether the Bertie who appeared here was a Wooster or a Mannering-Phipps. Do read it, if you can find a copy, but it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.
Perhaps the most common approach to reading Wodehouse is to start with whichever book you happen to chance across and be perfectly content to devour the rest of them in whatever order you seize upon them. Many people have read Wodehouse this way, especially those of us who collected our books second-hand in the days before internet booksellers and modern reprintings of his work.
So to the modern reader seeking advice, I recommend ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’, but it’s advice you should feel free to ignore.
References and further reading
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)
Madam Eulalie (annotations)
My reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories
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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