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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).
The Adventures of Sally
A Romance (continued…)
All caught up? Spiffing. Let us consider our principals. Here comes Sally now – if we take up an unobtrusive position behind a newspaper we shall be able to observe her closely. Sally Nicholas is a young, cheerful, intelligent, attractive and sparky all-American girl of twenty-one, and feeling especially cheerful just now as she has just had a substantial inheritance. She will be able to wave farewell to the rather down at heel environs of Mrs. Meecher’s boarding house and get her own apartment, and with even more relief wave farewell to her dispiriting job as a taxi dancer at the Flower Garden dance hall.
Ah, I see a hand up. You doubtless wish to know what a taxi dancer is. No, it is not someone who dances in or on cabs, but a person employed by a dance hall to act as a partner to patrons of the hall who have neglected to bring a partner of their own. Mr. Wodehouse is at pains to tell us how nice an establishment the Flower Garden is, but I am sorry to have to relate that in real life such dance halls were usually covers for speakeasies – this being the reason why the patrons often didn’t take a partner, as they were principally there to neck the booze rather than dance. Furthermore, young ladies who acted as taxi dancers were often, um, well, let’s just say they didn’t make all their money from dancing.
But no such taint attaches itself to Sally; she is entirely clean and wholesome, and if she has a fault it is that she is too gallant. Sally is a naturally kind person, disposed to be friendly and helpful to everyone, and now that she has the wherewithal she is keen to spread a little happiness as she goes by. She is by no means an ingénue, however; she is capable and level-headed, and adept at managing the lives of those around her, when she gets the chance.
Alas, the ones best placed to benefit from her largesse and her management are the two men currently in her life, and neither of them really deserve it. Firstly, there is her older brother Fillmore; that’s him, lurking about over there, the portly chap with a rather self-satisfied expression. Fillmore is not an idiot, but he will get carried away. He can take a perfectly sound idea and build so many castles in the air on it that the thing collapses under its own weight. As, indeed, does Fillmore himself; when in funds, his food consumption increases prodigiously, and he is apt to wax not only fat but pompous. Sally encourages him to take up with the simple, but good-hearted, bit-part actress Gladys Winch, in the hopes she will provide a steadying influence on him. As she points out;
“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
The other man in Sally’s life is her fiancé, Gerald Foster, a playwright. Observe him carefully; he’s very good-looking, isn’t he? And I trust we all know that a handsome chap in a Wodehouse novel will, almost certainly, turn out to be a frightful rotter. Perspicacious Plumtopians will have also universally acknowledged the truth that whoever a Wodehouse protagonist is initially engaged to is hardly ever the spouse they end up with.
Which brings us to the two other men who will complicate Sally’s life during the course of this book. They are both English (as, indeed, is Gerald Foster) … our Sally seems to be irresistibly attractive to Englishmen. One wonders if Wodehouse was thinking of the fashion, prevalent in his youth, of hard-up members of the aristocracy making a bee-line for the nearest American heiress. The first son of Albion to consider goes by the name of Bruce Carmyle.
Mr. Carmyle (one could never call him Bruce) is stiff, and forever standing upon his dignity. Almost the first time we see him he is being haughty, not to say rude, with the waiter on a train. This is always a sign of somebody far too self-important for their own good, a fact Sally at once recognises. In consequence, despite being disposed to be friendly to one and all, she does not much like Mr. Carmyle. Alas, much to Sally’s chagrin, he likes her, and is prepared to go to some lengths to show it. It’s never quite clear why he feels like this, apart from Sally being exceedingly pretty; one feels that a stuffed shirt like Mr. Carmyle would want somebody altogether more meek and submissive as a love-interest.
Our third and final runner in the Sally Stakes is a cousin of the above, a red-head, and (of course) a chump. Lancelot Kemp doesn’t really follow the usual Wodehouse naming conventions; he really ought to be called Bill, or Jim, but he makes up for his dubious forename by being rather unimaginatively known as Ginger. He is of a type well-known to Wodehouse readers; athletic, kind-hearted, tongue-tied and not overly blessed with grey matter. His conversation is punctuated by interjections such as ‘I say,’ and ‘You know,’ and I’m not at all certain he doesn’t let fly a ‘What Ho!’ or two.
In life so far, Ginger has not been a success, and the Family (including Mr. Carmyle) despair of him. He had to forgo going up to Oxford due to a shortfall in the family finances, and every position the Family have found for him he has made a muff of, usually by speaking his mind to entirely the wrong person.
Ginger does have some talents, though – we first see him breaking up a dog-fight, very efficiently. This counts as a sort of Chekhov’s Pug, as it is as a dog breeder and trainer that he finally manages to shine. And, yes, it is Ginger who eventually wins Sally’s hand. But whilst he realises at once that Sally is his True Soul-mate, it takes Sally the whole book to come to the same conclusion. There wouldn’t be much of a story if she had been quicker off the mark, of course, but besides the exigencies of Plot and Narrative Convention it is interesting to examine the reasons why she eventually sees Ginger as her true life’s partner.
When Sally and Ginger first meet in Roville-sur-Mer, Ginger gets ‘friend-zoned’ (to use the modern parlance). Sally sees him not as a possible romantic interest but as a project, although her attempts to find him a steady job are no more successful than those of his Family. What eventually gets him out of the friend-zone and into Sally’s arms is the contrast between his behaviour toward Sally, and that of Messrs. Foster and Carmyle. Ginger is loyal, and faithful, willingly humps furniture around her new flat, and lends a sympathetic ear to her woes, but above all he is not pushy. He does not force his attentions on Sally (although he does pinch a photograph of her to moon over in private).
Carmyle, by contrast, is pushy, assertive, and inclined to treat Sally as his by divine right. He does not help Sally, or listen kindly to her troubles, and he certainly doesn’t lower himself to humping furniture about. Gerald Foster, meanwhile, is disloyal. He deserts Sally and marries actress Elsa Doland, and what is even more caddish, doesn’t even tell Sally – she finds out at second hand, after the fact. It is Ginger who conveys the news, and his tactful behaviour after discovering he has dropped a bombshell (he had no idea Sally was engaged to Gerald) earns him several Brownie points.
Ginger’s gentlemanly mien is further highlighted by the antics of brother Fillmore, who (despite the steadying hand of Gladys Winch) manages to lose all Sally’s money pursuing wild theatrical dreams. What little she has left she uses to fund Ginger (who does not know she has lost her fortune) in his dog breeding scheme. Dashed twice against the rocks of fate by unreliable men, Sally returns despondently to her old job in the dance hall, where she is sought out by the importunate and over-assertive Carmyle. Sally is at such a low ebb by this point that she dully accepts his proposal of marriage, believing it to be the only option left open to her.
But no sooner has she done so than Ginger suddenly hoves into view again. His kennels have proved to be a success, and, on finding out that Sally has used the last of her money to set him up, and now having the means to support her himself (always an important point for any male romantic lead in Wodehouse) he declares his love. The scales finally fall from Sally’s eyes (this is the habitual fate of scales in the last reel of a Wodehouse novel … he must have used up several snakes’ worth). But she believes it to be too late – she has already promised herself to Carmyle.
All seems lost, but then Gerald Foster, having been off-stage for most of the story, re-appears. The bounder had, it seems, only married Elsa Doland to further his play-writing career, and she had only married him to enhance her acting career. When neither career prospers, the shaky marriage breaks up. Foster now surfaces back at his flat, across the hall from Sally’s, full of self-pity and bootleg whisky.
I digress here to wax a little about one of the lesser perils of being a writer, even an amateur writer like your humble scribe. It does spoil your reading rather. One can’t just lie back and enjoy a good yarn; your inner editor is forever twitching aside the curtain that conceals the author, and poking at the machinery behind the scenes. This matter of Foster’s flat is just such a bit of business that makes the editor-writer long to reach into the book and correct things. The in-story (or Watsonian) reason given for Foster having a flat so conveniently close to Sally’s is that Elsa Doland, being a great friend of Sally, wanted to be as close to her as possible. This is a weak attempt to paper over an otherwise astonishing co-incidence, and isn’t convincing at all. Elsa Doland spends hardly any on-screen time with Sally, and is never actually seen at said flat. The real (or Doylist) reason, of course, is so that Wodehouse could get Foster on the spot for the penultimate scene in the book. It would be interesting to know if the weaksauce Watsonian excuse was actually present in the original serial episode in Collier’s, or whether it was a retcon when the story was worked up into a novel.
But as I said, I digress. We now return to our scheduled deconstruction.
Foster, drunk and maudlin, takes to smashing up his flat. Sally, despite feeling nothing but contempt for him, is habitually helpful to those in need and decides to clear up the mess. While she does this, she packs him off to her own flat, as she cannot stand the sight of him. Befuddled by drink, Foster goes to sleep there, and this sets up the final denouement. The following morning, Carmyle turns up at his fiancée’s flat, encounters a newly awoken Foster there, and jumps to the wrong conclusion. He had only discovered that Sally was working as a dancer (after proposing to her) the night before, and the idea that Sally might not be respectable enough for the Family has been eating away at him. The pompous ass. The compromising presence of Gerald Foster confirms these suspicions, and relieved to have an out, he promptly takes it.
Sally, suddenly freed, at once gets on the phone to Ginger. Ginger doesn’t care what his Family thinks, or whether Sally is ‘respectable’ or not. Ginger may be a chump, but in Wodehouse, chumps often come out on top.
Cut to final scene, a year later, somewhere out in the boondocks of Long Island. Sally and Ginger are ensconced in (presumably) wedded bliss, running an increasingly successful dog breeding and training business. Ginger is still a chump, but it doesn’t matter, because:
Sally got up and ruffled his red hair.
A Wodehouse hero can get no greater compliment from a girl than to have his hair ruffled.
Up next: Jon Brierley’s third and final instalment on The Adventures of Sally.
Every February Plumtopia celebrates the romances, great and small, in the work of P.G. Wodehouse, to mark the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day, 1975. Guest contributions are warmly welcomed, and this year I’m thrilled to share a series by guest author Jon Brierley on the 1921 Wodehouse novel, The Adventures of Sally.
Jon is sound on Wodehouse and has written wonderfully in the Wodehouse style at his blog, Sloopjonb: Writing Wibble (try his Jeeves’ Christmas Carol). Jon is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel and would love feedback from beta readers. Please do visit his blog to find out more.
The Adventures of Sally
“Chumps always make the best husbands. If you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his forehead first and, if it rings solid, don’t hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from the husbands having brains. What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him.”
– Gladys Winch, in The Adventures of Sally
Most readers of Wodehouse know him as a farceur, a humourist, a deliverer of reliably funny froth; they will revel in Jeeves and Wooster, quote delightedly from the Blandings saga, and may even run to snippets of Psmith. The true devotee of Wodehouse, however, knows that he had a lengthy career in other literary genres before he settled on his final winning formula. He began his novel-writing life penning school stories, entirely conventional if superior examples of the breed (until the radical intervention of Psmith), but also branched out into comedic (but not farcical) romances, apparently on the grounds that these sold better. The Adventures of Sally (American title: Mostly Sally) is one of these, first serialised in Collier’s magazine in 1921, and it is to the romantic adventures of the titular Sally Nicholas that we will now turn our attention.
The plot and settings of Sally brought together several strands of Wodehouse’s life; he was still heavily involved in the theatre, and like Sally herself was almost commuting across the Atlantic in pursuit of his various interests. In his early days in America Wodehouse had lived in many seedy boarding houses not unlike Mrs. Meecher’s, and, like Ginger, had played Rugby football and been unable to go up to Oxford due to a family financial crisis. The story itself is something of a re-tread of an only slightly earlier novel, Jill the Reckless, featuring the common elements of a theatrical background, trans-Atlantic hopping and the losing and gaining of both fortunes and fiancés. One wonders whether this repetition is due to pressure of time; maybe Collier’s needed something quick to cover a gap, and Wodehouse was unable to fashion something entirely new.
Whatever the reasons, and whisper it quietly, it has to be said that Sally is not one of Plum’s best. The pacing is all off; half-way through Sally decamps to England, and recounts her adventures there in a series of letters to Ginger back in America. Whilst these are amusing, they slow the story down, especially when she visits a Rugby international game at Twickenham, an episode that must have mystified American readers. Elsewhere several important events take place off-stage, and are inadequately reported, giving the impression of a story struggling to find the right gear, and proceeding in a series of jerks. And at the end, the denouement develops with almost indecent haste, as if Wodehouse had been told the serial was ending next week, and he had to tie up all the loose ends too quickly.
Having said which, a book that is not Wodehouse’s best is still better than most people’s best, so don’t let me put you off reading it. If you haven’t read it yet (and I might mention it is free on the Gutenberg Press) you had better go and do so now, as what follows contains a lot of what the young people today call ‘spoilers’. I’ll wait…
Jon Brierley’s piece will continue through February. While you’re waiting for part two, why not add The Adventures of Sally to your Wodehouse collection ?
People often come to Plumtopia looking for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular. It’s a good question.
The short answer, is that there is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse –and if you ask the question in one of the many online Wodehouse forums, you’ll get at least a dozen answers. Picking up the first book you come across is often as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.
But the short answer isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for practical advice. This post, and the short series to follow, offers a guide to readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.
A suggested reading list for getting started is provided below, followed by some general guidance for new readers.
Reading suggestions for getting started
Jeeves and Wooster: Start with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) short stories or the novel Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor). See my second piece in this series for a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list.
Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea.
The Inimitable Jeeves
Blandings: Avoid plot spoilers by starting with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New). Or get acquainted with the (later) classic Blandings short stories in Blandings Castle (1935).
‘I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?’
Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervour. Mr Simmonds, eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children.
Psmith: Start with the brilliant school story, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you’re not a fan of the genre, try Leave it to Psmith (1923), the last Psmith novel. Reading it first shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the earlier stories.
Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”
(Mike and Psmith)
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
(‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge)
Uncle Fred: Start with Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), a short story from the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save it for later.
I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means, but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.
(‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ in Young Men in Spats)
Short Stories: Start the Mulliner stories with Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927); and the Oldest Member golf stories with The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required to enjoy them.
Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.
The Clicking of Cuthbert
The novels: Plot spoilers are less of a problem with the ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some of them are connected by recurring characters. Try Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) or The Small Bachelor (1927) to start.
The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you.
Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse, but they should be able to order them for you –and if your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.
Links to books currently in print and available for purchase online have been included in the text. Out of print books are frequently available second-hand at reasonable prices. Don’t be alarmed by the price of expensive first and collectable editions you see advertised, which are aimed at collectors. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks and don’t mind which editions you buy. Most titles are also available as Ebooks, including those which are out of print.
Understanding the chronological challenge
Many of Wodehouse’s stories first appeared in magazines such as The Strand (UK) and The Saturday Evening Post (US), but weren’t always published in book form in the same order – or under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of publication you will encounter ‘spoilers’, particularly in the Blandings series. Wodehouse also rewrote some of his early stories, so the beginning isn’t always the best place to start. And it’s helpful to know that Wodehouse’s books were often published under different titles in the UK and US.
In putting this series together, I’ve referred to many excellent online resources that exist for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefitted from the invaluable advice of Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.
The next piece in the series provides a reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories.
Each February at Plumtopia I take a break from my usual pontifications to celebrate some of the ‘Great Romances’ from P.G. Wodehouse’s work, to mark the anniversary of his death on St Valentine’s Day, 1975. This year, I’d like to break with the formula a little by touching on the great romance of Wodehouse’s own life — his wife Ethel.
Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson wraps up their courtship in a sentence: ‘They met on 3 August 1914 and on 30 September they were married.’ They met on one of Wodehouse’s frequent visits to New York, and were married at The Little Church Round The Corner. Ethel Wayman (nee Newton) was a young widow, also visiting New York from England. Like so many of his fictional heroines, she was a woman of spirit, energy and determination. An extrovert and unlike her husband in character, Ethel nonetheless understood his needs and protected him from the practical demands of life, so that Wodehouse was free to write, walk and engage with the world as it suited him.
They seem to have lived in perfect sympathy with one another. Wodehouse said, in an interview with Gerald Clarke ( P. G. Wodehouse, The Art of Fiction No. 60 in the PARIS REVIEW ):
‘I think a writer’s life is the ideal life’.
It was Ethel who made this life possible, and Wodehouse depended on her. It’s tempting to see their relationship reflected, in typically self-depreciating style, throughout Wodehouse’s writing.
“… she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
The Adventures of Sally (1922)
Wodehouse’s love for Ethel was genuine and life-long. Writing to her on the occasion of their 59th wedding anniversary, Wodehouse pays tribute to the Great Romance of his own life.
My precious angel Bunny whom I love so dear.
Another anniversary! Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!
It was a miracle finding one another. I know I could never have been happy with anybody else. What a lucky day for me when you agreed with me when I said ‘Let’s get married’!
The only thing that makes me sad is your health. How I wish there was something I could do. What is so extraordinary is that you come to me in pain and not having slept and you look just as beautiful as you did fifty-nine years ago. But how I wish that you could get a good sleep.
I wish I could say all the things I would like to say, but really they can all be said in one sentence – I LOVE YOU.
(P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe)
Wishing you all very Happy Ever Afters of your own.
What Ho, What Ho! I was delighted to return from holiday to discover this piece, from fellow Wodehouse lover Ashokbhatia. Happy reading!
Their roles are not confined to the traditional kind which involve hunting, herding or pulling loads. They are never a part of a paw patrol handled by a rozzer. Instead, they have a healthy contempt for those in the uniform. They may not be indefatigable detectives out to assist a Sherlock Holmes in sniffing out crucial leads in a mysterious murder case, but they shape the love affairs of quite a few young men who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
In Plumsville, they enjoy motherly affections of the delicately nurtured. Their misdemeanors are overlooked. Their acts of omission are energetically defended, annoying the officers of the law. If taken into custody, prompt steps are taken…
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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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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)