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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 racetracks and 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)…
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I’d like to take a short break from my series exploring Wodehouse on Women to share a remarkable piece entitled 111 Male Characters Of British Literature, In Order Of Bangability by Carrie Frye, in which Ms Frye lists 111 fictional characters she finds sexually desirable enough to take to her bed. Almost as astonishing as her stamina, is the fact that she includes not one, but three Wodehouse characters in her list of male sex objects. These are, in order of appearance:
– Gussie Fink Nottle (at 106)
– Bertram Wooster (at 87)
– Jeeves (at 65)
Gussie’s inclusion in the list defies belief, as does Jeeves, who at 65 ranks above the virile and irresistible Flashman. Ms Frye gives her source for these appearances, as Right-Ho Jeeves and the story Extricating Young Gussie. I’ve read both, but confess I’ve never felt these characters casting quite the same kind of spell over me.
It would not be in quite the Wodehouse spirit for me to devise a list of my own, but if I may take the liberty, I would like to offer some alternative suggestions for the benefit of any other impressionable romantics considering a mate from the world of Wodehouse:
Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, would make an excellent companion for any woman who is looking to curl up happily with a book in her spacious ancestral boudoir, unbothered by the attentions of a human octopus, or indeed any attention at all. If your idea of romance is watching the sun set over the Empress of Blandings as she enjoys a late supper (of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes and separated buttermilk) in her sty, then Clarence is the man for you.
Monty Bodkin is a romantic soul who will make considerable personal sacrifices (like working for Lord Tilbury) to win the girl he loves. Unlike many of his fellow Drones, he is financially solvent and won’t ‘touch’ you for a fiver or pawn your jewellery to placate a wrathful bookie. He is handsome, charming and honourable, but – it must be said – not an intellectual giant.
Galahad Threepwood is a debonair man-about-town who can be relied upon to show you a good time, taking in the best restaurants and night spots of London. You’ll be enthralled by his conversation too, particularly his reminiscences. You may not replace the women he loved and lost (Dolly Henderson) in his affections, or persuade this old bachelor to don the sponge-bag trousers and gardenia button-hole, but his gallant conduct is unlikely to bring about a breach-of-promise case either.
Esmond Haddock has the kind of rugged good looks and self-effacing charm that enticed actress Cora Star to give up Hollywood in favour of Kings Deverill, Hampshire. He is the popular local squire, loved by one and all. But this handsome, likeable fellow may need your help to prevent his five scaly Aunts (including the domineering Dame Daphne Winkworth) from dominating the proceedings at Deverill Hall.
Rupert Psmith is my personal ideal, an appealing Dorian Gray of comedy, without all that fuss in the attic. He is witty, adventurous, original and terrific fun. (If he takes you to dinner, don’t order the fish.) Life will never be dull with Psmith around, but you may have to get used to living in the shadow of his remarkable personality.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to retire to bed with a good book.
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)
Henry glanced hastily at the mirror. Yes, he did look rather old. He must have overdone some of the lines on his forehead. He looked something between a youngish centenarian and a nonagenarian who had seen a good deal of trouble.
The Man with Two Left Feet (1917)
I feel much like Henry did, as I glance in the mirror to inspect the remains of my former self on the eve of what I’ll just call a ‘significant’ birthday. But I shall resist the urge to impersonate the great Russian novelists, and reflect instead upon some of my favourite Wodehouse moments. I have selected five favourite novels to share, representing one for each completed decade, and one for the future. I do hope you will indulge me.
My first selection is a school story, published in magazine (The Captain) and book format under various aliases including Mike, The Lost Lambs and Enter Psmith. My copy is entitled Mike and Psmith and despite my disinclination for the genre, I’ve read it over 20 times and it never fails to grip. It also introduces my favourite of all Wodehouse heroes – a specimen so close to my ideal man it’s as though I’d drawn up the specifications myself. His comrades call him Psmith. The P is silent, as in Pshrimp.
A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.
“Hullo,” he said. He spoke in a tired voice.
Mike and Psmith (1908)
If forced at knifepoint to select my favourite Wodehouse work, I would chose Leave it to Psmith. Most critics would agree that, in 1923, Wodehouse’s greatest writing was still ahead of him, but Leave it to Psmith holds a special place in my heart for delivering Psmith (in his last appearance) to Blandings Castle – under an alias of course – to match wits with The Efficient Baxter.
“I don’t like poets as a rule. But this fellow’s so different from the other poets I’ve met. Different altogether. And,” said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, “I strongly object to Baxter throwing flower-pots at him. I won’t have Baxter throwing flower-pots at my guests,” he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
It is impossible to overlook the priceless characters and concatenations of Jeeves and Wooster, but making a choice is very difficult. The Inimitable Jeeves well deserves its place as a classic, and I recommend it as an excellent starting place for anyone looking to discover Wodehouse. With much difficulty, I have opted for The Mating Season, which sees Bertie impersonating Gussie Fink-Nottle at Deverill Hall, home of Esmond Haddock and his five aunts.
On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter but the courage which one brings to them, I pulled myself together.
The Mating Season (1940)
Every line of the Mating Season is a perfect slice of Wodehouse, every scene as fresh and snappy as the first time read. I have attempted several times to read aloud the chapter describing the village concert, but it always reduces me to an inaudible hysteria. The concert begins with the Rev. Sidney Pirbright, Uncle to Corky and Catsmeat, who is described as “(a) tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…” Every act that follows is sheer delight.
Unlike her sister Muriel, who had resembled a Criterion barmaid of the old school, Poppy Kegley-Bassington was long and dark and supple, with a sinuous figure suggestive of a snake with hips; one of those girls who do rhythmic dances at the drop of a hat and can be dissuaded from doing them only with a meat-axe.
The Mating Season
And there are few things in this life that please me as much as the Pat and Mike knockabout cross-talk act of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. As well as the book, I can thoroughly recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil, a consummate professional who reads without hysterics.
I have not touched upon the delights of Ukridge, Mulliner or the Oldest Member, but they are not forgotten; The Clicking of Cuthbert is surely one of the finest short stories in our language. But I am compelled to select, as my fourth choice, The Girl on the Boat. It opens with the strong-willed theosophist author Mrs Horace Hignett, who pinches her son’s trousers to prevent his elopement with Wilhelmina Bennett. And a good thing too, for it frees young Eustace to be wooed by the admirable Jane Hubbard (my favourite of all Wodehouse heroines).
…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…
“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 began 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.”
“Oh, it’s just a knack,” said Jane, carelessly. “You soon pick it up.”
“It ruined them unfortunately. They were never any use again. For the rest of the trip I had to manicure myself with a hunting spear.”
The Girl on The Boat (1921)
Although the romance of Eustace and Jane is not the central affair of The Girl on the Boat, theirs is perhaps my favourite of all Wodehouse couplings. They were marvelously portrayed by Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in a 1962 film adaptation in which they were (as in the book) far more interesting than the leading lovers. The film itself is worth watching, despite some inexcusable departures from the original – much funnier – plot.
To close, we return to my spiritual fictional home of Blandings Castle. I love every word of the Blandings saga and choosing a favourite is impossible, but I offer Heavy Weather for inclusion here because the 1995 television adaptation is my favourite Wodehouse adaptation (with Richard Briers again, this time as Galahad). I shall entertain no criticisms of Peter O’Toole’s performance of Lord Emsworth.
As Heavy Weather closes, we share with the Empress in a state of simple, wholesome contentment that epitomises the Plumtopian ideal – and kind of relaxed mental state I would do well to emulate on the eve of my ‘significant’ birthday.
Empress of Blandings stirred in her sleep and opened an eye. She thought she had heard the rustle of a cabbage-leaf, and she was always ready for cabbage-leaves, no matter how advanced the hour. Something came bowling across the straw, driven by the night breeze.
It was not a cabbage-leaf, only a sheet of paper with writing on it, but she ate it with no sense of disappointment. She was a philosopher and could take things as they came. Tomorrow was another day, and there would be cabbage-leaves in the morning.
Heavy Weather (1933)
In selecting just five works, I am committing the unpardonable sin of overlooking 90 or so others. It has been said, by a very wise bird in Facebook’s Wodehouse community, that choosing one’s favourite Wodehouse is like choosing between your children. But let me assure you that, like the male codfish, I love them all.
After my recent piece in defence of Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen (aka The Cat Nappers) I was compelled to read it again – and found it ripe with good stuff.
… his idea of a good time was to go off with a pair of binoculars and watch birds, a thing that never appealed to me. I can’t see any percentage in it. If I meet a bird, I wave a friendly hand at it, to let it know that I wish it well, but I don’t want to crouch behind a bush observing its habits.
Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen
This little bit on Birdwatching struck an instant chord with me, as someone whose childhood was spent being lugged about by a conscientious parent from one bit of dismal scrub to another, watching birds. Birthdays were marked with the excitement (not mine) of new binoculars, sturdy walking boots, and the latest compendium of Australian Birds. If Muriel Singer’s work The Children’s Book of American Birds existed outside the realms of Wodehouse (‘The Artistic Career of Corky’) it would undoubtedly have been presented to me. When I was older, I progressed to the joys of learning the Latin names for local species.
Sadly, like Bertie Wooster‘s chum Corky, I never had any enthusiasm for the subject: “ …birds, except when broiled and in the society of a cold bottle, bored him stiff.”
Nor was there any respite at home, where my happiness was thwarted by the presence of a Budgerigar. I cannot abide Budgerigars! Ours flapped about the house with carefree insolence, landing on whatever took its fancy – including me. When I took refuge under a bed, the blighter followed. Subsequent encounters with chickens, pigeons, seagulls and magpies have turned my distaste for the fowl species into a phobia.
My phobia has presented me with a few difficulties as a cat owner, because I am incapable of removing feathers and carcass from the premises. But preventing domestic cats from catching birds is not difficult, and I have no sympathy with bird lovers who advocate the destruction of cats (as if birds hold some kind of moral high ground when everyone knows Cats are the superior beings). And I believe Wodehouse would agree with me. As discussed in Cats will be Cats, Wodehouse was ruthless with any character he caught flinging cats – or worse.
Despite my phobia I am content, like Bertie Wooster, to wish birds well from a respectful distance. It is only when the plumed party-of-the-second-part attempts a closer relationship that I object. Pigeons are completely lacking in this courtesy and the use of Hawks to manage the feral pigeon population in London was a stroke of genius. I have great respect for birds of prey and I like to see them encouraged. Perhaps I shall become an anti-Pigeon campaigner – it’s a stance which I fear would not meet with Wodehouse’s approval. But these are desperate times.
Today’s men and women are bewilderingly well informed on matters of sex, relationships and fashion. But our ‘literature’ is silent on the subject of character. Indeed the very notion of character seems to have shifted from something everybody had, for better or worse, to a questionable distinction to be hushed-up wherever possible.
At least for most of the year, until faces begin to sprout the first tell-tale signs of Movember and character is celebrated once more. For every upper lip concealed, Movember reveals much about modern man, testing him in ways he is seldom tested in these times of peace of comfort.
Consider… what trials await the man who can affect naught but the merest wisp of growth upon his lip? Or the man destined by fate to appear ridiculous in all manner of moustache? Watch carefully the way in which he endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And what of the man who gives up, placing the pristinity of his own upper lip above all things? Is such a man to be trusted?
For those worthy souls who persist, raising funds for men’s health, further clues to character can be seen in the moustaches they fashion. Consider the man who settles in early November with a simple style which he maintains without fuss for the duration. Compare, if you will, the man who delights in bizarre experimentation? And what can tactfully be said of the narcissistic groomer, who just can’t leave the thing alone. Oh yes, it is a month for observation.
Movember ought to be considered a standard test for modern relationships. The master himself tackles this weighty issue in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit:
…I saw, as I had foreseen would happen, that his gaze was riveted on the upper slopes of my mouth. It was a cold, disapproving gaze, such as a fastidious luncher who was not fond of caterpillars might have directed at one which he had discovered in his portion of salad, and I knew that the clash of wills for which I had been bracing myself was about to raise its ugly head.
Wodehouse cleverly employs the moustaches of Bertie Wooster and Stilton Cheeswright to symbolise the futility of struggling against a partner’s iron will. A man prepared to tailor his face to your specifications is barely man at all. Put the endearing little chap back where you found him, before his mother discovers he is missing.
During Movember however, my advice to ‘Mo Sistas’ and other partners is to resist the urge to criticise. There’ll be time enough for that later. Invest now in careful observation, before it’s too late to turn back. I’ve spent ten years with a man whose chin I’ve never seen. Even now it lies waiting to be revealed, like Dorian Gray’s portrait.
So look to your Movember man for glimpses of character. Does the moustache become him, or overwhelm him? Is he enjoying the hair and attention? Or slinking in the shadows? It’s not really about the moustache, after all. Character is everything. In Wodehouse’s world, a man can have a crooked face and a cauliflower ear, yet reign supreme. Just as it should be.
But the last words on the subject, I leave to Bertie and Jeeves.
‘You hurt and disappoint me, Jeeves,’ I said, sipping a couple of sips and getting suaver all the time. ‘I could understand your attitude if the object under advisement were something bushy and waxed at the ends like a sergeant-major’s, but it is merely the delicate wisp of vegetation with which David Niven has for years been winning the applause of millions. When you see David Niven on the screen, you don’t recoil in horror, do you?’
‘No, sir. His moustache is very becoming to Mr Niven.’
‘But mine isn’t to me?’
***Support Movember 2013***
This Movember, I’m supporting my good friend Jeremy Groffen. You can make a donation at his Mo Space