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.
See also: Wodehouse’s Women: Bachelors Anonymous
43 thoughts on “Wodehouse’s Women: the case for the defence”
I’d like to share some comments from my chum Sudheer (shared elsewhere) on this piece:
“I might venture to add that his characterisation of females in non Jeeves novels is far more striking. Take for example Sally from ‘Adventures of Sally’. There are so many shades to her self. And more complex characters can be found in ”The man upstairs”.
What an interesting corner you have created, Honoria ( your name really?). And I completely agree with your idea ‘Surely there is enough complexity in the world already without wishing it upon our humourists’. The sole reason many of us, despite whatever else we do, veer toward PG Wodehouse is the humour, which is clean, non-offensive with no innuendos there, and nothing is a tax on our mind to unearth. So to worry about someone lacking depth in development of character/s amounts to expecting the wrong things from the wrong people. Thank god PG Wodehouse does not read like Dostoyevsky- a giant no doubt, but then only when you want to encounter one.
Absolutely, Prateeksha! It’s nice to be among like-minded souls.
oh you might want to read my bit too- http://aroundgoa.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/how-pg-wodehouse-colours-imagination/
Oh, how lovely! Would you mind if I re-blog it here?
I haven’t read enough PGW yet to comment on male vs. female *characters*. But there are a few passages concerning women that really trouble me. Here are two:
“This was the sort of man she wanted as a partner in life. How grandly he would teach her to play golf. It had sickened her when her former instructors, prefacing their criticism with glutinous praise, had mildly suggested that some people found it a good thing to keep the head still when driving and that though her methods were splendid it might be worth trying. They had spoken of her keeping her eye on the ball as if she were doing the ball a favour. What she wanted was a great, strong, rough brute of a fellow who would tell her not to move her damned head; a rugged Viking of a chap who, if she did not keep her eye on the ball, would black it for her. And Ramsden Waters was such a one.” — “The Rough Stuff,” in _The Clicking of Cuthbert_
” ‘Listen, Nobby,’ I said.
She didn’t, of course. I’ve never met a girl yet who did. Say ‘Listen’ to any member of the delicately nurtured sex, and she takes it as a cue to start talking herself. However, as the subject she introduced proved to be the very one I had been planning to ventilate, the desire to beat her brains out with a brick was not so pronounced as it would otherwise have been.” — _Joy in the Morning_
I can’t recall if I’ve encountered more comments like this, but each of these is enough to prevent me from recommending either book to friends. This is fine when it comes to _Joy_, as I don’t much care for it. But it really is too bad for _Clicking_, since that is among my favorite Wodehouse, and the golf anthologies that avoid “The Rough Stuff” also avoid “A Woman is Only a Woman,” which is among my favorite Wodehouse short stories. (I realize the title of that last story may be controversial in itself, but I think the story puts that concern to rest.)
Paul, I’m not so keen on the first passage myself, nor that sort of chap. It is out keeping with Wodehouse’s usual heroes and I suspect it’s a parody of that (bewilderingly) popular genre of romantic fiction with the rough, strong hero. I certainly don’t think it’s indicative of Wodehouse’s own views or his characters generally. Plenty of his heroines prefer timid men, and many of his male characters would never dream of uttering the sentiments expressed by Bertie Wooster in your second passage. Such a wide variety of attitudes are expressed by his many characters over the years that it’s difficult to take any passage as an indication of Wodehouse’s own views. Having said that, some readers may still be bothered by them.
It’s extraordinarily difficult for us PGW lovers to accept, but his portrayals of women require us to first understand his own relationships with women. And sad as I am to admit it, it was Christopher Hitchens who probably got it right with his theory that Wodehouse had been impotent throughout his life, most likely due to a badly diagnosed and treated childhood attack of measles. That would explain the lack of any genuine sexual content in his books,and more interestingly, the immaturity of his portrayals of love and marriage.
According to Hitchens, his marriage was an obvious arrangement of convenience, with his dogs as surrogate children.
What Ho, Murali! I am not aware that Hitchens said this. Can you direct me to the source as I’m curious? I have heard similar theories put forward by others, but I’m yet to be convinced (not that I mind especially). I don’t think Wodehouse’s lack of sexual content should be taken as a sign of immaturity or impotence. Plenty of authors omit sex from their work, and plenty of readers (self included) are perfectly satisfied without it. Don’t forget that Wodehouse started writing for boys, back in the 19th century. It’s only in recent years that we’ve become accustomed to sex being everywhere. For much of his writing career it would have been highly inappropriate. As for his marriage, it doesn’t really stand out to me (from my reading of it) as being so very different from many others. All successful marriages (and many unhappy ones, for that matter) have an element of convenience about them. None of it makes much difference to us as readers, and I’m not invested in any particular way of viewing Wodehouse the man. But I’m increasingly aware that some of the theories repeated about Wodehouse are more fanciful than factual.
I believe this was in Hitchens’s review of McCrum’s biography.
Paul is right, Honoria. I recall it was in Hitchens’s review of McCrum’s biography that he presented his analysis.
Be that as it may, my own view is that the word ‘asexual’ probably best describes Wodehouse’s depiction of the grand passion. This, combined with the secondary role he so clearly assigns to women, results in their characterization being less than complete. One could argue that this was typical of the Victorian era, but I don’t think that would stand up to any kind of careful analysis. One is forced to conclude that he was simply not that curious about women. And from that point, one starts to wonder if Hitchens wasn’t correct after all.
Murali, thanks for this discussion and for directing me to Hitchens’ piece. I am a Hitchens fan and he always makes good points, although he’s clearly being deliberately provocative here (he is very openly having ‘a go’ at Wodehouse fans). I’m curious to understand why people feel the lack of passion/sex/sexual tension in Wodehouse’s writing suggests some kind of sexual shortcomings in Wodehouse the man. There is no death in Wodehouse either, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest he had ‘issues’ about death. As a writer of ‘light’ comedy (as opposed to dark comedy) for a wide audience of men, women and children, sex would have been out of place in his work. This is by far the most logical explanation. In life, he was shy and retiring by disposition. Like so many of his characters, he seems to have been an old-fashioned gentleman when it came to women – I suspect, a rather naive (inexperienced) one. This isn’t uncommon, even in modern times. I don’t really see how anyone, Hitchens included, could purport to ‘explain’ Wodehouse’s sex life. Well bred people of Wodehouse’s era did not discuss their sexual exploits (and don’t discuss them now, for that matter). We know he wasn’t an oversexed Lothario. We know his books don’t contain sex. But to conclude that he was asexual seems quite a leap to make. Quite a lot of writers don’t write about sex, and lead perfectly quiet sex lives.
Honoria, I agree that we’ll never know the truth of the matter, and we should certainly respect Plum’s privacy. So I’ll move on from the Hitchens theory, and state that ‘asexual’ is my own conclusion. If I were to compare Plum’s women to Conan Doyle’s, for example, I certainly get the impression of a much more ‘grown up’ rendering from the creator of Holmes. Irene Adler is the obvious name that comes to mind. In similar vein, if I were to recall Jerome K Jerome’s women, I would draw the same conclusion.J’s wife, Ethelberta, is, to me, so much more complete than the Wodehousian women, although she appears so very briefly.
I honestly don’t know why. It’s all completely subjective. That said, to each his or her own view.
Murali, I would be interested to know why you think Wodehouse assigns a ‘secondary role’ to women. It is true that their characterization is less than complete, but if you examine his writing, you will find that beyond Bertie Wooster (who we get to know better in his role as narrator), his characterization of male characters is equally lacking. The focus is very much on plot and language – he didn’t go in for deep characterization of anyone. The only characters we get to know are his recurring characters, and his central characters, who are sometimes women (The Adventures of Sally, and Dr Sally being two examples of novels with female leads). He created a wide range of female characters – young girls, feisty heroines, soupy heroines, attractive heroines. He gives us stern aunts, barmy aunts, and nice ones. His women work in a range of professions, including pig-girls, private eyes, big game hunters, chorus girls, secretaries, writers, golfers, and philosophers. They come in all ages, shapes and sizes. I can’t think a writer of his era – or ours – who has provided a more diverse range of women. He wrote female characters that WOMEN love to read! I am always baffled when people suggest there is something lacking in his female characters. I’d love to better understand why you think it true.
Secondary in the sense of not primary. For the most part, the main protagonists are men. Dr Sally is an exception, to be sure. But I cannot recall many other such.
Which is not to say, of course, that secondary characters are not interesting or even fascinating. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, for example, Mycroft is perhaps even more interesting a person than his illustrious brother.
What Ho again, Murali. Certainly when you compare Wodehouse to a more serious author (i.e. not a writer in the comic genre) you will find both his male and female characters lack depth. But I would argue that Wodehouse’s female characters are no less developed than his males overall. You are quite right that he had more male central characters than female, but it is not unusual for male authors to have no female leads at all. I would suggest looking at other popular writers of comedy (Tom Sharpe, John Mortimer, GM Fraser, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett) to attempt a fair comparison. I suggest these only because I’m very familiar with their writing. Although I enjoy them all, I think there are considerable grounds to charge the first three authors on that list of obvious sexism; Sharpe’s portrayal of women is habitually unpleasant, as is Rumpole’s ‘she who must be obeyed’, and Flashman (who I love reading about and Wodehouse reportedly did too) is an unapologetic rapist and sexist cad who gives us a full, frank and thoroughly sordid account of his sexual exploits. Douglas Adams is more sympathetic, but his women are certainly secondary characters. Terry Pratchett is the only one of this group who offers as much breadth of character in his women as Wodehouse – and a good deal more depth. But otherwise, Wodehouse compares very favourably with male authors in his own genre. He also compares well with the male detective/thriller writers of his own era, whose female characters were typically one-dimensional sex-objects. You mention the Sherlock Holmes stories (which I greatly enjoyed), but they don’t contain the same breadth of memorable female characters that Wodehouse offers. I know many people feel as you do about Wodehouse’s women, but I can think of few males, writing in comparable genres, who create better women or offer more diversity in their female characters. What’s more, Wodehouse has a large following of female readers who greatly appreciate him for it.
What ho, what ho, what ho, Honoria. In fact, what, what, what a la Major General Sir Masterman Petherick – Soames.
Would it not make sense, while discussing early 20th century humorists, to also bring in the world of theatre and playwrights?
Should we not also compare Plum’s women to Shaw’s women and to Wilde’s women? Perhaps even to Noel Coward’s women?
How plead you?
Ahh… Now you are talking. Great idea. I think Shaw’s women are terrific! Wilde and Coward are not so…. sympathetic, but I love them anyway.
Honoria can I recommend you read a lovely personal piece from Stephen Fry on Wodehouse. I believe it just about sums up how many of us feel about the dear man.
“Many have sought to “explain” Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of modern literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like “taking a spade to a soufflé”. His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanently pre-pubescent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary, magical and blessed miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that dispels doubt much as sunlight dispels shadows, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.
I have written it before and am not ashamed to write it again. Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today – whatever that may be. In my teenage years, his writings awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me. But more than that, he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.
He mocked himself sometimes because he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn’t it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?”
Here’s Stephen at
And a Youtube video of Fry on Wodehouse
What Ho and thanks, Norman. Fry’s views on the subject of Wodehouse are legendary, but always worth revisiting. Thanks very much for sharing them here. Reading Wodehouse has given many people a reason to smile in difficult times, a means to survive the drudgery of ordinary life – myself included. I’m not sure how seriously Fry believes that even positive criticism and analysis of Wodehouse is “silly” (having indulged in this himself), but I certainly do it here. It’s terrific fun! I’ve always tried to live up to Fry’s words by ensuring my pieces are as as silly as possible.
I think Stephen Fry’s phrase “taking a spade to a soufflé” just about explains attempts to ‘seriously’ criticise Wodehouse. And for those who feel Wodehouse lacked depth, when he chose he could draw minor characters with great sympathy and affection. For example, in the 1926 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.”
You can see why we are admirers.
One of my favourite passages. I heartily agree with you.
I read your article. Then I read Janet Cameron’s article. I was in the middle of saying what I thought about the latter when my computer crashed. On reflection it was probably just as well.
Lets just say that, having googled her, her credentials are in no way reflected in her piece.
I get very annoyed at bad writing, and writers who don’t do their research, especially by those who should know better.
Your ‘defence’ is both courteous and well-reasoned. Without wishing to pry into your personal life: having read several of your posts now (in fact I’ve been on this site most of the day!) I would strongly recommend you look into writing as a professional career.
I notice you already seem to have made a start at this with articles in the ‘Quality Press’ (kudos!) but the links are broken so I was unable to read them.
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Victoria, you could pay me no higher compliment and you’ve made my day. Thank you!
Every day I work towards working as a writer. I wake at 5am, trying to churn out a first novel (I have a day job, hence the early start), although I’m more confident writing this sort of thing than I am with fiction. My background is in public administration, but I’ve applied for a few communications posts. Unfortunately as a middle aged career changer, I’m not as experienced as younger candidates.
But every day I’m not working as a writer is another day regretted. To impress someone with your keen eye is a terrific boost! Thanks so much.
Your prose style is excellent and I would think you would have no problems finding success as a columnist or article writer in the press. Perhaps this is something you could consider in the short term? Having worked in communications at one point I would say, unfortunately, you are highly unlikely to get a post in middle age without a track record in a cross-over field. It’s a very oversubscribed area and they can afford to be brutally picky.
I wanted to be a novelist myself, some decades ago, (from hints on your posts, I think we are peers) and attended various workshops before realising that novels were never going to be my thing and that my actual forte was in script-writing.
There’s no doubt at all that you can write but I think the key to knowing what form your writing will take, lies in how easy you find it. Once I switched to script-writing it moved from being a struggle to being a doddle. I would suggest trying your hand at different forms and seeing how you find it.
A couple of things I took away from the workshops was that writing short stories is excellent training and a very useful book called ‘Writing Down the Bones’.
Rising at 5am to work on your novel indicates commendable discipline and determination – just make sure you’re spending it in the right direction!
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You are right of course.
I’ve known that all along, deep down.
There’s a mindset that I’ve succumbed to that a writer writes one particular kind of thing. Your advice is good and I shall leap onto it.
Every day you work towards being an *author*.
When someone blogs to the standard that you do, you have the right to call yourself a writer already.
If you point me in the direction of an extract from your work-in-progress, I’d be happy to give you an opinion if you’d like.
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Thanks Victoria. That’s very kind of you. I shall get something together .
I’m a humble reader who doesn’t think Wodehouse is a misogynist — he does paint his male and female characters very differently, though. His male characters (save for Jeeves) are bumbling and useless wastrels for the most part, and his most of his female characters are very strong, creative, mature, and self-assured, amongst other things. They also tend to be very manipulative and sometimes, as in Stiffy’s case, seem to delight in manipulative men. Additionally, every female seems to have marriage as a final destination, but this could be the culture of the era. It seems to me that Wodehouse creates stereotypes of both sexes, without focusing on one or the other in particular. I also wanted to add that humour is not an excuse for sexism, racism, etc. We should not forgive misogyny just because it comes wrapped in jokes. But if anything, Wodehouse comes across as more misanthropic than anything else.
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I agree with you — humour is not an acceptable cover for prejudices of any kind.
On the subject of Wodehouse’s characters, you make some good points. As he wrote romances, matrimony is often the aim of his characters (male and female). In the Jeeves stories, the stereotypes you mention are seen often — strong women, contrasting against bumbling Bertie and the Drones. But in his other work, particularly the stand alone novels, we find his heroines are admirable, intelligent women who are capable and independent of men. Marriage is not their aim — and they are not manipulative in love. The heroes in these novels tend to be solid, dependable chaps — far more so than Bertie and the Drones.
I’m still making my way through Wodehouse’s body of work, and I started with Jeeves, but I’m looking forward to reading the entire canon, so as to get a more balanced view of the author. His work is a delight to read, especially because of his genius turns of phrase.
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You have a great treat ahead. I love the Jeeves and Wooster stories and return to them often, but there is so much more to enjoy — so glad you’re discovering the rest of his work. Happy reading!
If you love the Jeeves & Wooster books, wait till you read his novels written in the second person. When he writes in the first person he usually assumes the persona of a bit of a twit, which limits how clever he can be as a narrator. His books written in second person are (in my opinion) much better. Try the Blandings Castle series.
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Oh heck, pardon my senility, when I wrote “second person” I meant “third person”.
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People commenting on this need to read PGW’s novel ‘The Old Reliable’ before they form any more opinions. In this book the eponymous female (lead) character is nicknamed due to her (Jeeves-like) reliability in helping get her friends out of sticky situations. One of Wodehouse’s many ‘working girls’, she is clever, confident, brave, hugely resourceful and (unusually for PGW) not even a piece of eye candy.
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Oh my, all this scholarship! His young women are resourceful, clever, and systematically run rings around the young men, who are pretty generally portrayed as vapid and pathetic with more money than sense. The aunts are formidable; the old gentlemen either pompous and silly or gentle and virtually feeble-minded. I think it is clear which gender is portrayed as more worthy of respect, and it isn’t the men! (I admit Rosie M Banks is an exception.),
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Well said! I think Wodehouse makes fun of men and women — where there’s comic potential — fairly evenly overall.