Wodehouse and the melancholy beard

It seems that P.G.Wodehouse, creator of dapper drones like Bertie Wooster (who wrote an article for Milady’s Boudoir on ‘What the What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing’) was not a beard lover. When his clean shaven characters take to wearing false whiskers, the results are apt to be shocking.

9781585679225_p0_v1_s192x300“…for the first time since I’d known him, I saw Jeeves come very near to being rattled. I suppose there’s a chink in everyone’s armour, and young Bingo found Jeeves’s right at the drop of the flag when he breezed in with six inches or so of brown beard hanging on to his chin. I had forgotten to warn Jeeves about the beard, and it came on him absolutely out of a blue sky. I saw the man’s jaw drop, and he clutched at the table for support. I don’t blame him, mind you. Few people have ever looked fouler than young Bingo in the fungus. Jeeves paled a little; then the weakness passed and he was himself again. But I could see that he had been shaken.

The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)

Writing of his own experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi internment camp during WWII, Wodehouse said:

A lot of us grew beards. Not me. What I felt was that there is surely enough sadness in life without going out of one’s way to increase it by sprouting a spade-shaped beard. I found it a melancholy experience to watch the loved features of some familiar friend becoming day by day less recognizable behind the undergrowth. A few fungus-fanciers looked about as repulsive as it is possible to look, and one felt a gentle pity for the corporal whose duty is was to wake them in the morning. What a way to start one’s day!

O’Brien, one of the sailors, had a long Assyrian beard, falling like a cataract down his chest, and it gave me quite a start when at the beginning of the summer he suddenly shaved, revealing himself as a spruce young fellow in the early twenties. I had been looking on him all the time as about twenty years my senior, and only my natural breeding had kept me from addressing him as ‘Grandpop’.

  Wodehouse in a letter to Bill Townend, printed in Performing Flea

The origin of Wodehouse’s anti-beard prejudice is unclear. None of his biographers have, to my knowledge, produced a hirsute Aunt or bewhiskered school-master who might be held responsible. And while Wodehouse might not have been an actual pagonophobe, his views on the subject are remarkably consistent.

Wodehouse returns to melancholia of the beard in his masterly short story, ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert.

His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair, but his eyes were visible through the undergrowth, and it seemed to Cuthbert that there was an expression in them not unlike that of a cat in a strange backyard surrounded by small boys. The man looked forlorn and hopeless, and Cuthbert wondered whether he had had bad news from home.

Looking at a photo of that other Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, one begins to understand Wodehouse’s point.

The memorably bearded Leo Tolstoy.                                     Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Karenina is one of my favourite novels, so I was pleased to learn that this depressed looking author reportedly read Wodehouse to his children, and (according to Wodehouse experts Norman Murphy and Ian Sproat) had a copy of The Captain magazine, in which Wodehouse’s early stories were published, on his bedside table.

HP

[P.S. Wodehouse could also be severe about moustaches]

16 thoughts on “Wodehouse and the melancholy beard”

  1. Wonderful post! I love PGW’s views on beards – and have used “face fungus” to refer to beards in general conversation, but sadly it appears that the humour of this remark is lost on non-Wodehouse fans! I can’t imagine what he would have thought of the new craze of men wearing flowers entwined in their beards!!!

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    1. My thoughts precisely! When I googled ‘beards’ to look for images, I got a staggering 30 million search result. Lots of advice for hipster beard wearers, celebrity beard watching, and musings on how sexy/manly beards are. All of it serious, much of it ridiculous. I
      toyed with the idea of making this a piece about grooming advice for the Wodehouse-loving hipster, but I just couldn’t make it funnier than the rot being written already.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What Ho, Honoria! Imagine my delight to wake up this morning to discover I have a new follower whose blog is devoted to none other than my favorite author ever!! I cannot wait to spend a few happy hours here and there delving into your past posts and enjoying the ones to come. Chuffed!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    Undergrowth and Fungus are just two of the several terms used by Plum to describe beards. There being a positive correlation between beards and melancholy, it follows that a humorist of his stature would be a stout supporter of clean shaven men.

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    1. Not all of Wodehouse’s references to beards are derogatory or farcical. In Leave It to Psmith, Psmith says of Blandings: “It is the sort of place where one feels that one could gladly settle down into a peaceful retirement and grow a honey-coloured beard.” Similarly, in A Damsel in Distress, Reggie Byng admires George Bevan’s cottage near Belpher Castle: “I’ve often thought it would be a rather sound scheme to settle down in this sort of shanty and keep chickens and grow a honey-coloured beard, and have soup and jelly brought to you by the vicar’s wife and so forth.”
      I’ve let my own beard grow while staying in during the virus crisis, but alas, it isn’t honey-coloured.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Indeed. There are positive references elsewhere too. But pray do not worry too much about the colour part. It is the fungus itself which makes all the difference. Many of us, in our anxiety to suppress grey-coloured ones, use henna powder which, over the years, make the appendage acquire a unique golden-honey shade, thereby spilling the beans to all and sundry.

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      2. A dozen or so years ago, when growing facial hair for stage roles in opera choruses and the like, my beard had started to whiten even though the rest of my hair was still dark brown. I used hair dyes from the drugstore to make the beard match. Now that I’m much grayer on top, the beard is only a little whiter than the rest of my hair, so there’s no need for henna or hair dye: as you say, the results usually proclaim their artificial origin.
        I think I know where Wodehouse got the idea for a honey-coloured beard; as noted in https://www.madameulalie.org/annots/pgwbooks/pgwadid1.html#honeybeard it’s from Browning’s description of Ivàn Ivànovitch. Follow the above link to the Madame Eulalie annotations of A Damsel in Distress for an active link to the Browning poem at Google Books.
        And speaking of fungus, has everyone here seen the Madame Eulalie annotation that tells where Wodehouse got the term?
        https://www.madameulalie.org/annots/pgwbooks/pgwrhj1.html#fungus

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Thank you Neil. You and Madame Eulalie are the Cat’s Pyjamas! I love uncovering the references –and the references within references — in Wodehouse’s writing.

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