Recently, over the morning eggs and b., I stumbled across a thoughtful piece by Alessandro Giuliani called Wodehouse Game. I was prompted to reply, but when my comments hit the 1200-word mark – and diverged substantially from the original piece, I felt the decent thing to do was post it here, rather than infest someone else’s blog with my rambling.
The premise of Alessandro Giuliani’s piece is that men are repelled by women who are smarter or physically more dominant than them. P.G. Wodehouse’s Florence Craye is provided as an example:
The root of the trouble was that she was one of those intellectual girls, steeped to the gills in serious purpose, who are unable to see a male soul without wanting to get behind it and shove.
Florence Craye is a well-chosen example that illustrates Alessandro Giuliani’s point. She is one of many characters from the world of fiction (male and female) who illustrate the adage that beauty is only skin deep. The premise gives Wodehouse some good plots involving Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones. They are the kind of chumps we can believe would idolise a woman’s exterior and find themselves entangled, without first taking due care to investigate her character.
But there are also examples from Wodehouse’s world that exemplify the opposite view – that men can and do fall in love with women who are their intellectual and physical equals, or betters.
Wodehouse created a diverse range of female characters in over 90+ published works, of whom Florence Craye is just one example. His heroines are frequently intelligent, without repulsing the men around them. Joan Valentine (Something Fresh) and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith) spring to mind as two of my favourite examples, but there are many Wodehouse heroines, sympathetically written without censure from the author for being clever or dominant characters.
In The Girl On The Boat, feeble young Eustace Hignett falls in love with the stronger and more capable Jane Hubbard, an African explorer. Their mutual adoration and romance is delightfully drawn by Wodehouse. Jane’s strength and cool headedness is exactly what Eustace needs, and Wodehouse presents them as a perfect and natural fit for each other – there is no suggestion that Eustace has been trapped, or has any cause to resents his union with a dominant female.
…Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa. Ever since he had become ill, it had been the large-hearted girl’s kindly practice to soothe him to rest with some such narrative from her energetic past.
‘And what happened then?’ asked Eustace, breathlessly.
He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient begins to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle -pump.
‘Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!’ said Jane Hubbard.
‘You know, you’re wonderful!’ cried Eustace. ‘Simply wonderful!’
Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm. He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.
‘Why, if an alligator got into my tent,’ said Eustace, ‘I simply wouldn’t know what to do! I should be nonplussed.’
Most of the criticisms I read about Wodehouse’s portrayal of women are put forward by people who haven’t read much Wodehouse beyond the Jeeves stories. These stories are written in the wonderful, half-witted narrative voice of Bertie Wooster — a unique comedic creation who cannot seriously be considered a mouthpiece for his creator’s personal views. Nor are his relationships with women the only type of male-female relationships in Wodehouse’s fictional world.
I’ve read Wodehouse’s published works several times over and I find him a great egalitarian. His cast of characters includes heroes, heroines, blighters and stinkers –of all shapes and sizes, age and genders. The behaviour and opinions of his characters can be used to exemplify a wide range of contradictory world views. Provided we don’t take it too seriously, this ‘Wodehouse Game’ can be fun and instructive to play.