P.G. Wodehouse is well known as the author of some of the most ghastly and terrifying aunts ever committed to paper. For this particular gift to literature, he is beloved by some and despised by others as an apparent misogynist. Both attitudes are ridiculous. Wodehouse was wonderfully egalitarian in his comedy — anyone can be a stinker in his fictional world. One might even argue that his fictional fathers are a good deal worse than the aunts.
One of the foulest examples of the species is J. Washburn Stoker.
He was a cove who always reminded me of a pirate of the Spanish Main – a massive blighter and piercing-eyed, to boot. So far from laughing at the sight of him, I had never yet failed to feel absolutely spineless in his presence.
In Thank You, Jeeves he keeps his daughter Pauline a prisoner on his yacht, and kidnaps Bertie Wooster with the intention of forcing them to marry.
My circle of friends is crammed with fellows who would consider it dashed diverting to bung you into a room and lock the door. But on the present occasion I could not see this being the solution. There was nothing roguish about old Stoker. Whatever view you might take of this fishy-eyed man, you would never call him playful. If Pop Stoker put his guests in cold storage, his motive in so doing was sinister.
Bertie Wooster compares this Stoker menace — in a conversation with his daughter Emerald — with another foul specimen of fatherhood, Sir Watkyn Bassett.
We now come to Sir Watkyn Bassett, Madeline’s father.’
‘Yes, she mentioned her father.’
‘And well she might.’
‘What’s he like?’
‘One of those horrors from outer space. It may seem a hard thing to say of any man, but I would rank Sir Watkyn Bassett as an even bigger stinker than your father.’
‘Would you call Father a stinker?’
‘Not to his face, perhaps.’
‘He thinks you’re crazy.’
‘Bless his old heart.’
‘And you can’t say he’s wrong. Anyway, he’s not so bad, if you rub him the right way.’
‘Very possibly, but if you think a busy man like myself has time to go rubbing your father, either with or against the grain, you are greatly mistaken.
Pop Bassett is a recurring source of unpleasantness in Bertie’s life, as one might expect from the sort of man who keeps willing company with an amateur dictator like Roderick Spode. As a father he’s far from ideal — objecting to both Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bertram Wooster (who have their faults, but are essentially harmless) as potential son-in-laws, but pleased at the prospect of Madeline marrying Spode.
While some Wodehouse characters are hampered by an unpleasant father, others are regrettably inclined to follow in their footsteps. Like Sir Jaklyn Warner, Baronet in Bachelors Anonymous.
With those who had known them both it was a constant source of debate as to whether Jaklyn was or was not a more slippery character than his late father. Some said Yes, some said No, but it was agreed that it was a close thing, and the opinion of those who had suffered at their hands that the crookedness of each was such as to enable him to hide at will behind a spiral staircase was universally held.
Lady Florence Craye also takes after her father, Lord Worplesdon. Local constabulary Stilton Cheesewright describes him as ‘..a menace to the community and would be directly responsible if half the population of Steeple Bumpleigh were murdered in their beds’ (Joy in the Morning).
Bertie Wooster is similarly scathing about him.
This Lord Worplesdon was Florence’s father. He was the old buster who, a few years later, came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of the family. This, mind you, being a bit of luck for the bosom of the family, for old Worplesdon had the worst temper in the county.
The Worplesdon case provides us with an example to test my original premise that Wodehouse was even-handed in his treatment of the sexes, because Worplesdon later marries the most famous of all Wodehouse Aunts — Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha. Bertie weighs the merits of both stinkers, and is inclined to call the thing a tie.
When, about eighteen months before, news had reached me through well-informed channels that my Aunt Agatha, for many years a widow, or derelict, as I believe it is called, was about to take another pop at matrimony, my first emotion, as was natural in the circumstances, had been a gentle pity for the unfortunate goop slated to step up the aisle with her – she, as you are aware, being my tough aunt, the one who eats broken bottles and conducts human sacrifices by the light of the full moon.
But when details began to come in, and I discovered that the bimbo who had drawn the short straw was Lord Worplesdon, the shipping magnate, this tender commiseration became sensibly diminished. The thing, I felt, would be no walkover. Even if in the fullness of time she wore him down and at length succeeded in making him jump through hoops, she would know she had been in a fight.
All this might lead you to think that Wodehouse had some sort of grudge against fathers, but, just as he gave Bertie a ‘good and deserving’ Aunt Dahlia, he created plenty of fine father figures too. No fathers, daughters, aunts or nephews were harmed in the creation of his comic art. They exist purely to delight us. Thank you, Wodehouse.
The last word for today, I leave to Monty Bodkin.
‘Must stop now. Getting late. All my love. Remember me to your father and tell him I hope he chokes.’
P.S. Happy Fathers Day to my own Dad, who is neither a blighter, nor a stinker.
9 thoughts on “Never mind the Aunts: P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional fathers are stinkers too”
There are indeed fathers, and fathers, in the Wodehouse oeuvre. It’s noteworthy that the adventures of both Mike and Psmith are much influenced by paternal failings. Mike was unable to go to Cambridge because his father had “lost a very large sum of money”. And Psmith’s father, presumably speculating injudiciously, deprived his son of a proper inheritance, and sent him into the fish business via the City. I have a fellow-feeling towards those two, also having missed out on university although for no very apparent reason – certainly not for lack of paternal support. Like Mike and Psmith I became a bank clerk, but then escaped into the world of newspapers – a curious milieu which always slightly puzzled my organised, logical public servant father.
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I hadn’t appreciate quite how strongly your career path and Mike/Psmith/Plum’s were aligned. That must add a special feeling of familiarity with the Psmith stories.
The paternal influences are much stronger in the school stories. I’d forgotten that. In the later stories, fathers provide various obstacles and challenges for our heroes and heroines to overcome, much like the aunts. Doting father figures pop up from time to time, but a stinker is far more useful to a comic author.
I accuse you of two tortious acts:
1. The rubbing quotation made me choke on my morning cuppa, dash it.
2. Only yesterday I packed up my Wodehouse collection in preparation for a move, and now I shall have to go trawling through it to find the books from which these quotations were taken, and all the weary work of packing to do all over again.
Be advised that I shall mulct you in considerable damages. (Or “Like” your post, whichever is easier.)
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Gosh. I shall consider myself ticked off. I hope you didn’t burn yourself on the cuppa.
I hate packing books for a move so you have my sympathies, old bean. I hope it goes painlessly well and that you are restored to a comfy chair surrounded by reading matter again in no time.
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Let this be a lesson to you: always pack the Wodehouse last – along with the necessary impedimenta for a cup of tea on arrival at Point B.
Methinks Mrs Plum has forgotten Father’s Day.in Oz is not until September. Never mind, she’s raised an interesting topic. When you think about it, Mrs Plum has pretty much covered the field in two. There aren’t many nasty paters in the canon — uncles yes but not fathers. With exceptions, they are usually distrait, indulgent of their daughters and horrified by their sons. The saddest dad I can think of is William Bates, the golfer whose wife runs off with Rodney Spelvin. I can’t remember fathers locking locking up their daughters to keep them away from unsuitable beaux. Their mothers and aunts do that, and block their inheritances.
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What Ho, Noel, I was accustomed to commemorating the date (to the extent that I commemorate any of these things) in June while living in the UK. I thought I had better end with a touch of kindness, lest my piece gives anyone’s poor old Dad a persecution complex.
Following on from your other point, there are even fewer mothers in PGW’s work.
Accurate and very interesting post, as ever Honoria.
I just finished re-reading Thank You, Jeeves and the old Stoker is the perfect example of what too much money, dictatorship attitude, bad temper and horrible digestion can do to an otherwise average millionaire American father.
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Thanks George. Pop Stoker really is a stinker isn’t he?