Tag Archives: Indian Summer of an Uncle

Happy P.G. Wodehouse Day!

What Ho, and Happy P.G. Wodehouse Day everyone!

That’s what I’m calling Valentine’s Day this year. And why not? It’s a good day for it. Saint Valentine can’t expect all the attention for himself. Nor can he bally well object — as the Patron Saint of affianced couples, love, and marriage — to us celebrating an author who wrote about these things in abundance.

St Valentine’s Day is also the anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s death in 1975. And if your romantic life on Valentine’s Day is as depressing as mine, Wodehouse is the man to turn to for solace and cheer.

This February, I’ve been on a mission to discover your favourite romances from Wodehouse’s world. If you’ll indulge me today (and I really feel somebody ought to), I’d like to share a few of my own favourites.

something-freshJoan Valentine and Ashe Marson

From: Something Fresh

Something Fresh was the book that marked my conversion from a Wodehouse reader to budding completist and fanatic. One of the many memorable features of this novel is the romance between the central  characters.

They are, like most of Wodehouse’s great couples, genuine equals. At the beginning of the story, they’re both earning a meagre income as writers for the same magazine. Joan is an intelligent and capable heroine, brimming with gumption. She motivates Ashe to leave his dingy apartment in search of adventure at Blandings Castle.

“Mr. Marson—”

“Don’t call me Mr. Marson.”

“Ashe, you don’t know what you are doing. You don’t know me. I’ve been knocking about the world for five years and I’m hard–hard right through. I should make you wretched.”

“You are not in the least hard–and you know it. Listen to me, Joan. Where’s your sense of fairness? You crash into my life, turn it upside down, dig me out of my quiet groove, revolutionize my whole existence; and now you propose to drop me and pay no further attention to me. Is it fair?”

“But I don’t. We shall always be the best of friends.”

“We shall–but we will get married first.”

“You are determined?”

“I am!”

Joan laughed happily.

“How perfectly splendid! I was terrified lest I might have made you change your mind.

P.G. Wodehouse's Psmith. Cover of the Bietti edition of Leave it to Psmith (1936).
P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith. Cover of the Bietti edition of Leave it to Psmith (1936).

Psmith and Eve Halliday

From: Leave it to Psmith

Flamboyant, marvellous, ingenious Psmith is the shimmering star of Wodehouse’s early work and a favourite character of many Wodehouse fans,  including me. In Leave it to Psmith, he meets his romantic match in Eve Halliday. Eve is a strong  capable heroine with limited means, while Psmith has been reluctantly employed in the fish business. After a chance encounter, Psmith and Eve meet again at Blandings Castle.

Eve is a star character in her own right, shining though the story in a way that Psmith’s boyhood companion Mike Jackson (much as we’re fond of him) never managed to do. Had Wodehouse matched Psmith with anyone less worthy, we could not have forgiven him.

‘Cynthia advised me,’ proceeded Eve, ‘if ever I married, to marry someone eccentric. She said it was such fun . . . Well, I don’t suppose I am ever likely to meet anyone more eccentric than you, am I?’

‘I think you would be unwise to wait on the chance.’

‘The only thing is . . .’ said Eve reflectively. ‘“Mrs Smith” . . . It doesn’t sound much, does it?’

Psmith beamed encouragingly.

‘We must look into the future,’ he said. ‘We must remember that I am only at the beginning of what I am convinced is to be a singularly illustrious career. “Lady Psmith” is better . . . “Baroness Psmith” better still . . . And – who knows? – “The Duchess of Psmith” . . .’

mr mulliner speakingArchibald Mulliner and Aurelia Cammarleigh

From: ‘The Reverent Wooing of Archibald’ (Mr Mulliner Speaking)

People with a mere nodding acquaintance of Wodehouse are often surprised to learn that he created many central characters like Joan, Eve, Ashe and Psmith (especially in the stand-alone novels) who were obliged to work without the support of a large income. P.G. Wodehouse is much better known as the creator of Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones — idle young men of independent wealth and sub-par intelligence.

And they don’t get much idler or sub-parer than Archibald Mulliner, a genial fellow whose only claim to fame is his ability to imitate a hen laying an egg.

– a ‘Charawk-chawk-chawk-chawk’ of such a calibre that few had ever been able to listen to it dry-eyed. Following which, it was Archibald’s custom to run round the room, flapping the sides of his coat, and albumen which she sees lying beside her in the straw.

Then, gradually, conviction comes.

‘It looks like an egg,’ one seems to hear her say. ‘It feels like an egg. It’s shaped like an egg. Damme, it is an egg!’

And at that, all doubting resolved, the crooning changes; takes on a firmer note; soars into the upper register; and finally swells into a maternal pæan of joy – a ‘Charawk-chawk-chawk-chawk’ of such a calibre that few had ever been able to listen to it dry-eyed. Following which, it was Archibald’s custom to run round the room, flapping the sides of his coat, and then, leaping onto a sofa or some convenient chair, to stand there with his arms at right angles, crowing himself purple in the face.

But even a hen-laying-egg impersonator can find love in Wodehouse’s generous world, although Archibald needs to apply the full extent of his talents to smooth the course of a difficult wooing.

Cyril Mulliner and Amelia Bassett

From: ‘Strychnine in the Soup’ (Mulliner Nights)

Some of the great Wodehouse romances take their time to develop. For others, love blossoms from the very beginning.

Mulliner Nights by P.G. Wodehouse

‘You are evidently fond of mystery plays.’

‘I love them.’

‘So do I. And mystery novels?’

‘Oh, yes!’

‘Have you read “Blood on the Banisters”?’

‘Oh, yes! I thought it was better than “Severed Throats”.’

‘So did I,’ said Cyril. ‘Much better. Brighter murders, subtler detectives, crisper clues.., better in every way.’

The two twin souls gazed into each other’s eyes. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

‘My name is Amelia Bassett,’ said the girl.

‘Mine is Cyril Mulliner. Bassett?’ He frowned thoughtfully. ‘The name seems familiar.’

‘Perhaps you have heard of my mother. Lady Bassett. She’s rather a well-known big-game hunter and explorer. She tramps through jungles and things. She’s gone out to the lobby for a smoke.

This quotation ends with a hint of the difficulties to come, in the shape of Lady Bassett and her explorer chum Lester Maple Durham (pronounced Mum). These fierce obstacles to a happy union are not easily overcome – it will require all of Cyril’s courage, a goodish brace of cocktails, and a copy of Horatio Slingsby’s ‘Strychnine in the Soup’ to win the girl he loves.

Very Good, JeevesPiggy and Maudie

From: ‘Indian Summer of an Uncle’ (Very Good, Jeeves)

In Very Good, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster is reluctantly obliged – under instruction from his Aunt Agatha – to break up his Uncle George’s romance with Rhoda Platt, a young waitress.  With Jeeves’ assistance Bertie is successful in breaking off the romance, causing the occasional misguided critic to point to this story as evidence of misogyny on the part of the author and his characters. This view is drivel!

“Indian Summer of an Uncle” is a rare but triumphant example of a mature couple finding romance in fiction. Rhoda Platt’s Aunt, Maudie Wilberforce, is revealed as the former Criterion bar-maid to whom Uncle George (now Lord Yaxley) was one engaged. If the family considered her an unsuitable match then, she is even less appealing in advanced middle age.

I should think that in her day she must have been a very handsome girl, though even then on the substantial side. By the time she came into my life, she had taken on a good deal of excess weight. She looked like a photograph of an opera singer of the ’eighties.  Also the orange hair and the magenta dress.

But some extra girth and a dash or orange hair are no obstacle to love in Wodehouse’s world. Uncle George has no hesitation in choosing his former love over her pretty young niece.

As Bertie notes:

The first thing she did when she came in was to start talking about the lining of her stomach. You see the hideous significance of that, Jeeves? The lining of his stomach is Uncle George’s favourite topic of conversation. It means that he and she are kindred souls.

The reunion of Maudie Wilberforce and ‘Piggy’ Wooster is a touching scene, in which the lining of stomachs features heavily. And it gives an aged and girthed f. of the s. like myself some small hope for the future.

But that’s enough sentiment from me today. I’m off to read Honeysuckle Cottage.

If you can stomach a little more romance, Ashok Bhatia has also written something special for the occasion – on Cupid in Plumsville:

Happy wooing, friends!

HP 

Wodehouse on women: Bachelors Anonymous

Bachelors Anonymous by P.G. Wodehouse

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.

The storyline

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.

HP

Wodehouse’s Women: the case for the defence

The Clicking Of Cuthbert by P.G. Wodehouse
The Clicking Of Cuthbert includes some fabulous female characters

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.

HP

See also: Wodehouse’s Women: Bachelors Anonymous