Tag Archives: Women

More Wodehouse Games

The Girl on the Boat by P.G. WodehouseRecently, 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.

Joy in the Morning

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.’

The Girl on the Boat

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.

HP

The women of Wodehouse

Another reader’s perspective the subject of Wodehouse’s women is offered here. Interestingly, her view of the subject changed after she varied her Wodehouse diet beyond the Jeeves stores.

projectsmallfry

I don’t know if you’ll remember but I kind of have a thing for this guy called Pelham Graham Wodehouse. Relax, it’s not at hidden-shrine-in-back-of-closet level, I just happen to think the man is a legend and the creator all things amazing and beautiful. The most I’ve read of Wodehouse is the Jeeves series, a few Blandings novels, The Uncle Fred series and a school story or two from the early years (I recommend A Prefects Uncle and The Golden Bat.) Yet as a woman, there was always the impression that I was butting into a very exclusive boys club. The women in Wodehouse novels, as I’ve mentioned on Small Fry before, are neatly categorised into one of three. The sappy, annoying kind that need to be drowned with immediate effect (Madeline Basset), the tall, stately ones with their minds full of the higher pursuits in life (Florence Craye, famed…

View original post 414 more words

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