The delicately nurtured amongst us occasionally bemoan the way they have been treated by the Master Wordsmith of our times – P G Wodehouse. Admittedly, his narratives are replete with somewhat jaundiced references to the fairer sex. We could readily jump to the conclusion that his works have been written only for an exclusive boys’ club.
Consider these samples from ‘Jeeves in the Offing’:
‘It just shows you what women are like. A frightful sex, Bertie. There ought to be a law. I hope to live to see the day when women are no longer allowed.’
‘That would rather put a stopper on keeping the human race going, wouldn’t it?’
‘Well, who wants to keep the human race going?’
‘I see what you mean. Yes, something in that, of course.’
‘Why? You were crazy about the girl once.’
‘But no longer. The fever has passed, the scales have fallen from my eyes, and we’re just good friends. The snag in this business of falling in love, aged relative, is that the parties of the first part so often get mixed up with the wrong parties of the second part, robbed of their cooler judgment by the parties of the second part’s glamour. Put it like this. The male sex is divided into rabbits and non-rabbits and the female sex into dashers and dormice, and the trouble is that the male rabbit has a way of getting attracted by a female dasher (who would be fine for the male non-rabbit) and realizing too late that he ought to have been concentrating on some mild, gentle dormouse with whom he could settle down peacefully and nibble lettuce.’
‘Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering.’
Of course, there are several others, liberally embedded in most of his works. Consider this one from the story, ‘Jeeves and the Kid Clementina.’
‘I was suffering from a considerable strain of the old nerves at the moment, of course, and, looking back, it may be that i was too harsh; but the way i felt in that dark, roosting hour was that you can say what you like, but the more a thoughtful man has to do with women, the more extraordinary it seems to him that such a sex should be allowed to clutter up the earth.’
Going through stuff such as this, any self-respecting woman is likely to get offended. Hate at first sight would ensue. The inevitable conclusion would be that the author does not treat women characters with the respect they deserve.
The Soft Power
My proposition is that this is a rather superficial view. Scratch below the surface of any weird happening in Plumsville and we are bound to find that women rule the roost. They exercise tremendous power of a soft kind on the hapless men who happen to be either the victims of Cupid’s machinations, or just aspire to be preux chevaliers.
We run into dominating aunts and overbearing sisters and secretaries. We meet goofy spinsters and intellectually ambitious amazons. We come across assertive authors and meek scullery maids. In Plumsville, women invariably hold all the aces. They simple deserve to be there, because, compared to their men counterparts, they are smarter.
On the other hand, men happen to be rather docile. They remain contented with being a putty in the hands of those they are trying to woo. They happen to be chivalrous and would go to any length to retain the women’s affections and deepen their romantic bonds. The women merely need to snap their fingers and the men would simply rush into the battlefield, much like knights in shining armors would have done in the days of yore. They need to win the approval of their love interest at any cost.
In most of the narratives, the menfolk in Plumsville do not hesitate to fulfill even the most weird – and sometimes patently goofy – wishes of the loves of their lives. They also have their codes to follow. Standing up to their genial but scheming aunts and sisters does not come easy to them.
Here is a quick recap of the diverse kinds of women we get introduced to.
The Stiff-Upper-Lip Aunts and Sisters
Much against his better judgement, Bertie Wooster is prodded by Aunt Dahlia to purloin a silver cow creamer (‘The Code of the Woosters’). In another narrative (‘Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen’), he is hounded by the aged relative to first steal and then restore a cat whose absence would ensure that the local races are lost by the rival party’s horse.
Elsewhere, Lord Marshmoreton has to muster all his courage to stand up to his sister, Lady Caroline Byng, and declare a matrimonial alliance with his newly appointed secretary (‘A Damsel in Distress’).
We get to meet Vanessa Cook in ‘Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen’. She announces her marriage to Bertie, leaving him thoroughly shaken in limb and spirit. Post-marriage, no Drones Club, no alcohol and no smoking. The last one is thanks to Tolstoy, who has apparently held that twirling one’s fingers gives as much joy as smoking!
The Overbearing Ones
A desperate lover in Gussie Fink-Nottle, enamoured by Madeline Bassett, has to lay off all the vitamins of animal origin. The poor guy has to skip Anatole’s lavish spreads and survive only on spinach, sprouts, broccoli and similar stuff (Right Ho, Jeeves).
Stiffy Byng’s map, as a rule, tends to be rather grave and dreamy, giving the impression that she is thinking deep, beautiful thoughts. Quite misleading, of course. Harold Pinker, a vicar, gets prodded by her to pinch a policeman’s helmet, braving the risk of being defrocked (‘The Code of the Woosters’).
Pauline Stoker expects her beau to swim a mile before breakfast and then proceed to play five sets of tennis post-lunch. Her soul mate has to be someone like Chuffy who is adept at riding, shooting and following foxes with loud cries. Generally speaking, someone on the dynamic side (‘Thank You, Jeeves’).
Taking Men for Granted
Bertie is persuaded by Roberta Wickham to puncture hot water bottles in the middle of the night. In ‘Jeeves in the Offing’, he is even declared to be engaged to her. She does it only to ensure that her parents may then view her intended alliance with Reginald Herring in a favorable light.
Nobby charms Bertie into abusing an uncle so Boko, the out-of-favor lover, may earn some brownie points and thereby win her hand. Somehow, his guardian angel ensures his not being able to do so. (‘Joy in the Morning’).
The Sculptors of Intellect
Florence Craye tries to mould the men she falls for. She treats males like a mere chunk of plasticine in the hands of a sculptor. She is one of those intellectual girls. Her manner is brisk and aunt-like. Expecting Bertie to go through ‘Types of Ethical Theory’ comes naturally to her (‘Joy in the Morning’).
Vanessa Cook (‘Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen’) does not expect Bertie to start improving his intellect by reading Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. She merely expects him to go through ‘The Prose Ramblings Of A Rhymester’, a collection of whimsical essays by Reginald Sprockett, a brilliant young poet from whom the critics expect great things.
Miss Dalgleish is fond of dogs. She has caught Tuppy on a rebound just after a break-up between him and Angela. She is a largish, corn-fed girl, who wears tailor-made tweeds and thick boots. She has charmed Tuppy into playing football for the village of Upper Bleaching, a grave risk for someone who is born and bred in the gentler atmosphere of London. On the day of the match, Tuppy risks life and limb, only to please her. However, she is not present to witness the bravado. Instead, she goes off to London, trying to lay her hands on an Irish water-spaniel (‘The Ordeal of Young Tuppy – Very Good, Jeeves!’).
The Feisty Ones
Joan Valentine (‘Something Fresh’) comes across as a delightful example of an independent woman who knows her mind and lives life on her own terms. She is a girl of action. She is one whom Life has made not only reckless, when a venture is afoot, but also wary of friendly advances. Stealing a scarab is a venture that interests her.
The Soft-natured Ones
It is not that we do not get introduced to soft-natured women in Plumsville.
The Soothing Motherly Kind
In ‘Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves’, we meet Emerald Stoker who is one of those soothing, sympathetic girls you can take your troubles to, confident of having your hand held and your head patted. There is a sort of motherliness about her which you find restful. But she does not borrow money. Much too proud. Having lost money at the races, she decides to supplement her income by assuming the post of a cook at Totleigh Towers.
The Peace-Loving Kind
In ‘Ring for Jeeves’, we come across the gentle Jill. Wodehouse’s description of her rushing to the aid of her lover, despite having broken the engagement owing to a misunderstanding on her part, is lovingly captured as under:
‘It is a characteristic of women as a sex, and one that does credit to their gentle hearts, that – unless they are gangsters’ molls or something of that kind – they shrink from the thought of violence. Even when love is dead, they dislike the idea of the man to whom they were once betrothed receiving a series of juicy ones from a horse whip in the competent hands of an elderly, but still muscular, chief constable of a county. When they hear such a chief constable sketching out plans for an operation of this nature, their instinct is to hurry to the prospective victim’s residence and warn him of his peril by outlining the shape of things to come.’
The True Romantics
In the same narrative, we get to meet Captain Biggar who believes in following the code that says a poor man must not propose marriage to a rich woman, for if he does, he loses his self-respect and ceases to play with a straight bat.
He is in love with Mrs Spottsworth who is a strong believer in rebirths. She sees themselves in some dim, prehistoric age. In this previous existence, they were clad in skins. Captain had hit her over the head with a club and dragged her by her hair to his cave. A true romantic at heart!
The Fitness Buffs
Then we have Maud (‘A Damsel in Distress’) who hates obesity. After giving the poor George Bevan a short shrift and making him plan to depart for USA, she realizes that her infatuation with Geoffrey Raymond was, well, a mere infatuation. She loses no time in changing her mind and starts discussing her post-matrimonial plans with George over telephone.
The Efficient Secretaries
In the same narrative, Alice Faraday happens to be a secretary of gentle persuasion. She is keen to do enough work to merit her generous salary. However, Lord Marshmoreton’s love for gardening comes in the way of his working on the Family History.
One could go on and on. One thing is clear, though. In Plumsville, we get to meet women of all ages, sizes, shapes and classes. Invariably, they end up taking a saunter down the aisle with the men of their dreams. But the choice is invariably theirs.
Grant them their moodiness, though. They could have transient rifts, triggered by sharks, mustaches or hats. In the end, however, sundered hearts invariably get united.
Much too often, the so-called sterner sex ends up being the weaker sex. More to be pitied than to be censured!
In Plumtopia, a treasure trove of Wodehouse related matters, there is a great post on women. The author concludes as follows:
“In Wodehouse’s art, as in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This puts him above most writers I know, male or female, who rarely take the trouble to create ‘unattractive’ female characters, let alone make them central figures in romance. Of course Wodehouse offers plenty of attractive women too.
All this makes Wodehouse a terrific writer of, and for, women (Terry Pratchett is another) and it’s hardly surprising to learn that he has a large and enthusiastic female following. His fans include Dr Sophie Ratcliffe from the University of Oxford, who edited P. G. Wodehouse: A life in Letters.”
Occasionally, we get to meet professional women as well, though mostly as authors, editors and headmistresses. Had Wodehouse lived in today’s age and times when women have broken through the glass ceiling in diverse fields of life, we would have had the pleasure of curling up in bed with one of his inimitable works which might have offered a ringside view of more career-oriented women.