Was P. G. Wodehouse squeamish about sex?

We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off.  Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.

Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950) characters use the words “bitch” and “bastard.” (The words jar when you read them; perhaps feeling that for once he’d struck sour notes, Wodehouse never used them again.)

But for all the romances that blossom and flourish in Wodehouse’s stories, no Wodehouse lovers ever wind up in bed. They’re not even seen (as in Viagra commercials) heading for the bedroom with amorous intentions. One finds no evidence that any Wodehouse character even thinks about having sex.

In fact, Bertie Wooster — the Wodehouse character in whom the mindset of the author can best be discerned — becomes nervous when conversation merely threatens to have anything to do with sex:

“Oh, Bertie [said Madeleine Bassett], you remind me of Rudel.”
The name was new to me. “Rudel?”
“He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli.”
I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

(The Code of the Woosters, ch. III.)  In Wodehouse, sexually aggressive females invariably involve men in folly.  When (in The Mating Season, ch. 10) Corky Pirbright “shamelessly” flirts with Gussie Fink-Nottle and makes him forget that he’s already engaged, Bertie reflects:

Oh, Woman, Woman, I said to myself, not for the first time, feeling that the sooner that sex was suppressed, the better it would be for all of us.

Was Bertie speaking for Wodehouse himself?

Nor are Wodehouse characters comfortable with nudity. The closest Wodehouse ever comes to portraying sensuality — not that it comes close at all — is his occasional use of nude portraits as Macguffins in his elaborate plots. But the fate of the nude painting in his story “Jeeves Makes an Omelette” is characteristic: it so disgusts one character that it destroys his appetite, and Bertie ends up cutting it into small pieces and throwing them into the fire. In one of his last books (written when Wodehouse was 89 years old), one of the characters gets the idea that he wants a Renoir-like portrait of a woman, but ends up announcing, “I don’t want the damned thing. And it beats me how I ever got the idea I did. It makes me sick to look at it.” The telling American title of his novel was No Nudes is Good Nudes.

In his later years, when many bestsellers were full of four-letter words and explicit love scenes, Wodehouse complained of “smutty” books. Curiously, though, the ribaldry in Shakespeare’s plays — and Shakespeare was Wodehouse’s constant companion — apparently never bothered him.  Shakespeare seems to have been obsessed with reproduction; it’s the theme of a number of sonnets, and in his plays too characters are urged to marry and beget children, as Viola (Cesario) does to Olivia in Twelfth Night (Act I, scene 5):

Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

But the very idea of reproduction was embarrassing to Bertie Wooster, as in this passage from Jeeves, in which Bertie’s Aunt Agatha is haranguing him about finding a wife:

“It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”

“But, dash it all . . .”

“Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .”

“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.

In story after story, Bertie Wooster manages to escape the terrors of matrimony and its bedroom duties.

Wodehouse was already 42 years old and had been married for nine years when he published Jeeves (his first masterpiece) in 1923. He and his wife Ethel never had children and may never have tried; Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum refers to him as “sexless” (he may have been sterile or impotent as a result of adolescent illness) and reports that and and Ethel always occupied separate bedrooms. Did Wodehouse think of himself as a drone? That would explain a lot.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. In regard to the line “He and his wife Ethel never had children, and may never have tried” — I would point out that Ethel did have a child with her first husband but none with her second or third (Wodehouse) so it doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage was sexless.

  2. Dear Ninepennyworth of Sherry : That is interesting. I am not familiar enough with Plum’s lyrical work, and would have made assumptions that it was very much along the same lines. Must follow up this line of enquiry. Honoria

  3. The general sexlessness of the novels and short stories is a true observation but Plum could, and did, deal, as a writer, effectively with sexual innuendo in a lot of his lyrics for the musical comedies he wrote with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern in the period 1916-1919.

  4. Extremely well put. I was quite alarmed yesterday to discover someone had listed 3 Wodehouse characters in a list of ‘bangable’ fictional men. The list was well conceived (no pun intended) but hardly in the Wodehouse spirit – given the absence of sex in his work. The Pauline Stoker incident is not convincing, lacking even a hint of sex despite proximity to the Wooster bed and heliotrope pyjamas. I wrote a little piece yesterday, which I hope you won’t mind my sharing: http://honoriaplum.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/wodehouses-men-objects-of-desire/ – and have re-blogged your excellent piece today. Again, I hope you don’t mind.

  5. Reblogged this on Plumtopia: The world of P.G. Wodehouse and commented:
    Yesterday, I pondered the rather baffling discovery that some of Wodehouse’s male characters have been named literary sex symbols. This subject can hardly be taken seriously. As the critic Emsworth notes, sex was never allowed to creep into Wodehouse’s world.

  6. Porpentine:

    First, let me assure you that you are not alone in finding Bobbie Wickham intensely attractive. Despite my happy marriage, I continue to find her incredibly desirable, and I must insist that you refrain from inflicting your beastly presence on her.

    Bobbie is not the only literary female I’ve ever have had a crush on, but she is the only Wodehouse character.

    On the main point, though, I stick to my thesis. No doubt there are various scenes in Wodehouse that would be “sexual” in the hands of any other author, but with Wodehouse they’re not. Hormones may fly around, but never to the point of sexual arousal on the part of either characters or readers.

    As a comic writer, Wodehouse could hardly have let “compromising situations” out of his repertoire. Wodehouse didn’t need to be interested in sex for himself to understood what was funny about it. Pauline Stoker in Bertie’s bed? Hilarious, but no more titillating than Mr. Pickwick with his landlady in his lap.


  7. I’m not so sure about your argument, Emsworth. While PGW’s books are not chock-full of sexual charge (to put it milldly), it does crop up from time to time. For example, in ‘Thank You, Jeeves’ Pauline Stoker ends up in Bertie’s bed, provoking Chuffy’s fierce sexual jealousy; in “Right Ho Jeeves’ we learn that Madeleine, yearning for Gussie, gives a sigh that goes down to her camiknickers; and in numerous PGW novels and stories we encounter Bobbie Whickham, red-haired, androgynous and feisty, and surely one of the most erotically desirable women in fiction (or is that just me?).

    As for Honoria Glossop and Florence Craye, there remains a PhD thesis to be written on ‘The Dominatrix Motif in the Popular Fiction of P G Wodehouse’.

  8. Jayne, do understand — I wasn’t complaining in the slightest about the absence of sexual themes or the lack of sexual humor in Wodehouse. And I agree with you entirely about Bertie Wooster — I wouldn’t have anything about him changed.

    I also agree that a writer of fiction who leaves sex out of his books may well — and probably does — understand sexuality. One only has to read Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope to see that. My point — and it’s not a very big point, really, but it was interesting to me — was that in Wodehouse’s case, there seem to be clues in his writing that suggest that he was not a sexual person himself and was, perhaps, a bit nervous about it.

  9. I don’t know about Wodehouse’s sex life, but I think the Wooster character’s “sexlessness” fits him well. We only see a dimension of the character, which is necessary to maintain his vapidity. To introduce sexual feelings would really complicate things. References to romantic passions between other characters are usually humorous or exasperated.
    While I think it’s good for a writer to be able to enter into a charater’s experience sans sex, it shouldn’t have to mean that the writer in question doesn’t understand sexuality and its varied roles in people’s lives. Personally, I don’t find sexual humor very funny. To me, sex is a serious thing, not to be shared with any but one’s partner. (At least I’d rather not have it shared with ME.) So–I don’t mind the lack of running commentary you find in most books.
    Besides, from an American point of view at least, it sounds very British to have a sense of propriety in your conversation. I like propriety.

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