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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What P. G. Wodehouse learned from Macbeth

It would be a joy to read Wodehouse even if his stories didn’t have more ingenious poetic allusions than there are stars in the sky. On the latest of our many happy passes through The Code of the Woosters — perhaps the very best of the Jeeves and Wooster novels — we started taking inventory.

Wodehouse starts with a taste of Keats on the very first page, as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” A few pages later, Sir Watkyn Bassett, a country magistrate who has it in for Bertie, assures Roderick Spode that time in prison won’t prevent a man from “rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things.” That’s from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

Bertie Wooster doesn’t know as much poetry as his friends, so his allusions are often accidental, as when he tells Madeline Bassett what he thinks of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s diffident personality,

Bertie: A sensitive plant, what?
The Bassett: Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.
Bertie: Oh, am I?

(The poet Shelley wrote “The Sensitive Plant.”) A Robert Browning allusion also goes over Bertie’s head. As he and Bertie arrive at Totleigh Towers, where trouble lurks, Jeeves pronounces, “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Bertie tells us, “what he meant I hadn’t an earthly.”

Robert Browning

Robert Browning

There’s more Browning farther along in the story, as Madeline Bassett explains to Bertie why he reminds her of the hero of “Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli.” Wodehouse tosses in Longfellow, too: “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” both get nods.

Like Emsworth, Bertie sometimes has trouble remembering where phrases came from. Explaining to Jeeves why Stephanie Byng is the most dangerous young woman he’s ever had to deal with, he asks, “Who was the chap lo whose name led all the rest — the bird with the angel?” “Abou ben Adhem, sir,” Jeeves reminds him. The poem was Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem.”

Kipling

P. G. Wodehouse must have read a good deal of Rudyard Kipling in his youth

But for all his fuzziness, Bertie has clearly read a lot of literature.  Nearly everything reminds Bertie of something out of a poem; he tells his readers: “And then out of the night that covered me, black as the pit from pole to pole, there shone a tiny gleam of hope. I thought of Jeeves.” Somewhere, Bertie had read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”! Later, in low spirits, Bertie tells Jeeves, “You see before you, Jeeves, a toad beneath the harrow.” The reference was to Kipling’s “Pagett, M.P.”

And Wodehouse calls on Browning again to help close out The Code of the Woosters. His problems all neatly sorted, Bertie says, “This is the end of a perfect day, Jeeves. What’s that thing of yours about larks?” Jeeves has Browning’s lines from “Pippa Passes” on the tip of his tongue.

Those are some of the allusions we spotted; there were many more. In this one short novel Wodehouse also mentions A Tale of Two Cities, Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” Reginald Heber’s hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” (“Totleigh Towers might be a place where Man was vile, but undoubtedly every prospect pleased”), Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Cargo of Champagne,” and Gerald Fairlie’s now-forgotten 1929 novel The Muster of the Vultures (tracking that one down wasn’t easy!)

But of all the poets, a reader of Wodehouse is far more likely to encounter Shakespeare than anyone else. In The Code of the Woosters alone, Wodehouse invokes King Lear, Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Hamlet (three different references to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy). Wodehouse even has Gussie Fink-Nottle quote Matthew Arnold’s sonnet entitled “Shakespeare.” (Calling Bertie Wooster a “muddle-headed ass” for forgetting to bring him a book, Gussie comments sarcastically, “Others abide our question, thou art free.”)

Of course, Bertie himself rarely knows what’s Shakespeare and what isn’t. In The Code of the Woosters he misattributes Sonnet 33 to his valet:

I remember Jeeves saying to me once, apropos of how you can never tell what the weather’s going to do, that full many a glorious morning had he seen flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye and then turn into a rather nasty afternoon.

And like so many people, Bertie thinks Shakespeare wrote things he didn’t:

Bertie: You don’t mean you have an idea?
Jeeves: Yes, sir.
Bertie: But you told me just now you hadn’t.
Jeeves: Yes, sir. But since then have been giving the matter some thought, and am now in a position to say “Eureka!”
Bertie: Say what?
Jeeves: Eureka, sir. Like Archimedes.
Bertie: Did he say Eureka? I thought it was Shakespeare.

Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole

A scene from Macbeth by the nineteenth-century British painter George Cattermole, who also illustrated Dickens

More often than not, the Shakespeare that Wodehouse pulls out of his hat is Macbeth.  This was surely the Shakespeare play he knew best. In fact, seeing the Scottish play at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) a couple of weeks ago (see this post), we found that we weren’t fully feeling the terror and tragedy because so many of the play’s best lines reminded us of what Wodehouse had done with them. When Lady Macbeth shooed Macbeth’s dinner guests away with “Stand not upon the order of your going,” for instance, we couldn’t help hearing Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia using the line to tell Bertie to make himself scarce.

In Macbeth, Banquo shakes his gory locks at Macbeth’s grand feast twice, then disappears for good. Throughout the collected works of P. G. Wodehouse, the ghost of Banquo materializes so often that he’s practically a regular. We think, though we’re not sure, that Banquo’s first appearance in Wodehouse was in his 1914 short story “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” (in The Man Upstairs); he pops up in Wodehouse’s very last novel, The Cat-Nappers (1973) (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen). Our favorite sighting of Banquo is in the 1950 short story “The Shadow Passes” (in Nothing Serious):

I don’t know if you ever came across a play of Shakespeare’s called Macbeth? If you did, you may remember this bird Macbeth bumps off another bird named Banquo and gives a big dinner to celebrate, and picture his embarrassment when about the first of the gay throng to turn up is Banquo’s ghost, all merry and bright, covered in blood. It gave him a pretty nasty start, Shakespeare does not attempt to conceal.

Macbeth also has what must have been Wodehouse’s favorite line from Shakespeare, one he used in one story after another. Early in the play, as everyone knows, Lady Macbeth loses patience with her husband for hesitating to murder his royal guest and eggs him on to the crime:

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem?
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ the adage.

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7. In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster has almost exactly the same problem as Macbeth: his Aunt Dahlia is insisting that he steal a cow-creamer from his host’s collection at Totleigh Towers. Like Macbeth, Bertie can’t steel himself to the crime:

Bertie: That is the problem which is torturing me, Jeeves. I can’t make up my mind. You remember that fellow you’ve mentioned to me once or twice, who let something wait upon something? You know who I mean — the cat chap.
Jeeves: Macbeth, sir, a character in a play of that name by the late William Shakespeare. He was described as letting ‘I dare not” wait upon ‘I would,’ like the poor cat i’ th’ adage.
Bertie: Well, that’s how it is with me. I wabble, and I vacillate — if that’s the word?
Jeeves: Perfectly correct, sir.

Not for the first or last time, Bertie Wooster was in the same pickle as Macbeth: a strong-willed woman was demanding that he do something he knew he shouldn’t. What better to fall back on than Macbeth?

October 30, 2009

See this post for Emsworth’s decidedly mixed feelings about this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Although Wodehouse clearly drew a good deal from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this Emsworth post), one doesn’t find direct allusions to Wilde’s plays in Wodehouse’s stories (only to Wilde’s serious novel The Picture of Dorian Gray). Then again, why would one comic writer allude to another?