Posted: July 14, 2014
Harpies and Half Portions . . . .
You know, the more I see of women, the more I think that there ought to be a law. Something has got to be done about this sex, or the whole fabric of society will collapse, and then, what silly asses we shall all look.
— Bertie Wooster
he conversation turned to P. G. Wodehouse as a few of us were lowering our tall and frosties at the dispensary downtown. A young lady of the party declared that Wodehouse could have no plate on her shelves because he was a sexist. To the rest of us this seemed frankly a bit thick. Women who craved independence after the current fashion were too likely as it was to be unable to laugh about their own pretensions, but if the liberation of women meant the banishment of P. G. Wodehouse, then these women were getting above themselves. For to liberate us from Wodehouse would be to take away one of the best consolations we have for having been born into the twentieth century. It fell to me to look into this charge against him—not that we were all sworn to leave off reading him if he couldn't be cleared, but the investigation looked promising.
I must admit to having an ulterior motive: I have never read a P. G. Wodehouse book I didn't like. Even the school stories from his juvenilia have some of the same moves as the genuine article. No doubt the secondary literature has been kept small by the fact that writing about Wodehouse can't match the delight of reading him. It's a curious thing to read Wodehouse as a judge, because he distracts you with a laugh whenever you might be in danger of becoming too impressed with him. Still, on a second reading or a third, without laughing less, you notice more of his skill at putting every part in its place. Wodehouse, as a teacher of mine said, is a one-man refutation of Marx's idea that communism could allow the free development of all, since the claim that I could do everything at the highest level loses credence when you see that it means I should have to write as well as Wodehouse. His humor hides the excellence of his writing, but you come to wonder whether the writing hides some other excellence.
Here is the moment to let the feminists weigh in with their objection that Wodehouse is all fluff and no matter, even if it's devilishly well-written and funny fluff. "No matter" means no concern for the social question, and particularly the women's question. This failing would be said to come from having been born in an unenlightened age when no one questioned traditional sex roles. The charge, in short, is that Wodehouse wouldn't know an exploited woman if you brought her to him on a skewer with béarnaise sauce. But in fact he does take up the social question. Archibald, a nephew of his ready raconteur Mr. Mulliner, is briefly converted to socialism by his man, Meadowes, who supplies him with pamphlets advocating change in the basic fundamentals of the principles governing distribution. In truth, it is not these rambling pamphlets, with their sections and subsections, that move Archibald: it is the rhetorical power, and especially the invective, of Meadowes, who has a gift for describing the rivers of blue blood that will run in the streets when England's starving masses find themselves a Stalin. Marx's success comes from being propped up on a more spirited horse—call it Nietzsche. Archibald's conversion does him no good with his unliberated fiancée, who finds that it takes the dash out of his dancing. Brooking her displeasure, he stands her up for dinner to have a look at the martyred proletariat. He finds that the proles can do as well without him as he used to do without them. Having made rather a pest of himself by trying to force bread on a pint-sized proletarian whose preferences run to sweets, Archibald ends up at the dinner table being ordered to eat his fat by a truculent busybody from the lower classes. Thoroughly chastened, he rediscovers his real duty in entertaining his fiancée with his particular talent at imitating a hen.
This Archibald is not alone in awakening to the social question. Wodehouse has another of his characters say:
What a curse these social distinctions are. They ought to be abolished. I remember saying that to Karl Marx once, and he thought there might be an idea for a book in it.
But Wodehouse has a different kind of an idea for his books, and he distinguishes them from Marx's in a precise way:
I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.
Wodehouse rejects the anxious insecurity that characterizes modern thought, with its emphasis on "real life"; he rejects it in favor of music, which makes life into comedy instead. He says that our century is particularly prone to worry—one of the German fellows called it Angst—and he gives us instead the self-sufficiency of the English gentleman, who doesn't worry. But it would be wrong to mistake his merriment for the empty exercise left to a mind that has plumbed the depths and found nothing there. It may be clearer in his early books-since they are not so glacial on the surface as the later ones, which reflect back every ray of light that strikes them-but Wodehouse has considered the permanent human problems. This consideration is the ground for his humor. And when we come to judge him, we find that, far from being insensitive to the situation of women, he has thought about it more deeply than we have. But then the author of every good book has at least as much of a claim to judge us as we have to judge him, and only those resist this idea who judge thoughts by their prejudices rather than their prejudices by thoughts.
Well-wishers to women will be pleased to note that Wodehouse is not like Nietzsche, who warns the better sort of reader not to venture out among the ladies without a stick or a whip; nor is Wodehouse like Schopenhauer, who tossed his old landlady down the stairs to cure her feminine prolixity. The Germans may drag their women about by the hair, but Wodehouse's gentlemen are far too inhibited. So far from going after women with whips, they can't even go back on incautious engagements—a man's word is his bond, and it wouldn't do for a preux chevalier to weasel out. As to Schopenhauer, some of his remarks fall under the head of bandying the name of a woman—indeed, of all women—and what he did to his landlady would be far too shocking for Wodehouse to report. Wodehouse's men do not often come to such a pass as Chimp Twist, who carries his misogyny so far as to wish never to see a woman again, except perhaps an occasional barmaid. But we must face the fact squarely that Wodehouse agrees with Macbeth's witches, at least when they say that fair may be foul: he presents men as sorely tried by the fair sex.
The gentleman will find that women want to put him up to things. Bertie Wooster, Wodehouse's irrepressible hero and narrator, gives him warning against women after hearing how Stiffy Byng has tried to get her man to pinch a policeman's helmet to even a private score. Women are not like gentlemen, who have a code in these things:
She was fully aware that she was doing something which even by female standards was raw, but she didn't care. The whole fact of the matter is that all this modern emancipation of women has resulted in their getting it up their noses and not giving a damn what they do.
Even when there is no question of breaking the law, the projects of a certain kind of woman can take years off a man's life. Roberta Wickham, who has red hair, persuades Bertie to puncture a man's hot-water bottle with a knitting needle while he is asleep. Angela Briscoe, another female of plausible appearance, almost splits up a friendship by impositions on her admirers: one is called on to help with a school treat, the other to help chaperone rowdy mothers on a bus tour. These demands can drive a good man to drink, the medicine that Gussie Fink-Nottle chooses, with unfortunate result, when he has to address an audience of schoolboys. Nor does age exempt a man from the importunacy of women, and marriage always strengthens it. Lord Emsworth of Blandings has to risk getting his top hat knocked off when he appears before schoolboys by order of his sister Constance, and the American film magnate Ikey Llewellyn has to risk getting caught smuggling a necklace by order of his wife Grayce. The most amiable of a tough lot of aunts that Bertie has is not above ordering him to steal a silver cow-creamer when she needs a present to sweeten her husband. Women have an intuitive grasp of Machiavelli's lesson that it is best to be generous with someone else's resources, and they turn distinctly nonbonhomous when their men shy away from extraordinary executions with a startled nolle prosequi.
The fair sex is at its most dangerous in its search for a husband. True as it is that every man ought to be married, provided he can find the right girl, there is the rub. There are so many girls who are just not right. Setting aside ones who have Trouble for their middle name, a man still has many perils to avoid. Men are notoriously susceptible to women who have hair the color of ripe wheat and eyes of cornflower blue, with a figure as full of curves as a scenic railway. Not that these things should be done without, of course, but a man would be silly to marry a girl like Veronica Wedge, who was a vision of beauty and an heiress, and had about as much brain as a retarded billiard ball:
Marriage meant, to come to essentials, that two people were very often and for lengthy periods alone together, dependent on each other for mutual entertainment.
A woman may look like a pipterino of the first water, but sooner or later you have to talk to her. Besides, men aren't smart enough to go it alone—they need wives with the presence of mind to get them out of tough spots, like the quick-thinking Dolly Molloy, who is the brains of her family. To make your way through life you need a woman who is practical, and so Wodehouse particularly warns against another type of feminine disposition—the soppy, poetic sort exemplified by Madeline Bassett. The Bassett has large, melting eyes and thinks the stars are God's daisy chain. After twenty years of marriage, she would still come down the stairs, put her hands over your eyes while you were trying to get around your morning eggs and b., and say "Guess who?" Intolerable!
But the worst mistake that a man can make is to plight his troth to a woman who wants to make something of him—to subject him like plasticine to the firm and practiced hand of the sculptress. Bertie Wooster gives us this warning against Florence Craye, now happily a former fiancee:
You know how it is with these earnest, brainy beazels of what is called strong character. They can't let the male soul alone. They want to get behind it and start shoving. Scarcely have they shaken the rice from their hair in the car driving off for the honeymoon than they pull up their socks and begin moulding the partner of joys and sorrows, and if there is one thing that gives me the pip, it is being moulded. Despite adverse criticism from many quarters — the name of my Aunt Agatha is one that springs to the lips — I like B. Wooster the way he is. Lay off him, I say. Don't try to change him, or you may lose the flavour.
A few men are fatheaded enough to want to be moulded, to be made to climb to new heights by trampling underfoot the carcasses of their former selves, and "Stilton" Cheesewright, Florence Craye's new fiancé, is one. What captivates most men, though, is not the intention of the sculptress, for that they barely notice, but her looks. Any man who makes it his business to chat up pretty girls is in danger of finding that one thing has led to another and that he has gotten engaged to a harpy who takes him as her own personal project. For Wodehouse's imperious women are also tall and poised and handsome, with all the equipment needed to be a pin-up girl and a profile that makes you think everything else can be overlooked. Quite a number of Wodehouse's novels begin with a man who has just given himself such a woman for a fiancée, and if he has any gumption he is soon appalled at what he has done.
When a harpy swoops down on her prey and tries to mould him, it's enough to make the most toothsome French meal turn to ashes in his mouth. Hardened men of the world draw in their breaths sharply and look at him with mute pity. What Florence Craye did to Bertie was to make him give up reading corking good mysteries in favor of a book shamelessly called Types of Ethical Theory, and with the assurance that there was worse to come, since she was an authoress herself. It's one thing for Bertie's man Jeeves, who has nourished his brain on fish, to curl up with a book by a cove like Spinoza; it's quite another to expect a gentleman and a drone like Bertie to look to the exactness of his ethics. The dreariness of Types of Ethical Theory is unmistakable from the bit of it that Bertie gives us in his memoirs. Written with English words and German syntax, the paragraph he quotes from it is the only one I have found in Wodehouse that isn't well written. Florence Craye knows what she means, and she means well, but she is as earnest and humorless as a parson's daughter. Her rule is that there is to be no oompus-boompus of any kind, and marriage to her would be one long fight unless you gave up and let yourself be ruled like a tame animal. One grown-up version of Florence Craye is Clarissa Cork, also an authoress, who runs a health colony inspired by the regimen of the Ugubu tribe, inflicting her peevish vegetarianism and weekly lectures on a small flock of doomed inmates. Another is Bertie's Aunt Agatha, who chews broken glass by the light of the moon, and whose displeasure with her nephew is a fixed star in his constellation. These harpies can be counted on to complain whenever you don't fall smartly into line. Though the hard, bright self-sufficiency that Wodehouse observed in the modern girl hadn't yet gotten so far as it has in our day, when our parson's daughters take careers as their projects instead of men, still it is not hard to see why men unexpectedly spared from a life sentence with such a woman looked on the world as a finer, happier place and thought they saw the finger of Providence working in human affairs. As to the poor devils whose sentences were not remitted, their best chance, according to Wodehouse, was to act as if they had gone potty and hope that their harpies would give them up as lost.
P. G. Wodehouse gives examples aplenty of the curious blindness that comes over a man when he falls in love, the symptoms of which all recognize in anyone else: how he admits to his friends that his neglect of everything he once cared for comes from his devotion to her; how we remind him that he has fallen in love twenty-seven times before; how he tries to convince us that he has put aside childish infatuations forever now, because this twenty-eighth is one in a million, the perfect number, the real McCoy—a love deeper and stronger and purer than anything that has come over him before. We know, too, how he will laugh at himself in the end when the scales fall from his eyes, and how he will come to agree with Shakespeare's Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing that
. . . wooing, wedding, and repenting, is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinquepace: the first suit is hot and hasty, like a Scotch jig, and full as fantasticall; the wedding, mannerly-modest, as a measure full of state and antientry; and then comes repentance, and with his bad legs, falls into the cinquepace faster and faster, till he sinks into his grave.
With all the disappointments that women hold in store for them, it's not surprising that some men who have crawled back from the edge of the precipice should take matters into their own hands and swear off any dalliance with the fair sex. There are those who drift helplessly in their vice, but there are also those who take steps, and Wodehouse holds up a group of the latter for our consideration:
We call ourselves Bachelors Anonymous. It was Alcoholics Anonymous that gave the founding fathers the idea. Our methods are frankly borrowed from theirs. When one of us feels the urge to take a woman out to dinner becoming too strong for him, he seeks out 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 that 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 têtes-à-têtes in dimly lit boudoirs, until in morning coal and sponge-bag trousers he stands cowering beside his bride at the altar rails, racked with regret and remorse when it is too late. And gradually reason returns to its throne. Calm succeeds turmoil, and the madness passes.
In fact, Wodehouse is poking fun at these anonymous bachelors, because they get married too in the end. These men, like Beatrice's Benedick, are a notable argument that not even the most hardened bachelor is proof against the attractions of a woman—not even the soberest man in England is willing to live by unassisted human reason alone. Nor is having a career sufficient for happiness, as even the most single-minded career man or woman might learn from reading the experience of Wodehouse's early hero Psmith in the city. Every man must take his chances with the ladies after all, and hope for the best.
Fortunately for Wodehouse's men, the fair sex has more to offer than these moulding women who give you the pip. A man who has been reduced to the level of a watercress garnish by some harpy will scarce credit it, but there is another, finer kind of girl, who has never thought it a misfortune not to have been born a man and is perfectly happy to call herself a girl. For her the difference of the sexes doesn't arise from the malignity of nature but is nature's way of providing for our constant entertainment and delight; and when she walks through the door, speaking in a voice that sounds like sheep bells at sunset, a man feels as though a powerful electric current has passed through him. Men who are never at a loss for words find their thoughts suddenly wrenched from their customary course and reduced to stunned interjections, as Ashe Marson's were at his first conversation with Joan Valentine: "A wonderful girl . . . An astounding girl . . . An amazing girl . . ." When Psmith spied Eve Halliday across the street standing under an awning waiting for the rain to let up, he gazed at her fixedly for a full five minutes before he had the presence of mind to offer her another man's umbrella. For Jeff Miller, at the first sight of Anne Benedick,
There was something about this visitor that seemed to touch some hidden chord in his being, sending joy bells and torchlight processions parading through the echoing corridors of his soul. Romeo, he fancied, must have experienced a somewhat similar, though weaker, emotion on first beholding Juliet.
The sight of a girl like this makes confirmed bachelors start proposing ten minutes later. She isn't tall and imperious like a harpy—she's a mere slip of a girl; and since she only comes up to your shoulder, Wodehouse calls her a half-portion. But although she's apt to be fondly thought of by her uncles as a shrimp or a little squirt, she has enough spunk and spark and sizzle for two. Anne Benedick wants men to like her, or if possible to love her. For a half-portion like her understands what Plato had Aristophanes say to his fellow tipplers, even if she hasn't read the dialogue: She yearns to be part of a whole, and she finds her wholeness not in managing a man like a third-rate power but in loving him.
When Jeff Miller makes the acquaintance of a half-portion, he knows right away that this is a good thing and ought to be pushed along. He falls in love with Anne Benedick when he hears her silvery laugh, which conjures up
visions of a cozy home on a winter's night, with one's slippers on one's feet, the dog on one's lap, an open fire in the grate, and the good old pipe drawing nicely.
The half-portion does offer the prospect of this happy domesticity, but she is far from being the dull homebody despised by our feminists. Joan Valentine, who has worked at all kinds of jobs, may not agree with them that a woman's liberation comes from having a career rather than a husband, but she certainly has enterprise. She inspires the same enterprise in Ashe Marson, who throws over a dull job writing thrillers about a detective who recovers stolen goods to accept the challenge of recovering some stolen goods himself. The sight of Anne Benedick gives Jeff Miller the courage to impersonate a detective, and he joins the Ugubu colony on false pretenses in order to gain the home court advantage with her. The half-portion is no shrinking violet—she's a little petunia with mettle and pluck. She calls up the same resources in men, and she expects a man to be manly.
But even a half-portion can fall in love with a man who has all the mettle of the more cowardly sort of rabbit if he happens to be tall, slender, and very good-looking, and this is Anne's situation when she first meets Jeff. She has gotten herself engaged to Lionel Green, a selfish and conceited interior decorator who used to be called "Stinker" in school. Here is how her uncle, Lord Uffenham, diagnoses her mistake:
You wouldn't give that poop Lionel Gran a second thought, if he hadn't the sort of tailor's-dummy good looks that women seem to be incapable of seeing through, poor misguided creatures. Give me two lumps of coal and a bit of putty, and I'll make you a better man than Lionel Green, any time.
A certain coolness ensues between Anne and her uncle and extends to her conversations with Jeff, who yields to no man in his contempt for her Stinker. It doesn't help matters when she discovers that Jeff is the barrister who has just humiliated Lionel in court. But Wodehouse provokes a crisis to open her eyes and remind her how important courage is. Lionel Green, who cares more for money than he cares for Anne, and who has kept his engagement secret from his Aunt Clarissa in hopes that she will underwrite his interior decorating shop, finally shows himself for what he is by his rigid pursuit of this policy of "Safety First." Anne discovers that he has failed to denounce Jeff to his vegetarian aunt as an imposter because Jeff has agreed to provide him with contraband pork pies. As one who admires courage in the male, she suddenly sees the sense of her uncle's claims that Lionel is a slimy, slithery, moustache-twiddling young slab of damnation, a pestilential poop of a pop-eyed plasterer, and worse. Never mind the two lumps of coal—you could make Lionel Green out of nothing but putty. The man stands exposed as a coward. As Euripides would say, the slavish fellow sees everything from the point of view of the stomach. To clinch the thing, Wodehouse tells us that this Stinker thought of Anne as a promising pupil who required moulding, presumably to dampen her high spirits and make her into a pliant procurer of pork pies.
This discovery helps Anne to see that she and Jeff are twin souls, and it can also help us to see the advantages of manliness in a man. The trouble with a man of feminine courage is not just that he will be a weak reed in an emergency, though of course he will be; the trouble is that he will also be incapable of loving a woman because his defect of manliness arises from selfish absorption in the needs of his own body. This question is raised in a discussion between Jeff and Lord Uffenham on the proper way to woo a woman. Jeff prefers the troubadour, who melts feminine resistance with honeyed words, to the stevedore, who adopts the smash-and-grab approach. Anne's uncle comes down squarely on the other side:
Grab her! Seize her! Fold her in a close embrace. A really close embrace. One that'll make her ribs creak. Kiss her, too, of course, Kiss her repeatedly. At the same time saying, "You are my mate, dash it," or something to that effect.
A girl appreciates the forbearance of the troubadour, because it shows respect for her soul. But she isn't all soul, and when a man shows too much moderation, she has to suspect that his diffidence comes from lack of warmth. Anne, as her uncle knows, is a "healthy, normal girl, with a normal liking for romance," a body that has to be protected, and an intuitive appreciation for Aristotle's argument that manliness belongs to men and moderation to women. The money in the bank that matters most to a woman is the love of a man who has the excellence of a man. When Jeff finally takes her uncle's advice, folds the young lollipop in a close embrace, and showers her face with burning kisses, he gives Anne the right reason to let him love her, and he gets the girl.
Are some women today more open to truths when they are stated by women than by men? I should not like to think so, because you have to belong to one sex or the other, and you don't get a choice. It would seem to be of the essence of sexism to think less of what a human being says just because he happened to be born a man. But if there are such women, I mention for their benefit that P. G. Wodehouse simply gives us, in comic opera form and for the twentieth century, the same truths that Jane Austen put for the nineteenth. The twentieth century knows much that is foreign to Wodehouse, and it is none of it decent. Do we really miss the vapid sentimentalism of the romantics which infects so much English writing after Rousseau? Would his books be better if his humor were of the scatological or excrementitious variety preferred by the Germans, and carried to the plane of theory in the writings of Freud? Are we worse off for being spared in his pages the humor of unmanly self-loathing exemplified in the sour feminism of Alan Alda and Woody Allen? Wodehouse's restraint is reminiscent of Austen, and the result for both writers is a pleasing detachment from the mortal weight of human pretensions.
Wodehouse gives us a world of the sexes that is more inviting than our fashionable world of asexual individuals. Any woman who can should try to be a half-portion, he says, and any man who can should try to find himself one. Here is how he introduces the one that Jeff Miller met:
Nature, in assembling Anne Benedick, had done a nice bit of work. She was a slim girl of twenty-three, one of those alert, boyish-looking girls of whom one feels what jolly children they must have been. She had a demure mouth, with a whimsical twist to it, and eyes that looked as if they saw the humour of things.
Have we eyes that see the humor of things? Evelyn Waugh predicted that Wodehouse would "continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own." Our laughter is a sign of understanding: we are not just sunnier and funnier after reading this plum but also better. It would be more than irksome if our captivity left us no longer free to laugh with P. G. Wodehouse.