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Monday, October 19, 2009

What’s Up? Jeeves and Wooster

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/19/09 at 12:10 PM

Sometime in my early teens I discovered the boxes of old paperbacks my father kept in the basement. That’s where I found 1984, Brave New World, some miscellaneous Freud, and this that and the other. The other included some books by P. G. Wodehouse, which I didn’t read but which, for whatever reason, I took note of. Since then I’d bump into references to Wodehouse here and there, often taking the form of praise for his language (Hilaire Belloc, “the best writer of English"), and finally, just last week, I found a cache of YouTube videos devoted to Jeeves and Wooster, a 1990s British TV series based on Wodehouse stores and starring Stephen Fry and Hugh “Dr. House” Laurie. So I watched a bunch of them.

What are these stories about?

Sure, they’re about a young gentleman of means, Bertie Wooster, and his valet (a gentleman’s personal gentleman), Reginald Wooster. Wooster is a good sort of chap, personable, not terribly well educated, who is constantly getting into scrapes helping his chums, or his aunts, out of this or that dicy situation. Jeeves is well-read – Spinoza is a favorite – highly competent in a wide variety of tasks, somewhat of a stickler for appropriate style, and most ingenious. He’s the one who comes up with stratagems for rescuing Bertie & Co. from their troubles.

That’s the premise of these stories, but what’s their cultural appeal? Bertie Wooster is of the idle rich, with a good nature that leavens his idleness. He doesn’t have to work and so he doesn’t. Jeeves does have to work, but he works as a servant to the affable Wooster, who is a Good Boss; there is, in fact, something of a comradeship between the two, though proprieties are maintained at all times. The net economic output of the pair is zero. Wooster’s wealth allows them to live in the world, but they need not be fully of it.

The premise is thus rather utopian. And the relationship between the two protagonists is one of balance. In some ways, Wooster, the aristocrat, is more of an Everyman than Jeeves, the valet. Jeeves, like most of us, has to work for a living, but his superior mien and education are at odds with his Everyman economic status. Taken together, the two add up to (some version of) an ideal middle-class male living in an economic utopia.

Or so it seems, on first take.


Comments

Filming suppresses the effect Wodehouse achieves by narrating the stories through Bertie’s dim consciousness.  Part of the pleasure of reading is discerning the intrigues being woven around the narrator that the narrator misses (and more generally, discerning the gaps between Bertie’s guileless prattle and his reality).  Consequently there’s a remote, opaque, and faintly sinister quality to Jeeves in the stories that vanishes when he has equal weight on the screen (and is played by someone as attractive as Fry.) Jeeves always comes out ahead in the stories, Wooster almost always suffers some sort of social humiliation. 

There’s also a lot of jovial misogyny—Bertie is the victim of Aunts and frightened by women his own age.  And I suppose you could also trace clever-servant stories back to Roman comedy.

By on 10/19/09 at 11:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I lived in England for a school semester in the early 90’s and used to watch Jeeves and Wooster. It was so great, after that and Black Adder, I’m still dumbfounded that that’s House.

By iamtheangel.com on 10/19/09 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The TV series is a pleasant diversion, and the casting is great.  It’s worth seeing some of it as an illustration of the characters.  On the other hand, it’s heavily abridged in terms of plot and wordplay.  And it’s kind of slow. 

While the TV show did justice to some of the weakest short stories or short novels, a book like, say, _Code of the Woosters_ is so very excellent in terms of plot, pacing, and wordplay, not to mention characterization, that saying “the book is better than the TV show” doesn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the problem.

Belloc’s not far wrong, and it’s kind of funny to me that “the best writer of English” focused on writing thoroughly vacuous MacGuffin-chasing boy-meets-girl comedies.  The schtick in Jeeves and Wooster in particular is that Wooster doesn’t actually want to meet a girl, though all his friends do, and Jeeves gets him out of it, while simultaneously setting up his friends with the partners they want.

And that’s about it.  I don’t think it is tractable to very much theory.  Jeeves isn’t just presumed to know--he does know--and the police helmets, necklaces, cow creamer, cosh/blackjack, and so on are not blank screens for the projection of desire: they’re seriously just MacGuffins.  The cultural/gendered elements are all massive stereotypes.  And politically, probably the most we can say is Wodehouse seemed to think fascists were amusing but probably mostly harmless.

For someone who claimed to re-read all Shakespeare’s plays annually, Wodehouse didn’t leave us much to talk about.  There’s no Wodehouse-ian _Hamlet_ but an awful lot of _Much Ado About Nothing_.

Still, if you liked _Much Ado About Nothing_, then you really, really need to actually read _Right Ho, Jeeves_, _Joy in the Morning_ (a.k.a. _Jeeves in the Morning_), _The Mating Season_, and so on--the longer Jeeves and Wooster novels--but especially _Code of the Woosters_.

By on 10/20/09 at 02:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember being introduced to Wodehouse through a bit in The Salmon of Doubt, a preface Douglas Adams wrote to Wodehouse’s Sunset at Blandings. But more importantly, through this piece by Stephen Fry.

By on 10/20/09 at 03:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I love Wodehouse for the way he makes me laugh, and I’m with Belloc that he’s one of the great stylists of the C20th: he’s, technically speaking, completely in charge of his instrument.  Best of all, the Jeeves and Wooster books, taken together, constitute one of the great love stories of their age.  Oh, indeed.  So, they all have more-or-less the same plot: Wooster is being stalked by some girl, and may have to marry her; but he is always saved from this direful fate by Jeeves.  The two of them are to all intents and purposes a married couple; and I find their dynamic completely convincing and rather sweet.

That’s to say, and rather counter to your reading here Bill, I tend to read the novels as Queered texts.  Wodehouse himself always claimed that a case of mumps at 19 had removed all sexual desire; he slept in a separate bed (ideally not only in separate rooms but separate floors) from his wife, though their relatinship was very affectionate they had no children. But his fiction is animated throughout by a joy in the homosocial bond.

To elaborate a little further: noting that ‘there is no sex or obscenity, adultery or guilty love in Wodehouse at all’ Laura Mooneyham goes on to quote a letter Wodehouse wrote in 1960 after the completion of Jeeves in the Offing: ‘I’ve just finished my new novel.  Fairly good, I think, but what does it prove?  I sometimes wish I wrote that powerful stuff that the reviewers like so much, all about incest and homosexuality.’

The point here is that homosexuality is precisely what his novels are all about.  The women, predatory and forceful, are masculinised (’‘Honoria, one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge’, Carry On, Jeeves (1925)’).  But Jeeves is also a pretty prepossessing figure.  His relationship with Wooster, when not going through one of its cool periods, is intense; despite Jeeves’ controlled, reserved, donnish tone there is no doubting he has feelings.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Jeeves in a low, cold voice, as if he had been bitten in the leg by a personal friend’ [Carry On, Jeeves (1925)]

He is also physically impressive:

Jeeves entered—or perhaps one should say shimmered—into the room … tall and dark and impressive.  He might have been one of the better class of ambassadors or the youngish high priest of some refined and dignified religion.  [Ring for Jeeves (1953)]

And Wooster misses him when he’s not there.

‘We part, then, for the nonce, do we?’
‘I fear so, sir.’
‘You taking the high road and self taking the low road, as it were?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘I shall miss you Jeeves.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Who was the chap who was always beefing about missing gazelles?’
‘The poet, Moore, sir.  He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but with it came to know him well and love him, it was sure to die.’
‘It’s the same with me.  I am a gazelle short’.  [Joy in the Morning]

Jeeves is also the focus for celebration, an object of desire for most of Wodehouse’s characters.  This is Stiffy Byng’s opinion:

‘What a man! What a man! What a man! What a man! What a man!’ she said, waving her arms and giving other indications of bien-etre.  ‘Jeeves,’ she explained … ‘Did he say it would work?  He did.  And was he right?  He was.  Bertie, could one kiss Jeeves?’
‘Certainly not.’
‘Shall I kiss you?’
‘No, thank you.’ [Code of the Woosters, (1937)]

Could one kiss Jeeves indeed.  I take these books, in other words, to be rather like Frasier (the writers of which have repeatedly voiced their passion for Wodehouse, and his influence on the show): a show ostensibly about heterosexuality that is actually and patently about gay life.

By Adam Roberts on 10/20/09 at 04:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The transposition of the superfluous man to the comedy of manners might also be considered.

By nnyhav on 10/20/09 at 12:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m teaching a course on utopia and modernism, and we just finished Right Ho, Jeeves and Cold Comfort Farm as it turns out.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/20/09 at 01:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

... rather counter to your reading here Bill

Don’t see it as particularly counter, Adam. What’s wrong with a Queer utopia?

By Bill Benzon on 10/20/09 at 02:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not the queerness; it’s the implied social and systemic focus of ‘utopian’.

By Adam Roberts on 10/20/09 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Adam, I’ll let Jonathan speak to the utopian angle if he so wishes; he at least has actually read some Wodehouse whereas I’ve only seen those charming TV shows.

Nor am I really in position to address the queerness, for I know nothing, nada, zilch, about that branch of Theory. What I do know is that there is an element of tender affection in the relationship between Jeeves and Wooster in the TV show, though I don’t see an erotic element in play. And, yes, I can see the similarity to Frasier, though in that case I get cross-talk from David Hyde Pierce’s real-life gayness (at least I think he’s gay). And then there’s Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in The Odd Couple (I’ve never seen the movie or the play).

But then, what about Alan Quatermain and those strapping black trackers-guides-companions that are so very imporant to him?

* * * * *

On another note, how much of my 2nd-half-of-the-20th-century-American sense of Englishmen-ness is due to representations that Wodehouse created?

By Bill Benzon on 10/20/09 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, here’s the thing—in line with D’s remarks, all these high-minded and serious people, including George “1984 Animal Farm” Orwell of all people, think that Wodehouse is great Great GREAT! And yet Wodehouse writes these vacuuous stories about these vacuuous people. Is it just his plotting and prose style that redeems this vacuum? Those are (mere) aesthetic effects. And if it really is that redeeming, how the hell can we account for that? As far as I can tell, Theory hasn’t got the tools. But I don’t see that anyone else has them either.

If Bram Stoker or Stephen King wrote like Wodehouse, would they get the same praise?

By Bill Benzon on 10/20/09 at 06:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t see anyone arguing the stories are vacuous.  (I’m not clear whether you’ve read many of them, Bill, or are mainly working from the TV show.) Making Bertie believable, and achieving the kind of intricate, amusing byplay Adam quotes, is a real achievement.  This is fine genre fiction, widely appealing, flattering to the reader, and full of lovely little bits like the gazelle.  What exactly is the question that wants answering?

Another comparison might be Arthur Conan Doyle.  The writing is less pleasurable and light, but highly efficient.  Sherlock Holmes stories are also about a relationship between a clever guy and a dumb guy as told by the dumb guy.

By on 10/20/09 at 08:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And the Holmes stories are about a breech in the social fabric (a crime has been committed) and the reasoning needed to resolve it. In Jeeves & Wooster we have some romantic business instead of crime, and Jeeves schemes instead of Holms’s deductive virtuosity. But we don’t have the scintillating prose.

I’m prepared to believe that the scintillation is worth quite a bit. But it’s not clear to me that we’re prepared to do any more than simply assert that value. We can’t explain it, except perhaps by reference to a propensity to admire virtuosity. Which is a rather circular sort of reasoning.

By Bill Benzon on 10/20/09 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, your comments would be a lot easier to take seriously if you had ever read any Wodehouse.  I can’t bring myself to be impressed with your chutzpah here.

By tomemos on 10/20/09 at 10:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, Bill, I’ve suggested that the pleasure of the Wodehouse text has to do with its internal epistemics.  Adam has made a much more interesting argument around a deferred romantic bond, with reference the, ahem, text.  Such candidate explanations for how the scintillation works might be wrong, but they hardly fit your claim about what we’re not prepared to do.  Who is “we”?  And is it possible that all of this would be less mysterious to you if you actually read the texts ... if it’s not unreasonable to suggest doing that on a literary blog?

By on 10/20/09 at 11:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, for every segment of Jeeves and Wooster where there seems to be a male homoerotic subtext, I think I can show two that articulate Bertie’s clear appreciation for heterosexual romance and an attraction to women.  I remember many from _The Mating Season_, though I might agree that he also hints at lesbian tendencies in Stiffy’s visiting friend. 

I don’t think the Jeeves and Wooster stories (and I have read almost all of them) have very much to do with homosexuality at all.  Rather, I think Wodehouse simply writes Bertie as if he had the mind of a 10-year-old heterosexual boy, who finds girls mysterious, compelling, and attractive, even if he’s not quite sure why and doesn’t want anything to do with them, practically speaking, right at the moment.  He takes the same boyish point of view on his aunts, his annoying younger cousins, and the man he looks up to, Jeeves.  He refers constantly to his grammar school achievements as though they were current.  He enjoys pranks.  And he clearly likes girls.  These aren’t stories about homosexuality but simply about a man-child.

If you really want to hold onto the argument that Wodehouse’s own sexuality is at play here, you might try showing that it’s relevant to the Blandings stories, or Psmith, or the boarding school stories, or the golf stories.  It isn’t, but if it were it might bolster the argument that Wodehouse can’t help showing a closeted point of view.  On the other hand, if you read the boarding school stories and compare them with Bertie and his pals from the Drones, what do you find?  Continuity--just (sheltered) boys’ points of view.

By on 10/21/09 at 04:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a bit over half-way through Right Ho, Jeeves and it is delightful. The prose is brilliant, the plotting ingenious, and the irony just right. However, I do find D’s man-child reading a bit more persuasive than Adam’s queer reading. And then there’s Colin’s suggestive phrase: “flattering to the reader.”

By Bill Benzon on 10/21/09 at 07:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s something almost (I hestitate to say it) self-evident to me about the queer reading of Jeeves and Wooster: unlike eg Psmith and his sidekick (whose name I’m forgetting) they’re so obviously ‘a couple’.  I hesitate to say it because that very obviousness is probably an index of its untenability.

I’ve taught Wodehouse to undergraduates, on a course about theories of laughter, and have found three constants: (a) they all really like him (I usually teach Code of the Woosters, because there’s lots of interesting stuff in there about authority, and masculinity and fascism; although sometimes I vary it and go for Right Ho Jeeves) (b) they’re all startled to learn about Wodehouse’s collaborationist war, and his postwar disgrace, and (c) they don’t really buy the queer reading.  Now (a) probably has something to do with the fact that Wodehouse makes a pleasant change after Aristophanes and Chaucer and Rabelais and Pope and Dickens in that, you know, he’s actually funny.  But (c) sometimes manifests in seminar with an outright hostility, as if suggesting that Jeeves and Wooster might be gay is in some sense a slur upon them as characters, and if there would be something shameful about that sexual orientation, something from which Wodehouse’s delightful whimsy must be protected.  That seems to me just baffling.  Not only wrong, but more than wrong: actively offensive.

Not that I’m accusing anybody in this comments thread of anything like that.  Only, you know ... anybody who disagrees with my reading IS A HOMOPHOBE.

By Adam Roberts on 10/22/09 at 05:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Talking of gay couples ... Tintin and Captain Haddock.

By Adam Roberts on 10/22/09 at 05:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam -

But (c) sometimes manifests in seminar with an outright hostility, as if suggesting that Jeeves and Wooster might be gay is in some sense a slur upon them as characters, and if there would be something shameful about that sexual orientation, something from which Wodehouse’s delightful whimsy must be protected.  That seems to me just baffling.  Not only wrong, but more than wrong: actively offensive.

Spitballing here:

Could we interpret (c) [rejection of the ‘this is a sublimated gay love story’ reading] not as offense at the possibility of a homosexual subtext, but rather as defensive (maybe naive?) insistence on the possibility of a heterosexual identity that’s as rich and varied and loving as W&J’s without needing to ‘fall’ into erotic desire? I did poorly in my college classes but had a harder time with love; didn’t make the Dean’s List romantic-artswise either, if I may compound Bill’s embarrassing admissions with my own. The last thing I needed back then was some PhD telling me ‘The things you don’t understand about sex make this more complicated than you know.’

I can imagine college students instinctively rejecting a queer reading not as evil but as unnecessary, an imposition - which interpretation is then taken up as, y’know, a symptom of social-fabric-tearing profs trying to ruin our happy home, etc., etc.

Alternatively (stating the obvious here), the quotes you’ve cited might not strike e.g. undergrads as ‘proof’ of erotic subtext, but do argue for an expansiveness about ‘queerness’ itself. And the idea of such a freighted vocabulary word creeping across the lexicon like The Blob to devour all possible definitions could easily offend the sensibilities of the sort of teenager who’d sign up for a class on Dickens, Chaucer, and Rabelais.

Nom nom nom.

(Aaaand now I know what I’m going to read next.)

By waxbanks on 10/22/09 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

His DNB was written by a hagiographer, true, but if the facts there even approximate reality, Wodehouse was no Lord Haw-Haw.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/22/09 at 10:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

DNB?

By Bill Benzon on 10/22/09 at 10:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

DNB = Dictionary of National Biography.  And no, you’re right Jonathan: what Wodehouse did was not as bad as what Lord Haw-Haw did.  Although Haw-Haw was hanged, and Wodehouse just had to live in a large and luxurious house in the US, and missed out on getting a knighthood. 

Part of me reacts a little narkily to the general tendency nowadays to absolve Wodehouse from collaborationist responsibility on the grounds that he’s a loveable, fuzzy-headed ingenue who was taken advantage of by evil Nazis.  Partly that’s because, you know: he was a grown man, and never a fool; and because he was cosying up to the Nazis at the time when literally millions were putting their lives at risk (and dying) fighting them.  But mostly I object to it on principle—this habit of gifting certain artists get-out-of-jail-free cards just because their art makes us feel good.  A modern example would be the truly bizarre bifurcation by which Roman Polanski, whose films make us feel a bit uncomfortable, becomes the Bad Paedophile where Michael Jackson, whose songs make us feel warm inside, become the Good Paedophile and is forgiven at the bar of public opinion.  The point being, their art should have nothing to do with it.

By Adam Roberts on 10/22/09 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wax: very well said.  I particularly take the force of ‘some PhD telling me “The things you don’t understand about sex make this more complicated than you know”...’ Which is quite apart from anything else a frighteningly accurate thumbnail of my condescending-as-only-the-English-can be, de-haut-en-bas teaching style.

I’d still stand by at least an atom of my original point: it’s not just the disagreement (which, surely, is what any classroom teaching is aiming for): it’s the knee-jerkiness of that disagreement ... which is to say, there’s at least the possibility that if your immediate, unconsidered reaction is ‘Tintin and Captain Haddock lovers? NEVER!’, it may be motivated by an unconsidered homophobia absorbed osmotically from a broadly homophobic culture.  There are people, and they’re not necessarily hate-filled bigots, for whom the thought of two men having sex raises an ‘ick!’ in their minds.  What I object to is an unconsidered ick.

Not that this appplies to anybody on this thread.

By Adam Roberts on 10/22/09 at 11:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The point I was making, Adam, is that if you read that entry, which is obviously partisan but still, it seems unclear whether as a factual matter Wodehouse was a collaborationist. Much seems to depend on the question of payment for his broadcasts, which the aforementioned biographer is skeptical of. I haven’t researched this question in any depth. His Paris Review interview, which is available online as I recall, has a partial version of events.

Orwell’s “In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse” is an interesting document. Orwell claims that his broadcasts were intended as anti-British propaganda for the American audience. Here’s Orwell again: “In England, the fiercest tirades are uttered by Conservatives who were practicing appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940.”

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/22/09 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I left out “against quislings” in the Orwell quote above.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/22/09 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: I don’t want to risk a total derailment, but surely the difference between Polanski and Jackson is that Jackson was in the news recently for dying, whereas Polanski was in the news for being arrested on the rape charge.  So it’s natural that there would be a lot more discussion and criticism of Polanski the Rapist (even as there have in fact been people defending him on the grounds of his art, among other things).  There’s not that much point in vilifying Jackson right now; if you had asked people about him a year or two ago, though, his alleged pedophilia would certainly have been a large part of his public image.

Not to mention the non-trivial fact that Jackson was acquitted of child molestation, whereas Polanski pled guilty and then fled to avoid punishment (just or not).  Though I sadly doubt that that nuance makes much of a difference in people’s minds.

By tomemos on 10/22/09 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To be fair, I re-examined a few Jeeves and Wooster novels myself to try out both man-child and queer readings more actively.

I had remembered accurately how often the women in the stories are described as stunning beauties, either worthy of being in film (e.g. Madeline Bassett or Florence Craye) or actually working as movie stars (Corky Pirbright).  When Bertie looks at Corky or Florence, he’ll experience a morale boost or a Soul’s Awakening while his gaze lingers.  His only reason for not marrying Madeline is she’s too goopy and sentimental.  He actually proposes to a number of women willingly (at first--Florence and Bobbie), and his enthusiasm for Corky seems more than friendly.

But, typically, for every woman he finds attractive, there is a man in the story whom he finds especially intimidating or impressive, and there are more homoerotic implications in their descriptions than I had really noticed--often stronger than in Adam’s examples.  Bertie’s reactions to Jeeves, though, express less innuendo and much more awe and/or dependence. 

I also kept running across more childhood references and child-like points of view than I had recalled as well.  Bertie flashes back to his school days a *lot*, and the moments when he puts himself in the position of kids he sees being manipulated, shepherded, embarrassed, pushed around, strung along, or going through some social ordeal seems occasionally to work as a mise en abyme for his point of view.

So I ought to have given Adam’s reading more credit than I did, and it’s not sheer slash-fic re-imagination to find that in the text, but heterosexual man-child still seems to cover more aspects of Bertie’s POV.  Frankly, I’m disappointed, because I don’t like to wonder if I’m merely reiterating a confirmation bias.

By on 10/22/09 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good points by Jonathan G., and tonemos: though I’m not wholly sure the present process of heaping contumley on Polanski and feeling the love for Jackson is exactly as rational as you imply.  But what you say, and D.’s re-reading, make me rethink my own position.

By Adam Roberts on 10/23/09 at 03:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I could add (although it’s only glancingly relevant): I once wrote a science fiction novel called Polystom in which I set about removing an essentially carefree Bertie Woosterish figure, stripping out all the comfort and comedy and relocating him in an oppressively stratified social environment, and thereafter in the middle of a World War One analogue.  I’m not saying that this experiment in recontextualisation was necessarily particularly successful, and I wasn’t trying to ape Wodehouse stylistically.  But my quasi-Wooster was straight, and hopelessly in love with his uninterested young wife.

By Adam Roberts on 10/23/09 at 03:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Meanwhile, Adam (in a vein similar to your most recent comment), I’ve been thinking of Jeeves&Wooster as a device that allows Wodehouse to achieve certain effects. And I’ve been wondering what would happen if the pair had been good friends instead of servant & master. That certainly makes for a very different pair and the stories as they exist would not be possible. For example, what would it mean to have a friend lay out your clothes?

There’s a scene that occurs every once in awhile in the TV show where Bertie is in the bathtub chatting briefly with Jeeves, who is standing behind Bertie in the bathroom. I haven’t encounted such a scene in Right Ho, Jeeves, but there is at least one point where Bertie asks Jeeves to run his bath water. What would it mean to ask your best friend to run your bath water?

I haven’t got the foggiest idea about the “standard” relationship between a gentleman and his personal valet and thus have no way of “calibrating” the Jeeves-Wooster relationship against that. But then, who among Wodehouse readers has had direct experience of such relationships? A few, no doubt, but only a very few. Most of us have to understand that relationship indirectly, either through other fictional representations of it, or on intuitions based on our own experiences of employment and friendship. It seems to me that affords Wodehouse considerable latitude in how he uses this device, and also makes for ambiguity that can easily be read this or that way.

As for Bertie the man-child, there is a scene in Right Ho, Jeeves where Bertie has a delightful time in the bath playing with a rubber duck:

The discovery of a toy duck in the soap dish, presumably the property of some former juvenile visitor, contributed not a little to this new and happier frame of mind. What with one thing and another, I hadn’t played with toy ducks in my bath for years, and I found the novel experience most invigorating. For the benefit of those interested, I may mention that if you shove the thing under the surface with the sponge and then let it go, it shoots out of the water in a manner calculated to divert the most careworn. Ten minutes of this and I was enabled to return to the bedchamber much more the old merry Bertram.

There’s a later scene where he’s in the same tub but is so dispirited that he takes no interest in the duck.

By Bill Benzon on 10/23/09 at 07:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And, now that I’ve read most of Right Ho, Jeeves, I’m struck by a comment Colin made in his initial remark:

Consequently there’s a remote, opaque, and faintly sinister quality to Jeeves in the stories that vanishes when he has equal weight on the screen (and is played by someone as attractive as Fry.)

Yes. But the book also gives a stronger sense that Jeeves is a peculiar appendage to to Bertie. To be sure, Bertie gets to order Jeeves about. But Jeeves will also appear, out of nowhere, just when Bertie needs him. So Jeeves is an appendage over which Bertie does not have complete control.

By Bill Benzon on 10/23/09 at 07:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hope you don’t mind me blogwhoring, but I just wrote a post comparing Waugh and Wodehouse that has to do with the notion - promoted by Madame de Stael - that the problem with English comedy is the English sense of humor. As de Stael puts it, the English have no gaiety - they have no Moliere.

I think Waugh rather agrees with that, which is why his novels are so funny, and yet have nothing to do with the English “sense of humor” - in Handful of Dust, for instance, the English sense of humor is what the protagonist is trapped in in the end, endlessly reading Dickens to a crazy man.

Wodehouse, on the other hand, does have a certain gaiety - is my contention. I’m a Blandings Castle man myself.

Anyway, here’s the link: http://newsfromthezona.blogspot.com/2009/09/waugh-and-wodehouse.html

By roger on 10/24/09 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is the “man-child” reading really all that incompatible with homoeroticism given the particular dynamics of British public school education? The toy-duck example is pushing Bertie’s childishness back pretty far, but can’t Bertie’s relationship to Jeeves also be seen as the positive obverse to the type of relationship between an older and a younger (somewhat servile) boy in school? I guess I’m thinking of the film “If...” which is obviously in its own way quite extreme, but which nevertheless also feeds off a certain typology derived from perceptions of the public school appearance.

By Andrew Seal on 10/25/09 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

oops--that should be “public school experience,” not “appearance.”

By Andrew Seal on 10/25/09 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Roger, Yes, gaiety in Wodehouse. I’m thinking of the scene in Right Ho, Jeeves where a drunken Gussie Fink-Nottle awards student prizes. His speeches, student response, head master response, Wooster response, all wonderful and rather festive it seems to me.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/09 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve now finished Right Ho, Jeeves and I’ve made the mistake of thinking about it. Just what is going on here? We’ve got two boy-meets-girl stories, both with happy endings. Such stories, of course, are absolutely standard literary fare, among the most common stories we’ve got. But neither Bertie nor Jeeves plays the boy in either story, though Bertie does sit in on the boy role for awhile, and yet the book is most centrally about them, not about Tuppy, Gussie, Angela, and the Basset. (& what’s up with that usage, “the Basset”? Did Wodehouse do that often?).

And then I thought about one of my favorite Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, which D. has introduced into the discussion as an example of a similar bit of writing and story telling. That play also involves two boy-meets-girl stories, which is typical of Shakespearean comedies (and others as well). But, as a play, it has no narrator, no Bertie (& his Jeeves). However, it does have a handful of characters who intervene in the boy-meets-girl stories and attempt to bring them to good ends. So, Wodehouse uses two characters – Jeeves and Bertie – to serve the function that Shakespeare did with three – Don Pedro, Leonato, the priest – and, well, its complicated. For one of Shakespeare’s couples – Claudio and Hero – was part of the intervention into the other couple’s relationship.

And then we have nasty old Don John, who is, in fact, instrumental in the double plot, but who tried to destroy the Claudio/Hero plot. The interesting thing is that, by the end of the play, no one’s much concerned about punishing him for what he attempted to do. We hear that he’s skipped town and folks just keep in dancing. I really don’t want to make the argument here, though I have published it,* so I’ll just assert that he is, in fact, part of the group of meddlers who made these happy endings possible.

Given that, who’s the Don John figure in Right Ho, Jeeves? I think it is Bertie himself. And he undergoes something of a mild ritual punishment for his sins, and 18-mile bicycle ride in the middle of the night that proved fruitless and unnecessary. Jeeves set him up to be the scapegoat that everyone could focus their enmity on him and, at the same time, have a good chuckle over his midnight ride to nowhere for nothing. And Wodehouse telegraphs that to us in the language he uses to send Bertie on that bike ride:

“There is a bicycle in the gardener’s shed in the kitchen garden, madam. Possibly one of the gentlemen might feel disposed to ride over to Kingham Manor and procure the back-door key from Mr. Seppings.”

“Splendid, Jeeves!”

“Thank you, madam.”

“Wonderful!”

“Thank you, madam.”

“Attila!” said Aunt Dahlia, turning and speaking in a quiet,
authoritative manner.

I had been expecting it. From the very moment those ill-judged words had passed the fellow’s lips, I had had a presentiment that a determined effort would be made to elect me as the goat, and I braced myself to resist and obstruct.

His bracing, alas, was to no avail. He played the (scape)goat and allowed us our happen ending.

* Benzon, W. L. At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation? Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 21(3), 259-279, 1998.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/09 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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