Tuesday, April 26, 2005

P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist

For all of his amiable uncles and tyrannical aunts, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse prefered his young women independant, self-determined, and equal. His wife, Ethel Newton, was a widow when he met her, and she was quite a character, much flashier than the rather shy Plum. He adopted and adored Ethel's daughter by this previous marriage, Leonora, who died in 1944, which was a lasting tragedy for Wodehouse. His letters to her are very personal, full of tactfully phrased advice and hopes. Some--but not enough--are contained in the volume Yours, Plum (Heineman, 1990).

As usual, this first note is the prolegomena to an excerpt. This time, it's the proposal scene from PG's first published novel, Something Fresh (1915). See that date? This scene strikes me as a remarkable reversal of Oscar Wilde's 1893 quip: "Men marry because they are tired, women, because they are curious: both are disappointed" (A Woman Of No Importance, Act 3.).

In Wodehouse's version, a bare 18 years later, the woman has already had an adventurous life: she's worked a variety of jobs (including magazine-writing), lives alone in a London flat, introduces herself to the young man she'll eventually marry, and has excellent ideas for scarab-stealing. In fact, she's structurely similiar to the later Uncle Fred character: she's the shenanigan-engine of the plot. So how does such a plucky young lady get hitched? Click through to find out.


In the first block of dialogue, Joan is speaking.
"My life has been such a series of jerks. I dash along, then something happens which stops that bit of my life with a jerk, and then I have to start over again--a new bit. I think I'm getting tired of jerks. I want something stodgy and continuous. I'm like one of the old bus horses who could go on for ever if people got off without making them stop. It's the having to get the bus moving again that wears one out. This little section of my life since we came here is over, and it is finished for good. I've got to start the bus going again on a new road and with a new set of passengers. I wonder if the old horses used to be sorry when they dropped one set of passengers and took on a lot of strangers?"
A sudden dryness invaded Ashe's throat. He tried to speak, but found no words. Joan went on.
"Do you ever get moods when life seems absolutely meaningless? It's like a badly-constructed story, with all sorts of characters moving in and out who have nothing to do with the plot. And, when somebody comes along who you think really has something to do with the plor, he suddenly drops out. After a while you begin to wonder what the story is about, and you feel that it's about nothing--just a jumble."
"There is one thing," said Ashe, "that knits it together."
"What is that?"
"The love interest."
There eyes met, and suddenly there descended upon Ashe confidence. He felt cool and alert, sure of himself, as in the old days he had felt when he ran races and, the nerve-racking hours of waiting past, he listened for the starter's gun. Subconsciously he was aware that he had always been a little afraid of Joan, and that now he was no longer afraid.
"Joan, will you marry me?"
Her eyes wandered from his face. He waited.
"I wonder," she said softly. "You think that is the solution?"
"How can you tell?" she broke out. "We scarcely know each other. I shan't always be in this mood. I may get restless again. I may find that it is the jerks that I really like."
"You won't."
"You're very confident."
"I am absolutely confident."
"'She travels the fastest who travels alone,'" misquoted Joan.
"What is the good," said Ashe, "of travelling fast if you're going round in a circle? I know how you feel. I've felt the same myself. You are an individualist. You think that there is something tremendous just round the corner, and that you can get it if you try hard enough. There isn't. Or, if there is, it isn't worth getting. Life is nothing but a mutual aid association. [...Ashe is still talking, but after a bit more dialogue.] You crash into my life, turn it upside down, dig me out of my quiet groove, revolutionize my whole existence, and now you propose to drop me and pay no further attention to me. It is fair?"
"But I don't. We shall always be the best of friends."
"We shall. But we shall get married first."
"You are determined?"
"I am."
Joan laughed happily.
"How perfectly splendid. I was terrified lest I might have made you change your mind. I had to say all I did, to preserve my self-respect after proposing to you. Yes, I did. But strange it is that men never seem to understand a woman, however plainly she talks. You don't think I was really worrying because I had lost Aline, do you? I though I was going to lose you, and it made me miserable. You couldn't expect me to say so in so many words, but I thought you guessed. I practically said it. Ashe! What are you doing?"
Ashe paused a moment to reply.
"I am kissing you," he said.
"But you mustn't. There's a scullery-maid or something looking out of the kitchen window. She will see us."
Ashe drew her to him.
"Scullery-maids have few pleasures," he said. "Theirs is a dull life. Let her see us."

P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh (D. Appleton & Co., 1915.) New York: Penguin Books, 1986.


Blogger Honoria:

This is terrific. I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to share this at my Wodehouse page: http://honoriaplum.wordpress.com/

10/20/2013 02:04:00 PM  

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