The Mumps of Wodehouse

Overlook Press has been publishing deluxe-ish editions of the works of P.G. Wodehouse, and the latest has just arrived: "Aunts Aren't Gentlemen." I mean "latest" in two senses: This is the latest volume to come out, and it was the last novel the overlord of light comedy finished before his death in 1975. (He left a later manuscript, the aptly titled "Sunset at Blandings," incomplete.) This rounding out of the Wodehousean oeuvre reminds me of a theory put forward by Robert McCrums in his excellent biography, "Wodehouse: A Life": He traces the sexlessness of all the romances in the master's novels to the mumps.

Having come down with the mumps myself as a teenager, I recall being warned to be as listless as possible in the bed I was supposed to get out of only to go the bathroom. The danger, I was told, was that roughhousing might end my sex life before it had even started. McCrum suggests that in Wodehouse's case that dire possibility actually came to pass, reducing his sex drive to near-zero. This means that his marriage may have been unconsummated (he begat no children) and may explain why Bertie Wooster sneaks into and out of countless manor houses with ease but can't find his way into Madeline Basset's bed.

McCrum may be right, may be wrong, but what's been on my mind lately is what would happen if Wodehouse's characters did have intercourse. The American novelist Jonathan Ames tried to answer that question a couple of years ago in his novel "Wake Up, Sir!," a Wodehouse pastiche in which there is plenty of humping. It's quite enjoyable, but it's not Wodehouse, partly because nobody can measure up to the master in depicting utter silliness in an inimitably facetious prose style. And partly because, well, the Wodehouse brand has to be genitals-free.

Why that is, I'm not sure, but here's a guess: It's part of the Zeitgeist. During most of Wodehouse's long career, writers and readers had yet to reach an accord by which the former would knock down the bedroom walls and the latter would peer in. Much the same is true of, say, the screwball comedies of the 1930s. I'm happy to watch a good sex scene in a contemporary movie, but the idea of leering at, say, a bare-butted Cary Grant and a topless Irene Dunne going at it on a four-poster gives me the willies. That is not what they and their films are about; the scripts were written, and the actors were trained for, a different approach to relations between the sexes, and the same is true of Wodehouse. It's not a matter of morality or prudery, I would argue, but almost one of genre. There are sex comedies, and there are sexy comedies, and they are two different things.

P.S. For those of you who read last week's entry on the pain of culling an overfull private library, I'm proud to say that over the weekend I chose 60 to be de-accessioned. Now all I have to do is gather up some boxes and get them out of the house.
-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  May 19, 2009; 9:30 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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as everyone knows, Bertie didn't particularly wat to "find his way into Madeline Bassett's bed." Florence Craye at times perhaps...

Posted by: cligatti | May 20, 2009 2:50 PM

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