There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
– P.G. Wodehouse, Strychnine in the Soup
Born on 15th October 1881, in Surrey, England, Sir Pelham Gernville Wodehouse – popularly known as P.G. Wodehouse – is widely and quite rightly regarded as one of the greatest humorists of the 20th century. He was a prolific writer and wrote nearly 100 novels, 25 collections of short stories, along with plays, musicals, and even lyrics for various Broadway shows including working for MGM in Hollywood. Focusing mainly on comic fiction he created several recurring characters that his audience soon came to love, including the ditzy, Bertie Wooster and his wise valet, Jeeves, the immaculate and quite chatty Psmith, including memorable women characters like the tenacious Doctor Sally, the charming Sally Nicholas, and the comical Aunt Agatha.
Unlike many authors, Wodehouse’s work continued to grow over time. In fact, more than 40 years after his death, he is now bought and read more than ever. Wodehouse occupies a unique role in the history of 20th century English literature and it is not without reason. From the effortless comedy, the simple characters, to the eloquent use, and often twist, of the English language; Plum’s works were the perfect light-reading, comic novels
The Adventures of Sally is one such novel of his with a brilliant young woman as the protagonist. Initially released in the form of a serial in the Collier’s magazine in 1921, it was published in the novel form in 1922 in the United Kingdom, and in 1923 in the U.S. under the title Mostly Sally. This unusually complex plot for Wodehouse novels is set in Now York against the backdrop of the roaring 20s. Sally Nicholas is a young, pretty, and popular American woman who lives in a boarding house with her brother and works as a taxi dancer to earn her living. She is on the verge of getting engaged to a budding playwright, Gerald Foster. The story opens with Sally throwing a party to celebrate her good luck. The guests are fellow boarders and each one of them has a suggestion on how to use the money. Fillmore, who has become even more proud and pompous after coming into wealth, is an unattractive person who is skating on thin ice in financial matters at the firm where he works. He also nurses theatrical ambitions. Sally decides to enjoy her good luck and spend her money on an extended holiday in France, where she meets a host of interesting characters. Among them are the rustic yet steadfast boxer, office assistant, and dog-trainer, Ginger Kemp, and his suave cousin, the suave Bruce Carmyle. How Sally finds true love and happiness forms the rest of the story, which takes some enjoyable detours to arrive at its conclusion.
The cute and vivacious Sally makes a memorable and lovable heroine and the reader is easily drawn into her and her adventures. She is sweet, tender, and kind hearted – “You’re an angel Sally. There’s no one like you. You’d give your last cent to anyone.” These lines spoken by one of characters early on in the novel couldn’t have described our protagonist any better.
She was a small, trim, wisp of a girl with the tiniest hands and feet, the friendliest of smiles, and a dimple that came and went in the curve of her rounded chin. (The Adventures of Sally, p.6-p.7)
She seems to be the perfect, the all American girl. However, her character does not end there. As the novel progresses the author delves into the true depths of her character. Along with being a charming and loving woman, she is tenacious and fierce as well. In the first chapter itself we see the influence she has on those around her. Not only is she loved by all those in the boarding house, she is also feared by the newcomers, the trouble-making Murphy brothers. One look is all she needs to bring them down. Even her dear brother, no matter how much he tries, cannot win an argument against her.
A sweet tempered girl, Sally, like most women of generous spirit, had cyclonic potentialities. –Wodehouse, The Adventures of Sally
However, Wodehouse, unlike in his other novels, does not let her be the regular generalised character she is described as in the beginning. As the novel progresses we see her grow as she faces her ups and downs, heartaches and grievances, and new found loves. And what we see is a thoroughly practical woman. As much as she is painted as an almost magically perfect woman, we find that to not be true. Under the guise of his usual simple characters, the author has slipped a rather complex woman. It was around the publication of this novel that author created some of the strongest and most likeable female characters, like Jill Mariner from Jill the Reckless, and Sue Brown from Summer Lightening. Although, quite unlike other female characters, Sally doesn’t seem to achieve much through wit, but what she achieves is through persistence. Time and time again we see her making mistakes and faulty decisions, like investing in the theatre which makes her lose her money, falling in love and engaging with an unreliable man, and so on. She suffers some serious loss and depression. At this point, as is normally expected from most strong heroines, she doesn’t just picks herself up and brushes it off. I feel Wodehouse rather unexpectedly portrays a more realistic life here. She does fall into depression and she does mull over it, but eventually she makes things better for herself. She isn’t the perfect woman, but neither is she the damsel in distress, both of which were the more popularly written female characters.
Wodehouse’s fictional world was Edwardian but his sense of women, influenced by the changes that had come about since both the Suffragist movement and the First World War, was a decidedly emancipated one. –Wodehouse, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
Nonetheless, he has occasionally been criticized for his portrayal of women in his novels. Critics often claimed that “Women are excluded as complex characters”. Janet Cameron often likes to particularly point out that Aunt Agatha is the only recurring character in his series and is portrayed as “a caricature of an aunt”. On a similar note Frances Donaldson would agree and add that Wodehouse’s female characters were “…stock characters in a long line of British humour.” Admittedly, the well known character of Bertie Wooster is the central and most complex character in most of his novels; however it would be unjust to the women of his series to compare him with them. As Robert Hall states in The Comic Style of P.G. Wodehouse (1974):
“Wodehouse’s leading girl-characters are, by and large, somewhat more individualised than his male juvenile leads. Significantly, the Junior Lipstick Club, to which some of Wodehouse’s heroines belong, does not play a parallel role to that of his Drones, in supplying young feminine leads. Almost all of his ingénues have energy and sparkle, often (like Sally Painter in ‘Uncle Dynamite’, when she pushes the policeman into the pond) taking the initiative when the “hero” wavers in his resolution.”
Having read a considerable number of works I find the criticism against him hard to agree with. The diversity and strength in his female characters is the same as, if not more than, his male characters. As for Wodehouse himself, he preferred his women equal, self-determined, and independent.
Around the time of the novel’s publication there were two prominent types of females protagonists: the perfect woman in need of a man’s help and love, and the perfect woman who could solve just about any problem. While one was a result of patriarchy, the other was a clear rebellion in the face of patriarchy and in turn a result of patriarchy as well. Seemingly unknowingly Wodehouse created a female protagonist independent from either of these expectations, managing to be rib-tickling funny at the same time.
At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.
– Wodehouse, Uneasy Money
Wodehouse, P.G. P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters. W.W. Norton, 2013.