I'm not alone in being interested in the criticism that his books and stories avoid sex. Moreover, what intrigues me is the idea that this indicates a lack in his writing. That, unintentionally or not, his work thereby holds back a couple of juicy cards or, if you like, that he is the only kid in the room who won't join in the game of strip poker.
I vacillate between finding this criticism misguided or quaint depending on whether it is expressed as being, respectively, a deficiency or an omission in his output. I find the latter cuter because I picture that critic feeling cheated, as though she has got to the bottom of a cup of tea and found the giddy leaves of eroticism absent. The sex is where the meaning is, she seems to mutter in an undertone. She feels swizzed. (And don't tell me that the poor sap's equation was sex=fun, because PGW is teeming with fun). Maybe she even feels sad for the author: sad that the fleshly avenue of expression was somehow -- for Wodehouse if not ultimately by Wodehouse -- stoppered-up.
So why is there a sex-shaped gap in Wodehouse? Well, one hammer-blow response is this: there is no such gap. There is sex. There are loads of direct references to it. Bertie Wooster says of a pal: "His love, you see, is not wholly spiritual. There's a bit of the carnal mixed up in it." Many girls are described as being "a mass of sex-appeal" or variations thereof. Phylllis Mills wore "a simple summer dress which accentuated rather than hid the graceful outlines of her figure". Honoria Glossop, similarly, "has more curves than a scenic railway". Biff Christoper has gone through epochs of being "rather festooned in blondes". And so on. There are certainly enough allusions to assuage a suspicion that Wodehouse was cravenly denying the whole business of the bedroom. The gap is looking hazier already.
Another rebuttal is to do with the efficiency of his technique. PGW's plotting is so refined, so sound a blend of character and behavior, that to plonk sex in the midst of it would often detract from the credibility and progress of the story. In one tale, kid's-magazine editor Bingo Little accidentally offends Bella, a lucrative would-be contributor who turns out to be a hottie. His wife Rosie, with whom he has a lovely, faithful relationship, is out of town. He gives Bella the rush of a lifetime in terms of dinner dates. Just when he books a meal at which he hopes decisively to win her round, Rosie reminds him that their anniversary lunch is at the same time.
Now, I fancy that some would read between the lines of PGW's talk of lunches and champagne, and assume that he is just being politely euphemistic. But consider: we need to like Bingo as much as possible to keep us in sympathy with his dilemma. He and Rosie genuinely do have a sweet, healthy marriage; there is no suggestion of an open relationship; so it simply wouldn't work as well to have him going to bed with Bella to win her round. Bingo would come across as at least something of a cad. Thus sex, in examples like this, is not only unnecessary: it is too blunt an instrument. It wouldn't add spice so much as add turnip.
Talking of open relationships, by the by, there's at least one novel in which two male friends are chatting about a married couple they know. The humor of the scene rests on one of the guys trying to reassure the other that the couple are devoted solely to each other, which they are, but by poor phrasing he ends up not only managing to make the husband sound like he's constantly nipping off with other girls but that the wife is just fine with the whole arrangement. The listening chum is revolted, but that isn't the point: the point is that non-monogamy and sexual color were on Wodehouse's radar.
As well they might be. I'm choosing not to be biographical today, but it is worth remembering that PGW's career straddled both world wars and all the horny turmoil that those and the inter-war years involved. He worked and mixed with the likes of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He contributed to dozens of movies and musicals, including Anything Goes. He was a prisoner of war, amazing the guards with his ceaseless writing. In short, he saw a bit of life. No, scotch that: he saw a tremendous amount.
All this brings us to perhaps the most realistic explanation. It is the one PGW himself gave in an archive interview clip featured in Terry Wogan's excellent documentary on the author. As Wodehouse recounts, sex was just not something you wrote about in the first half of the 20th century. He didn't get into the habit, and found even as he wrote into the 1960s and 1970s that his work could kinda do without it. Make no mistake: he was so professional a writer that he could have incorporated sex, in the ways that I fancy his critics mean, into his creations. But as just one measure of the breathtaking extent of his genius, we can embrace and love his books as they are while neither feeling deprived of sex nor thinking that they suffer from any weird asexual anemia. His characters aren't neutered: their sex lives are just flicked up into the bigger comedy and humanity. Into the life.
The academic Sophie Ratcliffe said: "One of the reasons, I think, that people read Wodehouse novels is not to find out more about people's feelings, but to watch the way in which feeling is managed." A wonderful comment. Many people at the lowest and highest points of their lives turn to Wodehouse: sometimes he is their only solace, sometimes an adored guest among others at a celebration. And, when it comes to sex in his work, we can relax. It's there all right. There's just all kinds of else to put right.
For starters, the Empress is lacking bran mash in the ratio and quantities specified by Whipple. She needs her 57,000 calories a day to keep her a healthy pig. Yes? No? Are we a go?