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April 11, 2011 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Please tell me about Jeeves and Wooster's sex lives.

I recently dug out some of my old Wodehouse Jeeves stories, and then devoured all of the Fry and Laurie Jeeves and Wooster adaptations.

Each of Jeeves and Bertie lives in a largely all-male world. Bertie has his Drones, and Jeeves his Junior Ganymede Club, where each retreats to the exclusive company of men. Most of the plots of the stories revolve around Bertie extricating himself from some ghastly aunt or unsuitable wedding match. I recall he had been engaged to someone in earnest at one point (likely a Glossop). Women are, for the most part, a mystery to Bertie.

Jeeves, by contrast, seems considerably more a man of the world, though we rarely witness him interacting with the opposite sex in any real way. He is engaged to Lord Bittlesham's cook at one point--an engagement he cunningly extricates himself from in No Wedding Bells for Bingo; there may have been other women in his life (I can't recall). We also know he was the toast of New York during their brief sojourn there, and seems a bon vivant.

But what of woo and its enpitchment?

So let's not beat around the bush: what, broadly speaking, would have been the sex lives been of men of Bertie and Jeeves's stations in 1920s/1930s London? Would Bertie have been sexually active with any of the Glossops he was continually being married off to? Would Jeeves have a steady girl he might pay a visit to--or be sexually active with Bittlesham's cook while they were engaged? Would it have been commonplace for either to be having trysts with the female help at any of the estates they seem to visit in every story? Brothels? Prostitutes? Obviously, there is a whole other potential dimension of same-sex relationships, as well.

What were the sexual mores for otherwise unattached men in the middle and upper classes in the UK in the 1920s/30s?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

I suspect Jeeves may have "craved a boon" now and again.

But in all seriousness, the 20's was pretty promiscuous. The end of the great war and 'flu epidemic. Money, alcohol and youth generally means lots of sex.
posted by the noob at 7:04 AM on April 11, 2011

I just finished Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain, and he covers this topic.

Basically: the upper and lower classes were incredibly promiscuous, and the middle classes weren't. (Obviously a generalisation, but it was common/expected for the upper classes to be having affairs and taking lovers).
posted by Infinite Jest at 7:20 AM on April 11, 2011

The Flapper thread over on the blue may give you some interesting context.

I guess that in the 20s it would have been much easier to grow up being both ignorant and rather chauvinistic about women: public schools, the armed services and gentleman's clubs were all male only for example. People who had grown up in such circumstances might be gay or straight as we would term it - but I guess there was a much larger set of people who were "potentially gay" or "potentially straight".
posted by rongorongo at 7:21 AM on April 11, 2011

I just assumed they were both gay when I was reading them, but I've only read a couple of the books.
posted by empath at 7:32 AM on April 11, 2011

Obviously, there is a whole other potential dimension of same-sex relationships, as well.

Jooster fandom, meet Admiral Haddock. Admiral Haddock, meet Jooster fandom.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:33 AM on April 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

A real-world parallel that may be of relevance is Wodehouse himself.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:33 AM on April 11, 2011

I've been a devoted Wodehouse reader for years, and I think Bertie was a closeted homosexual. Jeeves totally got action on the side, but Bertie.....I dunno. Not that he would be representative; the upper classes were known to be generally promiscuous.
posted by Go Banana at 7:33 AM on April 11, 2011

Rot, flubbed a link there: How to write Jooster 2.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:34 AM on April 11, 2011

You may want to read the "biographical note" on Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, who was, I believe, strongly influenced by Wooster. It's available at the beginning of this online version of the text of one of the Wimsey books.


Indeed, at the age of seventeen, Peter came to me of his own accord. He was old for his age and exceedingly reasonable, and I treated him as a man of the world. I established him in trustworthy hands in Paris, instructing him to keep his affairs upon a sound business footing and to see that they terminated with goodwill on both sides and generosity on his. He fully justified my confidence. I believe that no woman has ever found cause to complain of Peter's treatment; and two at least of them have since married royalty (rather obscure royalties, I admit, but royalty of a sort).

Here again, I insist upon my due share of the credit; however good the material one has to work upon it is ridiculous to leave any young man's social education to chance.


He was wealthy and could do as he chose, and it gave me a certain amount of sardonic entertainment to watch the effects of post-war feminine London to capture him. "It can't," said one solicitous matron, "be good for poor Peter to live like a hermit." "Madam," said I, "if he did, it wouldn't be." No; from that point of view he gave me no anxiety. But I could not but think it dangerous that a man of his ability should have no job to occupy his mind, and I told him so.

posted by you're a kitty! at 7:37 AM on April 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mildly tangential, but as a Wodehouse fan, you may want to read Joe Keenan's series of books about Gilbert and Philip, two gay (as in queer) bon vivants in New York in the early 1990s. Keenan was inspired by Wodehouse and the "all-male world" you mention. The three-book series starts with Blue Heaven. Pay no attention to the Publisher's Weekly review on the Amazon pageā€”this probably the funniest book I've ever read.
posted by Lieber Frau at 8:00 AM on April 11, 2011

Ho'kay - big Wodehouse fan here, and have read all of these stories plus read about Wodehouse's real life in a couple biographies...

If you're just wanting to project homo-erotic fantasies, project away. I'm a big believer in Rule 34 or whatever the fan/slash fiction equivalent is. Doesn't mean I want to read it, but I'll fight for your right to write it? Your write to right it? You're right to righ... skipit.

Your overt question is - what did men of that era do sexually? They were gay. And straight. And asexual. Happily married, monogamous, serial adulterers, happily married serial polygamous adulterers. Just like now. If you want to know what men (and women) really did, I'd recommend the biography section, focusing on Edwardian era people. A few things I can remember - a biography of Churchill that held that his parent's generation (at least in the upper class) were pretty damn promiscuous - a lot of bedroom doors opening and closing in the night.

If you want to read literature of the period where there were actually gay characters, you have to generally read between the lines, but google/wiki homoeroticism notable examples in writing and you'll find it. Probably most well known example for those of us not particularly fascinated by it was Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

Again, if you're wanting to have fun with the idea, knock yourself out, but I'd object to a serious effort to make Bertie or Jeeves out to be intentionally homosexual characters, that is, intended to be homosexual by Wodehouse.

- Wodehouse was married most of his very long life, although he married late. He may have been impotent - biographers state he had mumps as an adult (before he married), so who knows what if any sex life he had with his wife. He had no children with her - she already had a daughter, whom he raised with his wife. I don't know of any serious rumors of any lifelong gay relationships on the side, and you're not the first person to have this idea, so I get the impression from my reading that people have tried.

- His relationship with his parents was rather distant. Every British parent you read about from the late 1800s seems to have put their child in what we would now call a boarding school. I forget the details with Wodehouse, but a defining mark of his childhood would seem to be all the domineering aunts, who certainly have their counterparts in his writing. Domineering women in writing seem to set off some people's "gaydar," so I thought I'd throw that in, for whatever direction it leads.

- I think it's a mistake to sexualize all content or make too much of the fact that men spent more time in each other's society in those days, either in real life or fiction. Men and women were not considered equals, had much stricter rules about when and how to socialize with each other. People often didn't have as much money and roomed together for that reason, even sharing beds. On the other extreme, Bertie is very rich and has a valet. I don't doubt that some men had homosexual relationships with their valets, or other servants, but to assume they had one is to make every wealthy man in England in those days a homosexual.

- There is such a thing as an asexual type. I know a few in real life, as probably everyone does. I think Bertie may be such, and if Wodehouse himself lost his sex drive because of his health, as a would-be writer myself I can say - it's hard to write on what you don't really feel yourself. I think Wodehouse's intention was not to write a complex portrait of sexual orientation or politics. I think he was trying to make people laugh. Let's also not forget that Wooster and Jeeves are like comic book characters - they don't age. Wooster is forever a rather silly young man, apparently in his 20s. He wouldn't be the only one who wanted to postpone settling down. But thanks to the power of literature and a very long-lived author, he stayed in this state for decades.

- it was kind of a staple of middle-20th-century america that to not ever get married was to be assumed strange. Interestingly, we're swinging back away from this - young people are postponing marriage in record numbers. But if you look at the Edwardian era, lots of people never got married or postponed it until very late. They cared for parents or other loved ones until they themselves were middle-aged. They lived in very rural areas and were related to everyone, or didn't like the ones they had access to (until recently, most people never traveled very far from their home). They lost their loves in war and never got motivated to fall in love again.

Meanwhile, as has been pointed out, Jeeves clearly enjoys some female companionship, and while "no business resulted," as Bertie put it, Bertie was engaged many times. Sometimes he even instigated it. So I think you should look elsewhere for gay themes, or as I said, start a blank Word document and write it in yourself.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:57 AM on April 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

First, the world of Wodehouse's stories is fictional. Second, Wodehouse's brand of fiction is fanciful, not realistic. What men of various classes might have gotten up to in the real world during this particular time period is irrelevant. An author more concerned with depicting "how things really are" might have wanted his readers to consider what was happening offstage (as it were). But not Wodehouse. Both Bertie and Jeeves are chaste because the author says so.
posted by copperykeen at 9:09 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all--this is very interesting stuff. I knew little of Wodehouse's biography, which adds an interesting gloss on the J+W scene.

For clarity, Jeeves and Wooster are simply the lens of the larger question--to wit: what, broadly speaking, would have been the sex lives been of men of Bertie and Jeeves's stations in 1920s/1930s London? ... What were the sexual mores for otherwise unattached men in the middle and upper classes in the UK in the 1920s/30s?

So, the 20s were promiscuous; how would that have been experienced by an upper-class gadfly and his middle-class valet? Was the (rather insular) milieu of the upper class tolerant of sexual escapades (again, just assume m/f) among its ranks, or would sexuality be focused out of the group (i.e., to lower strata, house staff, sex workers, etc.). Would a middle-class gentleman's gentleman have pre-marital sex with a woman he was engaged to?

J+W are, obviously, fictional characters whose sole existence is on the pages written by Wodehouse. I'm looking for socio-historical context to understand what might have been going on in the lives of similarly situated real people. Links to social histories of the 20s/30s in London would certainly be appreciated.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:34 AM on April 11, 2011

Upton Sinclair's Oil! (upon which There Will Be Blood was based) deals quite a bit with upper-class adolescent and adult sexuality in approximately the same era. It's been awhile since I've read it but if I recall correctly the main character has two or three steady girlfriends during his high school and college career, and possibly a couple of flings on the side. The women are of the same class as himself. They are sexually active. I think this activity mainly took place in the car, or in secluded locations one could reach in a car. There may have been some sneaking around between bedrooms at night as well.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:51 AM on April 11, 2011

FWIW, I think you were clear with the overt question, and I got fascinated with the asides. Plus I have a bit of a bias against projecting one's own era onto that of others.

So - good question, and I only have limited guesses, but...

more realistic literature about the period, especially more recent literature that has to reckon less with censorship, suggests that the rule was "Don't Get Caught," especially for the women. The British really were sticklers about What Wasn't Done. Doesn't mean they didn't do it, but where your modern girl gets knocked up and posts on FB: im a mommy lol, for a British woman it was a DISASTER. And not altogether unreasonable to be concerned, since birth control wasn't reliable, abortions weren't legal and few doctors would have really known what they were doing in most places, and many women died in childbirth. (more generally on medicine, someone said somewhere that the average patient seeing the average doctor with the average complaint only received real benefit from doing so around 1900 or after).

If you did get caught, either just in the deed or because pregnancy resulted, there would have been much more pressure to Do The Right Thing and marry the woman.

All that said, Victorians and Edwardians were stereotypically "notorious for honoring the form of propriety over the actual fact of it" - from an Amazon review of the book I'm about to mention. My casual reading of literature and especially biography of the period suggests adultery among marrieds may have been more common than sex among singles, perhaps because if pregnancy did result, it could often be (at least publicly) accounted for.

Homosexuality and anal sex may also have been a bit - I don't know if I should say MORE prevalent, but you do run into it a lot, perhaps not due to preference, but because of gender-segregated institutions and because the deed done between a man and woman wouldn't get her pregnant (I know there's ways that it, incidentally, MIGHT, but in and of itself...) An episode of Downton Abbey deals with anal sex in a very circumspect fashion (it's PBS, plus the characters are speaking about it in a way that would be typical of them, i.e. talking in circles)

This book might be of interest - Pleasure Bound: Victorian Eroticism I haven't read it (yet), but it looks like it covers the subject.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:19 AM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've always imagined Bertie nipping off to a popular madame's house in between helping out his friends much as Sebastian and Charles do in the first bit of Brideshead Revisited.
posted by jihaan at 10:20 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Frank Mort, Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society (2010). This is mostly about the 1950s, but has a lot about sexual behaviour among young upper-class men which helps to put Jeeves and Wooster in context.

Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-1957 (2005). Amazon says this is 'too dense to appeal to anyone other than very devoted scholars' but I found it fascinating; it maps the geography of sex in interwar London (streets, parks, cottages, bathhouses) in marvellous detail, and shows that homosexuality wasn't as hidden or repressed as you might imagine.

Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963 (2010). This is your best book for finding out what Jeeves and his fiancée might have got up to (not a lot, it seems); see here for some reflections by the two authors on their main findings.
posted by verstegan at 10:26 AM on April 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I always read Bertie and Jeeves as being totally asexual. I don't think Bertie in particular (harder to tell with Jeeves, what with him being circumspect like that) actually liked women in any sense of the word, he just fell into engagements in the way that most of us would trip in a hole. I think everyone else in Britain at the time probably had normal sex lives, but clearly Bertie was ducking women at every possible turn and wanting to avoid them whenever he could, so... that does not strike me as being heterosexual. Whether or not he was gay, who knows, he didn't seem like he had the hots for men either. Really, he just wanted his freedom. Jeeves too, probably.

Basically, it's far more comedic to have two lead men who want to avoid women the way that they'd want to avoid jail, than to show them actually getting some.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:31 AM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

According to the first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, there would have been discreet married women and prostitutes.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:51 PM on April 11, 2011

My take:

Bertie Wooster - wants the milk, not the cow. Would avoid anything resembling responsibility to the end of his days. Marriage involves responsibility. Long term relationships involve responsibility. Sleeping on the wet spot and making conversation at the breakfast table the following morning are probably more responsibility that Bertie can handle.

Jeeves - What the hell do you people think is going on at the Junior Ganymede Club?!?!?! Do you think it's a coincidence that there is a huge overlap between a Google image search for "English Maid Outfit" and "Latex Fetish".
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:34 PM on April 11, 2011

A few things I can remember - a biography of Churchill that held that his parent's generation (at least in the upper class) were pretty damn promiscuous - a lot of bedroom doors opening and closing in the night.

I just finished Juliet Nicolson's The Perfect Summer (1911). She mentions the bell-ringing at 6:00 a.m. in country houses, ostensibly to let guests know the "water man" would be up soon with the bathwater or something. But she stresses that the real value of that bell was to let people know they should get back to their rooms with their marital partner so as not to be embarrassed when the maid brought the breakfast trays. (Of course, the help knew everything, but might not know about individual guests' extracurriculars.)
posted by jgirl at 5:40 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

So, the 20s were promiscuous; how would that have been experienced by an upper-class gadfly and his middle-class valet? Was the (rather insular) milieu of the upper class tolerant of sexual escapades (again, just assume m/f) among its ranks, or would sexuality be focused out of the group (i.e., to lower strata, house staff, sex workers, etc.).

You don't want Wodehouse's biography. You want John Maynard Keynes'. Or possibly Graham Greene's. You might also be interested in some memoires of the Bloomsbury Group, although they were bohos and so therefore not quite pukka.
posted by Diablevert at 8:29 PM on April 11, 2011

Response by poster: Fantastic! Thanks to all--exactly the kind of resources I was hoping to find. A couple of those books seem like just the ticket. I'll report back once I've had a chance to order a couple of them.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:50 AM on April 12, 2011

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