By Vikas Datta
Going by P.G. Wodehouse's most famous works and characters - Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, the Blandings Castle set, Psmith, Mr Mulliner et al, you could wonder - as one of my friends did - why the celebrated comic novelist didn't have a woman character of equal standing. One who is not just a love interest, or among the formidable female relatives (chiefly aunts) many protagonists have to deal with.
To some extent, this may seem true as most women across the Wodehouse world comprise these two categories. With most stories having romance as a key plot driver, the first is inevitable (though not all such women are passive and some are quite independent and forthright) but the second affects both male and female characters.
But Wodehouse did have influential women characters, as those familiar with most of his over 90 novels and 200 short stories could attest. Even before Jeeves or Blandings Castle, there was "Jill the Reckless" (1921) recounting Jill Mariner's colourful adventures, "The Girl on the Boat" (1922) with Wilhelmina "Billie" Bennett, and her three suitors aboard a transatlantic liner, and "The Adventures of Sally" (1923) about the upheaval in the life of young, pretty and popular New Yorker Sally Nicholas after she inherits a big fortune.
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In short stories, there is Gladys, the young London girl who enables Clarence, Lord Emsworth stand up to his bossy sister Connie and overwhelming Scotch gardener Angus McAllister ("Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend", 1935), Celia Tennant who cures her newly over-talkative fiance with a deftly-aimed golf club ("The Salvation of George Mackintosh", 1921), Hollywood star Minna Nordstrom and several others.
But the champion (and possibly one of Wodehouse's most under-rated characters) is Roberta "Bobbie" Wickham, whose exploits span the story arcs of Bertie Wooster as well as that irrepressible raconteur, Mr Mulliner.
A truly liberated female and a champion in orchestrating matters to ensure a state of affairs of her choice (an ability she shares with Uncle Fred and Jeeves), she only appears in eight stories (off-stage in one) and a novel but leaves her mark with her capacity to convince young men to do her bidding and the mayhem she can cause.
The daughter of Lady Wickham and the late Sir Cuthbert of Skeldings Hall, the red-headed, lively, practical joking but determined Bobbie has been described as built on "the lines of (silent screen actress and 1920s sex symbol) Clara Bow" or "a one-girl beauty chorus".
Mr Mulliner, who is her uncle as her mother Lady Wickham is his cousin, terms her "remarkably beautiful" but admits "like so many spirited girls of to-day, she is inclined to treat her suitors badly" and cannot resist chuckling as he thinks of her escapades.
But there are those who remain beware of her - Jeeves, for one considers her "volatile and frivolous and a menace to man and beast" (as well as most unsuitable for his feckless master who has fallen for her once). Then the uncle of one of her soon-to-be-victims terms her a "red-headed hussy who ought to be smacked and sent to bed without her supper".
Bobbie debuts in "Something Squishy" (1924), told by Mr Mulliner (in "Mr Mulliner Speaking", 1929), where she uses the smitten Roland Attwater's unfortunately-acquired snake to deter the suit of MP Sir Claude Lynn. She returns in "The Awful Gladness of the Mater" (1925), inviting Dudley Finch home, but forgetting to tell her mother and later disowning him, leading to him being confined to his room by an armed butler as he is thought a burglar. Finch only manages to escape thorough bribery and under fire.
In the third consecutive story ("The Passing of Ambrose", 1928) of this anthology, Bobbie tricks Ambrose Wiffen into looking after her cousin, schoolboy Wilfred, and his friend Stinker while she goes out shopping with a female friend.
She creates havoc in the life of Bertie, from offstage in "Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit" (1927), tasks him to entertain a visiting Broadway producer and his outspoken son and then hands them the dog he is safeguarding for his Aunt Agatha in "Episode of the Dog McIntosh" (1929) and then makes him responsible for dropping back her cousin who has sneaked out with permission in "Jeeves and the Kid Clementina" (1930) (all in "Very Good, Jeeves", 1930). Thankfully, Jeeves is there to smooth matters.
But it is in "Mr Potter Takes a Rest Cure" (1926), Bobbie is at her most ingenious - and effective, playing off an oblivious American publisher holidaying at her home against the pompous MP her mother wants her to marry. In the end, the publisher jumps out of a window and runs off after the MP attacks him at the breakfast table. How and why this happens, read this intricately-plotted and uproarious adventure.
Most of the Wodehousian characters belong to a bygone era, but if any of them could fit and flourish in our world, it would be Bobbie indubitably.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)