Wodehouse and Foucault

One of the minor projects of my life these days is tracing the effect of the works of P.G.Wodehouse on the intellectual history of the twentieth century.

I have already noted Wittgenstein’s fondness for Wodehouse, and the possiblity that a Wodehouse story may have inspired the journey from the philosophy of the Tractatus towards that of the Philosophical Investigations.

I can prove no such direct link between Wodehouse and Foucault. So far as I know, neither the Jeeves stories nor the chronicles of Blandings Castle were required reading at the École Normale Supérieure , or even in the S & M clubs where Foucault spent so much of his later life. Definite influence must remain for the time being unproven; all I can offer is an interesting similarity in their critiques of medical discourse.

Wodehouse’s The Coming of Bill (1922) is one of those post-War novels that explore the subject of eugenics. Unlike Robert Keable’s Recompense (1926) it takes a sceptical look at the subject. Mrs Lora Delane Porter is an enthusiast for this fashionable creed, and a formidable woman. She has convinced her neice, Ruth, that she should only marry a first-rate specimen of manhood, and chooses Kirk for her. Since Ruth and Kirk fall for each other at first sight, things look good, until the arrival of their son, Bill.

Mrs Porter takes command the nursery, which must be totally sterile. Everything must be thoroughly washed each day with a weak solution of boric acid, including the nurse. The boy must never be cuddled, in case he catches something. Medical authority, discipline, control, regulation on a punitive scale – but for the child’s own good. Wodehouse’s story eerily pre-echoes the writings of Foucault.

Wodehouse shows how the imposition of an unanswerable medical discourse gives power to Mrs Porter. More subtly, he shows how Ruth benefits from colluding with it. She is able to pass responsibility for the child onto Mrs Porter and the nurse, and enjoy a busy social life. Under the guise of submitting to the controlling ideology, she has gained space to indulge desires that are no more than hinted at.

As an Aunt, Mrs Porter is a key Wodehouse type. In his novels, the Aunt presumes the right to exercise quasi-parental authority, while having none of the caring responsibilities of the parent. In the words of one of his later (and greater) titles, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.

Her antitype in the novel is Steve Dingle, the golden-hearted boxer. Boxing had been an important theme in the school stories that are the earliest stage ofWodehouse’s early work. In The White Feather (1908) Jackson allows himself a moment’s cowardice, but is able to rejoin the school community when he proves himself by boxing. In this novel, the child Bill finally gets into a fight with another boy, and so proves he is a proper kid and not just a passive victim of clinical discourse. There is surely a parallel here with the Foucauldian antithesis between controlling medical discourse and and the liberating effects of S & M.

Wodehouse was not the only novelist of the twenties to criticise the imposition of medical discourse, especially eugenics. Edith Wharton in Twilight Sleep has a bossy socialite very like Mrs Porter, who lectures other people on the importance of family planning. Rose Macaulay’s What Not is a satirical description of a post-War future where the Ministry of Brains controls people’s lives by regulating who they are allowed to marry and how many children they should have, on the soundest medical principles.

Away from Eugenics, other controlling doctors from the twenties come to mind. Virginia Woolf’s Dr Bradshaw in Mrs Dalloway, for example, who seems more interested in labelling and disciplining Septimus Smith, the shell-shock victim. Then there is the “patronising and dictatorial” Dr Newhover of John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, who diagnoses Richard Hannay (of all people!) as neurotic, and despatches him off for treatment from an evil hypnotist. And in the detective stories of Dorothy L.Sayers, (spoiler alert!) if a doctor appears, he’s very likely to be the guilty party.

Now I don’t think there’s quite this plenitude of nasty doctors in Victorian fiction. Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins have their sinister madhouse-keepers, but most doctors in Dickens, for example, are as solid as Allan Woodcourt, the only man in England worthy of Esther Summerson. In Middlemarch, medicine is the ideal that Lydgate fails to live up to.

So maybe something happened to perceptions of the medical profession round about the turn of the century – about the time of Dr Jekyll, perhaps…

Anyway, my point is that the novelists had spotted the totalitarian potential of medical discourse long before M. Foucault. I suppose there’s a possibility that it was not actually PGW who alerted him to the idea – but I shall keep investigating. Who knows what I’ll discover?.

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