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Is Bertie Wooster the only fish-faced hero?
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The Times 9 July 2008

Is Bertie Wooster the only fish-faced hero?

Tom Whipple

November 22, 1937, must have been a slow day for quirky news. Of all world events, the Editor’s choice for the final leading article ¾ the whimsy to lighten the geopolitics ¾ was the invention of a new surgical technique to cure receding chins.

The leader writer was Peter Fleming, distinguished war correspondent and travel writer and older brother of James Bond author, Ian Fleming. His wide-ranging piece, The nose ought to have it, lamented the lot of the chinless minority and argued that society’s prejudices were better directed towards the snub-nosed. “It is indeed difficult to see any point in having a chin at all. You cannot smell with your chin. You cannot balance spectacles upon it,” he observed, quite reasonably.

He bolsters his case with the unfairness of literature. “What hero of fiction has ever had a receding chin? Not one in this country. You might as well give your heroine a squint.”

Tragically, his brother did not take up this challenge and we were spared a chinless Bond, but Times readers were quick to point out an obvious counter example to the argument.

“Sir,” John Hayward wrote. “Can it be that you have forgotten the episode of the Dog McIntosh …? How otherwise could you have overlooked Bertram Wooster’s claim to the title of opisthognathous hero?”

In this story, "we have the testimony of an unimpeachable witness, one, moreover, who was familiar with the Wooster physiognomy. 'Perhaps the young gentleman will not notice that you have a face like a fish, sir,' Jeeves respectfully suggested … ‘Ah! There’s that, of course,’ Wooster freely admitted.”

Wodehousians were not the only literary minority to take up the challenge. Ruth J. Dean wrote: “What, Sir, of Lord Peter Wimsey? Was ever man more hero, or more of England? But perhaps he is not fictitious!”

Possibly The Times had erred? It was time for adjudication. On November 30 it came, from the master himself. “Sir,” P. G. Wodehouse writes “A fishlike face has always been hereditary in the Wooster family. Froissart, speaking of Sieur de Wooster who did so well in the Crusades ¾ his record of 11 Paynim with 12 whacks of the battleaxe still stands, I believe ¾ mentions that, if he had not had the forethought to conceal himself behind a beard like a burst horse-hair sofa, more than one of King Richard’s men ¾ who, like all of us, were fond of a good laugh ¾ would have offered him an ant’s egg.”

"On the other hand, everything is relative. Compared with Sir Roderick Glossop, Tuppy Glossop, old Pop Stoker, Mr Blumenfeld, and even Jeeves, Bertie is undoubtedly opisthognathous. But go to the Drones and observe him in the company of Freddie Widgeon, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, and - particularly - of Augustus Fink-Nottle, and his chin will seem to stick out like the ram of a battleship."

Dorothy L. Sayers, too, pitched in. Or, rather, Matthew Wimsey ¾ dictating to Ms Sayers in his role as the Wimsey family archivist. “By comparison with the Wimsey nose,” he wrote, “any chin may indeed appear relatively unobtrusive; but there is no member of the family at present living in which that feature can properly be said to recede … Of Lord Peter Wimsey, it has been authoritatively stated that he possesses ‘a long, narrow chin, and a long, receding forehead … Labour papers, softening down the chin, caricatured him as a typical aristocrat’ (‘Whose Body?’ 1923 edition, page 48).”

The letters continued: "Hands off Peter Wimsey!" and " Consider the mighty exploits of the fish-faced and the frail". J. D. Griffith Davies was more interested in Wooster’s relations with his erstwhile future father-in-law. “Whether Bertie Wooster’s chin recedes or Sir Roderick Glossop’s protrudes is surely a matter of no great importance. Both, as a liberal smearing of shoe-black and burnt cork recently manifested, are exceedingly ripe lads. Now that Bertie has severed his matrimonial connections with the Glossop family, a rapprochement should be quite possible.”

C. K. Allen had the last word on behalf of the opisthognathous. On December 3, he, or she, wrote: “Mr Wodehouse may not have meant to wound, but his references … are liable to give pain. There is nothing necessarily derogatory in resembling a fish; it all depends on the fish. For example, while a fried whiting may lack dignity, a boiled salmon has natural grace and repose.”

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.