P. G. Wodehouse
So wrote P. G. Wodehouse to Guy Bolton in 1952 as they planned a joint book of reminiscences of the theatrical world of the 1920s. “I think we shall have to let truth go to the wall if it interferes with entertainment. And we must sternly suppress any story that hasn’t a snapper at the finish. . . . Even if we have to invent every line of the thing, we must have entertainment.” Their book, Bring on the Girls: The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy, With Pictures to Prove It, is a sprightly account of the birth of the modern musical by two men at its center. Some of the stories are somewhat exaggerated, which is a great worry to Wodehouse’s biographers. The concern is more than a bit overblown, for Wodehouse and Bolton didn’t overstate their own place in the music-hall world or the importance of their work. They simply shined the anecdotes up so that people might stick around for the second act.
And that’s pretty much the story of Wodehouse’s whole life: Make ’em laugh. Nothing was too light or serious for him not to want it to be polished and presented better: “We saw the Coronation on television,” he wrote to Bolton in 1953. “I thought it needed work and should have been fixed up in New Haven. They ought to have cut at least half an hour out of it and brought on the girls in the spot where the Archbishop did the extract from the Gospel.”
And just in case you think he had a republican bias: In 1961, he was asked to revise the topical lyrics in Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” for a revival of the musical Anything Goes, which he’d worked on back in 1934. Writing to Bolton of one of the Kings of Musical Comedy, he noted, “The trouble with Cole is that he has no power of self-criticism. He just bungs down anything whether it makes sense or not just because he has thought of what he feels is a good rhyme. Can you imagine turning in stuff like ‘So Mrs. Roosevelt with all her trimmins (why trimmins?) can broadcast a bed by Simmons, ’Cause Franklin knows anything goes’?”
Wodehouse even offered up new words for the title song itself:
When the courts decide, as they did latterly
We could read Lady Chatterley
If we chose,
The desire to entertain which stood him so well at the typewriter could get him into trouble in the flesh, especially in his dealings with the press. In 1930, he went to Hollywood on a $2,000-a-week contract from MGM. He found the working habits of the studio peculiar—“The system is that A. gets the original idea, B. comes in to work with him on it, C. makes a scenario, D. does preliminary dialogue, and then they send for me to insert Class and what-not. Then E. and F., scenario writers, alter the plot and off we go again”—and easily kept up his own writing while fulfilling his studio commitments. Having agreed in May 1931 (at MGM’s request) to be profiled in the Los Angeles Times, he made some pre-interview remarks to fill the moments as the reporter, Alma Whitaker, got settled in his living room, about how much he liked Hollywood, etc. etc., but regretted that “he had been paid such an enormous amount of money without having done anything to earn it”—“$104,000 for loafing.” (Though his idea of loafing was writing “a novel and nine short stories, besides brushing up my golf, getting an attractive sun-tan and perfecting my Australian crawl in the swimming pool.”)
These comments, rather than the official interview, made the front page of the paper and were picked up around the country—it was a depression after all and he found himself “a sort of Ogre to the studio now.” Biographers have presented this incident in one of two lights: either as the innocent and unworldly Plum dropping a brick or as a calculated attempt to get back at his Hollywood masters. Yet he was really just employing a common type of prep-school bravado: claiming to have done no work while still achieving great success. It’s an old boy’s habit, and Wodehouse was the oldest of old boys—all his life he remembered his days at his boarding school, Dulwich College, as among his happiest.
He was always trying to make things a little bit easier for people. He would pre-write dialogue for radio interviews (and was not beyond cooking some up for the interviewers, too). He downplayed bad news and was almost apologetic when letting close friends know of any difficulty. There are only the tiniest asides in his letters about his being diagnosed with a brain tumor (mistakenly, as it turned out, after some anxious days) or when doctors feared he might be going blind. Wodehouse charmed by self-deprecation. Though he lived until 1975 and age 93, he never lost this insouciant version of the British stiff upper lip.
It was the same story in the event that essentially blighted his life: his radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany in 1941. Wodehouse had been sure war wouldn’t come and felt no need to leave his home on the French coast near Calais. The Phoney War of 1939–40 didn’t make this more urgent and then he, like the British and French armies, was quite caught out by the rapid German advance in May 1940. (When he and his wife did finally try to flee it was with a plan to drive 1,300 miles to Portugal rather than take the short ferry to England as they couldn’t bear the idea of their Pekinese dogs being quarantined. Their car broke down less than two miles from home.) France conquered, the Nazis ordered all male foreign nationals under the age of sixty interned. Wodehouse was fifty-eight.
He was arrested in July and imprisoned in Loos and then Belgium before being deported to an internment camp at Tost in Upper Silesia (“There was a flat dullness about the countryside which has led many a visitor to say, ‘If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?,’ ” he later wrote). They traveled by cattle-cars “full of human excrement,” and food was everywhere scarce. But he made what he could of life in Tost, which meant writing. He wrote for the camp newspaper; he kept a diary (reprinted in Frances Donaldson’s 1982 biography, still the best life of Wodehouse); and he kept at his fiction (finishing Joy in the Morning and writing Money in the Bank, both masterpieces of the canon).
Settled, he was able to correspond with neutral countries and receive care packages. England was obviously busy with other concerns, but Wodehouse’s American agent and friends worked to arrange his release. In December 1940, an article by the Associated Press reporter Angus Thuermer (who had found Wodehouse by accident while doing a piece on the internment camps) brought his plight to the attention of his numerous American fans. Thuermer was interested in an article Wodehouse had done on his camp experience and took excerpts back for the Saturday Evening Post. As ever, Wodehouse had taken the situation at hand and made it into a humorous skit. No point in complaining about what can’t be fixed.
The article lead to an organized campaign to aid Wodehouse and alerted the Nazis to their guest’s unexpected propaganda value. They began to treat him with careful kindness and encouraged his writing (making sure he could “rent” a typewriter, for instance) and his keeping in touch with his American fans. Wodehouse felt growing gratitude to his friends across the ocean, and a suggestion from the camp authorities in May 1941 that he might make a few broadcasts to assure his American public of his health and thank them for the support must have seemed innocuous enough. (It may not to us, but Wodehouse would have had no idea how the war was going or any sense of the evil doings of the Nazi regime.)
In June, he was released, led to believe it was because he was near sixty. Shipped to Berlin, he “ran into” two friends from his Hollywood days, and one of them brought up the idea of broadcasting again. Lonely, eager to please, and keen to thank his American fans, Wodehouse was at the typewriter that day reworking his humorous account of life at Tost—“Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me ‘How can I become an Internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.”
He made five recordings, which the Germans carefully rolled out over a course of weeks to give an impression of ardent support for a country at war with Wodehouse’s own and stoking a furor in England. He was condemned in the House of Commons and attacked viciously in the press and by authors as varied as A. A. Milne and Sean O’Casey. Libraries banned his books. He was investigated as a collaborator by both the French and English governments and felt himself under threat of prosecution for treason for the rest of his days—a 1944 MI5 report exonerating him was kept secret until 2011. As soon as possible after the war, he moved to America and remained aloof from his native land. Wodehouse’s thoughtless (in all senses) action bore repercussions for the rest of his life.
This comes through clearly in Sophie Ratcliffe’s edition of his letters, P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters.1 His sunny outlook was dimmed by the outrage, and he found himself at odds with all but a few close companions—Bolton and his old school chum Bill Townend being the main two. He took ever more comfort in the sole companionship of his wife, Ethel. (That her daughter, Leonora, whom Wodehouse adopted and adored, had died during the war after routine surgery bonded the two even more around their beloved Pekes.) After the war and through three more decades, his letters constantly referenced the broadcast crisis. The strain of being reviled drove him right back to the typewriter—he wrote the rollicking novels Uncle Dynamite and Full Moon while trying to get out of Germany—and the desire to hide out in his stories never passed away.
Ms. Ratcliffe believes that Wodehouse’s life was more eventful than popularly perceived. Possibly. What did happen to him was mostly unpleasant—not just large tragedies like war, internment, and the early death of a daughter, but small travails, too. He was a guinea pig in the working out of international tax laws between the United States and England, for instance, and he saw the theatrical world in which he raised himself up completely vanish. How he felt about such things, we have little idea, for Wodehouse’s letters and the three memoirs he put together are devoid of emotional detail—though there is a strain of anger in a few postwar letters when he was discussing writers who had attacked him for the broadcasts. Richard Usborne, author of some of the earliest commentaries of Wodehouse, noted in his Wodehouse at Work to the End, “It is certainly a refreshing change to find an author less fascinated by his inner self than you are. But you wish that author wasn’t Wodehouse.” Every event is referenced through the frame of whether his work was going poorly or well. Can you imagine another writer noting the blackouts and travel restrictions of war by being grateful for the quiet—“I don’t mind very much, as I never do want to go anywhere”? Though he was worried “about how to get more typewriter ribbons.”
Usborne was right that we wish to know more about Plum’s inner life. He wrote the best comic novels ever penned—and not just a handful but by the bushel. He was also one of the true geniuses of the song lyric, in a class with Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, and Dorothy Fields. Who was this man? We have simply no idea what motivated him and pleased him. We learn in his letters that he manipulated words with astonishing ease and speed but had immense difficulty in coming up with the plots. He is always begging friends for ideas, and the letters depict his regular use of old musical plots to create his novels (and later his reuse of these reusings).
And despite Ms. Ratcliffe’s assertion, it is the things that didn’t happen to Wodehouse that mount up. The letters show his great closeness to his step-daughter Leonora (whose name wondrously morphs in his letters to her from Nora to S’nora to Snorky, Snorklet, and Snorkles). And there are numerous portraits of happy parenting in the Wodehouse canon. Most typical are Bingo Little’s comical adventures with young Algernon Aubrey, who always pulls his father out of the soup before Mrs. Bingo can discover that her loving husband has lost his last £5 on some flutter. But there is also a charmingly sentimental account of a young marriage and its first offspring, The Coming of Bill. Written in the first years of the Wodehouse marriage, it suggests only the fondest feelings about fatherhood, and yet he and Ethel never had children of their own. One wonders why.
Wodehouse was only thirty-two when World War I broke out, but he took no part in the fighting and spent the years working in America. (The equally great comic writer Saki, by comparison, joined up at forty-three and was killed during the Somme.) He certainly felt some guilt, which you can hear in a 1920 letter to Townend, who had served in the army: “I’ll buck you up when I get home. That’s to say, if I’m not arrested and shoved in chokey for not helping to slug Honble Kaiser.” Wodehouse was worried about having failed to register for the wartime draft in England. He knew numerous men killed on the Western Front, and one wonders how this affected his sense of England and self. Perhaps it made him more eager to do something during World War II and so leap at the chance to broadcast and entertain.
There are no surviving letters written by Wodehouse between June 1915 and June 1918, and it’s not just his thoughts about the war that are lost but also any insight into the key moment in the artist’s life. These are the years when he wrote “Extricating Young Gussie” (the first appearance of Bertie Wooster), Something Fresh (the first Blandings book), and the astounding one-off novels Uneasy Money and Piccadilly Jim. How did a struggling writer of school stories suddenly alight upon the mature style he would maintain for half-a-century almost unchanged? He had married in September 1914, and the letters do indicate that Ethel brought comfort and order to his life—“When I look back and think of the rotten time I have been having all my life, compared with this, it makes me sick,” he was already writing in October. He seems never to have altered that view, and it may be that the calm of having a wife to organize his social and business life freed a shy man to write at full tilt. It’s as good an answer as we are likely to find.
Ethel and Leonora became his life away from the typewriter (with bits of exercise like golf, swimming, and long walks thrown in). But the marriage is again felt mostly by its absence in the letters. The Wodehouses were almost always together and had no need to write; it’s only in the mid-1960s when Ethel was in the hospital that he wrote her loving letters.
The one true discovery here is that Wodehouse, who is often imagined as a naïf, was well-educated, well-read, and of quite sound literary judgment. Of Anthony Trollope: “It is rather like listening to somebody who is a little long-winded telling you a story about real people. The characters live in the most extraordinary way and you feel that the whole thing is true.” Of The Naked and the Dead: “I can’t give you a better idea of how things have changed over here than by submitting that book to your notice. It’s good, mind you,—in fact, I found it absorbing—but isn’t it incredible that you can print in a book nowadays stuff which when we were young was found only on the walls of public lavatories.”
Ms. Ratcliffe writes in her introduction that she’s sought with this book to please both academic and general interest readers. It is as peculiar an idea as it is an impossible one. Wodehouse will always be tempting to scholars for the vastness of his success (he was arguably the most successful writer in the Anglophone world in the 1930s) and for the study of wartime treason. Yet to readers, he is a source of endless delight. Despite the fact that I could string together a list of good lines and anecdotes from the letters, the book is anything but a delight. It is unwieldy in size and contains numerous letters of limited interest. Almost all the letters are marred by numerous ellipses where the editor has excised material. The pages look rather like a postmodern novel. Wodehouse cries out for a lighter touch as in the previous edition of his letters (the much briefer Yours, Plum: The Letters of P. G. Wodehouse, edited by Donaldson along thematic lines) or the wonderful P. G. Wodehouse, In His Own Words, drawn by Barry Day and Tony Ring from the whole canon of his writing and which is truly a slice of Plum Pie.
What’s shocking is that Ms. Ratcliffe’s intensive editing actually creates gaps. If you consult the major biographies, you will find interesting passages from the letters that do not appear in her book. On February 24, 1945, Wodehouse wrote to Bill Townend from Paris discussing how he had lived in Berlin and the coming end of the war. He also noted his present reading:
I have become very interested in Shakespeare and am reading books about him, having joined the American library here. A thing I can never understand is why all the critics seem to assume that his plays are a reflection of his personal moods and dictated by the circumstances of his private life. You know the sort of thing I mean. They say “Timon of Athens is a gloomy bit of work. That means that Shakespeare was having a lousy time when he wrote it.” I can’t see it. Do you find that your private life affects your work? I don’t. I have never written funnier stuff than during these last years, when I certainly wasn’t feeling exhilarated.
Interesting and amusing. The letter is included by Ms. Ratcliffe—it runs over three full pages—but this passage is lost amongst four sets of ellipses. This is simply unacceptable in a book with pretensions to scholarship and completeness. Equally irritating is that Wodehouse’s 1955 letter to Richard Usborne answering a sequence of biographical questions—from “You pronounce it ‘Woodhouse,’ don’t you?” to “Was there caning at Dulwich when you were there?”—sees at least five of the answers omitted. What is the point of a 600-page volume full of minutiae that turns out to also be sketchy?
We are legion, the Wodehouse completists—I have six volumes of translations of the sublime short story “The Great Sermon Handicap” into languages as varied as Sanskrit, Coptic, Yiddish, and Afrikaans—and the letters will find a happy place in many a library. But in the end, as with the half-dozen biographies of Wodehouse, A Life in Letters does little to deepen our appreciation of a comic genius. It tells me nothing of how a man could give flight to such a fancy as “Although Mr. Gedge’s statement that the Vicomte de Blissac was never sober had been an exaggeration—for he was frequently sober, sometimes for hours at a time—it is undoubtedly true that he had a distinct bias toward the festive.”
The English Everyman edition of the master’s work that began publication in 1998 has now reached eighty-four volumes (eighty-one are already available from Overlook in the United States). Three more Everymans are due in the Spring. Having a thick tome of his letters is nothing to the prospect not too distant of Wodehouse at last collected, complete, and readily available. What ho! What ho! What ho!
1 P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe; W. W. Norton, 640 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 6 , on page 17
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