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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

P. G. Wodehouse, the writing-machine with a tragic twist

A. N. Wilson

P. G. WODEHOUSE: A life in letters; Sophie Ratcliffe, editor

Popular English fiction of the twentieth century did not have much of a shelf life. J. B. Priestley, Angela Thirkell, Warwick Deeping, Dorothy L. Sayers. It is hard to think of anyone reading them now, except for curiosity value. Bring the list up to date – with John Fowles or Kingsley Amis – and you see the same thing happening; they are crumbling before your eyes, like exhumed bones exposed to ultraviolet.

Not so P. G. Wodehouse, who is now bought and read more than ever. Wodehouse occupies a role in the history of twentieth-century literature that is more or less unique – though it bears points of comparison with the role of Agatha Christie. Both writers were "dated" almost before they were first published. Both were patient, hard-working, and humble enough to write what their public wanted. Both were occasionally tempted to write "something different", but they knew that a cobbler should stick to his last. Having enjoyed some books by Dorothy L. Sayers, Wodehouse tried Five Red Herrings and pronounced it "a lousy story". "Tick her off", he wrote to the man who had sent it to him, "and make her get back to the old snappy stuff." In another letter in this collection, written in 1932, Wodehouse tried to read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. "Aren't these stories of the future a bore. The whole point of Huxley is that he can write better about modern life than anybody else, so of course he goes and writes about the future."

Wodehouse avidly watched the rising and setting of literary talents all around him. "Kip" – Kipling – "was the outstanding case of the Infant Prodigy. His stuff done in the early twenties was great [Wodehouse means Kipling's early 20s] but he lost that terrific zest and got married and settled down and made his stuff too long". Wodehouse, like Christie, stuck to his last, writing in effect versions of the same book over and over again. This, of course, was what the public wanted. When Wodehouse's Hot Water was published in 1932, it was reviewed by Priestley, who "blast him, analysed me... and called attention to the thing I try to hush up – viz., that I have only got one plot and produce it once a year with variations. I wish to goodness novelists wouldn't review novels".

Wodehouse was not a friend of Christie, but he kept an eye on her, read her work regularly, and could see that they were comparable figures. Worried by the possibility that post-war Britain might not be able to enjoy his country-house farces, he was reassured to read Christie's The Hollow. "The people in it simply gorge roast duck and soufflés and caramel cream and so on, besides having a butler, several parlourmaids, a kitchen maid and a cook. I must say it encouraged me to read The Hollow and to see that Agatha Christie was ignoring present conditions in England." That was in 1946, when he was on the verge of publishing what is arguably his greatest novel, Joy in the Morning – written in very extraordinary circumstances – to which we shall return. "I wonder how you write", he typed to Christie in 1967, "I mean do you sit upright at a desk? I ask because I find these days I can't get out of an arm-chair and face my desk, and when I write in an arm-chair I have the greatest difficulty in reading what I have written. This may be because I have a deckchair, a Boxer and one of our seven cats sitting on me. But oh, dear, how I have slowed up. It's terrible."

One creaking old "writing machine", as he called himself, writing to another. All the other writing-machines and most of the other writers of the Wodehouse–Christie era have evaporated. This is in itself a reason for finding Wodehouse a very interesting phenomenon, even if it were not for the fact that his life as a writing-machine took on such dangerous and tragic twists. A Life in Letters, stretching from lines written as a schoolboy at Dulwich College to the old duffer of Long Island in the 1960s, tells an extraordinarily coherent story. It is not often that a collection of letters has a plot, but this volume – a model of editing by Sophie Ratcliffe – has a real, and gripping story; and it poses some very strange questions about the position of a writer in society.

The story, simply told, is this. Dulwich College schoolboy, all set to go to Oxford, was told by his rather cold-hearted parents that there was not enough money. "Friend of me boyhood", he wrote to a Dulwich contemporary, "my people have not got enough of what are vulgarly but forcibly called the stamps to send me to Varsity... Oh, money, money thy name is money!". He took a job in a bank, and began to write school stories. After the First World War – "what perfect asses the Germans made of themselves" – Wodehouse branched away from school stories into stories of rich drones getting up to larks in country houses and gentlemen's clubs, sublimely oblivious of the Modernist movement in literature and blind to anything but the comic potential of the political convulsions shaking the world. In Comrade Bingo, the short story published in 1923 in the collection The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie's friend dons a false beard and makes Bolshevik rants at Hyde Park Corner because he is in love with a left-wing girl, but his mind is really on the more interesting question of whether Ocean Breeze will win the Goodwood Cup. Sir Roderick Spode, in The Code of the Woosters, is a fascist leader, but as Bertie Wooster is eventually brave enough to tell him: "You hear them shouting 'Heil, Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags'". But the idea that Spode and his Black Shorts are a "satire" on Mosley and his Blackshirts is to misuse the word "satire". Rather, Wodehouse has subsumed the Mosleyite thugs into his own charmed world, where a man on a soapbox ranting to his followers is in the same comic league as a magistrate fining you £5 for stealing a policeman's helmet, or an angry old man thinking you are trying to pinch his silver cow-creamer.

The beginning of the First World War found Wodehouse in New York, where he married an English ex-chorus girl (a widow) called Ethel Wayman. Marriage did not have the disastrous effect on Wodehouse that it had on poor old "Kip", perhaps because his was an emotionally low-key affair – "The main thing in marriage is to be pals with a girl". The stories rattled off the typewriter with reliable regularity, interrupted only by golf, cocktails and walks with his beloved Pekineses. He also had a fascination with light entertainment on the stage and collaborated with Cole Porter and Guy Bolton on Broadway shows. The lure of Hollywood – a place he came to loathe – enmeshed him, as it trapped so many twentieth-century writers. And it was in Hollywood that there was the first major manifestation of Wodehouse's besetting fault as a human being.

How does one define this? Tactlessness on a monumental scale? Innocent tactlessness? A breezy unconsciousness of the way the world works, or the way his words and actions would appear to that world? However you define the quality, you can see that it is the dark side of the coin which made him such a successful writer – that is, his capacity to see the world entirely on his own infantile terms, without realizing how those terms would impact on grown-ups. To this extent, he seems no more grown-up than Just William (in those Richmal Crompton stories which owe so much of their comedy to following Wodehousian formulas). The Hollywood blunder, endearing and comic as it was, was a foreshadowing of the major blunder which would overshadow the second half of Wodehouse's life. While in Hollywood, he gave an interview to a journalist from the Los Angeles Times, in which he cheerfully admitted, "I have been paid $104,000 for loafing". While on the MGM payroll, he had written "a novel and nine short stories... brushing up my golf, getting an attractive suntan and perfecting my Australian crawl".

Needless to say, his paymasters in Hollywood were not impressed, and his contract was not immediately renewed (though they did ask him back eventually). Meanwhile, it was the 1930s and, partly for tax reasons, partly because of the admirable golf course, the Wodehouses had settled in Le Touquet. The existence of the fascist dictators in Europe did nothing to disturb or slow down the rattling of the writing machine. Plum or Plummie (as Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was known by all his intimates) and Ethel liked living comfortably. "We have a German butler, an Alsatian footman, a Serbian cook, a French chauffeur, an Italian maid and an English odd-job man. Good material for the next war." As for the possibility of a real war, however, the letters written in the 1930s reveal a quite staggering lack of political prescience. "Nobody wants a war nowadays" (1934); "Listen, laddie, I don't believe you could get this country [France] into a war for another thirty years" (1935). Most striking of all is a letter of 1939, in which "a feeling is gradually stealing over me that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present". As for Hitler and Mussolini forming an axis, or France, Britain and Poland revising treaty obligations – "doesn't all this alliance-forming remind you of the form matches at school, when you used to say to yourself that the Upper Fifth had a couple of first fifteen forwards, but you'd got the fly half of the second, the full back of the third, and three forwards would get their colours before the season was over".

Well, before the season was over, German soldiers were marching into Le Touquet. Low Wood, the Wodehouse villa, was requisitioned for use by Nazi officers; Ethel went into dingy lodgings, and poor old Plum, being eighteen months short of his sixtieth birthday, was interned in a string of German prison camps. He was two-thirds of the way through writing the master work, Joy in the Morning.

And it is here that the story reaches its tragi-farcical climax. Desperately anxious as he might have been about his wife, and uncomfortable as a prisoner in a former lunatic asylum at Tost, Upper Silesia, the writing machine continued to write. Money in the Bank and Full Moon (his sixth Blandings novel) were written while he was interned, and he was no doubt plotting how to finish the sublime Joy in the Morning – Bertie's unfortunate entanglement with the insufferable high-brow, Lady Florence Craye. (Trying to give Jeeves a treat, a baffled Wooster has gone in search of the works of Spinoza, only to find himself in the "bookery" clutching "a thing called Spindrift" – Florence's latest – just as the author herself witnesses his purchase and gets the wrong idea.) While in the camp, Wodehouse contributed to the newspaper organized by other prisoners of war, and gave some amusing talks to his fellow inmates about the conditions of prison life, and the circumstances of his arrest. When his sixtieth birthday had passed, Wodehouse, in common with all sexagenarian foreign nationals marooned in Nazi- controlled Europe, was released from internment. While the Nazis could see that he could be of no harm, they also saw they could use him for their purposes, and asked him if he would like to broadcast to the American people. While interned he had received innumerable enquiries from American fans, asking after his welfare, and he assumed that by giving these broadcasts, he would be extending a form of Thank You to them. Of course, he did not reckon on the Nazi propaganda machine, any more than he had asked himself how MGM would like him telling the Los Angeles Times that he was paid six-figure sums for loafing. Nor could he sense the war fever that had gripped the British and American publics. The harmless, and indeed amusing, wireless talks were repeated endlessly by the Germans. Wodehouse – who thought "I was keeping my end up by being humorous about camp life and not beefing" – had no conception of how his broadcasts would be received. In America, there was horror that he could use Nazi short-wave radio to speak on any subject, however amusing. In England, he was perceived to be on a par with the notorious William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, whose sinister broadcasts were designed to put the wind up listeners, with their predictions about where the next bombs would fall. It was put about – quite falsely – that Wodehouse had given the broadcasts as a quid pro quo for being released from Tost. There was talk of prosecuting him for treason; Quintin Hogg, MP, later a Lord Chancellor of England, rose in the House of Commons to recommend that Wodehouse be captured and put before a firing squad.

Of course, what had happened was an enormous, and tragic misunderstanding on both sides. "The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact", wrote Wallace Stevens on "The Immense Poetry of War". Stevens saw war, and its propaganda as "a time when everything moves in the direction of reality, that is in the direction of fact": therefore, a time when works of the imagination are under most threat. Wodehouse and Stevens were different enough writers, but this clash between the imagination and what others saw as "reality" is heart-wrenchingly demonstrated by the story of Wodehouse's war. We can now see with hindsight that what he did was harmless and, what is more, that the "realism" of those who persecuted him was barmy. His incurable need to write everything up as a bit of a lark, and his schoolboy wish not to "beef" about being a prisoner of war ("camp was really great fun") expose the idiocy of the grown-ups rather than blotting his copybook in any way.

But his sunny career as a purveyor of harmless fun was now everlastingly shadowed. He would eventually settle in the United States, and, after 1955, he never visited England again. The sorrow, and the bitterness, of all this colours many of the post-war letters. The contrast between the paradisal England of his fictional imaginings and the real thing draws out some robust responses. Watching the Coronation on television in a New York hotel, he wrote, "I thought it needed work and should have been fixed up in New Haven" (plays were often tried out in New Haven before a Broadway run). "They ought to have cut at least half an hour out of it and brought on the girls at the spot where the Archbishop did the extract from the Gospel." As for the world's greatest Englishman, "I have never been able to like Churchill. Every time I've met him he has had a silent grouch on. One of the few really unpleasant characters I've come across". "I find in this evening of my life that my principal pleasure is writing stinkers to people who attack me in the press... What fun it is giving up trying to conciliate these lice... One yip out of any of the bastards and they get a beautifully phrased page of vitriol." "Did you see a review in the Spectator by a chap called Kingsley Amis saying how bad my stuff was?... I should imagine he is one of those clever young men I dislike so much. They very seldom amount to anything in the long run."

Whether these letters, and the story they tell, will make you sad, or whether they will make you cheer, perhaps depends in the long run less on what you think of Wodehouse than on what you believe about the disparities between a writer's perceptions and something called "reality". Many people consider that it is a writer's duty to engage with "reality". All through the 1930s, many of Wodehouse's fellow writers were lining up with the Left and "identifying" with the Spanish Republic or with Stalin's Soviet Union. A smaller number were aligning themselves with Ezra Pound, Henry Williamson, Céline and others in their open avowal of fascism. But the central appeal of Wodehouse, a supreme master of language, is in his capacity to live in phrases and paragraphs, and not to deliver himself of bigger views. These letters reveal that it was no accident that he would one day come a cropper with the literal-minded and violent twentieth century. Indeed, far from being a silly ass who made a chump of himself, Wodehouse was a sort of martyr to art. "My Art is flourishing like the family of an Australian rabbit", he wrote from the Adlon Hotel in Berlin in 1941. "I have in my desk, complete to the last comma, a Jeeves novel called Joy in the Morning, – and when I say a Jeeves novel, I mean the supreme Jeeves novel of all time... In addition to this I have written half of a Blandings Castle novel called Full Moon, so funny that it will be almost dangerous to publish it." I cheered when I read the letter to his agent – again from November 1941 – "Do you know Berlin at all? It is a very attractive city and just suits me... We have the Tiergarten... invaluable for exercising the Peke". I cheered him when he wrote to his protectress Anga von Bodenhausen (a fervent anti-Nazi) in 1943, "I feel terribly sad about leaving Germany and all our friends". This is a sane man, writing in a lunatic world. When the French Communists threatened to kill him, he wrote to Compton Mackenzie – "A few days ago I received a formal notification from the French Government that I was no longer considered 'dangereux' to the safety of the Republic. Up till now the Republic has been ducking down side streets when it saw me coming, and shouting, 'Save yourselves, boys! Here comes Wodehouse!'".

The wartime broadcasts are among the best things Wodehouse wrote; and show him to be a humane man who put jokes first. He wrote to his old school chum Bill Townend (an unsuccessful writer to whom he slipped endless cheques), "I was thrilled by what you told me about Dulwich winning all its school matches last cricket season... It's odd but I don't find world cataclysms and my own personal troubles make any difference to my feelings about Dulwich. To win the Bedford match seems just as important to me as it ever did". As for the ending of the war, "The horrible senselessness of it all oppresses me. I can't see how any kind of a world can be left after it is over. How can England pay the bill?" The devastation of Berlin was horrible for him to contemplate: "I am afraid that all the maids and waiters we used to like so much were killed".

Strangely enough, the world still divides between those who would condemn such remarks and those who see them as the decent reactions of a civilized human being. But they are also the remarks of an artist who thought it was his job to get on with his craft, not to usurp the role of the politicos. In 1899, Wodehouse (who was to read the works of Shakespeare every year of his life thereafter) wrote to a school chum, "I heard yesterday that Shakespeare was not alive. It steeped me in profound gloom. But I thought eftsoons that I was alive so it was all right for the Literature of the World". Like many of the best jokes, it was true.