I visited Christopher Hitchens in the hospital just after he’d been given a diagnosis of mortal illness. By his bed I noticed a dog-eared Jeeves and Wooster paperback. Christopher esteemed P.G. Wodehouse above all other writers as “The Master,” a title originally bestowed on Wodehouse by another master of English prose, Evelyn Waugh.
Christopher looked at the novel. His face clouded. “I worried about bringing it,” he said, “because I thought, what if it doesn’t work?” The prospect of a Jeeves novel failing to work its magic was the only time in our 30-year friendship that I saw him register something close to genuine alarm. The last time I saw Hitch, three days before he died, in another hospital, after an 18-month battle with cancer, he had on his lap an early English edition of this very book, Sophie Ratcliffe’s P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters.
Ratcliffe, a tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, has given us a monumental, exemplary book, excellent in every regard and indispensable to a three-dimensional understanding of one of English literature’s great figures. Many of the letters are published here for the first time. It is a worthy companion to Robert McCrum’s splendid 2004 biography.
It was said of Edward Gibbon, author of A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that he lived out his sex life in his footnotes. The footnotes here are often eye-poppingly fun. We learn, among much else, that Wodehouse was descended from Anne Boleyn’s sister, Lady Mary, as in The Other Boleyn Girl. (He was also related to Cardinal Newman.) And that a previous recipient of the Twain medal Wodehouse is about to get went to—Benito Mussolini. (Who knew Il Duce was such a wag?) In another, we hear that in 1941 the Queen Mother ordered 18 books for little Princess Elizabeth, the present queen, all of them by Wodehouse.
Letters are a kind of a BACKSTAGE ALL ACCESS pass. We get the man—or woman—with hair down and no makeup. They often provide the ultimate in dish. One mourns the almost certain extinction of the genre. Future collections of emails and text messages of the great and famous aren’t likely to be quite this satisfying.
Let’s stipulate, too, that the bitchier the personality (Waugh or Gore Vidal Truman Capote, etc.) the deeper the dish. Alas, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse—his lifelong nickname was Plum or Plummie—was one of nature’s most gentle specimens: humble, self-deprecating, shy of publicity, considerate to a fault, generous, devoted to his family and friends, forgiving and deplorably lacking in bile—qualities that ought make for pretty damn dull letter reading. To be sure, some of these pages are more scintillating than others, but there’s plenty of ginger and plenty of dish, and a lot of it is—no surprise—hilariously observed.
And golly, what a life! In terms of American history, Wodehouse was born in 1881, the year of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and died (on Valentine’s Day) in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended. Rather a lot went on in between.
He became world famous by his 30s, both as a novelist and Broadway lyricist. He collaborated with, among others, Guy Bolton, Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter. As a young, hustling writer in New York, he banged out copy for The Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and Collier’s. His signature valet, Jeeves, made his debut in The Saturday Evening Post in 1915 in a short story titled “Extricating Young Gussie.” Jeeves’s name was borrowed from a Warwickshire cricket player.
The late 1920s found him in Hollywood (“This place is loathsome”) drowning, stingless, in MGM honey, while doing hack work on a silly Marion Davies vehicle. His descriptions of reptilian studio fauna make for delicious reading. He mostly ignored them and beavered away at his own stuff, producing a novel and nine short stories.
His error was being candid in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he declared that over the past year, he’d been paid “$104,000 for loafing.” (This was a fair bit of pelf: over a $1 million today.) Such frankness did not sit well with the lares and penates of the studio, and in due course the faucets ceased their golden gush. He couldn’t have cared less. All one really needs in life, he said in one of the letters here, is two good friends, books, and a Pekingese. He might have added: his wife, Ethel, and work.
With respect to the latter, Wodehouse was graphomaniacal, churning out stories, novels, and librettos at a dizzying rate. He did boast a bit about that in his letters, but he was rightly proud of his output: 40,000 words of a novel in two weeks; an 8,000-word golf story in two days. In a letter to the satirical novelist Tom Sharpe, he reveals that he wrote the last 26 pages of Thank You, Jeeves in one day. It wasn’t the money, although like, well, 99.99 percent of writers, he did care about the dough. But it was simply that he had—always—to be writing.
“As long as I’m working I feel all right, but in between stories it’s rotten.” Fortunately for him—and for us—there weren’t many “in between” periods. He was the Energizer Plummie. By the 1930s he was one of the highest-earning writers in the world; only to find himself in scalding hot water with the tax man. He had unwisely entrusted his business affairs to an incompetent friend. Wodehouse’s Achilles’ heel was naiveté, though you could call it innocence.
Here the story takes a rather rum turn. In 1940 he and Ethel were tax exiles living in Le Touquet, France. Wodehouse paid insufficient attention to the howling winds of war and rumble of tanks. He wasn’t entirely oblivious, but there was the matter of Wonder the Peke and the other dogs, who couldn’t be taken across the Channel to England, where the quarantine laws were so strict. One murmurs as one reads: dude—lose the Pekes! Too late. In due course, Hitler was pounding on the front door.
Wodehouse was sent to an intern camp—formerly a lunatic asylum—in Tost, Upper Silesia. (It would have to be Tost.) He remarked in a radio broadcast, (about which, more anon, alas), “If this is Upper Silesia, I would hate to see Lower Silesia.”
It was just Wodehouse being Wodehouse, but the japery becomes less amusing when one learns that Upper Silesia was home as well to Auschwitz. He was of course unaware of that god-awful fact, as indeed he was of most of what was going on in the world, but his naiveté—innocence—was so profound that at times it comes off as a sort of geopolitical Asperger’s. He became an unwitting pawn of the Nazi propaganda machine, agreeing to make five short-wave broadcasts to America on what might as well have been called Radio Goebbels. The unfortunate technicality for him was that the broadcasts could also be heard in Britain, which opened him up to charges of propaganda-mongering. The tone and content was typically lighthearted, bemused, and nonpolitical, but the world was not laughing along, and soon the once-beloved author was a figure of revulsion and obloquy in his own country. Such was his innocence, believe it or not, that he cabled to Hollywood to alert his great friend Maureen O’Sullivan, “Jane” of Tarzan fame and later known as Mia Farrow’s mom, about the impending broadcasts, just so she wouldn’t miss it. Oh, dear.
Among those who howled for his head on a pike were A.A. Milne, creator of Pooh and Tigger, and somewhat more consequentially, Winston Churchill. Among his defenders were Dorothy Sayers, Compton MacKenzie, George Orwell, and Malcolm Muggeridge, the young British intelligence officer sent after Liberation by MI6 to debrief Wodehouse and decide if he should be prosecuted for war crimes.
Muggeridge became a great and true friend. On one visit, he brought along a writer named George Orwell, who took up Wodehouse’s case. Orwell pointed the finger of shame at the British left for making a whipping boy out of Wodehouse for the crime of being identified with aristocratic nincompoops. The irony there was rich indeed, for Wodehouse was singularly devoid of English snobbism and class-consciousness, a trait that made him such a natural adopted American. As Ratcliffe asserts, he was the first truly Anglo-American author.
The broadcasts scandal cast a pall over much of the remainder of his life. Mutatis mutandis, it was to Wodehouse what the Queensbury libel suit was to Oscar Wilde—ruinous and life altering. He never again set foot on British soil for fear of prosecution; but unlike the self-doomed Wilde, he pulled up his socks, spit on both palms and went back to work—not that he’d ever stopped. He wrote three novels and numerous short stories while a guest of the Reich.
He was cleared of treason by MI5 and MI6, both of which had swiftly concluded that he was simply a political naif whose only crime was deplorable judgment. But—damningly—the document attesting to his innocence remained under seal until 1965; and was only made public in 1980, five years after his death. Shame, Britannia!
Once his usefulness as a tool had ended, the Nazis moved him from Berlin to occupied Paris in 1943, along with Ethel and Wonder the Peke. Paree was rather less than gay. In a letter written after the city’s liberation, during which 1,500 resistance fighters were killed, he wrote: “It was all very exciting, but no good to me from a writing point of view.” His aloofness can at times be frustrating.
In 1921, during the national emergency in England, he wrote, “This darned coal-strike is a nuisance.” But as Ratcliffe avers, “Political events were marginal to his imaginative life—the imperative was to avoid disturbance of any kind.” Plum. Just. Didn’t. Get. It. But the 20th century could be hard to ignore.
After liberation, he was arrested by the suspicious French, who were now in a lather of Jacobinical épuration (purification), rounding up and shooting collaborators and shaving the heads of women who’d dallied with les Boches. He was sent to a harsh transit camp outside Paris that the previous Vichy government had used to process French Jewry on their way to Auschwitz and other charnel houses. They were, ça va sans dire, untroubled by this inconvenient historical detail.
They put him in detention in a—maternity ward. Thus the great comic writer began World War II in a lunatic asylum and ended it amidst squalling French newborns. You can’t make this stuff up. His treatment there was harsh enough that even his old nemesis Churchill was moved to suggest that “the French are overdoing things about P.G. Wodehouse.”
Eventually the French did what they do so well, which is to say, shrugged, and released him. He and Ethel found digs two doors down from celebrated Nazi sympathizers, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Wodehouse wrote to a friend with bemusement “no doubt [they’ll] be dropping in all the time.” They didn’t; too bad—it might have made for a titillating letter or two.
His name might stink back in Old Blighty, but he was still P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and Bertie, Lord Emsworth, the Empress of Blandings, Ukridge and Psmith and he was still beloved. Friends and admirers from all over sent letters and packages, among them Plum’s old collaborator Ira Gershwin. Wodehouse wrote to a friend:
There is a mysterious Arab gentleman who calls from time to time with offerings. He has just come and fixed us up with a great chunk of mutton. And a rabbit! Also a Dane (unknown to me) has sent us an enormous parcel, the only trouble being that all the contents are labeled in Danish, so we don’t know what they are. There are three large tins which I hold contain bacon, but Ethel, who is in a pessimistic mood today owing to a bad night, says that they are stuff for cleaning floors. But surely even the most erratic Dane wouldn’t send us stuff for cleaning floors.
He and Ethel eventually found their way out of France to America, a process so complicated and prolonged that it makes Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid’s escape from Casablanca seem like a whiz through the E-Z Pass lane. They arrived in New York on the SS America, along with fellow passenger Mary Martin, she of future Peter Pan fame.
Wodehouse had fallen in love with America on his first visit in 1904, an experience he described as “like being in heaven without having to go to all the bother and expense of dying.” He became a citizen in 1955 and spent the balance of his formerly hectic life in relative peace and quiet in Remsenburg, Long Island, where he banged out novel after novel, did his Daily Dozen exercises and six-mile walk, cuddled with his Pekes, quietly despaired of the coarseness of modern culture (while writing for Playboy), and become addicted to soap operas. His special favorites were The Edge of Night and The Secret Storm. He declared The Dick Van Dyke Show “the best thing on TV.”
In his final years he received two great honors: a wax likeness in Madame Tussaud’s and a knighthood from the queen, who as a young girl, had steeped in his novels. The knighthood was bestowed in absentia. It came too late. Not that he wasn’t tickled by this vernissage—or perhaps more bemused—but for the most part he was really past caring.
To his publisher, a chap with the—as the Hitch would surely put it—unimprovable name of J.D. Grimsdick, he wrote:
I am trying to decide whether I would advise a young man to become a knight. The warm feeling it gives one in the pit of the stomach is fine, but oh God those interviewers. They came round like flies, and practically all of them half-wits. I was asked by one of them what my latest book was about. ‘It’s a Jeeves novel,’ I said. ‘And what is a Jeeves novel?’ he enquired. Thank goodness they have left me now, including the one who printed, ‘I don’t understand why authors receive knighthoods’, when I said refuse knighthoods. Alters the sense a bit, what?
Walk into any bookstore these days and one finds yard upon yard of Wodehouse, much of it in fresh editions. Why is he so imperishable, fresh as a Wooster boutonnière, when so many other writers of his generation have vanished, long since past their sell-by date? A writer with an eye to literary immortality would do well to consider the Wodehousian oeuvre.
It’s not rocket science. The Master revealed the secret himself in a 1935 letter to Bill Townend, his old Dulwich school chum and the recipient of most of the letters here. It was a question, he said, of “making the thing frankly a fairy story and ignoring real life altogether.” Wodehouse’s admirer and defender Evelyn Waugh framed it perfectly; or as Jeeves might say, quoting Plautus, Rem acu tetigisti. (“You have hit the nail on the head.”)
In an appreciation of Wodehouse in 1939—a year before the fateful arrival of the German Army in Le Touquet—Waugh observed of Wodehouse’s characters:
We do not concern ourselves with the economic implications of their position; we are not skeptical about their quite astonishing celibacy. We do not expect them to grow any older, like the Three Musketeers or the Forsytes. We are not interested in how they would ‘react to changing social conditions’ as publishers’ blurbs invite us to be interested in other sagas. They are untroubled by wars [...] They all live, year after year, in their robust middle twenties; their only sickness is an occasional hangover. It is a world that cannot become dated because it has never existed.
That last sentence nails it: Jeeves and Wooster, Lord Emsworth, Psmith, and the rest inhabit an alternative universe, Platonically apart from any real one. In Bertie’s world, the most formidable menace is an inheritance-controlling, match-making aunt. (Not, mind you, that this species is not truly terrifying!)
“I sometimes feel,” Wodehouse wrote Townend in 1933, “as if I were a case of infantilism. I seem mentally so exactly as I was then [at school]. All my ideas and ideals are the same. I still think the Bedford [cricket] match is the most important thing in the world.”
A decade later, he was writing to Townend after his release from the internment camp, where he had lost 60 pounds and where conditions were such that some of the other internees committed suicide: “Camp was really great fun.” Such blitheness might just be unique in the annals of internment camp literature. And Wodehouse might just be the only English writer who appears to have enjoyed every single moment of boarding school. That’s aloofness.
But as Ratcliffe notes, the tone of the letter, and indeed of the five fatal broadcasts, was “typically Wodehousian. From Dulwich days onwards, the notion of mentioning hardship was, for him, the ultimate in ‘bad form.’ In times of crisis, cheerfulness was seen as a vital, even patriotic, virtue.”
That insight is well on display today on this side of the herring pond, in the recent profusion of refrigerator magnets embossed with the British war slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Wodehouse certainly did that. One of his greatest literary heroes—along with Kipling and Conan Doyle—was W.S. Gilbert, author of the refrain “For he is an English man.”
In 1960, on the occasion of Wodehouse’s 80th year, tributes poured in from the high priests of English literature: W.H. Auden, Nancy Mitford, James Thurber, Lionel Trilling, John Updike. Waugh laid a garland eloquent of Wodehouse’s immortality: “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
What fun, then, in light of that aperçu, to find Wodehouse in these pages writing in 1946 to Compton MacKenzie (author of Whisky Galore) from glum, postwar Paree, fretting over the reception of his next Jeeves novels in America: “I think they’re all pretty funny, but, my gosh, how obsolete!” As Jeeves might respond after softly clearing his throat, With all respect, sir, I might incline to an alternative view?
In the final pages of this splendid narrative hybrid of letters and biography, Wodehouse himself seems not entirely unaware of his future durability. One letter contains a lovely rumination on the subject of “the knut.” What on earth, you ask, is a “knut”? Well, Bertie Wooster was a knut, par excellence: a second son of an earl or other nobleman, equipped with a monthly allowance providing a perfectly happy, if somewhat pointless existence.
“Like the lilies of the field,” Wodehouse writes here of the knut and his ilk, “they toiled not neither did they spin, they just existed beautifully ... Then the economic factor reared its ugly head. Income tax and super tax shot up like rocketing pheasants, and ... Algy had to go to work.” And so ended a nifty, golden era. “It is sad to reflect,” he adds, “that a generation has arisen which does not know what spats were.” There is not one speck, not one nanogram of irony in that statement.
He closes that letter on a hopeful, which is to say, quintessentially Wodehousian note:
“But I have not altogether lost hope of a revival of knuttery ... the heart of Young England is sound. Dangle a consignment of spats before his eyes, and the old fires will be renewed. The knut is not dead, but sleepeth. When that happens, I shall look my critics in the eye and say, ‘Edwardian? Where do you get that Edwardian stuff? I write about life as it is lived today.”
I could not have put it so well myself, sir. Will there be anything else?