Reviews — From the March 2013 issue

Nothing Serious

P. G. Wodehouse and the costs of innocence

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Discussed in this essay:

P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe. W. W. Norton. 624 pages. $35.

When a German soldier marched into P. G. Wodehouse’s home in France, in 1940, and gave the distinguished author ten minutes to pack, “Plum,” as his wife Ethel had it, “went off with a copy of Shakespeare, a pair of pajamas, and a mutton chop.” Interned by the Nazis in a former lunatic asylum in Upper Silesia, the writer of stories about Lady Betty Bootle and Beefy Bingham reported that prison camp was “rather like being on the road with a theatrical company.” It was also “like being at Hollywood.” Most of all, he suggested, it was like being at his beloved all-boys school, Dulwich, again. After a twenty-seven-year hiatus, he was, as he wrote to Bill Townend, a good friend from school, able to play cricket once more. He turned his camp mates into characters and abridged a story for the internees’ newspaper.

In reality, as the editor of his letters, the Oxford don Sophie Ratcliffe, reminds us, the writer was shunted from camp to camp in “crowded cattle trucks full of human excrement.” He shared a room with twenty other men and made a soup bowl from a disused motor-oil can. In the course of the ordeal, Wodehouse, approaching the age of fifty-nine when imprisoned, lost more than sixty pounds. Still, “am quite happy here and have thought out new novel,” he wrote by Prisoner of War Post to his agent on Fifth Avenue. He completed four novels during the war, including the aptly titled Joy in the Morning.

Finding himself in Berlin in 1943, where on one occasion nearly 300 aircraft bombed the city in a single night, Wodehouse wrote to a German friend, “One good result of the raid is that two dinner engagements which we had have been cancelled!” He might have been completing a book, half satiric and half disarmingly sincere, entitled “How to Be an Intern and Love It.” He was certainly exemplifying the values extolled by his near contemporary, the great laureate of empire Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs . . . If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same . . . you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Fearful, in 1941, that it might seem “ungrateful and ungracious” not to reply to the many kind and solicitous letters he’d received from fans in America — he was allowed to write only to family — Wodehouse agreed to record five humorous stories on German radio. Their theme was, as it happened, “How to Be an Intern and Love It.” The innocent — this is the comic subtext of much of Wodehouse’s fiction — cannot imagine the use less innocent hands will make of them.

The Germans, initially hoping to deploy the broadcasts to keep America out of the war, later suggested that the obliging British author was a Nazi sympathizer. They continued to play his droll sketches long after the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities was widely known — and long after Wodehouse had begun to regret his mistake. They sent the broadcasts to England, where they knew the consequences would be inflammatory. Wodehouse’s books were banned in Northern Ireland and pulped in Britain. “We would prefer not ever to hear about him again,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1944, even as he expressed the hope that Wodehouse would not be jailed. “His name stinks here.”

The whole sad episode was an example of the enduring lesson of the Wodehouse universe: A boy eternal can flourish only by keeping the outside world at a safe distance. It was also a reminder that the very values Wodehouse had so faithfully embodied were ever more out of step with the postimperial order. “It seemed to me,” he wrote, in wounded bewilderment, to his agent,

that I was doing something mildly courageous and praiseworthy in showing that it was possible, even though in a prison camp, to keep one’s end up and not bellyache.

Keeping one’s end up and holding to the tenets of the Stoics — “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/ Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,” as Kipling put it — were what had kept the British Empire on top of the world for so long.

The desk had always been Wodehouse’s safe place, one realizes in reading the letters; there, blithe as Bertie Wooster, he could place every tempest within a teapot. His stories continue to hold so many of us precisely because — as their maker readily acknowledged — they offer a land where the only things to be feared are aunts with designs, young women bearing copies of Nietzsche, and the latest coups de foudre of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Pongo Twistleton. They give us our world on its best days, and as it may appear to outsiders. But the sorrow of Wodehouse’s life was that the very buoyancy and serenity that so lit up a page could make him seem thoughtless or even callous in worlds less cloudless than those of Blandings Castle and Jeeves.

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is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book, The Man Within My Head, about Graham Greene and British boarding schools, came out in paperback in January.

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