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!”

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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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