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P. G. Wodehouse and the costs of innocence

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.

What are the costs of innocence — and how should innocence proceed in a compromised world? These are the central questions raised by P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters. How does comedy, in the wrong hands, turn to tragedy? Robert McCrum, in his penetrating and fair-minded 2004 biography, Wodehouse (dedicated, as it happens, to my own boarding-school headmaster, McCrum’s father), probed into Wodehouse’s defenses and gift for elusiveness, but the letters allow us to see things from the other side. They carry us, with almost unceasing charm and high spirits, through two world wars, constant exile, a sixty-year marriage to a twice-widowed chorus girl, and the effective transfer of power from the British Empire to Hollywood. It’s typical of Wodehouse that he answered every fan letter he received, wrote without fail to his grandchildren on every birthday, and, even when trying to live on “powdered soup” for a week, asked constantly how his loved ones were doing. Above all, while moving between England, New York City, France, and California, he kept up with his old friend Townend, a pale, would-be Wodehousian writer, sending him plot points, sharing with him advances, and working to find him commissions.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born to parents living in Hong Kong, where his father commanded the Chinese section of the police force, though he was sent back to England alone at the age of three to be “passed from hand to hand” among fifteen uncles and twenty aunts. He claimed, characteristically, that he “always accepted everything that happens to me in a philosophical spirit; and I can’t remember ever having been unhappy in those days.” But when as a teenager he encountered his mother, he “met her as virtually a stranger and it was not easy to establish cordial relations.” The death of his father when Wodehouse was forty-seven is not once mentioned in his surviving correspondence.

School, with its emphasis on games, its steadying routines, its equal cherishing of work and the impression of not working at all, thus became his family, his home, and his community. School also gave Wodehouse almost everything he ever wrote about. His first published essay, called “Some Aspects of Game Captaincy,” appeared in The Public School Magazine when he was eighteen; turning to light journalism in his early twenties, he soon began writing fiction about school, an effort that culminated in a dandyish Old Etonian known as Psmith.

“I sometimes feel as if I were a case of infantilism,” he wrote to Townend in his fifties. “I haven’t developed mentally at all since my last year at school. All my ideas and ideals are the same.” Till the end of his days, Wodehouse went through the whole of Shakespeare every year, seeded his stories with allusions to Aristophanes and Keats, and labored over his tales of Chuffys and Bingos as if crafting exquisite ships inside bottles. Raymond Chandler — who went through Dulwich around the same time, inheriting the same code of gallantry and bachelor self-sufficiency, the same Victorian sense of rectitude — would send his alter ego, Philip Marlowe, out into a world in which he is forever tilting at those playing by less gentlemanly rules. Wodehouse — who moved to New York City at twenty-two and put American gangsters and English schoolboys together to very different effect — decided to stay in the world he knew, expressing impatience with those writers (from Henry James to George Orwell) who he thought exceeded their bounds, largely by taking themselves too seriously.

Reading the letters, you can see how much of Wodehouse there is in the unfallen and unencumbered character of Bertie Wooster, right down to Wodehouse’s references to “the manly spirit of the Wodehouses (descended from the sister of Anne Boleyn)” — as they really were — and his way of deflating his own annoyance, even as he got it out, by referring to how “blighted some blighters can be when they decide to be blighters.” The central difference between the author and his character is that writing was for Wodehouse what idling is for Bertie; whereas Wooster complains about being got up when it’s “barely ten” and being kept from a day of doing nothing at the Drones Club, Wodehouse springs up and does exercises every day at first light — even on the train taking him to an internment camp — and devotes nearly all his waking hours to savoring Bertie’s ease vicariously. At one point he installed two typewriters in his home so he’d never have to stop writing.

What the letters also reveal — whether in brisk messages to editors or workmanlike fretting over plots — is how strong a drive lay beneath the air of nonchalance; even in his earliest years, Wodehouse seemed convinced of his literary greatness and pursued it with a terrier’s tenacity, scheming, negotiating, working, and revising, though without a trace of rancor. Listen to the aspiring writer even in his teens: “Friend of me boyhood,” he begins, to a chum,

here’s some dread news for you. My people have not got enough of what are vulgarly but forcibly called “stamps” to send me to Varsity. Damn the last owed is wot I know you will say. Oh! money, money, thy name is money! (a most lucid remark). I am going into the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. For two yrs I will be in England from the time I am 19. So I will have two yrs to establish myself on a pinnacle of fame as a writer.

The fact that his father realized at the last minute that he couldn’t afford to send Wodehouse to Oxford is said to be one of the crowning disappointments of the young man’s life; but Wodehouse’s response is to give his friend quasi-heroic diction (Wodehouse had of his own accord read Pope’s Iliad at the age of six), to use language as a way of dancing past the hurt and, most unexpectedly, to reaffirm a strong sense of literary destiny barely concealed by the reflexive self-mockery. Not long thereafter, he could be found approaching — successfully — the agent who represented Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and James Joyce; when confined to his bed with mumps, in 1901, he turned out nineteen short stories. It’s astonishing to see how Wodehouse, starting out, is already announcing how much his fiction will be worth “when I am a great man.” On moving to New York, where his stories fetched many times more than in London, in 1909, he was eager to conceal the existence of his early books, fearing that “they would kill my chances of doing anything big. I don’t want people here to know me as a writer of school stories. I want to butt into the big league.”

His productivity was as staggering as his almost instant success: even when employed full-time by Hollywood (Samuel Goldwyn had hired him, as part of his campaign to recruit famous writers, in 1929), he exclaimed, “I have written three short stories, an act of a play, and the dialogue for a picture in three weeks, and have got six brand new plots for short stories!!!” Another letter notes, “I shall have five plays running in New York in the Autumn, possibly six,” before breaking into a long disquisition on dogs. Yet Wodehouse never evinces much stress at the activity; he all but suggests that the real stress would come in not being allowed to write.

In later years he would complain, “I started writing about Bertie Wooster and comic Earls because I was in America and couldn’t write American stories and the only English characters the American public would read about were exaggerated dudes.” He had introduced Jeeves — named after a British cricketer — in a story in 1916 and combined him to powerful effect with his latest idling aristocrat, Bertie Wooster, in the early 1920s. Certainly the letters remind us how canny Wodehouse was in assessing both English and American markets. The paradoxes of his ways are confounding only if you don’t appreciate the code of the professional amateur (for American counterparts, see William F. Buckley Jr. and his son, Christopher).

With bumptious delight Wodehouse often remarked on how brilliant one of his pieces was; but as he also routinely acknowledged, “I have only got one plot and produce it once a year with variations.” He became tremendously rich through his dependably lovable writing — in 1937, Ladies’ Home Journal offered him $45,000 to rework a book “about a young bachelor getting saddled with some kids” — but once told Townend that all he truly needed was “about two real friends, a regular supply of books, and a Peke.” He berated an agent for doing him out of $1,250 in commissions, yet sent money to Townend all his life while asking him not to tell his wife about it. This mix of eagerness and insouciance (his sovereign value) makes one feel that life was for Wodehouse a game of Monopoly, and one he was determined to win. He could note that “we always did have too much money” while peppering his letters with news of how he “got a cheque for $18,000 (my record) on the following Tuesday!!!”

It says something about the man that there is not a single mention of a girlfriend in the letters; even in his thirties, he often pronounced — as many a product of English boys’ schools might — that “one’s real friendships are never with [women].” Yet after he met Ethel Wayman, a high-spirited and gregarious English actress, in 1914 in New York, he married her within weeks and quickly became the most uxorious of husbands, as well as the most devoted of stepfathers to her daughter, Leonora. The only thing that regularly seemed to throw him off his stride was when Ethel, from whom he was rarely separated, fell ill.

Wodehouse’s work may look like a feat of inspired fantasy to readers today, but to anyone who’s lived through the world he’s evoking (and remembering), it reads like straightforward realism. One of my own school friends wrote me a brilliantly entertaining letter not so long ago, elegant and rich with hilarious accounts of his pratfalls and failures of comprehension. Only at the very end did he note that his six-year-old daughter had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Another friend I studied with, from the age of five through university, recently sent me an email pulsing with literary and cinematic judgments. In a p.s. I almost missed, he reported that, at fifty-four, he had just gotten married for the first time, to a woman he’d never mentioned.

A post-Freudian looking at Wodehouse begins to talk of repression and denial; a pre-Freudian simply notes that someone like Wodehouse may have had relatively little to repress or deny, especially since he had early learned how to come to terms with difficulty, got paid terrifically well for what he loved and knew how to do, and surrounded himself with hobbies and people he adored. As Bertie Wooster says, adapting the Stoics’ creed to life’s most constant threat: “In this life it is not aunts that matter but the courage which one brings to them.”

How you feel about psychology — and complication — will clearly determine how well you get on with Wodehouse, in life or on the page. Bertie Wooster often remarks, with wonder, on Jeeves’s command of “the psychology of the individual,” and it is this practical faculty that unlocks most of Bertie’s problems; but it’s Bertie’s freedom from introspection and any acknowledgment of real pain that gives the work its rare atmosphere of sunlight and sweetness. At one point, Wodehouse counseled Townend to confer less psychological depth on his characters: it was good for engaging interest, he conceded, but could easily drown out a plot and diminish the audience’s sense of entertainment. It isn’t hard to imagine he might have been talking to — and about — himself, and the character he so seamlessly kept up, known to the world as P. G. Wodehouse.

His own sense of buoyancy had been reinforced, the letters remind us, by his constant work on musical comedies. It was Wodehouse (who collaborated at various times with Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and others) who wrote the pregnant lines: “Put all your troubles in a great big box/ And lock it with a great big key.” Making little of great things and much of little (“I’ve just discovered a hole in my trousers. These are Life’s Tragedies”) is how certain Englishmen are trained, even now, to get through the travails of the world. In 1934, as the IRS was trying to extract $250,000 out of Wodehouse (over the years some of his disputes over taxes went all the way to the Supreme Court), he wrote: “My relations with U.S. Government continue distant. I am now rather in the stage of hitching my shoulder petulantly and saying nasty things about them in a falsetto voice.” He even went so far as to say he was grateful for the contretemps because “Everything was so easy for me before that I was getting a bit bored.”

Such blitheness could come across as blindness — or something worse. One of the “great English experts on Eden,” as Auden put it, could never fully appreciate how people might take things outside the Garden. When MGM began paying him more than $2,000 a week “to insert Class and what-not” into scripts, Wodehouse told several friends, and then the Los Angeles Times, that he had been paid $104,000 “for loafing” and that “I feel as if I have cheated [the studios].” Needless to say, this did not go over well with his bosses or the newspaper’s readers (this was in 1931, at the start of the Great Depression); MGM decided not to renew his contract. (True to the contours of his generally charmed life, though, Wodehouse was such a reliable professional that the studio came begging to hire him back just five years later.)

This was not the first time Wodehouse had come across as tone-deaf. His only on-the-record comment concerning World War I, Ratcliffe informs us, was one to the New York Times contending that the “tragedy of war” would have a great effect on the British public’s attitude toward humor. He had also, in ominous anticipation of his miscalculations in the next war, brightly asserted, in 1914, “I don’t believe in these Zeppelins. If they ever got to London, they couldn’t do so very much damage.” Even the occasional “dirty story” he passes on in his letters is almost shockingly boyish: A man picks up a girl and she turns out to be his aunt!

Wodehouse’s innocence was, no doubt, why he was so needed; as T. S. Eliot, one of his many literary admirers, wrote after seeing what war had wreaked in England, “Human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.” But it also meant that it was near fatal for Wodehouse to venture out of his self-protected world. “He is about the world’s worst person with newspaper reporters,” his agent once noted; when Oxford gave him an honorary degree, in 1939, he was terrified that he might be asked to make a speech (he was, and he said, “Thank you,” then sat down). The sangfroid he aspired to, and on which Bertie congratulates himself so often, was one of those virtues much of the world was leaving behind.

It was perhaps inevitable that World War II should bring this clash of systems to a climax. Wodehouse was most upset — as he wrote to the British Foreign Office — that many thought he might have agreed to record the broadcasts as a way out of camp. In fact, he was released as he drew close to sixty, as others had been. Later recalling his “criminally foolish” blunder, Wodehouse was unsparing on himself. “I can’t very well pose as a completely innocent injured person,” he wrote to Townend as they prepared a book of the letters they’d exchanged over almost five decades. Yet even as he worked and worked to try to find the best way of acknowledging his “insane” error, he kept getting the tone all wrong. “Comedy,” he despaired, “will keep creeping in.”

The question that haunts the letters is to what extent Wodehouse saw them as a kind of performance, part of his civic duty to put a brave face on things, jolly everyone along, and never give in to self-pity. At one point, referring to the farces he’d turned out in wartime, he likens himself to “a red-nosed comedian . . . outwardly breezy and cheerful but feeling inside as if he had swallowed a heaping tablespoonful of butterflies.” Earlier he had written, “We all act through life, and each of us selects the special audience he wishes to impress.” The shrewd craftsman seemed to be slipping out from under the tootling golfer in plus fours. A profile writer once recorded encountering “the most friendly, genial, likeable manner in the world.” It’s striking that he used the word “manner” and not “man.”

Yet the effect of Wodehouse’s belief that agonizing over a problem was not infallibly the way to solve it was a startling freedom from malice. The tireless novelist grew a little crotchety in his seventies and started to attack critics who had given him bad reviews, but even then we also see him writing a fan letter to the head writer of the soap opera Edge of Night, walking “my five or six miles a day,” and inviting his most brutal critic from during the war to lunch — then proceeding to become “bosom pals” with him.

As it happened, he wrote in a letter, the U.S. War Department had used his broadcasts from German camp at the U.S. Army Intelligence School as an example of anti-Nazi propaganda. A German double agent who reported on him to MI5 described Wodehouse as “entirely childlike and pacifist.” He was finally publicly exonerated of every charge of treason in 1980, five years after his death, but by then many people realized that he was guilty only, in a sense, of keeping his upper lip stiff.

In 1941, when Wodehouse’s name suddenly became unwelcome in many quarters, the Royal Librarian revealed that the queen had ordered eighteen books for her teenage daughter, Elizabeth, heir to the throne; all eighteen were by Wodehouse. Thirty-four years later, when Wodehouse died, at ninety-three, on Valentine’s Day, he had beside him a book in progress and a knighthood conferred, six weeks earlier, by Queen Elizabeth II. “I have always endeavored to give satisfaction,” he declared in his nineties — and though that impulse came with shadows he didn’t much care to explore, you can hear in the statement both the industrious, proper, and dependable voice of Reginald Jeeves and the unbeatable innocence of the last of the Woosters. Here, it’s hard not to feel, was one who trusted not wisely but too well.

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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