1 Who was he?
Hilaire Belloc, in a radio broadcast in the 1930s, called Wodehouse “The best writer of English now alive. The head of my profession…”
Though, sadly, Wodehouse is no longer with us, there are still many who would agree with Belloc’s verdict. Wodehouse was an outstanding literary craftsman who learned how to write economically and give his stories structure and balance from an early training in the hard schools of journalism and Broadway musical theatre.
His real genius is in a breathtakingly original approach to the English language itself. He invents words and plunders slang, dialect, the clichés of popular fiction and the giants of English literature only to turn them on their heads and use them in altogether unexpected contexts. No other modern writer has so many citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, and even that most authoritative of works barely scrapes the surface of his linguistic originality.
Wodehouse started his literary career when he left Dulwich College in 1900 to work in a bank. He was determined not to become a colonial administrator like his father, and spent his spare time writing school stories for magazines and jokes and fillers for newspapers. By September 1902 he was earning enough from writing to leave the bank. His first book, The Pothunters (a school story written as a magazine serial) appeared in 1902.
Another outlet for his talents showed itself when he started writing lyrics for Seymour Hicks at the Gaiety Theatre. From 1909 onwards he lived largely in New York. During the first world war and the early 1920s he collaborated (mostly with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton) on a string of successful Broadway musicals, which would have been enough to make him rich and famous even if he had never published a book. During this same fertile period, some of his most famous characters were born: Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle made their first appearance in Something New/Something Fresh (1915) while the valet Jeeves and his master Bertie Wooster appeared in the short stories in My Man Jeeves (1919).
In the thirties, Wodehouse became involved in a long, complicated battle with the British and American tax authorities, and moved to France. Despite the legal problems, this was one of the most creative periods of his life, with a stream of unforgettable short stories and novels appearing.
Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, were still at their house near Le Touquet when the German army arrived in May 1940. As a British civilian, Wodehouse was interned, first in Belgium and then in Silesia. In June 1941, a few months before his 60th birthday, he was released and taken to Berlin. His friends in the usa had been very concerned about his situation, and thus Wodehouse was happy to oblige when the Germans asked him to record a series of radio talks to be broadcast to the usa. It would be a good way to thank them for their support and reassure them that all was well. What Wodehouse didn’t realise was that the German authorities would also broadcast the talks to Britain, where his light-hearted accounts of life in an internment camp went down very badly. He was accused - mainly by people who had not heard the broadcasts - of treason and collaboration with the enemy.
After the war, a secret investigation by the British authorities concluded that there was no evidence that he had been guilty of anything other than extreme naivety. Given the public outcry there had been against him, Wodehouse felt that it would be better not to return to Britain, and thus the couple took the first available boat to America and stayed there. The British authorities were very slow to exonerate him publicly: it was only the conferral of a knighthood six weeks before his death in 1975 that signalled that he was once again persona grata. The report into his wartime activities was only made public - after much agitation - in 1980, and some of the documents remained covered by the Official Secrets Act until 2000.
Remarkably enough, Wodehouse continued to produce one or two books a year after the war, at an age when most people would have been happy to retire. Even in his last weeks in hospital, he was working on the unfinished novel published as Sunset at Blandings.
There are many books about Wodehouse - the following are what most people seem to regard as the “standard” biographies.
- Frances Donaldson (1982) - the authorised biography, written by a friend of the Wodehouse family. A useful resource, but a bit too inclined to take Wodehouse’s own statements at face value.
- Benny Green (1981) - probably the most readable Wodehouse biography, and the strongest on Wodehouse’s career in the theatre.
- David A. Jasen (1974, revised 1981) - very thorough, and based in part on interviews with the subject, but somewhat stodgy in style, and occasionally verging on hagiography. Jasen is the leading expert in the complex field of Wodehouse bibliography, and the book is worth having for the appendices alone, even if you can’t face the text.
- Barry Phelps (1992) - the first “revisionist” biography. Phelps is a dedicated fan, but he seeks to dig out the truth behind Wodehouse’s carefully constructed image of the writer as bumbling innocent.
- Robert McCrum (2004) - this was much-trumpeted before publication, but ultimately doesn't add very much to what we already knew from Phelps, apart from a few interviews with household staff who worked for the Wodehouses. Probably a good one to start with if you haven't read the others.
- Norman Murphy’s In Search of Blandings (1981) is a very useful account of the results of his researches into some of the real people and places Wodehouse used as sources for his fiction.
- Norman Murphy’s reconstruction of The Reminiscences of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood (1993 - as Wodehouse fans will know, the original m/s was eaten by the Empress of Blandings in Heavy Weather) is entertaining in itself, and also includes a lot of information about the colourful members of London’s Pelican Club in the 1890s, a prime source of inspiration for Wodehouse.
- Prof. Daniel H. Garrison has performed the mammoth task of compiling a list of all Wodehouse’s named characters in his Who’s Who in Wodehouse (1987, revised 1989)
- Blandings Yahoo mailing list
- A celebration of P.G. Wodehouse — The late Terry Mordue’s pages, now hosted on the Madame Eulalie site, containing annotations to several books and assorted background information, including a very comprehensive bibliography of the secondary literature on Wodehouse.
- Project Gutenberg - electronic texts, including much early Wodehouse.
- PGW Society (UK) - don’t miss the weekly quiz
- The Wodehouse Society (N. America) also the home of the pgwnet mailing list
- Russian Wodehouse Society has a lot of useful resources in English and Russian
- alt.fan.wodehouse - the Wodehouse discussion group on Usenet (does anyone still use Usenet?)
Wodehouse has been a hero of mine since I first read Piccadilly Jim at the age of seven(!). I was involved for a while with Terry's project to annotate the books, but I haven't done any of that for some time. It's fun, and quite satisfying to study the texts closely, but it is (another) great time-sink...