January 2005

John Detrixhe

nonfiction

Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum

Every reader of P.G. “Plummie” Wodehouse has his own version of Jeeves, perhaps more or less resembling the illustrations on dustcover jackets. Reading Wodehouse: A Life is a little like seeing Jeeves deconstructed, an examination of the early two-dimensional sketches that never made it out of the studio. Of course, A Life is a rendering of Wodehouse the man, not his characters, but Robert McCrum’s telling often views Wodehouse through the prism of his fiction. As well, much of the biography is in support of McCrum’s explanation of the Berlin broadcasts on Nazi radio that almost torched Wodehouse’s career.

His ancestors were not titled, but like any good Englishman, Wodehouse had his roots in England’s history, for his grandfather fought at Waterloo, and his father was a colonial servant posted in Hong Kong. It was this background, and soon to be extinct Edwardian England, that comprised the material for the bulk of Wodehouse’s work. As McCrum says, “it was from his own family that the young Wodehouse absorbed his amused fascination with the infinite nuances of class.”

Wodehouse was raised in typical fashion for the children of civil servants, tended to by a Chinese nursemaid in Hong Kong with his two brothers. At age three Wodehouse and his brothers were shipped to Bath, England, during which time they were cared for and raised by a nanny. They didn’t see their parents again for three years. According to McCrum, it was at age twelve, at Dulwich College, that Wodehouse finally became comfortable. It was this place, like an extended summer camp with a heavy emphasis on the classics, that would hone Wodehouse’s love for cricket and literature.

Wodehouse’s abandonment by his parents to grow up in public schools is central to McCrum’s treatment of Wodehouse. For McCrum, Wodehouse’s need to please editors and audiences, his inclination to retreat into his own wonderland of writing whenever possible, is explainable by this piece of his childhood, and it plays a major part in McCrum’s discussion of the Berlin broadcasts.

Around the time of World War I, Wodehouse fell in love with recently widowed Ethel Wayman. She wasn’t a beautiful woman, but she had “a very good figure,” and she was everything Wodehouse wasn’t. Where he was shy, she was extroverted. Where he had no sex drive, she had too much. Where he was disciplined to a life at his desk working, Ethel was a woman of parties, casinos and shopping. Their marriage lasted sixty years.

Every biography eventually gets around to discussing its subject’s libido, and this biography is no exception, even though there’s little to tell in that regard. (Early on Ethel and Wodehouse established separate bedrooms.) McCrum handles this subject with tact, saying mildly that “Wodehouse seems to have been a man for whom sex was simply not important.”

After his marriage, Wodehouse wrote Something Fresh, “the novel that would transform his career.” He also spent time in America, where he wrote musicals with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, and McCrum describes the expatriate Wodehouse as “one of the founding fathers of the American musical.” Between 1916 and 1919, Wodehouse participated in fourteen productions, and Wodehouse is known to have remarked, “I would rather have written Oklahoma than Hamlet.”

Most seem to recall Wodehouse fondly, but there are negative remembrances, such as this one from Frank Crowninshield, editor at Vanity Fair: “[Wodehouse was a] stodgy and colourless Englishman; silent, careful with his money, self-effacing, slow-witted and matter of fact… I never heard him utter a clever, let alone brilliant, remark.”

Wodehouse’s stepdaughter Leonora described Wodehouse as having “an overwhelming horror of being bored,” and also as having an “overpowering hatred of hurting people.” Again, this is explained away by McCrum as being a result of Wodehouse’s “inner wound of his childhood.”

Kipling’s death in 1936 paralleled the downward spiral of politics in Europe. Wodehouse was under fire from both sides of the Atlantic for unpaid income tax, for which international standards were poorly defined and awkwardly regulated (with the potential for the same income to be taxed in both England and the United States). When combined with serious losses in the Wall Street crash, Wodehouse’s finances were seriously humbled. But perhaps monetary struggles were a gift for Wodehouse, for it was during this time that, with a lean on his income in America, he wrote Right Ho, Jeeves, which “guaranteed him immortality.”

As World War II approached, Wodehouse was ever more entrenched in his tax refuge in Le Touquet, France, which allowed him access to London for work, and Ethel access to Paris for shopping. Wodehouse remained immersed in his work, and Europe continued to disintegrate with Stalin rising in Russia and Hitler’s troops marching into Vienna. Wodehouse still didn’t believe the world could ever see another World War, and as he began a new Bertie and Jeeves plot, Hitler’s troops were pouring through Holland and Belgium and entering France. Wodehouse and Ethel made a belated attempt to escape, but all the routes were flooded with refugees, and Wodehouse and Ethel found themselves trapped behind enemy lines.

Wodehouse, always nonchalant, gallantly wearing the mask, was swallowed whole by the War. When he resurfaced he would find his world disfigured, his reputation in pieces.

While interned as a prisoner of war in various locations in France, and eventually Germany, Wodehouse took it like any Edwardian gentleman should, never showing despair, making light of the situation, and he relied on lessons learned from his public schoolboy upbringing, never allowing himself to dwell on his situation. As always, he wrote about his situation, and in humorous light. When he was approached by the Nazis to read some of his stories over their airwaves, Wodehouse enthusiastically agreed. Berlin’s motive was to pacify America, still not entered into the War, but the result was not only a miscalculation on Wodehouse’s part, but probably on the part of the Nazi propaganda machine as well, for it alienated Wodehouse from the public. His dialogues in his broadcasts from Berlin were typical of the following:

“Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, ‘How can I become an Internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet … and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.”

As Charles McGrath said in his New York Times review (December 5, 2004), “when the broadcasts were eventually heard in England, which was by then suffering through the Blitz, no one got the joke.” As soon as she was able, Ethel joined Wodehouse in Berlin and saw to it that Wodehouse never taped another broadcast. Unfortunately, by then the episodes had already been recorded and the damage done.

Wodehouse wasn’t a coward, and he wasn’t a traitor, as interviews and investigations after the war proved. There’s nothing in a lifetime of available records that even hints of Nazi sympathy, but in a time when Germany was the enemy, anything in cooperation with them required scrutiny, and only a person of extraordinary naiveté could have so misjudged the motives of the German government and the reaction of the Allied audience.

This event is the crux of A Life, and in some regards it seems that McCrum has handled the point with too much care, for the reader feels as though he’s been reading 300 pages of finessed supporting material for this thesis: Wodehouse was a political fool, but no traitor.

Some were allied with Wodehouse, such as Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell -- and some were against him, most notably William “Cassandra” Connor, A.A. Milne, as well as Winston Churchill. In the end, though Wodehouse never returned to England, he was for the most part forgiven by the public and by the critics, eventually dining with Connor and receiving knighthood from the Queen in 1975.

After the War Wodehouse made it back to New York, where he was surprisingly well received. After an initial bout of attention from the media, which he handled with grace and made small yet substantial progress in restoring his name, Wodehouse discovered that Broadway was no longer what it had been, and that the great magazines were either gone or greatly changed. His prime was behind him, but for the rest of his life his books sold well on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1952 Wodehouse and Ethel moved to Long Island, where they remained for twenty-five years. Wodehouse continued writing until his death in 1975, eventually publishing with Simon & Schuster, which coincides with one the most endearing of Wodehouse anecdotes: Forgotten by the receptionist, he was discovered by Simon & Schuster editor Peter Schwed who “came looking for him, [when] Wodehouse advanced from the shadows, beaming with one hand outstretched and a manuscript held in the other. Wodehouse, who was never one to make a fuss, shook off all Schwed’s apologies. ‘I’ve had plenty of practice,’ he said, ‘in doctors’ waiting rooms.’”

To the end, Wodehouse, of international literary fame, was never a prima donna. He was a writer to the exclusion of almost everything else, and he lived through two World Wars, survived the near destruction of his reputation, and wrote upwards of ninety books. He died sitting in his armchair, pipe in hand, with his last manuscript close by.

Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393051595
530 Pages