AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

WODEHOUSE & CO.

The genius of PG Wodehouse

His biography (from EVERYMAN CLASSICS)

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881, the son of a good-natured colonial administrator serving as a magistrate in Hong Kong, and a more formidable mother who might have been a model for the strong-minded aunts in so many of his stories. Eleanor Deane, known as ‘Shanghai Lil’, met Ernest Wodehouse when she travelled to the Far East in search of a husband. She was a talented artist and one of a large family with artistic and literary pretensions. Young Pelham, even from his childhood known as ‘Plum’, was sent to Dulwich College, a remarkable institution which also nurtured the talents of Raymond Chandler and C. S. Forester.

Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman in 1914. Born Ethel Newton, she had led an eventful life, having been twice married and widowed. She had a young daughter, Leonora Rowley, by her first husband, a civil engineer with whom she had gone to live in India. Her second marriage was to a Jermyn Street tailor who, after a painful bankruptcy, committed suicide. Ethel then went to New York to pursue a career as an actress, and it was there she met Wodehouse and they fell in love.

Ethel was funny, apparently not beautiful but with an excellent figure, mad about dancing and described by Malcolm Muggeridge as a ‘mixture of Mistress Quickly and Florence Nightingale, with a touch of Lady Macbeth thrown in’. It’s a tribute to their love that the marriage survived the difficulties that afflicted the couple during World War II.

When war broke out the Wodehouses were living in a villa they had bought in Le Touquet. As the German armies swept through France, many British residents fled to the coast and managed to return home. The Wodehouses were amongst those who preferred to wait, but they were taken aback by the speed of the German advance and their belated attempts to flee were unsuccessful. The Germans duly arrived, requisitioning the Wodehouses’ stores, cars and bicycle and even making use of their bathroom. Throughout the early summer of 1940 Wodehouse continued with his writing, walked the dogs, enjoyed crumpets for tea and hoped for the best. He also had to report to the German authorities every day. Then one morning he was escorted home and given a short time to pack up his belongings. He packed his clothes, pens and scribbling pads together with the complete works of Shakespeare and the poems of Tennyson. While Ethel was allowed to remain free in occupied France, he now found himself in a prison in Loos which he described in great detail in his notebook.

Wodehouse was interviewed by an American journalist (before his country had entered the war). His surprisingly contented attitude, and the fact that he refused the privilege of a private room, reinforced the feeling that he didn’t take the war entirely seriously and contributed to his subsequent disgrace. He did, however, accept some privileges. He had the use of a typewriter and was able to make contributions to American magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, and it was in the office of the prison governor that the fatal suggestion was made to him, ‘Why don’t you do some broadcasts... for your American readers?’ To which Wodehouse was unwise enough to reply that there was nothing he would like better. It was clear that these broadcasts would deal with his experiences as a prisoner and it should have been obvious to everyone that his approach would be humorous.1

The Gestapo interrupted a game of cricket Wodehouse was playing with fellow inmates and removed him from prison. He was taken to Berlin, where he was confined, under constant supervision, in more luxurious quarters in the Hotel Adlon. There followed the series of broadcasts that had such dire consequences for the author. Their tone was, of course, far from serious. He spoke of his situation as a comic interlude in his busy life. He told his listeners that there was a good deal to be said for internment as it allowed you to get on with your reading; ‘the chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal’. He described the sergeant in charge of the internees in Le Touquet as ‘a genial soul . . . infusing the whole thing [with] a pleasant atmosphere of the school treat’. His general attitude was self-deprecating and he showed his determination to make the best of things. He joked that in prison all he had wanted was for the guards to look the other way ‘and leave the rest to me’, in return for which he offered to hand over ‘India [and] an autographed set of my books’.

England had endured the Blitz and rationing, and faced a long war which had already cost many lives. It was understandable that people should disapprove of Wodehouse’s broadcasts. What was not excusable was that he should be damned as a traitor. The attack was led by a journalist, William Connor, who wrote under the name of ‘Cassandra’ in the Daily Mirror. Connor accused Wodehouse of selling his country to the Nazis for the price of a soft bed in a luxury hotel. He said that Wodehouse was a traitor and compared him, unfavourably, to many anti-Nazis confined in prisons who hadn’t sold their souls for ‘thirty pieces of silver’. Connor continued his attack in the Daily Mirror and by the end of the war Wodehouse’s reputation was at its lowest ebb. Trying, as usual, to take the light-hearted view, he wrote that he had not experienced such unusual displeasure since, as a boy, he broke the curate’s umbrella.2

In 1947 Wodehouse left France and set up home in America. His routine remained the same, he wrote in the mornings and walked the dogs in the afternoons. Times had, however, changed. ‘The world of which I had been writing since I was so high,’ he wrote ‘had gone with the wind and is one with Nineveh and Tyre. Young men no longer lazed in the Drones Club or even had valets.’ But he wrote on, dealing with the change as best he could, ever conscious of the writer’s first duty which is to entertain his audience.

After the war Wodehouse met William Connor, his principal persecutor. They had lunch, ‘Cassandra’ was unable to resist the Wodehouse charm and they became friends. This fact also seems to prove that P. G. Wodehouse was a very nice man indeed.

In time, England forgave his broadcasts. He was made a knight and, to his great amusement, his effigy was exhibited in Madame Tussauds. In February 1975 he was taken into hospital for tests. He was found there one evening, dead in his armchair, with a pipe and tobacco on his lap and a piece of manuscript within easy reach. He had never stopped writing.

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1. Wodehouse had endured internment for 12 months up to June 1941, during which period he was allowed to receive a mass of American fan mail, but he was not permitted to reply. He took the suggestion of the broadcasts as a heaven-sent opportunity to thank his American fans for their kindness.

2. The Cussen Government Report, received by the government in 1944, exonerated Wodehouse from any culpable conduct, after a full enquiry with particular regard to the broadcasts. Tragically for Wodehouse, this report was not made public until 1980, five years after his death.

Dash it, Jeeves! Why are we so funny?

Sam Leith (from The Telegraph, 12 Apr 2007)

What makes PG Wodehouse's comic creations Bertie Wooster and trusty Jeeves endure? The Telegraph's Literary Editor Sam Leith investigates...

The other day, I lifted down the first volume of Hutchinson's old Jeeves Omnibus. There are five volumes of this edition; each at least 500 pages long – and that's just the Jeeves canon.

Wodehouse was incredibly prolific, and the amazing thing about how prolific he was – the peculiar nature of his genius – is that what he spooled out like a spider does silk is prose that is funny, consistently, almost sentence by sentence.

I was about halfway down the first page when I first giggled aloud. And three quarters of the way through the first page when I giggled for the second time. What makes Wodehouse so extraordinary is the perfection of his comic timing. He is in a select and miraculous group of writers – in America, Damon Runyon is probably the closest analogy – the very texture of whose language is funny.

Forget the door-slamming farces of his plots – with Bertie alternately descending into, and being lifted out of, the soup more or less chapter by chapter, and ending up in each case pretty much exactly where he started.

Forget them, indeed, you will: they are very funny and absurd and tightly sprung, and they vanish from the mind with the turning of the last page. The point is that you laugh, or smile, or feel an access of the warmer humours with practically every sentence he writes.

Oddly, Wodehouse professed to have no problem with the sentences, yet said he agonised over the plots: "Writing my stories I enjoy. It is the thinking them out that is apt to blot the sunshine from my life.

You can't think out plots like mine without getting the suspicion from time to time that something has gone seriously wrong with the brain's two hemispheres and the broad band of transversely running fibres known as the corpus callosum." He claimed to make 400 pages of notes before starting to write.

What is it that – of all Wodehouse's comic creations – gives the partnership between Jeeves and Wooster such enduring appeal? If anything, the odds would seem to favour their lapsing into obscurity. They should have dated. They live in a social situation extraordinarily remote from that of the vast majority of their readership: an idyllic, imagined version of the Edwardian gentry.

This is a world in which - having started the day by getting in amongst the toothsome eggs & b - Bertram bowls back and forth between Drones and the Savoy Grill, bumping into the usual bally shower of weak-chinned, bread-roll throwing Gussies and Tuppies and greeting them with fusillades of what-ho-ing. Lunch is always soup and fish.

Weekends are always in the country. Engagements are made and broken off incessantly.

Aunts are a menace, but a necessary evil, since it is aunts who, invariably, control the purse-strings. Children are generally fiends in human form, doted on by aunts or by the lisping beauties Bertie and his chums are perpetually falling in love with.

Bertie's language – of almost Homeric epithets – may burlesque period slang, but it has been entirely made Wodehouse's own.

In the opening pages of the very first book, Thank You, Jeeves, we are introduced to the dreaded Sir Roderick Glossop – "a bald-domed, bushy-browed blighter, ostensibly a nerve specialist, but in reality, as everyone knows, nothing more nor less than a high-priced loony-doctor." Glossop is in New York, visiting a patient.

"This George was a man who, after a lifetime of doing down the widow and orphan, had begun to feel the strain a bit. His conversation was odd, and he had a tendency to walk on his hands." Isn't that last symptom just sublimely well-timed?

Felicities of writing on that level, of course, can't be captured in any film, television or stage version. But the sheer number of adaptations suggests there's something about these books that survives the transition. You could call it flavour: that of their uniquely sunny world, and the relationship between these two comic types. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie captured it delightfully.

Jeeves and Wooster remain one of the great comic double-acts of all time, alongside Bouvard and Pécuchet, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Laurel and Hardy, Blackadder and Baldrick.

There is a peculiar twist to the dynamics of our pair, though – one which aligns them more closely with Holmes and Watson. Most comic partnerships involve one character who is a fool, and a friend who is equally if not more foolish.

Wodehouse, instead, teams a fool and a sage: and he gives the narration to the fool (except once: the butler narrates the final story in Carry On, Jeeves, "Bertie Changes His Mind", and very disconcerting it is, too).
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie starring in Jeeves & Wooster
Wodehouse puts a further comic twist on it by inverting the master-servant relationship. Jeeves runs Bertie, as Bertie only half-suspects. Jeeves, with his incomparable, fish-fed brain, shimmers in and out of Bertie's story. It isn't always clear what he's up to, or why – but Bertie trusts him, and his trust is always vindicated.

Just as Watson - dull, amiable, a little blockheaded – is entrusted with a story he only half-understands until the end, so is Bertie. Watson is our representative, much as we long to be Holmes. Likewise, we identify with Bertie – as we enjoy patronising him – but look up to Jeeves.

They survive, perhaps, because their world is so fully imagined, so self-enclosed, and so downright appealing. Even though it is historical, history does not touch it. This is a world in which everything, constantly, goes wrong – but in which nothing actually goes wrong in any irrevocable way.

At the end of every story, Jeeves makes things right, and the pieces on the chessboard are returned to their starting positions.

Time stands still. Bertie will never get married. Jeeves will never, permanently, leave him. Oswald Mosley may appear, as the absurd Roderick Spode (swanking around in his footer bags, the perfect perisher), but the Second World War will never happen.

There is a rebounding, undefeatable innocence to the whole set-up. Waugh or, later, Kingsley Amis, were sometimes funnier: but nobody has been simultaneously as funny and as uplifting as Wodehouse.
Why PG Wodehouse deserves his place among the literary greats

by CHARLOTTE RUNCIE (from The Telegraph, 28 November 2016)

In my university days reading English, I remember weeks of wading through thousand-page 18th-century tomes in black despair. To cheer me up, my mother gave me a set of collected PG Wodehouse novels for Christmas. Each night I’d pick a story, dive in and immediately feel the gloom lift. In the morning I’d wake up with three or four books poking me in the ribs under the duvet, urging me to get up, like Jeeves with a hangover cure.

At the time they were a guilty pleasure, an escape from the real work of proper literature. Now I’m not so sure.

For decades, Wodehouse’s closest association with the mantle of literary greatness was that he once played cricket with Arthur Conan Doyle. But this Thursday, the British Library will welcome the collected writings of Wodehouse into its 20th-century archive holdings, alongside titans such as Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter and JG Ballard.

It’s about time, too. Wodehouse’s farcical world of aristocratic Edwardian and interwar shenanigans has been loved ever since he first created it in the 1920s. But that hasn’t stopped him being dismissed as a “performing flea” of literature, a peddler of pleasant fluff, his reputation even tarnished by a perception of him as a Hitler sympathiser thanks to his participation in German radio broadcasts while interned by the Nazis in France.

No matter that British secret services exonerated him and he was later knighted. The mud stuck. Even after George Orwell wrote an essay defending him as not guilty of “anything worse than stupidity”, he was shunned by the literary establishment as the throwaway humorist with an embarrassing Fascist association.

We have a strange lack of respect for geniuses who make us laugh. Funny books are usually ignored by literary prizes, and we generally insist on remembering Shakespeare and Austen for their romances and tragedies, rather than admit they can also be absolutely hilarious.

The names of Wodehouse’s characters alone are worthy of eternal praise. Where else would you find “Gazeka” Firby-Smith (thus named “because he looks like one”); D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright; or the newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle and his nemesis Roderick Spode.

Too often when we think of literature, we think of worthily ploughing through giant slabs by eminent Russians. We assume that just because a book is easy to read, it must have been easy to write. In fact the opposite is true, as Wodehouse’s letters currently heading towards the British Library prove.

He spent years meticulously plotting every masterpiece, making sure each joke was note-perfect and stylistically exact, so that his glorious world of summers in country houses and madcap dashes through city streets would never falter. It’s a mark of true genius that you can sail through his books with laughter filling your heart on every page.

Flaubert wrote that his own dearest ambition was to write “a book about nothing… held together by the inner force of its style, as the earth without support is held in the air.” Well, where Flaubert may have failed, Wodehouse triumphed. His books may be about nothing at all really, but in fact they are about everything: joy, fun, adventure and silliness.

Wodehouse is a literary master as good as anyone, and I know who I’d rather take to bed.