P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
Norton, 602 pp., $35.00
Two great English writers, both born in 1903 and not so dissimilar in background, stood far apart in their work and their beliefs: George Orwell the socialist agnostic essayist (and novelist) and Evelyn Waugh the conservative Catholic novelist (and essayist). But they knew one another—Waugh visited Orwell in the sanatorium where he was dying—and they admired each other. At the time of his death Orwell was planning an essay on Waugh, with the faintly condescending theme that he was as good a writer as it was now possible to be while holding intolerable opinions, and in 1946 Waugh admiringly reviewed the first collection of Orwell’s essays.
A further link between the two was their shared fascination with another writer a generation older, about whom they corresponded, and whom they both discussed in print at some length. Orwell’s essay “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse” was originally published in July 1945, when its subject thanked Orwell:
It was extraordinarily kind of you to write like that when you did not know me and I shall never forget it…. It was a masterly bit of work and I agree with every word of it.
Waugh commended the essay, although he took issue with some of its points. And years later, to celebrate Wodehouse’s eightieth birthday in 1961, although also on the twentieth anniversary of another broadcast, Waugh gave a talk on BBC radio entitled “An Act of Homage and Reparation.”
A “defence,” and perhaps a “reparation,” had become necessary after the most—or indeed only—dramatic event in the life of that wonderfully gifted and prolific writer but strange and mystifying personality. In 1939, Wodehouse was fifty-eight and at the height of his fame and fortune. His books were widely read in many countries, while he had made very successful further careers in American popular entertainment. But he also enjoyed, to a most unusual degree for a light-hearted farceur, the esteem of serious writers, scholars, and statesmen: Orwell and Waugh apart, his admirers have ranged from Asquith, Belloc, and Wittgenstein to Auden, Aldous Huxley, Lionel Trilling, and Garry Wills. His tales of Psmith and Ukridge, of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, of Lord Emsworth and Mr. Mulliner, written in exquisite fantastical prose, were relished both by those who read nothing else and those who read everything.
That summer Wodehouse went to Oxford to receive an honorary doctorate, which was particularly gratifying (“apparently a biggish honour,” he said in his unassuming way) forty years after he had longed, but been unable, to go there as an undergraduate. After the academic ceremony in June he returned to Le Touquet, on the French side of the Channel, where he and his wife Ethel had made their home since 1935, a resort the English then tended to associate with golf and adultery, although it was also where Jacques Chirac met Tony Blair just before the invasion of …