Somewhat as if Robinson Crusoe tried to tell Man Friday about Yorkshire pudding, it’s hard to explain Wodehouse to the uninitiated. He evolved a comedy of manners and a mannered style that came into perfect fluency and equilibrium by the early Thirties. In the early Fifties that tautness of control began to slacken. I myself believe that he reached the summit of his careful art with The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938, and Joy in the Morning, largely written as the Germans were preparing to invade France, polished as they bore Wodehouse off from Le Touquet to internment in Germany, and published after the war. His latest biographer, Frances Donaldson, believes the peak came earlier, with Thank You, Jeeves, in 1934. Wodehouse himself preferred Quick Service, published in 1940.
It is not a dispute of much importance. By the mid-Thirties Hilaire Belloc was broadcasting to America his view that Wodehouse was “the best living writer of English” and there are at least half a dozen books in the decade surrounding that dictum to which admirers can reach, if asked to furnish proofs of Belloc’s veracity.
Cultism—and there has long been a Wodehouse cult with powerful adepts guarding the mystery—often leads to facetious overstatement. A bad sign is when worshipers start calling the object of their veneration “the Master.” But Belloc had it right all the same in stressing Wodehouse’s virtues as an artificer of language, rather than as the creator of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Emsworth, Mulliner, Ukridge, Psmith, and the rest of them. Few writers were so self-conscious in the refinement of language. Wodehouse loved to read trash, just as in his later years he loved to watch it on daytime TV, and in the dense allusive utterance of Bertie Wooster one can find a meditation on the banality, coarsened tempi, images, and conventions of late Victorian and Edwardian literary discourse which scarcely suffers from being set next to the great explorations of cliché in Joyce’s Ulysses. Wodehouse was as determined a mannerist as Wilde in the guying of conventional discourse. His best books are the apotheosis of the artificial, yet like Wilde his fluency and ease of idiom rendered this artifice natural and altered English diction, hence British culture.
It is instructive to read aloud dialogue from The Importance of Being Earnest and follow with exchanges between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves or Bertie and Gussie Fink-Nottle, et al. The rhythms are remarkably similar. Both writers get their effects—Wilde much more sharply—from reversals of conventional idiom and conventional attitude (e.g., “Was your father born to…the purple of commerce or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?”). For the more conventional and conservative Wodehouse the critique was more narrowly of language than of society, so the paradoxes and parodies were more technical whereas in Wilde’s case they were more substantive.
I do not recall Wodehouse discussing Wilde in his letters, which is surprising, given the extent of his stylistic debt, My own view is that Wodehouse’s almost pathological prudery in sexual matters, a reticence sublimated in the jocular male partnerships employed in his fiction and the loyal epistolary male friendships of his life, caused him to shy away in extreme nervousness from mention of Wilde.
Wooster says there are those who like to find girls in heliotrope pajamas in their beds and those who don’t. He belonged to the latter category, and Wodehouse seems to have thought that was the sensible outlook to have. The girls esteemed by Wooster—e.g., Stiffy, Bobby—were boys, to all intents and mentionable purposes. Girls of the other type—Madeline Bassett—were boys too, only “wets,” reading poetry and no doubt ending up as dissidents in Thatcher’s Cabinet. There is a third, Amazonian category—Honoria Glossop springs imposingly to mind, as indeed does the present British prime minister herself. Donaldson’s remarks about Wodehouse’s sexuality—quoted below—are pertinent.
One way to evoke Wodehouse at his best is once again to remember Wilde at full stretch in The Importance of Being Earnest, where speed of exposition, mastery of structure, combined with fluency and inventiveness in idiom, carry the reader at top speed and without pause through farcical imbroglio to ultimate resolution. The Code of the Woosters contains a main plot, three subplots, two separate love interests, two major villains. Yet there is no moment when the reader is left hanging as Wodehouse switches scenery and redeploys. The language, all of it contained within Bertie’s first-person narrative, is at full tension throughout, with the famous similes resplendent. The beauty lies in the deftness, pacing, linguistic aplomb: early Waugh with better manners and without the edgy madness and social bad faith.
But then Wodehouse was more poised because, unlike Waugh (or indeed his other great admirer, Orwell), he did not like England very much and consequently had a better prose style. In his Life of Raymond Chandler Frank MacShane quotes Chandler’s little essay in his notebook on English and American style:
[American style] is a fluid language, like Shakespearian English, and easily takes in new words, new meanings for old words…. Its overtones and undertones are not stylized into a social conventional kind of subtlety which is in effect a class language. It is more alive to cliches. Consider the appalling, because apparently unconscious, use of cliches by as good a writer as Maugham in The Summing Up, the deadly repetition of pet words until they almost make you scream…. English, being on the defensive, is static and cannot contribute anything but a sort of waspish criticism of forms and manners…. The tone quality of English speech is usually overlooked. This tone quality is infinitely variable and contributes infinite meaning. The American voice is flat, toneless and tiresome. The English tone quality makes a thinner vocabulary and a more formalized use of language capable of infinite meanings. Its tones are of course written into written speech by association. This of course makes good English a class language, and that is its fatal defect. The English writer is a gentleman (or not a gentleman) first and a writer second.
Chandler went to the same British public school (Dulwich) as Wodehouse. Both of them made most of their money in America and had to take care of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Wodehouse made his first crossing in 1904, broke into the US magazine market in a big way in 1915 and into the theater shortly thereafter. Wodehouse got the best of both worlds: the fluidity, the alertness to cliche, the detachment that held him free of waspishness. Wodehouse’s style was highly formalized, yet he certainly remained always a writer first and a gentleman second. Oddly enough, Chandler made Marlowe a gentleman in the end, which proved his stylistic undoing. At a critical moment Wodehouse behaved like a writer and not at all like a gentleman, which nearly proved his undoing too.
This moment had to do with Wodehouse’s notorious broadcasts from Berlin in 1941, an episode that takes up a substantial portion of Frances Donaldson’s book, and provides it with nearly all of its drama. Aside from the matter of the broadcasts, Wodehouse’s life and professional career were of a simplicity and general uneventfulness that would not, in a rational world, provoke a critical and biographical industry. Enthusiasts already have Richard Usborne’s work, in Clubland Heroes, and two other volumes; a biography and bibliography by David Jansen; and a respectable covey of other studies. Frances Donaldson’s biography avails itself of new letters provided her by relatives and friends. She sets forth the known facts conveniently enough, excavates new ones, uses what memories she has as a family friend and as a particularly close acquaintance of Wodehouse’s beloved stepdaughter Leonora. She only falters when she attempts critical appreciation of Wodehouse’s work—a subject on which she has nothing particularly illuminating to add.
Born in 1881, Wodehouse lived through a moderately unpleasant childhood when he was separated from his parents for long intervals, delightful schooldays at Dulwich which he later described as the happiest time of his life, and a brief sojourn in a bank before becoming a full-time writer. He published his first novel, The Pothunters, in 1902 and his last, The Cat Nappers, in 1975. Only in 1911, 1941, and the years from 1943 to 1945 did he fail to provide either his British or his American audiences with a new book in the intervening seventy-three years. In the first half of his career he was also collaborating, mostly with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, in a profusion of musical comedies put on in the Teens and Twenties. A wife, a few close friends, and an unending succession of pets—mostly Pekingese dogs—refreshed his emotional life, but from the end of his teens to his ninety-fifth year he devoted almost every day of his prolonged existence to writing or to thinking about writing, and there is no evidence to suggest that he had much interest in doing anything else.
The immensity of his literary production is not perhaps as unrivaled as Donaldson appears to believe. Simenon’s output—until his retirement—was similarly prodigious. But it is hard to think of another writer who worked so tranquilly with such copious success within so narrow a range, unless we are to consider a detective-story writer such as Agatha Christie, whose entire oeuvre scarcely contains a single memorable line.
Wodehouse lived to work, well beyond the point where he had to work for a living. He had a vast contempt for writers “with only one book in them” and believed with Arnold Bennett that an audience could be won and retained only if the author’s name, on a new dust jacket, was constantly obtruded upon the readers’ attention. Just as another great producer and hero of Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle, Scribbled in railway stations, trains, and cars so too did Wodehouse never stop working. Briefly arrested by the French at the end of the Second World War, he occupied some of his time in the police station polishing off another chapter.
He described himself as an “objective” rather than a “subjective” writer, perceiving his task as the satisfaction of magazine editors, publishers, and readers. He regarded prattle about “artistic self-expression” as disgraceful egoism. Indeed nothing Wodehouse said about himself can be regarded as particularly trustworthy. He readily made up stories, or fabricated views, when pestered by interviewers and admirers about such matters as the origins of Jeeves or his verdict on this or that writer or book. Publishing some of his correspondence with his friend William Townend he had no compunction in smartening it up for the reader. For him it was all a matter of professionalism, and if his critical judgment told him that his audience would prefer to hear that Jeeves was based on a real-life butler called Robinson rather than a stock type in the British comic tradition he would alter the truth with just the same alacrity as he would obey the editors of the Saturday Evening Post when they asked him to restructure the first chapter of The Code of the Woosters.
What Wodehouse admirers really need is an edition of the complete letters, even including the innumerable tedious and prolix passages on his beloved Pekes. These letters, notably the ones to Townend, Dennis Mackail, and Guy Bolton reveal him as a professional literary technician of enormous self-assurance and rather intolerant perspicacity, quite different from the records of his conversations and interviews, where he usually displayed a self-deprecation and an innocence partly natural but sometimes contrived.
Wodehouse presents a challenge to any biographer in that he was productive for three quarters of the twentieth century but with one exception held all potentially troublesome parts of this period expertly at bay. By the 1930s he was one of the highest-paid writers in the United States, suffering endless disputes with the IRS in consequence. But long before these years he had won a financial security and hence latitude in existence which any writer could envy. Success brought none of the usual vices. He did not drink to excess. Donaldson carefully writes that “…one would not expect to find him capable of intense, passionate love. His relationships with women, including his wife, have been speculated upon in the idle, gossipy way in which people speculate on the intimate affairs of their friends and of public characters about whom a good deal is known. Wodehouse may or may not have been inhibited sexually as well as emotionally, and this inhibition may have been partial or complete.”
He married a widow called Ethel Rowley in 1914. They produced no children. The management and enjoyment of his large earnings were, as Donaldson delicately indicates, chiefly the preserve of Lady Wodehouse, who kept her husband on a tight allowance and who was an enthusiastic investor and gambler besides.
Given tolerable and sometimes considerable comfort Wodehouse seems to have been relatively indifferent on the matter of where he should live. Perhaps appropriately for a writer who spent much of his time evoking an England which dwelt only in his imagination he spent the larger portion of his life outside the jurisdiction, in New York,Hollywood, Le Touquet, Cannes, and ultimately Remsenburg, Long Island, where he spent his last twenty-odd years.
The version of England disposed by Wodehouse would probably have lost its delicacy if he had spent all his time scribbling in the Cotswolds or some grim hamlet in the Home Counties, rather than snugly ensconced in the neutral terrain of New York or the suburban-pastoral of Long Island. The muscle-bound Anglophilia, blending into dogged reaction, which captures most British writers in the end was held at bay, and Wodehouse himself stayed decently remote from the invented Wodehouse of admirers such as Auberon Waugh, middlebrows beetling as they bear down on the moderns and anything so noxious as culture or the world of the intellect.
Wodehouse’s indifference to England may have been rather more profound than he cared publicly to let on. Author! Author! the American edition of the letters published in England as Performing Flea, has some reflections on the British class system omitted from the earlier version, presumably because he did not wish to offend his British audience.
A letter to Townend dated May 11, 1929, mentions a meeting with H.G. Wells and goes on:
What do you think happened when we met? We shook hands, and his first remark apropos of nothing, was “My father was a professional cricketer.” A conversation stopper if ever there was one. What a weird country England is, with its class distinctions and that ingrained snobbery you can’t seem to escape from. I suppose I notice it more because I’ve spent so much of my time in America. Can you imagine an American who had achieved the position Wells has, worrying because he started out in life on the wrong side of the tracks? But nothing will ever make Wells forget that his father was a professional cricketer and his mother the housekeeper at Up Park.
There is mention of Wells’s remark in Performing Flea, in a letter written three years later; but the comment about ingrained English snobbery is nowhere to be found.
Donaldson quotes from a couple of revealing letters he wrote in the mid-Fifties. To Townend: “I’m being egged on to become an American citizen. Do you think it would hurt me in England if I did? I don’t want to let Jenkins [his publisher] down by suddenly ruining my sales….” And to Mackail, just after he had received his US citizenship: “The morning after the proceedings I was rung up on the telephone by the Mail, the Express, The Times, the Associated Press and others. They all wanted to know why I had done it, and it was a little difficult to explain without hurting anyone’s feelings that, like you, I don’t feel it matters a damn what country one belongs to and that what I really wanted was to be able to travel abroad without having to get an exit permit and an entrance permit, plus—I believe—a medical examination.”
Now spending much time and ingenuity preventing the (black) inhabitants of their former dominions from enjoying the perquisites of citizenship in the UK, the British have always found it inexplicable when a full-fledged white member of the race opts for another passport or seems indifferent on the matter of whether he should or shouldn’t. It’s why the British are always so peculiarly astounded by what they care to call treachery—a word much in vogue in the recent Falklands affair—and spend much foolish time trying to divine the motivation of Oxbridge undergraduates, subsequently elevated in public life, who thought that mass unemployment in the Thirties was a bad thing, and that Marxism might be the best answer to the problem. Discounted by these plodding analysts of the roots of treachery is that there was a lot to feel treacherous about.
Wodehouse was accused of treachery because he broadcast from Nazi Germany in 1941. Donaldson, using all available documentation, gives a complete account of the affair. The circumstances surrounding Wodehouse’s supposed treachery and certain bad judgment appear to be as follows.
He was working on Joy in the Morning in Le Touquet, perhaps oblivious of the approaching Germans, perhaps confident they would leave him alone. After a short interval he was marched off to an internment camp in Upper Silesia where he spent eleven months. Internees were routinely released when they reached sixty, but shortly before he reached this particular birthday Wodehouse became the beneficiary of pressure applied by American friends who had become alarmed at a photograph of him taken at the internment camp, in which he appeared somewhat emaciated.
He was released and taken to Berlin. Waiting to meet him in the Adlon Hotel were a Major Erich, Baron von Barnekow, an old friend from the United States, and a man from the German foreign office called Werner Plack, whom Wodehouse had known slightly in Hollywood. Plack suggested that he make a broadcast to America, recounting his experiences during internment. Wodehouse readily agreed and shortly thereafter recorded five talks.
While Plack seems to have made the correct calculation that Wodehouse’s material would be lighthearted in vein and therefore display the Third Reich in a kindly light, Donaldson convincingly shows that Wodehouse had not bargained release from the internment camp against the broadcasts. He seems to have been guided by four professional instincts: it was an assignment, which by nature and training he was conditioned to accept; the broadcasts were a way of keeping his name before his American audience; they were additionally a way of thanking his American admirers for their support; and, as Wodehouse rather touchingly confessed later, he thought they would reveal him as having borne up spunkily under trying circumstances.
By no stretch of the imagination can the five broadcasts themselves (sequestered from public view by the British authorities for many years after Wodehouse gave them to a British intelligence officer in Paris at the end of the war and printed by Donaldson in their entirety) be regarded as Nazi propaganda. They were slightly labored, knockabout, jocular reminiscences of internment camp life, as first jotted down by Wodehouse in an internment camp diary which formed the basis for the manuscript “Camp Book,” which he readied for publication after the war (his Ballad of Reading Gaol?) but which either he or Lady Wodehouse finally destroyed.
The fact is that Wodehouse seems to have rather enjoyed internment, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who thought public school to have been the happiest season of his life. Nor did he seem to have the remotest idea of what the war was about, as the reminiscences of Harry Flannery, a CBS correspondent who interviewed him at the Adlon at the time, make clear.
Among other things I planned to ask him what he thought of the Russian Campaign. Wodehouse [the two were rehearsing the interview] proposed saying: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” I cautioned him against that. “That predicts a Nazi victory,” I said. “You can’t do that.” “Why not?” he asked. “We’re fighting the Nazis. Any such reply would be propaganda or worse, coming from you. You can’t say that.” Wodehouse thought for a moment. “Do you know,” he said, “I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
We either have to suppose that Wodehouse was a devious pro-Nazi, which in the face of all the evidence (including the important passages on fascist and lingerie-designer Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts in The Code of the Woosters) is absurd, or we must conclude that Wodehouse’s detachment from inconvenient realities included political and military developments from the onset of the war. This absence of focus accounts for his foolishness in making the broadcasts, his illtaste to accept a small payment for them (which he later lied about), and for the fact that it was not until the Fifties that he seems to have realized that he had made a terrible mistake. It is indeed not entirely clear whether he ever thought in his heart of hearts that he had made a mistake at all, or whether he merely came to the conclusion that he better say he had, just to placate general ill-feeling. In the years immediately following the war he regarded accusations of treachery as ludicrous—in which view he was most famously supported by George Orwell—and derogatory of a nicely judged piece of writing.
In Britain, of course, right from the moment he announced his intention to broadcast, he was in the soup—understandably so. Most people never heard the actual talks and concluded after a vicious press campaign led by the Daily Mirror columnist “Cassandra” (William Connor) and stimulated by Duff Cooper, minister of information, that Wodehouse had become the willing pawn of Goebbels. As the bombs crashed down on Coventry and London, it is not hard to see why many regarded Wodehouse with scant esteem. And he was, after the broadcasts, having a reasonably comfortable time of it, “interned” in a succession of comfortable German country houses and the Adlon Hotel, before moving to Paris in 1943.
In Paris at the end of the war he was interrogated by the British, and finally—after some menacing talk in the British Commons about the possibility of prosecution for trading with the enemy (that former Mosley henchperson Harold Nicolson was particularly venomous)—he removed to the security of the United States, where he spent the rest of his days, receiving full pardon from the British in the form of a knighthood awarded in 1975, two months before he died.
So detached, so selfish, so tenacious in achieving the tranquil isolation necessary for his art, Wodehouse paid a heavy price for his insouciance in the face of history. The revisionists have tried to suggest that Wodehouse actually behaved well in Berlin in 1941, or at least did not behave badly. This is too kind to Wodehouse. His performance was discreditable, the hysteria at his broadcasts equally so. The governors of the BBC tried gallantly to prevent Cassandra from broadcasting his calumnies in 1941. They were overruled by Duff Cooper. Forty-one years later Prime Minister Thatcher ventilated similar fury at the BBC for having the bad taste to regard the Argentinians as human beings, residents of the planet Earth in equal standing with the citizens of the British nation. Charges of treachery were leveled, revenge plotted. The Britain that Wodehouse fled and that he purified in art lives on.
September 23, 1982