The Age, 24 December 2004
Bruised but delicious Plum
Wodehouse: A Life
By Robert McCrum
The index is the best place to begin a biography. It tells you more than chapter headings and flyleaf blurbs. Besides, says an eminent person I know, you can look yourself up and go straight to the appropriate bits without faffing around with the lot in between.
I read through the entries for Wodehouse, Sir Pelham Grenville ("Plum"). Some were obvious (birth, background, education knighthood, hospitalised, death, funeral), but the most intriguing ones were under "personality". Thus: abhors vanity, affability, ambition, charm, detachment, diffidence, emotionally backward, flippancy, generosity, good nature, humanity, humour, impracticality, kindliness, lightness of spirit, love of animals, love of sport, pleasure in worldly pursuits, prudence, repression, restlessness, self-confidence, self-discipline, shyness, single-mindedness, stiff upper lip, stoicism, sweetness, tolerance.
This, in its own brief way, is the quicksilver essence of P.G. Wodehouse that Robert McCrum has dared to try to catch in his long and detailed biography. I say "dared" because McCrum is responding to the gauntlet cast by Wodehouse himself, who remarked, "Why do these fellows always think there is something hidden and mysterious behind one's writing?" Note that the word "creative" is not listed in the above.
Indeed, reading the list of character traits without knowing the identity of the subject concerned, you might think him a politician, financier or aviator, but not the creator of Jeeves, Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle and the Empress of Blandings, not the author admired by T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Wittgenstein, John le Carre and Ogden Nash, and certainly not the genius whose world, said Evelyn Waugh, can never stale: "He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in."
Wodehouse was obviously a charming man, but a shrewd one, too, who made a huge amount of money (in the United States, in the mid-1930s, he sold the serial rights to Thank You, Jeeves for $50,000, and, in Hollywood, earned $6000 a week writing scripts) and lived well, leaving his wife, the more avaricious and far less benign Ethel, to buy the stately mansions and fast cars.
Wodehouse loved cricket and dogs and pipe smoking and long walks. He was born into the Edwardian age and died in the mid-Elizabethan age. In spite of spending most of his adulthood abroad, he remained quintessentially English.
The complexities of his long and prolific existence lead up to and away from May 1940, when Wodehouse, then living in the French seaside town of Le Touquet, was driving to market with his wife, their Pekinese dog and a parrot, and encountered a German patrol. Their van was searched by the German lieutenant, who received a nip from the parrot and a bite from the dog. This curiously comical moment, says McCrum, precipitated "the first act of a personal tragedy that has at times threatened to obliterate his literary genius".
The following July, Wodehouse was interned by the Nazis and, in mid 1941, made his notorious series of broadcasts from Berlin, while ensconced by the Germans in a luxury hotel.
The point, says McCrum, was not what Wodehouse was saying, but the fact he was seen by the British as a collaborator - a view only strengthened by an interview Wodehouse gave before his broadcasts to American CBS Radio, in which he described the comforts of his suite at the Adlon Hotel and appeared to be disloyal to Britain in favour of the US.
The fuse was lit. The explosion - rather, a series of timed ones, that continued almost to the end of Wodehouse's life, when he was officially forgiven in the form of a knighthood - meant disgrace for the author and denunciation in Parliament and the press. Cassandra (William Connor) wrote in The Daily Mirror of Wodehouse's "browsing and sluicing" with the Nazis.
Others urged Oxford to strip him of his honorary doctorate, and none other than A.A. Milne turned on his old friend, saying "naivete can be carried too far".
Then Cassandra, in a BBC broadcast, linked Wodehouse (falsely) with Goebbels, saying "Wodehouse was stealthily groomed for stardom, the most disreputable stardom in the world, the limelight of quislings". Wodehouse never returned to England.
"Isn't it the damnedest thing," the author wrote to his long-time friend and artistic collaborator, Guy Bolton, "how Fate lurks to sock you with the stuffed eelskin?" Wodehouse's apparent breach of patriotism, maintains McCrum, was caused more through misguided innocence than outright malice. Certainly, it affected the remainder of his life - but, curiously, the sales of his books continued to rise; eelskins may have swiped, but Jeeves and Co remained immune from bruising.
McCrum defends Wodehouse ably and, it seems, accurately, with painstaking detail, presenting the true background and full cast of shady characters that led to the broadcasts, outlining the various criticisms and proving their unreliability and exaggeration.
The early part of Wodehouse's creative life is told with panache, and is all the more fascinating for it. He was, in fact, more renowned as a lyricist and writer of Broadway musicals, working with (among others) the composers Jerome Kern and George Gershwin and the producer Florenz Ziegfeld, and was regarded, despite being a non-musician, as a natural lyricist with a perfect ear for rhythm. "Musical comedy was my dish, the musical comedy theatre my spiritual home," Wodehouse wrote in old age. "I would rather have written Oklahoma! than Hamlet."
Throughout the biography, McCrum manages to link Wodehouse's life with his literature - a miracle of compression, considering he wrote more than 100 books - which is not so much the drawing of a long bow but a useful attempt to seek out character when there might not always been one there to find.
The real problem, alas, rests with Wodehouse himself. Terribly nice chap, wrote a lot, very public school and proper, but not much scandal to turn the pink gin into a scarlet lady.
He was sexually repressed, according to McCrum, and was guilty of but one minor dalliance, early in his marriage, with a chorus girl called Fleur Marsden to whom Wodehouse gave a "trinket" from Tiffany - Guy Bolton called this "Plum's one wild oat".
Wodehouse was more infatuated, it seems, with his step-daughter, Leonora, who died of complications following a minor operation in May, 1944. His letters to her, of which we read tantalising extracts, are evidence of devotion and a remarkable honesty - maybe Wodehouse was more direct with his step-daughter than the fearsome Ethel.
In the end, though, McCrum has done his research well and takes us through Wodehouse's life as a well-informed, humorous and loquacious guide might usher us through Blandings Castle on a slow summer afternoon.
It is a gentle, affectionate book, as befits its subject, and I should hope it will win the ripe old Plum new friends as well as provide his millions of admirers with what is possibly the most detailed and accurate life story.