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Capturing an enigma
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The Bookseller, 12 August 2004

Capturing an enigma

Benedicte Page

As a subject for study, P G Wodehouse--the great comic writer, creator of Lord Emsworth, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, and a host of other instantly identifiable and well loved characters--does not reveal himself easily to biographers.

Robert McCrum, former editor-in-chief of Faber, now literary editor of the Observer, whose authorised biography Wodehouse: A Life (Viking, 0670896926) is published on 2nd September, readily acknowledges the difficulty. "He's certainly elusive, and at the end of my biography I have to concede that he remains a mystery. People who knew him say that I've captured him, but he was an enigma," he says.

Wodehouse--"Plum" to his friends--was a fanatically private man, with a lifelong habit of disappearing to spend time alone. He was not given to confiding much of his intimate feelings in confidences to others, or even in his diaries.

His personal life was unexceptional: generally inexperienced, he married a widowed mother-of-one and remained uneventfully married for the rest of his life. His pleasures were mild--a partiality for cricket and Pekinese dogs. He appears to have inspired a general fondness in those around him, rather than more powerful or dramatic emotions.

Yet it is in this very impenetrability that McCrum's story emerges: Wodehouse: A Life presents a convincing and insightful picture of a man in flight from intimacy, who found writerly fulfilment in a stylised, sunny, nostalgic world, but whose reluctance to brave the real environment around him led to the lasting tragedy of his wartime disgrace.

Before the life, the work: McCrum believes it is important to accord Wodehouse his proper status as a literary figure, a status that as a comic writer is often denied, no matter how much his work is loved.

"He's a great stylist and a great English humorist: I think he's a minor genius," McCrum says. "He wrote about 100 books and they are all in print--what other 20th-century writer can you say that about? Almost none. Auden, Joyce, Eliot--he's in very good company. I think any canon from Shakespeare onwards that includes Austen and Dickens must include him."

McCrum gives full space to Wodehouse's early writings, and to his considerable career in America, writing plays and musical lyrics. The "great books", though, he contends, are the novels that were written in the decade before the Second World War, "a miracle of style": Summer Lightning, Heavy Weather, The Code of the Woosters, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Joy in the Morning.

There is of course a whole English tradition of comedy about the dim-witted upper class behind the creation of a character such as Bertie Wooster. Yet McCrum also interprets the resolute lightness of Wodehouse's prose as a defensive ploy, developed early in a life that had got off to a resoundingly bad start.

Born in 1881 to Ernest Wodehouse, a colonial civil servant, and his wife Eleanor, young Pelham Greville Wodehouse had experienced the full emotional deprivation of a late-Victorian childhood. In the first 15 years of his life, he spent a total of just six months in the company of his father and mother.

"Although quite common at the time, it leaves one absolutely gasping now," McCrum says. The breach of closeness was not repaired in later life. "His mother was clearly a monster and he clearly didn't like her, although he never says so."

Viewed in this perspective, the gentle world of Lord Emsworth, Aunt Agatha, Gussie Fink-Nottle et al, imbued with an idyll of the Edwardian era in which Wodehouse came of age, can be interpreted as a kind of artistic self-defense, written by someone who had experienced a great hurt in life. "He says, 'Here is a version of life, but don't dig too deeply. I defy you to analyse it.' It's like saying, 'Don't come near me--if we go too deep into things, they will blow up in our faces.'"

Wodehouse's created world was also one which did not greatly change or develop across his career, McCrum says. "Although I can tell you how Wodehouse matured in his prose style, the character of it is all the same and he changes very little. If you look at Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, there's tremendous change between the early and the late work. Wodehouse--not really. He creates a world, and then he's happy to stay in it, because it's just too risky to leave it--life is too damn dangerous."

Sadly, hiding from life can be dangerous too. Wodehouse's golden year was 1939, when he received the cherished honour of an honorary doctorate from Oxford university. Yet everything was about to go terribly wrong for him. A few short months later, failing to leave his home in France before the German troops arrived, he was trapped in the occupation and eventually put in an internment camp.

On his release, he made a disastrous decision--he accepted an invitation to broadcast light-hearted commentaries on camp life at the request of the Germans, effectively putting himself in the company of Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. The "dreadful blunder that he never understood" destroyed his reputation and hung over him for the following 30 years.

"It wrecked him completely," McCrum says. "People will disagree with me, but I know to my satisfaction that he didn't know what he was doing. He wasn't a naive person, but people make terrible mistakes, and they make mistakes in the light of history.

"He never understood why, but he knew he'd done a very bad thing and I think for the rest of his life he just felt profoundly embarrassed and terribly ashamed of having made a mistake. He'd let himself down and his friends down and I think it haunted him for the rest of his life. "

Yet it was an almost inevitable blunder, McCrum suggests, of a piece with the legacy of his loveless childhood. "Those first 15 years make sense of what happened in wartime. He was someone whose biggest instinct was to please people, so when they asked him to do the broadcast, where you or I would say 'I'm terribly sorry, I've got other things to do,' he wanted to please."

# Robert McCrum has published six novels; his non-fiction includes an account of the origins and development of the English language, The Story of English (Penguin), and My Year Off (Picador), the story of McCrum's experiences following the stroke that he suffered at the age of 42.

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