How Whitehall tried to ban Wodehouse
David Millward and Neil Tweedie
PLANS to ban the work of P G Wodehouse because of his wartime broadcasts from Germany have emerged in newly-opened Whitehall files.
The papers, made available yesterday at the Public Record Office in Kew, show how the Government was ready to silence a man once regarded as the most English of writers.
Wodehouse, who was living as a tax exile in France, was interned by the Germans in 1940. After an initial spell at a concentration camp, he and his wife, Ethel, were put up at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin and later at the equally opulent Hotel Bristol in Paris.
In return, during the summer of 1941, he broadcast from Berlin to then neutral America on several occasions, in addition to writing short stories that were carried in French fascist magazines. His behaviour caused uproar in Britain.
The broadcasts, however, were not virulently pro-German but merely a whimsical description of his internment that were intended to entertain his American audience. Introduced as the "father of the inimitable Jeeves and Wooster", Wodehouse described his talks as displaying "a slight goofiness" on his part.
One admirer, Lt-Col Norman Murphy, said yesterday that the author had been "set up" by Baron Eric von Barnekow, a friend from pre-war days, who persuaded him to take part in the broadcasts.
"Wodehouse was one of the most patriotic Englishmen there has been. He recorded the broadcasts after being asked by his fellow prisoners, who found them very funny. One has to remember that Wodehouse was a prisoner - he didn't know about the war."
"A widespread feeling that there was a dangerous laxity of attitude in the authorities"
But the author's wry description of German captivity went down badly in Britain, especially with the families of prisoners of war.
The Daily Express dubbed him Herr Wodehouse and Whitehall's anger at his behaviour punctuates the yellowing files that show how several Government departments tried to devise a ban on the publication of any new work.
The issue was raised after the offending broadcasts by A P Watt & Son, Wodehouse's literary agents, who wanted to publish a new novel, Money in the Bank, and an article My Year Behind Barbed Wire.
The manuscript for Money in the Bank had been brought out of Germany in June by Stephen Laird, the Berlin correspondent for the magazines Time and Life.
But the book, which concerned the musings of Lord Uffenham, was given a hostile reception in Whitehall.
C J Radcliffe of the Ministry of Information wrote on Sept 26, 1941: "Neither of these ought to be published in this country if it can be legitimately prevented. I quite appreciate that there will be American publication in one form or another, and that Wodehouse's existing books are being sold without interference in this country.
"If he is to be allowed to produce a new publication here, though in itself innocuous, there will be a widespread feeling that there was a dangerous laxity of attitude in the authorities, and an indifference to popular feeling."
Publishing the books would be "trading with the enemy"
A draft order, under the Defence of the Realm Act, was produced forbidding anyone to publish or distribute anything he produced after he left Britain, but lawyers suggested it could not be sustained in court.
The Home Office concluded on Jan 27, 1942: "However desirable it may be to prevent Mr Wodehouse or his publishers from making more money, we think it is impossible to hold that a prohibition on the publication of his new novel or any future novels is necessary in the interest of the defence of the realm or the efficient prosecution of the war."
A variety of alternative routes were considered, including banning the books because of the wartime paper shortage. The Board of Trade suggested that the work could be stopped on the grounds that publishing the books would be "trading with the enemy".
The novel, which was published by Doubleday Doran in New York, was finally printed in Britain in 1946.
Wodehouse had been arrested as a German collaborator after the liberation of Paris in 1944 but was finally released in January 1945 and moved to Long Island, New York, in 1947.
His rehabilitation was completed on Jan 1, 1975, when he was knighted. He died a month later, aged 94.