More of a Wooster than a Jeeves
Apart from the time he was duped by the Nazis into broadcasting for
them, P. G. Wodehouse led a defiantly boring life. According to his
latest definitive biographer, Robert McCrum, he liked to smoke
crumpled up cigars in his pipe, he worried about his Pekinese dogs
being quarantined and, though all but asexual, he was devoted to
Ethel, his wife of 60 years.
The creator of Psmith, Aunt Agatha and Gussie Fink-Nottle, moreover,
did not sparkle in company; he kept all his comic brio for his
typewriter. And even his humour on the page was rarely spontaneous but
rather worked up through countless drafts. In terms of character,
Wodehouse was sweet-natured, unobtrusive and eager to please. Easy to
please, too: as he put it, all he needed in life was "about two real
friends, a regular supply of books, and a Peke". All in all, then, not
a promising subject for a biography, you might suppose.
But Robert McCrum is a worker. Indeed he has spent much of the past
five years researching and writing Wodehouse: A Life, a book that
weighs in at 530 pages, 80 of them footnotes. His is an affectionate
portrait, though not an airbrushed one: Wodehouse emerges as a
boastful and stubborn man at times. Importantly, McCrum gets the point
of his light-hearted country house comedies: they were "a kind of
lunatic elegy for a lost world". What is more: "Wodehouse still
promises a release from everyday cares in to a paradise of innocent
comic mayhem, narrated in a prose so light and airy and so perfectly
pitched that the perusal of a few pages rarely fails to banish the
demons of darkness and despair."
As for McCrum's own prose, it is eloquent but unemotional and - a huge
relief - he leaves the jokes, similes and felicities to Wodehouse,
setting them up deftly so that they catch the light. If I have a minor
beef with him, it is that he tends to overanalyse. Wodehouse himself
seems to have been bemused by this tendency in biographers. "Why do
these fellows always think there is something hidden and mysterious
behind one's writing?" he once asked. McCrum's answer is that
autobiography lurks behind just about every line of a Wodehouse novel.
He argues, for example that: "It is perhaps not too fanciful to see in
Bertie's 'cold gesture' to Florence's boy scout brother Edwin a sly
allusion to the behaviour of Le Touquet's German garrison." And such
comments leave you with the impression of a biographer trying too
Throughout this book, "Plum" himself keeps appearing with a discreet,
Jeeves-like cough, to try and persuade McCrum that he is as
uncomplicated as he seems. For example, McCrum quotes him as saying of
his childhood: "It went like a breeze from start to finish." And of
his father, he was "as normal as rice pudding." But the biographer is
having none of this. For him the psychological impact of Wodehouse's
separation from his parents - they were stationed in the East on
colonial service - "lies at the heart of his adult personality". He
quotes a psychoanalyst on the subject of being raised by nannies:
deprived of his mother, Wodehouse became wary of the opposite sex, and
McCrum concludes that, under the stoical surface, Wodehouse was
traumatised by the absence of his parents. And this makes him akin to
the fictional Lord Emsworth's son, the Hon. Freddie, who affected not
to want to see his parents. It also made Wodehouse retreat into a
fantasy world of comic novels because it was "better to exert control
over this imaginary world and keep the demons at bay than suffer the
manipulations of fate and allow the intrusion of melancholy".
Yet most of the evidence suggests that, in fact, Wodehouse didn't have
any demons. He was one of those fortunates blessed with a naturally
shallow and sunny disposition. As the novelist himself once noted: "I
wrote flippantly simply because I was having a thoroughly good time."
The obvious explanation for his writing - that he wrote what he did
because it brought him, and his readers, pleasure - isn't necessarily
incorrect just because it is simple.
For understandable dramatic reasons, a large chunk of this book is
devoted to Wodehouse's blunder during the war. In 1940, he was
captured at his home in France and interned in a converted lunatic
asylum in Upper Silesia. There he played the Englishman in extremis:
ironically detached, phlegmatic, amused. He would sit at a typewriter
in the prison yard, with fellow internees standing around him,
watching the master at work.
McCrum accepts the conventional wisdom that Wodehouse was a political
innocent who didn't make his five Berlin broadcasts in 1941 as a quid
pro quo for early release but merely to reassure his American fans
that he was safe and well. Yet he also writes that: "Once [Wodehouse]
was willing to go to the microphone, the Gestapo withdrew its
objection to his release." And he seems unwilling to explore this
McCrum also fails to explain adequately why there was such a hostile
reaction to Wodehouse's light-hearted broadcasts from the British
establishment. On July 9, 1941, in a Commons debate, Quentin Hogg MP
compared him to the infamous Nazi broadcaster William Joyce, better
known as Lord Haw-Haw. Therein lies the answer, it seems to me. The
establishment believed that if Wodehouse was let off the hook, it
would make it much more difficult to make charges of treason stick
McCrum also seems reluctant to be drawn on why Wodehouse went on to
record a further two broadcasts once he knew that his first one had
been bitterly criticised in America. I suspect the matter, as Jeeves
would say, is susceptible of another ready explanation: it was pride.
After all, as McCrum shows earlier in the book, Wodehouse was a proud
man in his professional dealings.
Wodehouse may not have been complex, then, but he could be inscrutable
and contrary, and McCrum unintentionally gives the perfect
illustration of this: "Wodehouse always had the Englishman's aversion
to fussing," he writes on page 111. By page 339, Wodehouse "as usual"
was "fussing about money". By page 386 McCrum has him "still fussing"'
over Performing Flea. And two paragraphs on: "Wodehouse was never one
to make a fuss."
But such moments of sloppiness are untypical of what on balance is an
intelligent and lyrical biography, worthy of its subject. Wodehouse's
friend Anga von Bodenhausen once said of him that "one feels his
genial personality like the ticking of a clock in a room" and that is
true of this book. So much so that you feel a twinge of sadness on
parting company with Wodehouse's presence at the end of it. I found
myself remedying the situation by plucking a Blandings novel off my
# Nigel Farndale is writing a biography of William Joyce, "Lord