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More of a Wooster than a Jeeves
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The Daily Telegraph 6 September 2004

More of a Wooster than a Jeeves

Nigel Farndale

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 hard.

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 so on.

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 contradiction further.

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 against Joyce.

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 bookshelf.

# Nigel Farndale is writing a biography of William Joyce, "Lord Haw-Haw"

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