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P G Wodehouse will always have the last laugh
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The Daily Telegraph 21 September 2009

P G Wodehouse will always have the last laugh

Charles Moore


P G Wodehouse is the patron saint of those who live by the pen

There is so much to admire in P G Wodehouse mainly that he was funny, and that he had an almost perfect mastery of the English language. In this little show at Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair, you can see the dedication which Evelyn Waugh inscribed in his war trilogy in 1961: "For P G Wodehouse D Lit, The head of my profession." He was right.

For those of us who live by the pen, Wodehouse is our patron saint for an additional reason. Although he must have loved writing, or at least been addicted to it, he wrote for money, and not for some annoying higher motive.

His success is inspiring. After working very briefly in what is now HSBC, he lived for the next 70 years by his published words. In 1917 the bills are on display in the exhibition he had five musicals running on Broadway. He published 70 novels, 20 plays and hundreds of short stories and lyrics. More than 30 years after his death, the demand continues. Last year, 44 Wodehouse titles were republished, and Everyman is doing a beautiful edition of the whole lot. He thought carefully about money. Here can be seen his calculations of his earnings for November 1906. They come to £38 10 shillings, which is reckoned to be £3,085 in today's money not bad for a man just starting out. Eventually he became very rich. I believe next year's scholarly edition of his letters, including many new ones to his agent, will show his ingenious interest in his royalties and advances.

"Plum" also paid endless attention to detail. On display is a letter to the novelist Arnold Bennett, thanking him for his praise. "I can never see why printers should do their job so slackly," he writes. In Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit, the story Bennett had admired, Bertie Wooster tells Jeeves that he has been invited somewhere for "the festive s" it was a habit of Bertie's to substitute the initial letter for the whole word. The first edition rendered this as "festives". The American edition changed it to "festivities". The later Omnibus edition stuck in "Christmas" instead. It was not until 1999 that the Penguin edition fulfilled the author's intention.

When he constructed a plot, Wodehouse was curiously abstract. He writes "hero" and "heroine" in his early plan for Girl in Blue, because he has not yet thought of their names, and "object" for the thing that was to be stolen/mislaid. It was only when the structure was to his satisfaction that he thought about the scenes and people: he had a cool, professional way of approaching his task. And where editors made silly suggestions, you can see his tactful firmness at work. For some reason, his US editor did not like the English title Something Fishy and proposed a different one for the American edition.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2011. Established 04/04/1996.