Why A.A. had it in for P.G.
ON STAGE at the Duke of York's theatre in the West End each night, the cast
of the latest product of the P. G. Wodehouse industry, By Jeeves, throws
itself around in the summer heat with energy and enthusiasm. The songs are
charming, the actor who plays Jeeves is superb, especially about the
eyebrows, and Honoria Glossop really does have a laugh like a troop of
cavalry clattering over a metal bridge.
It presents the standard view of Wodehouse: delightfully escapist, with no
hint of any unpleasantness worse than domineering fiancees, miserly uncles
("He was the world's premier exponent of the one-way purse," Bertie Wooster
says somewhere), and aunts constructed along the general lines of Lady
Thatcher. Few people in the audience of By Jeeves will remember that
libraries once banned his books and the government of the day accused him
of treason and Nazism. Nor will they know that his worst enemy was A. A.
Milne. Bertie Wooster versus Winnie-the-Pooh: it is an unlikely face-off.
Wodehouse and Milne began as friends in the early 1920s. They were the same
age - Wodehouse was the elder by three months - and they had both been
educated at big London schools: Wodehouse at Dulwich, Milne at Westminster.
Brought together by their success as comic writers, they combined in 1928
to back Ian Hay's dramatisation of Wodehouse's novel, A Damsel in Distress.
Yet they were very different in character. Wodehouse was open-hearted and uncomplicated, though no fool. Early on he detected a jealous streak in Milne, who was an altogether more serious character. By the 1930s they had drifted apart, and Wodehouse had moved from America to France. As he approached 60, his comic talent was undiminished. In 1939 Oxford University gave him an honorary doctorate.
Milne, by contrast, was on the decline. His sales were still good (though he must have known that Wodehouse was richer and more successful), but his best work was behind him. He regarded himself as an intellectual and a pacifist, and wrote pamphlets and letters to the newspapers about the political situation. But, with the coming of the war, the man who had praised the Oxford Union for voting against fighting for King and Country became a vociferous patriot.
Wodehouse was uninterested in politics, but he had a sharply satirical eye.
In 1938, the year of Munich, he presented a superb portrait of the British
fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley ("Roderick Spode") in The Code of the
Woosters: "It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had
changed its mind at the last moment. But it wasn't merely the sheer expanse
of the bird that impressed. Close to, what you noticed more was his face,
which was square and powerful and slightly moustached towards the centre.
His gaze was keen and piercing. I don't know if you have ever seen those
pictures in the papers of Dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes,
inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of a new skittle
alley, but that is what he reminded me of."
In the end, Bertie Wooster, with Jeeves's help, overcomes Spode by threatening to reveal that he secretly designs women's silk underwear. Wodehouse was certainly no crypto-Nazi.
When the Germans invaded France in 1940 he and his wife did not escape, and were interned. Two German friends from Hollywood, then working for Nazi propaganda, offered to release them if Wodehouse would broadcast about his treatment. Foolishly, he agreed.
The Wodehouses were installed under guard in the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. There were five talks, broadcast by Berlin Radio in 1941. With breathtaking humourlessness his German controllers also asked him to visit the site of the Katyn massacre, and explain to the world how Stalin had murdered the Polish army's officer corps. Wodehouse refused.
He pokes fun at his captors: "Our Kommandant was a careful man. I think he must once have missed an important train, and it preyed on his mind." But under the threat of Nazi invasion, the mood in Britain had become far too serious and determined to appreciate this kind of flippancy, broadcast on enemy radio. There was outrage.
In the House of Commons, Quintin Hogg (now Lord Hailsham) demanded that he should be punished as a traitor. The Minister of Information, Alfred Duff Cooper, forced the BBC to broadcast a particularly nasty attack on him by the Daily Mirror columnist "Cassandra": "I have come to tell you tonight of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale - that of his own country."
A LONG correspondence about the affair was carried out in The Daily Telegraph's letters column. Well-known writers queued up to attack him, including Storm Jameson and Sean O'Casey, and his former friends Ian Hay and E. C. Bentley. But the correspondence was started savagely by A. A. Milne: "Irresponsibility in what the papers call 'a licensed humorist' can be carried too far; naivete can be carried too far. Wodehouse has been given a good deal of licence in the past, but I fancy that now his licence will be withdrawn."
Worse, Milne claimed that Wodehouse had confessed to him that he wished he'd fathered a son, "But he would have to be born at the age of 15, when he was just getting into his House Eleven". This, Milne said, was a further sign of irresponsibility.
His memory was at fault: it's a quotation from Wodehouse's Psmith in the City. Even those close to Milne felt it was a bit below the belt. Altogether, the letter smells strongly of the envy of a cleverer, yet no longer so successful rival.
By 1944 the Wodehouses had been moved from Berlin to Paris, and soon after the Liberation Major Malcolm Muggeridge of the Intelligence Corps and a Major Cusson of MI5 began investigating the case. The verdict was inevitable: the broadcasts had not been pro-German, and were unlikely to have assisted the enemy.
Yet Milne and the others had firmly established Wodehouse in the public mind as a traitor. Sales of his books dropped sharply. They were unobtainable in libraries and unbroadcast on radio. The balance was restored a little by George Orwell, who wrote a powerful essay in Wodehouse's defence, pointing out that many pro-Munich Tories had been far more guilty of helping Hitler.
A. A. Milne was one of the first people Wodehouse asked about when he met Muggeridge in 1944, but not in a spirit of friendship. He admitted soon afterwards, "Nobody could be more anxious than myself . . . that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck."
His public revenge, though, was characteristically mild. It began with The Mating Season, written in 1946 but only published in 1949. In it, Bertie Wooster has to recite Milne at a village concert: "A fellow who comes on a platform and starts reciting about Christopher Robin going hoppity-hoppity-hop (or alternatively saying his prayers) does not do so from sheer wantonness but because he is a helpless victim of circumstances beyond his control."
In 1949 Wodehouse wrote a golfing story, Rodney Has a Relapse, in which an author of detective stories (as Milne had been) starts writing poems to his young son, Timothy: "Do you know where Rodney is at this moment? Up in the nursery, bending over his son Timothy's cot, gathering material for a poem about the unfortunate little rat when asleep. Some boloney, no doubt, about how he hugs his teddy bear and dreams of angels. Yes, that is what he is doing, writing poetry about Timothy. Horrible whimsical stuff that . . . Well, when I tell you that he refers to him throughout as 'Timothy Bobbin', you will appreciate what we are up against. I am not a weak man, but I confess that I shuddered."
It all ends happily. Rodney, who has taken up golf again, is playing a crucial shot when Timothy Bobbin interrupts him. "Daddee, are daisies little bits of stars that have been chipped off by the angels?" Rodney gives him a good hiding.
Yet something more serious is going on here. Wodehouse must have remembered how little interest Milne had taken in Christopher Robin when he was a child. Far from bending over his son's cot as he slept, Milne got most of his material about him from his wife. He rarely played with him. Wodehouse must also have known how much Christopher resented this, and hated his literary alter ego. Did Wodehouse recall the jibe about fatherhood in Milne's letter eight years earlier as he sat writing Rodney Has a Relapse?
" 'What it comes to,' said William, 'is that he is wantonly laying up a lifetime of shame and misery for the wretched little moppet. In the years to come, when he is playing in the National Amateur, the papers will print photographs of him with captions underneath explaining that he is the Timothy Bobbin of the well-known poems' ". Which is very much what did happen. Christopher Milne, who died in April this year, felt his life had been blighted by "the well-known poems".
"I shall never get over my dislike of being the 'real live Christopher Robin'," he told a reporter from the Sunday Dispatch in 1952, when his father was seriously ill in hospital. A. A. Milne was furious about the article, and is said to have altered his will to punish his son.
Wodehouse was soon his mild self again. In April 1954 he wrote: "Poor Milne. I was shocked to hear of his illness. I'm afraid there seems very little chance of him getting any better. It is ghastly to think of anyone who wrote such gay stuff ending his life like this. He has always been about my favourite author."
Milne lingered on until January 1956, but there was no contact between them. Nor did Wodehouse return to Britain. His greatest revenge on his enemies was to outlive them; and the whirligig of time ensured that the long campaign on his behalf by the Conservative MP (and nowadays Sports Minister) Iain Sproat was at last successful.
The Home Office behaved appallingly, keeping the file on Wodehouse secret for 35 years and giving the impression that there was discreditable material about him in it. When Sproat finally saw it in 1980, he found it simply con tained the name of ano ther British internee who had been released with Wodehouse.
By that time Wodehouse had been dead for five years - he died just after being given a knighthood in the New Year's Honours of 1975, thanks again to Iain Sproat. When the news broke, John Humphrys, nowadays the BBC's most senior news presenter, went to interview Wodehouse at his quiet country house on Long Island. "He was 93, but as sharp and bright as a button. He was clattering away on his old typewriter when we arrived, working on his latest novel. We did the interview, and he was very charming and modest and funny. Then he pulled out the sheet of paper he'd been typing, and signed it for me with a flourish. I think it's the most valuable thing I own."
Six weeks after the country which had once called him a traitor had awarded him one of its highest honours, P. G. Wodehouse died peacefully, with his wife of 61 years holding his hand. It was St Valentine's Day. For a man who is said to have used the word "death" only eight times in his 98 novels, it was a thoroughly Wodehousian ending.